The Stories We Tell About Killing

The third piece in our forum on Economy of Force (following Patricia’s opening and Pablo’s piece on patriarchy), and the first contribution to The Disorder of Things from Jairus.

Narrative: The central mechanism, expressed in story form, through which ideologies are expressed and absorbed.

– Glossary, U.S. Army Field Manual 3-24

Patricia Owens Economy of Force is, to date, the most important book that has been written on counter-insurgency. To put it another way, Economy of Force is the first book written with the sobriety of distance from the necessary but often polemical responses to Human Terrain and the high-profile ‘anthropologists’ of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The shortcoming of these earlier responses was the tendency to treat contemporary efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq as somehow new. Lost in the flurry of shock over academic involvement in warfare was the understanding that social theory has, in some sense, always been at war. It is this last point that Owens’ book really excels at theorizing. Unlike other explorations of counter-insurgency that emphasize the ‘weaponization’ of social theory and anthropology, Owens locates counter-insurgency as an outgrowth of liberalism and its governance of the social, specifically the domestic. This difference is vitally important. In the work of Roberto Gonzalez and others, we are left with a sense that anthropology and social work could be demilitarized. However, the genealogy of ‘home economics’ given to us by Owens’ suggests that the very concept of the social is rife with the desire for order, which is often established by violent means.

HTT 12
This places the first part of Owens book alongside Michel Foucault’s three biopolitics lectures, in particular Security, Territory and Population, as well as Domenico Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-History. In their own way these works attempt to reconstruct the philosophical and political history of liberalism as beginning with the violence of racial and economic ordering, rather than seeing liberalism as having fallen from grace as a result of the temptation and corrosive effects of empire. Owens, Foucault, and Losurdo all find liberalism’s logic of governance to be in the form of what Foucault famously called ‘war by other means.’ What distinguishes Owens’ work from Foucault and Losurdo is that she follows this line of logic through to the particular formation of a liberal way of war called counter-insurgency. Owens’ foregrounding of counter-insurgency is a much needed corrective to Foucault’s conclusion in Security, Territory, and Population, where he argues that external relations in the state system of Europe were characterized by balance of power politics. Entirely absent in Foucault’s development of the concept of race war in Society Must be Defended and Security, Territory, and Population is the particularities of European imperial and then colonial enterprise. This becomes even more apparent in the final lectures The Birth of Biopolitics, in which the brilliant and prescient account of the rise of neoliberalism in the U.S. leaves out entirely the anti-black racism that animated the war on the welfare state. Owens’ more internationally situated account does not ameliorate all of these shortcomings, but does put us on the road to doing so. In fact, her genealogy of the domestic is not about refining our understanding of the social in social theory, but about showing how essential and under-theorized the domestic is in the field of International Relations, which relies essentially on the difference between the foreign and domestic.

The historical breadth of Owens’ book both in its genealogy of liberalism and the practices of counter-insurgency is impressive. Although, as I will explore in more detail later, the diversity of geography explored in the development of counter-insurgency is not paralleled in her account of the development of liberalism as a specific practice of governance, which is almost entirely confined to Europe. However, the case studies for counter-insurgency range from the U.S. in the Philippines, the British in Kenya, France in Algeria, and the U.S. again this time in Vietnam and subsequently Afghanistan and Iraq. The sweeping history and diverse geography of histories paints a picture of counter-insurgency as a kind of paradigm of order, rather than as some on-again/off- again tactic in a broader arsenal of military thinking. For Owens, as I understand her, counter-insurgency, with the home and social as its field of operations, is what liberalism looks like when it goes on the road.

Importantly, Owens’ account of counter-insurgency diverges significantly from those of John Nagl and David Kilcullen, who treat the practice as a kind of minor art in the martial repertoire of the 20th century. There is a very specific version of history that follows the now famous Counter Insurgency Field Manual that emerged alongside General David Petraeus’ meteoric rise to command during Operation Enduring Freedom. In this version of events, the U.S. experimented with counter-insurgency in Vietnam, but in the wake of the failure of this war, left it behind. According to Sarah Sewall’s introduction to the academic version of the Field Manual, counter-insurgency after Vietnam was “relegated to U.S. Special Forces” (CIFM, xxiii). Writings on counter-insurgency by military historians and practitioners reinforce this view, focusing on counter-insurgency as mostly being European in origin. In particular, the attempt to ‘reinvent’ counter-insurgency as an art of war in the U.S. Field Manual took the British in Malay and the French in Algeria as the classical origins of population-centric warfare eschewing the much longer history of U.S. ‘irregular warfare’ at home and abroad.

Owens’ much longer history and direct connection to the ‘domestic’ politics of politicizing and governing the home radically shifts this frame of reference. By placing the construction of the social and its attendant crises as a space for modern governance alongside foreign occupations and pacifications, the reader is able to see a more general political episteme of which foreign violence is merely an extreme version. In Owens’ account there is no fundamental break between politics and war, and citizen and enemy, as liberalism finds its footing in counter-insurgency practices.

