Sunday, August 25, 2013

Review of John Grenier, The First Way of War: American War Making on the Frontier, 1607-1814 (Cambridge University Press, 2005)

A colleague recommended this book, which he uses as his first text in a course on American military history.  The book was fascinating and disturbing, always a good thought-provoking combination.  The American War of War is a phrase coined by the late historian Russell F. Weigley to describe how the United States Army developed a tradition in which they fought wars of total victory and sought to decisively defeat enemy forces rather than fight wars of attrition.  While Weigley’s thesis has merit, explaining American thinking about regular wars, he ignored irregular wars, or what was called petite guerre or little wars.  In his book, Grenier argues that a tradition of irregular warfare characterized the first two centuries of American history and the Weigley completely ignored this earlier form of war.  This lack of consideration is not surprising, since professional soldiers have often abhorred irregular warfare, which is messy by nature, morally ambiguous, and often more savage than regular warfare.

Grenier’s description of early American warmaking was everything that “professional soldiers supposably abhorred: razing and destroying enemy villages and fields; killing enemy women and children; raiding settlement for captives; intimidating and brutalizing enemy noncombatants; and assassinating enemy leaders.” (5)  These earlier wars were not fought by professional soldiers, but by citizen soldiers, the militia.  This first way of war was an effective way to either eliminate or subjugate the Indians who originally controlled the land that settlers desired.  Early Americans also developed the practice of turning backwoodsmen into rangers in order to fight irregular wars, so that they could compete on equal terms with the Indians.  The early Americans also adopted the practice of scalping.

I was shocked to learn that colonial legislatures would offer cash bounties for scalps during times of war.  While the practice of scalping may have been learned from the Indians, the Americans put the practice to different uses.  For the Indians, a scalp was a trophy showing the counting of coup, a mark of honor showing a warrior’s skills.  While Indians sometimes fought wars of elimination, they usually fought such extreme wars with a goal of absorbing their enemies into their own tribe or nation.  The colonists, driven by fear that the Indians may attack at any time, wanted the greater sense of security that came from totally eliminating the Indians as a threat.  The legislatures paid enough money for scalps that it made sense for non-militia men to freelance and kill Indians for their scalps.  This was a form of privateering on land, instead of at sea.  Even more shocking was that sometimes the scalping bounties were paid out for any scalp, whether man, woman, or child; at least once, the scalp bounties were even paid out based on age and gender, with men’s scalps worth more than a woman’s or child’s.  My skeptical frame of mind wondered how you would tell the difference between the scalps of a man or woman, other than by hair decorations.  During times of war with the French, bounties were also offered for French scalps, and the French offered the same type of bounties to their Indian allies for British or American scalps.

Grenier does not use the word genocide, which would have been appropriate at times, but that word has been so overused for so many different ideological agendas, that its use is problematic.  He uses the older term, extirpation, which was used at the time by the colonists.  The word implies the goal of eliminating the ability of the Indians to live near the colonists by not only killing them, but also by burning their homes and destroying their crops.  If the Indians fled for safety by moving further west, that was just as satisfactory as having killed them.  When Indian-settler wars broke out, Indian warriors bands and groups of white rangers roamed the frontier, attacking individuals, homesteads, or small groups.  This type of warfare induced terror among civilians and the frontier rapidly became a no-man’s land as white settlers and Indians both fled to find safety.

While Grenier’s book only covers up to 1814, after which the regular army came to dominate the military narrative of the United States, he briefly speculates that the first war of war occasionally returned during the later wars against Indians in the American west, the Civil War, the strategic bombing campaigns during World War II, and during the Vietnam War.  In each of these wars, noncombatants became legitimate targets, which we now call “collateral damage.”

Posted: 25 August 2013

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