The reader can also deduce from the success of Owens’ narrative that how we historicize and choose our case studies when making sense of counter-insurgency is itself political. That counter-insurgency techniques and strategies reach back to the beginnings of liberal thought and find their practices in the progressive eras of Europe and the U.S. suggests that there is much work to be done in reconstructing the lineage between what Foucault calls governmentality, and the practices of warfare and military intervention practiced in parallel. Much of this historical work has been done quite well in the context of formal colonialism, particularly in India and Africa. However, as Owens makes apparent, those conflicts and occupations just short of formal colonization have received very little attention, particularly in International Relations. Furthermore, as Owens pushes this historical argument into the field of International Relations, it becomes even more apparent how little work has been done on the effects martial practices like counter-insurgency, and more generally a violent and racist liberalism, have had on the formation of the international system. Notable exceptions include Bob Vitalis’ most recent book joins in this project, as does Robbie Shilliam’s new collection, and of course W.E.B. DuBois’ mostly forgotten book Color and Democracy.

In the spirit of this effort of stretching the historical lineage of counter-insurgency, I want to add what I hope is an important provocation regarding the case selection and periodization of Owens’ book. In its own way, Economy of Force may contribute to the occlusion of another history at the core of counter-insurgency that is almost entirely neglected by practitioners and critics of ‘armed social work.’

For me, it is impossible to capture the degree to which counter-insurgency is at the heart of the American paradigm of state making and war fighting without placing the Indian Wars and subsequent efforts at American Indian population concentration and pacification at the center of U.S. political development. (Shapiro, 136-170) I want to offer the beginnings of a somewhat different narrative to Owens’, one that places the Philippines in the context of U.S. frontier thinking as a paradigm for racist extermination, which precedes the story offered by Owens that is rooted in homologies with the Progressive Era. My hope is that foregrounding the Indian Wars in American political thinking, and in the American way of war that emerged from it, may also give us pause as critics of liberalism in conflating the historical origins of liberal thought in colonial powers as opposed to settler colonial powers. (Byrd, 122-125) That is, states for which the social emerged before it was exported abroad as opposed to those states in which the eradication and formal and informal subjugation of indigenous peoples and slaves was co-constitutive of the production of the social. Although I cannot develop this line of thinking fully in a blog post, my wager is that this difference makes a difference, particularly when considering how the racial politics of ‘home economics’ i.e. what Owens calls the ‘homologies’ of social work and armed social work, play out on the ground in occupations like the Philippines, and even much later in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

I have another stake in this counter-history, which is that the ‘renaissance’ of the study of counter-insurgency, both for critics and practitioners, has thus far missed the opportunity to take seriously the role genocide plays in state formation. While this claim is frequently made, the gravity of its history is rarely appreciated. To stage what I mean as a kind of thought experiment would require a world where the population-centric efforts and the celebration of COIN more generally would be immediately compared to practices of warfare that culminated in slaughters like those that took place at Wounded Knee. That counter-insurgency and pacification campaigns can be considered the ‘softer’ side of war requires a near total amnesia of what wide-scale pacification and counter-insurgency looked like in the U.S. territories between the end of the Civil War and the late 1890s. To put it more succinctly, if scholars are not placing General Philip Sheridan alongside David Galula and other gurus of COIN, then we are contributing to historical erasure. (Blackhawk, 9-15) The one exception to this rule is Dustin Wax’s brief description of ethnographic research conducted by the BIA after the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act but Wax does not connect this directly to the military techniques of counter-insurgency innovated for the 150 years preceding the Act. (Wax, 153-160)

Specifically, we are missing a vast historical resource for understanding the distinctive character and practice of the U.S. military, as well as domestic social governance carried out by police forces that have practiced counter-insurgency for as long as the U.S. has had a ‘race problem.’ I am going to remain limited to the U.S. for this post, however it is equally important that the British occupation of Ireland and the subsequent counter-insurgency efforts there be considered in a similar way. From initial colonization through to the counter-terrorism practices against the IRA in the contemporary period, the near-colonial governing of Ireland has been a war by other means directed entirely at the ‘proper’ management of the Irish home and society (Feldman, 85).

The limits of Owens’ history of liberalism and the domestic becomes most apparent in her account of the U.S. in the Philippines. Owens starts the case study off with a description of what were called ‘policies of attraction’, whereby military campaigns in the Philippines used a dual focus on extreme violence, in some cases killing every adult male over 10 years old, and the comparatively ‘attractive’ offer of civilian camps with enforced sanitation and schooling for children. It is in the camps or civilian zones that Owens finds what she calls ‘homologies’ with the agenda of the U.S. Progressive Era. Here Owens asks, “Given that civilizing missions involve the domestication of dominated others, how did these Progressive Era policies represent a distinctly social form of modern domesticity?” (Owens, 164). While I quite like Owens concept of homology, as it allows for distinct origins to converge on particular forms of governance, I do not share her recognition of similarity. For me, the family resemblance to the Philippines began at least 60 years before the Progressive Era, when Secretary of War John C. Calhoun created the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In the context of American political development, it is significant that one of the first federal bureaucracies with jurisdiction over the home and social issues was created by and administered by the War Department.

Despite the numerous comparative histories of welfare states, and the many histories of the U.S. welfare state, no history that I know of includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in their accounts. Despite this fact, the BIA was and continues to be an administrative agency dually charged with the pacification of indigenous people via the administration of life. In the history of the U.S., I know of no earlier agency organized around what Foucault called biopolitics. The developement of biopolitical management was at work in the federal governance of American Indians long before it was extended to the ‘domestic’ population via the efforts of the Progressive Era, and the institutionalization of welfare during the administration of F.D.R.

At first take, homologies, as explained by Owens, do not need to be mutually exclusive. There can be a likeness in the occupation of the Philippines to both the BIA and the Progressive Era. However, according to Owens, homologies are much stronger than analogies, as “to make a claim of homology” is to make a claim to “likeness in form or function” (7). If we are looking for parallels between form and function, then I think there is a case to be made that some homologies should be prioritized over others, as distinguished by the specificity of how alike the forms and functions are. At the very least, it is important that we include the full assemblage of closely homologous practices to show the full array of what might be contributing to the practices in the case being analyzed.

I understand homology as an effort on the part of Owens to complicate a simpler notion of historical causality whereby there are origins for particular practices. However in this case, the risk is missing a piece of the story that is, in fact, quite vital for understanding that warfare, pacification, and progressivism were an assemblage in the U.S. context from the outset, and that recognizable practices of counter-insurgency were deployed well before the Progressive Era. At least as early as the 1830s, American Indian populations were being relocated and concentrated on reservations. Resettlement came with the promise of services, as confinement often prevented normal means for acquiring food through hunting, fishing, and agriculture. The process of concentration created the need and dependency upon which biopolitical governmentality emerged. Uprisings, because of the frequent failure to fulfill those basic needs for food and shelter, combined with many American Indians refusing to be resettled, further intensified the linkage between the Indian Wars of extermination and the biopolitical management of reservations. The central focus on pacification led to the institutionalization of Christian missionary schools into federal boarding schools.


Carlisle Indian Industrial School, Pennsylvania, 1900.

Christian missionary schools date back to the earliest days of settlement, however this technique of pacification was not insitutionalized by the federal government until the 1850s. The federal boarding school practices of separating children from their families and Indian ways of life, as well as beliefs and language, was an essential part of the process of pacification. (Adams, 335-337) These techniques, which link education with security and domestication, are significantly more homologous to the practices in the Philippines than the social work of the Progressive Era, which included little or no direct connection with military planning.

Federal boarding schools for American Indians were also often housed on military bases, as was the case of the school opened at Fort Spokane in Washington State. This history undermines Owens’ attempt to connect President McKinley’s mission in the Philippines “to protect the natives” and replace “tribalism with individualism” to the history of the Progressive Era (Owens, 165). At the very least, McKinley’s words invoke a more compelling homology to American Indian policy and management than to the nearly anachronistic forces of Progressivism in the U.S. that gain their traction more after the turn of the 20th century than before it. While I agree that in all three – the BIA, the Progressive Era, and the Philippines – education was a core component of governing the social, the more explicit process of ‘domestication’ as ‘pacification’ is much less apparent in the Progressive Era. Certainly racial politics were implicated in the Progressive Era’s interest in eugenics, birth control, and the panic over Southern and Eastern European immigrants, but the connection between the BIA and the Philippines suggests that long standing practices of American warfare against native peoples is a more significant homology.


Carlisle, Girls Education, 1879.

To strengthen the claim I am making from homology to direct connection, it is worth taking seriously the military leadership and troop composition of the U.S. occupying force in the Philippines. The Philippines was under the command of General Elwell Stephen Otis, who was infamous for the intensity and cruelty with which he pursued the occupation. However the Philippines was not the first place Otis had used these tactics. Nearly 20 years before the invasion of the Philippines, Otis was deployed to Montana after the defeat of General Custer at the battle of Little Bighorn. Otis continued to move up the ranks through his victories, not in foreign wars, but in his extreme cruelty pursing the defeat and pacification of the Sioux Nation. Otis’ career as a soldier and commander was almost entirely devoted to Indian Wars. In fact, the Philippines was Otis’ last command before retiring.


Otis and MacArthur, 1900.

Many of Otis’ commanders would have also had experience fighting on the frontier before being deployed to the Philippines. The Indian Wars had been used to soak up vast numbers of unemployed veterans after the U.S. Civil War, and the continued management of reservations and pursuit of non-compliant bands of Indians accounts for nearly all of the use of U.S. military force until the Spanish American War and Philippine American War. (Weigly, 153) Therefore, the practice of concentrating women and children in camps or reservations to be educated, while a broad interpretation of ‘adult men’ (generally including boys 10 years and up) were viciously murdered is not a homology so much as it is a direct continuation of U.S. frontier policy in a more distant context. (Ortiz, 166-167)


Brig. General Henry Clay Merriman

The lineage to the U.S. Indian Wars does not end in the Philippines. In Vietnam, the Strategic Hamlet Program, as well as Operation Phoenix (which sought to ‘reeducate’ or ‘attract’ potential assets among the NVA, and assassinate and torture others in leadership positions to up the ‘attraction’ of reeducation) follows the same insights of the BIA and U.S. cavalry in the Western Territories. One should also view the strategic alliance the U.S. developed with the Hmong people of Vietnam as a continuation of counter-insurgency tactics developed in the pacification of the U.S. Since at least the mid-18th century, particularly during the French and Indian War through to the final stages of eradication at the end of the 1890s, the development of ‘indigenous’ allies was seen as an essential part of ‘knowing the enemy’ as well as developing local knowledge. These practices are not merely homologous, but are directly linked to the counterinsurgency practices in Vietnam and the Human Terrain System deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Without doing too much damage to historical specificity, one can draw a line from the attempt to pit tribal groups against one another or weaponize indigenous knowledge during the 18th century, all the way to the efforts in Iraq to turn the tide by employing the Sons of Iraq and other militias in the so-called ‘Anbar Awakening’.(Byrd, 225-229)


U.S. Calvary’s “Indian Scouts”

If we follow this historical trajectory from Thanksgiving to Waziristan, what we see is that there is a consistent strategy of concentrating women and children, the forced reeducation of ‘friendlies’, the indiscriminate slaughter of potential male combatants, and the development and use of local knowledge. Furthermore, since the creation of the BIA, stabilization or order-making has been premised on re-education and ‘domestic development’. The U.S. has more recently referred to this part of counter-insurgency as nation-building, but it differs little from the ways the BIA sabotaged and managed tribal councils in the various arrangements of the trust doctrine after the era of treaties. Despite the ways that Progressive Era and later mid-20th century theories of development may have renamed these tactics, the practices on the ground have change little since the Bureau of Indian Affairs was created in 1824. Therefore we should not be surprised or dismiss as rhetorical flourish that the Kunar Province in Afghanistan was commonly referred to as “Indian Country”, or that Osama bin Ladin was codenamed Geronimo. (Vizenor, 8-9)

Furthermore, it would be a mistake to consider the history of U.S. Indian removal and eradication as merely additive to the larger story about domesticity and counterinsurgency. Rather, the absence of this history is habituated by the case studies that are chosen by counter-insurgency specialists and historians alike. For the same reason it is important that Owens includes the British counter-insurgency efforts in Kenya—another case study often ignored by practitioners—we need to take seriously the constitutive role of the total war and then counter-insurgency waged by the U.S. on native peoples throughout the American continent. The greatest mistake we could make in trying to enrich the study of counter-insurgency and further to take up the challenge by Owens to connect this history to the production of the international order would be to allow the politically anemic accounts of counter-insurgency practitioners to set historical and geographical boundaries of what do and do not count as a counter-insurgency case studies. If we mimic their rather short list of key cases – the Philippines, Malay, Algeria, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan – then we also contribute to the erasure of the direct link between counter-insurgency and the vile practices of extermination.

Historical narratives matter, and the conspicuous absence of North America from the literature on counter-insurgency is an essential component of restoring the practice to the innocuous status of a mere tactic, rather than as the cornerstone of the settler colonialism that built one of the most powerful and destructive nation-states in history. If the architect of the post-World War II international order is the United States, then the architecture of order and security was invented on the Western Plains, and the victims of these experiments had names like Sitting Bull and Geronimo. Given the pivotal role of the U.S. in the history of the 20th century, any genealogy of the social or the domestic that starts and ends in Europe will be missing core components of what distinguishes settler colonial statecraft from colonial statecraft. In the former, there is no possibility of decolonization or amends. There is no version of political order not indebted to counter-insurgency. The existence of such states is ontologically violent in perpetuity. What history the citizens of those states make of that debt is yet to be seen, but so far not so good. For these reasons, one cannot homogenize the origins of liberalism or counter-insurgency. Settler states are exceptional, and American exceptionalism is at the forefront of this difference. The U.S. is the violence entrepreneur par excellence.

My account is inspired by Owens’ extraordinary book. I do not want to in any way diminish what it accomplishes, and the way her book forces us to see the broader context of counter-insurgency and liberalism. The danger is, for me, where Owens begins her book. Owens says she is in search of an ‘ontology’ of domesticity. However neither the Roman beginnings of the oikos – a home of women, slaves, and animals – nor the European beginnings of the social organized around class and patriarchy, and later, empire, are sufficient to locating this ontology. Neither history can help us understand the constitution of domesticity in settler colonial orders, where the making of the domestic was often a literal process of domesticating and eradicating people thought to be incapable of commodious living. (Shapiro, 175) An American or Australia or South African oikos bears the marks of horrifically violent practices, which in turn give birth to rationalized practices of counter-insurgency. The famed brutality, and therefore continued market value of former members of the South African Apartheid military amongst private military organizations, is a reminder of this fact (Hoffman, 2013)


Despite rumors to the contrary President Clinton lacked the courage to pardon Leonard Peltier

Despite the critical methodology of Owens’ book, case selection still matters, and the more humble search for homologies does not prevent homogenization. In some sense, the different histories of each state’s version of counter-insurgency matters, and the emphasis on similarities that can be traced back to common intellectual origin risks effacing these differences. For me, the U.S. and other settler colonial states that remain in the world today are not states that sometimes employ counter-insurgency, like their British and French peers. The U.S. was created through counter-insurgency and will always be a counter-insurgency state, whether those techniques are being practiced in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, or the drone routes of the Federal Administered Tribal Areas of Waziristan.

Owens book concludes with the dead end of social theory for International Relations, and the prospect of a replacement discourse that could take on the political without the limitations of domesticity, which is the inherited despotism of the home. I eagerly await that book, but I am left wondering if such a clean break can be made when theorizing the politics of states that are primarily invested in the violence of domestication.

Works Cited

Adams, David Wallace. Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875 – 1928. Lawrence, Kan: Univ. Press of Kansas, 1995.

Anievas, Alexander, Nivi Manchanda, and Robbie Shilliam, eds. Race and Racism in International Relations: Confronting the Global Colour Line. Interventions. London ; New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2015.

Blackhawk, Ned. Violence over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 2008.

Byrd, Jodi A. The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism. First Peoples : New Directions Indigenous. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.

Du Bois, W. E. B. Color and Democracy: Colonies and Peace. Millwood, N.Y: Kraus-Thomson Organization, 1975.

Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne. An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, 2014.

Feldman, Allen. Formations of Violence: The Narrative of the Body and Political Terror in Northern Ireland. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Hoffman, Danny. The War Machines: Young Men and Violence in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Cultures and Practice of Violence Series. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.

Kelly, John D., ed. Anthropology and Global Counterinsurgency. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Shapiro, Michael J. Deforming American Political Thought: Ethnicity, Facticity, and Genre. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2006.

Shapiro, Michael J. Violent Cartographies: Mapping Cultures of War. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

Vitalis, Robert. White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Birth of American International Relations. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015.

Vizenor, Gerald Robert. Manifest Manners: Narratives on Postindian Survivance. 1. Bison Books print. Lincoln, Neb.: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2010.

United States, and United States, eds. The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual: U.S. Army Field Manual No. 3-24: Marine Corps Warfighting Publication No. 3-33.5. University of Chicago Press ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Weigley, Russell Frank. The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy. Indiana University Press paperback ed. The Wars of the United States. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977.


16 thoughts on “The Stories We Tell About Killing

  1. Great piece. I think you are spot on in foregrounding the significance of settler colonialism to the development of counterinsurgency. However, one could take issue with the idea that this makes America the exceptional counterinsurgency state. Britain’s role in creating a settler colony in Ireland, as you point out, is equally significant for understanding British counterinsurgency. But so is the French settler colony in Algeria for understanding French counterinsurgency. Moreover, and above all, Israel’s significance as a practitioner of counterinsurgency is absolutely bound up with its settler colonial project. And the Mandate experience of policing the Zionist settler colony in Palestine was just as significant for the British approach to counterinsurgency too. Laleh Khalili’s work, which I was curious to see that you didn’t mention here, makes all of these links plain. Her book also mentions, albeit briefly, the Indian Wars.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well put…But I likened this exceptional piece of writing of a particular American “par excellence” or American “exceptionalism” w/r/t COIN here with the fact that with both the native aborigines and African-Americans, Anglo Anericans were able to use COIN in ways that France was not able to do in Algeria, nor in most cases, the British–that is to live, breathe, sleep and work with the same groups afterwards for hundreds of years. The use of psyops (religion, white Jesus, hangings), combined with civil affairs (development, public works, welfare/food/housing aid) is a testament to a particular American exceptionalism is this realm. A New World Order indeed.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for reading James (if I may) and the response. I have some off the cuff responses I am trying to post from over the Pacific ocean so please excuse typos.

      I know Laleh’s work on Palestine and memory pretty well but the only thing I have read that she was written on counter-insurgency was the piece she wrote for the Middle East Report and . My guess is we are probably pretty well in synch politically. I have put the book I think you are talking about Time in the Shadows: Confinement in Counterinsurgencies at the top of the pile. I will rectify that omission shortly.

      As for France while there were certainly settlers in Algeria reading Galula and other is not comparable in tactical imagination nor application if only because the scale and consequences for the international system were quite different. The only way the comparison could be really sustained would be if Algeria were in the territory of the metropole and was also the architect of the Post-World War II international system. The intensity with which the U.S. has to police the cognitive dissonance created by adopting and claiming credit for the UNDHR while using lynchings and militias to enforce racial segregation is pretty unparalleled.

      British counterinsurgency in Ireland comes the closest for me. However the idea of the British state is not founded on the dehumanization and counter-insurgency efforts against the Irish. Political formation ended up there but in the U.S. case there is no U.S. founding or subsequent political state formation that is not constantly a process of counter-insurgency. The second amendment and the continuing American love affair with guns is maybe the best example. A constitutional right to militias is about eradicating Indians, policing slave populations, and hunting free blacks. In this respect, I think U.S. counter-insurgency has always been a perverse form of what Chamayou calls pastoral cynegetics.

      In fact the U.S. is on of the best example of how well necropolitics, biopolitics, and cynegetic power resonate and amplify one another. At any given moment in the U.S. unarmed innocent black people are being murdered in the street, indigenous people are being irradiated by nuclear mining, pushed off their land, sterilized, or deprived of life and all of this is business as usual NOT EXCEPTIONAL (Go home Agamben your drunk).

      There was and is no period of the American state in which systematic genocide is exceptional or absent. This is my main quibble with Owens claim of homology with the Progressive Era. The relationship between the Progressive Era or any other period of the U.S. and counter-insurgency was never a homology it was always and continues to be policy. Didier Fassin’s remarkable ethnography of French policing in the banlieues (Enforcing Order) does suggest that France is continuing the counter-insurgency of Algeria at home which I am sure has only accelerated since the recent Paris attacks. However, the French state itself is not entirely constituted by these actions. That is a big difference.

      Also a historical point, the U.S. has been committed to the ‘science’ of counter-insurgency for much longer than France. France engaged in a little bit of what might be thought of as CI in Haiti in the 19th century but not in a systematic way. The British certainly employed many of the characteristics of CI during the wars in the Americas but did not continue to make it a central part of is force structure. In the British case, and I think JFC Fuller’s first hand account of the Boer War is probably the best example, there was always a difference between colonial actions and war proper amongst ‘peer’ states i.e. Europeans. However, the U.S. has never not been an counter-insurgency state from a military education perspective. From the creation of the U.S. Military academies until the 20th century counter-insurgency was a heavy focus of military thinking. After the end of the American Civil War the Indian Wars were used both as opportunity and training as the leadership from the Civil War moved seamlessly back into genocide and then into the imperial adventures of the U.S. in Cuba, the Philippines, Guam, Hawai’i, and elsewhere. To put it very succinctly for most other great powers (even the British) counter-insurgency was something that happened somewhere else and intermittently. In the U.S. counter-insurgency was founding and governance at home then abroad from beginning to end. Also unlike the other great powers this practice of counter-insurgency has remained constant where as in most other cases it has ebbed and flowed.

      Israel doesnt really, for me, fit either the UK/France model or the U.S. model. It bears the marks of bits and pieces of all of the above and Israel’s violence entrepreneurship certainly impacts the international system but I mean and again I do not want to undermine the horrors of Israel’s occupation but from an IR perspective the scale of horror and the constitutive character of that horror for defining what is and is not thinkable, doable, etc there is no comparison to the U.S. in terms of how much of the ‘operating system’ of global politics is programmed and executed by a state that has no other history other than settler-colonialism. The post-World War II process of decolonization is another case in point. For me this is one of the great lacunae in the development of post-colonial theory in IR. There is no ‘post’ of any kind in the U.S. and therefore until China or some other collection of powers remakes the global system than we have to come to grips with what it means that the architect of 20th and 21st century international order is at every level an ongoing settler-colonial state. This is not a historical argument. I am trying to make a claim about continuity and the present and the significance of that for International Relations theory. So I guess I am basically making a case for U.S. exceptionalism in part because I think scale and history matter and if we want to start thinking about not just different masters of international order but entirely different concepts of what constitutes order we have to take the significance of the U.S. case pretty seriously. I want to also repeat that W.E.B. DuBois said all of this a the Dumbarton Oaks conference and repeatedly until his death. The claims I am making are not original but I do not think the claims have been taken seriously as theory in IR theory. Instead these claims are affirmed or rejected as polemic rather than what they are history and theory.


  2. ““How civil war in the South began again—indeed had never ceased; and how black Prometheus bound to the Rock of Ages by hate, hurt and humiliation, has his vitals eaten out as they grow, yet lives and fights.”
    -W. E. B. Du Bois. “Black Reconstruction in America: Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880.


  3. If, as you argue “counter-insurgency is at the heart of the American paradigm of state making and war fighting,” I’m wondering how you reconcile that with the Posse Comitatus Act.


    • Well PCA wasnt signed until the late 1870s which is roughly the transition from all out war with remaining bands of Indians and the more selective violence but no less effective violence of reservations and policing by non-military means. Also the distinction between police, militia, and military was extraordinarily fuzzy until really almost 1900 at least in the western states. I dont want to suggest there is no variance after the official regulation of U.S. military presence on U.S. soil but it is certainly the case that the lethality and pervasiveness of force changes very little for groups that carry their ‘foreigness’ in their skin and form of life. Remember troops and militias are being marshaled in New Mexico as late as 1916 to counter Pancho Villa’s incursions. Furthermore the regularization of policing to replace the general state of war that followed black and brown people did not happen all at once and the various groups involved before the professionalization and regularization was an assemblage of military, federal marshals, local sheriffs (very different from police), militias of various sorts some ad-hoc, some private (Pinkertons and others), as well as professional Militias. All of these groups employed degrees of counter-insurgency in the sense that they relied on native informants, developed cultural typing, assisted directly and indirectly the population concentration on reservations spearheaded by the BIA. So the PCA has, in my opinion, very little impact on the day to day affairs of how non-white populations were treated. I have a 1934 Police training manual that was published by the International Brotherhood of Police Chiefs that has a different chapter on each racial group. The chapters read like fischer-price my first anthropologist. The chapter on “The Negro” explains that blacks are too simple minded to carry out different kinds of crimes and instead will repeat the same crime over and over. The book suggests that a case in point is one negro that always steal chickens. Basically what we have in a manual like this is also techniques for tracking and countering what are seen as problem populations, The same publishing house was the first to circulate the idea and a template for a ‘rap sheet’ to keep track of criminal history for similar kinds of racial profiling. I think the closer you look at the practices that this kind of racial knowledge is continuous from Indian tracking and killing, runaway slave hunting, and then after the civil war the very deliberate use of the KKK for counter-insurgency to sway elections, enforce geographical distribution of racialized communities etc. The Blue and Gold training manual I was talking about was in use in the U.S. until the late 1970s. So again what I want to stress is that there is not some abrupt end to counter-insurgency on U.S. soil. The white Leftist narrative that discusses Cointelpro and the targeting of the Black Panthers, American Indian Movement and others as anomalous can only do so because that is when they started paying attention and being peripherally impacted by the practice. Now one can fall back on the fatuous claim that Cointelpro and other ops for disrupting racialized communities from organizing were undertaken by the FBI and therefore not a violation of the letter of the PCA. That is a fine legalistic argument but if what we are interested in his not a legal distinction but a history of practices and how they are racially motivated than the targeting of AIM shows exactly what I am talking about. The FBI and BIA engaged extensively in regime change and nation building and I do not mean that metaphorically. Leaders were assassinated, elections were influenced even rigged, so called Goon Squads of loyal or good ‘natives’ were funneled arms by the U.S. federal government. So again the legal designation of the actors changes, the jurisdiction of the actors changes but the practices and tactics have a much greater degree of continuity.


      • …we also recognize, if we are intellectually honest, that our domestic law enforcement apparatus (FBI, NYPD, et al) is akin (or far superior) to most other nation’s militaries, due in large part because of PC. The 7th, 8th, and 9th paras below highlight some of the finer points here and the article is reflective of the “fuzziness” and the pervasiveness of “those who carry foreignness in their skin” being treated differently:

        The mayor will appoint an independent civilian to monitor the New York Police Department’s counterterrorism activities, lawyers said in court documents on Thursday as they moved to settle a pair of lawsuits over surveillance targeting Muslims in the decade after the Sept. 11 attacks.

        The agreement would restore some of the outside oversight that was eliminated after the attacks, when city leaders said they needed more flexibility in conducting investigations. In the years that followed, the Police Department secretly built files on Muslim neighborhoods, recorded sermons at mosques, collected license plates of worshipers and documented the views of everyday people on topics such as drone strikes, politics and foreign policy.

        The settlement does not explicitly prohibit any methods that are currently allowed, and the city does not admit any wrongdoing. Police officials said many of the provisions of the agreement — such as barring investigations based solely on religion, race and ethnicity — simply codified changes already in place. But civil rights lawyers said some tactics that investigators used over the past decade violated the Constitution and would probably not have been allowed if anyone outside the Police Department had been reviewing the investigative files.

        “These safeguards will be a strong check against the discriminatory surveillance of Muslim communities that we challenged in our lawsuit,” said Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, who represents the plaintiffs in one of the lawsuits. “We hope the settlement shows that effective policing isn’t at odds with constitutional policing.”

        The city agreed to place a civilian lawyer, appointed by the mayor, inside the Police Department to review intelligence files and report potential wrongdoing to the police commissioner, the mayor or a federal judge.

        The settlement, which must be approved by a federal judge, represents the most significant recalibration of the rules governing police intelligence-gathering in the city since Sept. 11, 2001. In the works for months, the agreement comes in the aftermath of a string of terrorist attacks — the mass shootings and bombings in Paris, an attack on a Planned Parenthood center in Colorado Springs and a rampage in San Bernardino, Calif. — that have sowed new fears in the United States and abroad.

        With the settlement, the surveillance of Muslims becomes a chapter in the long history of controversial police tactics in New York. The intelligence unit began in 1904 as the Italian Squad, with a focus on suspected anarchists. Over the decades, it shifted focus to Communists, Vietnam War protesters, student groups and civil rights organizations.

        A 1971 class-action lawsuit forced the end of the city’s so-called Red Squads and established the intelligence-gathering rules, known as the Handschu Guidelines, after one of the plaintiffs. The lawsuit has remained active for decades, serving as a check against police overreaching.

        “This has always been about whoever is the other of the moment, the suspicion-raising other in society,” said Jethro Eisenstein, one of the lawyers who have worked on the Handschu case from the beginning. “It’s been the Jew, the Italian, the Communist and African-Americans at various stages.”

        For Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat who pledged to rein in police excesses, the settlement is a chance to formally break with practices he found deeply troubling.

        Mr. de Blasio and his police commissioner, William J. Bratton, have sought to prove that they can keep the city safe from terrorists without such tactics, just as they have battled gun violence while largely abandoning a stop-and-frisk policy that was ruled unconstitutional.

        “We have nothing to hide,” said Lawrence Byrne, the Police Department’s deputy commissioner of legal matters. “And if this adds transparency and a level of public trust that we’re continuing to keep the city safe, but in a lawful way, we welcome and embrace that.”

        The reconsideration of police rules echoes the recent debate in Washington over whether the government gave itself too much secret surveillance power in the name of keeping the nation safe from terrorists.

        Before Sept. 11, the city had a three-member panel, which was made up of a civilian and two senior police officials, to review intelligence-gathering and approve or reject investigations by the Police Department. That oversight was eliminated after the attacks, leaving the city’s intelligence operations all but unchecked by anyone outside the Police Department.

        “The day this agreement is signed, I don’t show up to work with any less ability to protect New York City than I had the day before,” said John J. Miller, the city’s top counterterrorism official. He described the new oversight as a safety valve: “If at any time this goes astray in the eyes of an independent observer, they have a way to bring that up.”

        The monitor, called a civilian representative, will be appointed for a five-year term, which is intended to insulate the position from city politics. After five years, the mayor has the authority to eliminate the position, but only with advance public notice.

        The Police Department also agreed to use undercover officers only when other options are impractical and to consider the effect that its investigations have on religious groups and people who are not suspected of any wrongdoing. Civil rights lawyers viewed this as a check on the city’s use of undercover officers to serve as “listening posts” while living under fake names in Muslim neighborhoods, though the provision does not prohibit that.

        The department also agreed to cap the length of investigations in most cases — a limitation modeled after the rules governing inquiries by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Previously, the police had kept terrorism investigations open and conducted surveillance for years, collecting information but never bringing charges.

        The surveillance tactics came to light in 2011 when The Associated Press published a series of articles and internal documents that revealed the workings of the department’s Intelligence Division under the management of David Cohen, a former top official with the Central Intelligence Agency.

        The documents showed that the city built files on ethnic neighborhoods, kept tabs on New Yorkers who changed their names and dispatched a squad of plainclothes officers — from a group known as the Demographics Unit — to eavesdrop on conversations in Muslim businesses. Many of those efforts created resentment inside the department. Mr. Bratton formally disbanded the Demographics Unit as one of his first acts when he returned in 2014 for a second stint as police commissioner.

        “If we were following terrorists or doing things that led to cases, we all would have supported that,” said Hector Berdecia, a now-retired lieutenant who oversaw the unit and became convinced that it was a waste of time. “To go out and listen to conversations and report on what they’re hearing, they had a problem with that, and I had problem with that.”

        As the department’s intelligence chief, Mr. Cohen wielded tremendous authority to approve investigations and tactics. Many officers bristled under his leadership, and Mr. Berdecia said the new rules would serve as a check on that authority.

        “That’s a position that has a lot of power to do a lot of good work for the city,” he said. “But you can’t just throw out a net and see what comes in. That’s a waste of resources and a waste of time. And it built a lot of animosity inside the department and inside the community.”

        Others credit Mr. Cohen with transforming a moribund squad into one with aspirations as a world-class intelligence agency. Built with help from the C.I.A., the unit recruited a huge roster of informers, stationed detectives around the world and built a corps of analysts who stayed current on national intelligence.

        Mr. Miller said none of that would change. In an interview, he did not criticize his predecessors or their efforts. Rather he described the settlement as the latest step in a learning process for a unit that, before Sept. 11, mostly focused on chauffeuring visiting dignitaries around the city.

        “They had to learn the business of counterterrorism going forward,” Mr. Miller said. “When you look at their earliest efforts and read through those materials, you say, ‘Well, you can see that they’re learning their way here.’ ”

        Pointing to the federal counterintelligence surveillance program known as Cointelpro that began in the 1950s, and to the Los Angeles Police Department’s political spying scandal in the 1980s, Mr. Miller said the lesson was that easing the rules and reducing transparency always led to “trouble.” This settlement, he said, would build “a framework for the future, so this can be sustained as other people come through here with varying levels of experience or leanings.”

        The city also agreed to remove from its website a 2007 report, “Radicalization in the West,” which tried to find patterns in the way people become terrorists. The report, written by two police intelligence analysts, offered a profile of would-be terrorists that civil rights groups said was so broad as to include nearly any Muslim: “the bored and/or frustrated, successful college students, the unemployed, the second and third generation, new immigrants, petty criminals and prison parolees.”

        The two lawsuits being settled are the longstanding Handschu case — the case has been settled and reopened repeatedly over the years — and another brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, the New York Civil Liberties Union and lawyers at the City University of New York School of Law. The city will pay about $2 million to cover the legal fees for the lawyers involved.

        A third case, over the Police Department’s surveillance in New Jersey, is pending. While that case raises many of the same issues as the two lawsuits being settled, Mr. Byrne said New Jersey residents were not part of the Handschu class, which means that case does not end with the settlement. “Right now, we’re intending to litigate the case,” he said.
        Alex Vadukul contributed reporting.


      • The main thing that piqued my interest in your original post was your rejection of the line of thinking that the U.S. military had abandoned doctrinal interest in counterinsurgency warfare following its experience in Vietnam and was thus woefully unprepared for managing the conflicts it launched in Iraq and Afghanistan. My apologies if I am misreading your thinking here, but it seemed to me that you rejected this theory based on a belief that the U.S. military could never adequately abandon counterinsurgency methods because they are ingrained in the U.S. strategic culture (at the very least white strategic culture). In this regard, while I’m not challenging your assertions about continued counterinsurgency methods by non-military U.S. authorities on domestic soil, I disagree that the Posse Comitatus Act had almost no impact on how the U.S. military viewed its roles and mission and even today colors the U.S. armed forces’ views about counterinsurgency warfare. As you mention, the U.S. intervention in the Philippines was most certainly a brutal counterinsurgency, but at the same time it was almost completely banished from the collective memory of the U.S. military, only to be resurrected a century later in a desperate effort to glean lessons for the current conflicts. That the U.S. military was unprepared for conducting a counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq is most plainly evident in CENTCOM’s failure to even plan for post-conflict operations. Leaving discussions of “domestic counterinsurgency” aside, I believe there is still some truth in the view that the U.S. military still harbors a deeply ingrained reluctance to conduct counterinsurgency missions.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. First, I want to clarify that my point about the PCA not having an effect was about the outcome and the ‘practice’ of counter-insurgency. I think the practitioners change particularly in the 20th century. However the practice and the results change little whether it is U.S. Calvary, militias, police, the BIA etc. Given Owen’s book is about the ideas of counter-insurgency and liberalism or maybe better the affinity liberalism has for counter-insurgency I was less interested in the particular actors and more interested in how pervasive the practice was across many different actors. Also I stand by my central point which is that from the perspective of those policed, concentrated, domesticated, killed, starved, counter-insurgency changed very little in 200 years. The uniforms and actors changed but the practices were on a much different time scale than the process of bureaucratic specialization and differentiation which took place across the military branches et all.

    I think you are absolutely right about strategic thinking as well as general doctrine development in the last 2/3 of the 20th century. However I most agree with the last part of your comment “the U.S. military still harbors a deeply ingrained reluctance to conduct counterinsurgency missions”. In fact my point of disagreement is one of causality. I do not think the major shifts in military doctrine and culture are the result of Posse Comitatus. In fact one of the things I think us ‘lefties’ often over looks is that most restrictions or at least circumscriptions of military force come from with in the military. There are very few incidences whereby the civilian government has enforced or enacted restriction. The most outspoken critic of the expansion of the military came from Eisenhower. The MIC speech is almost line by line Machiavelli’s argument against turning combat into a profitable enterprise from The Art of War. For both Eisenhower and Machiavelli the argument about financializing warfare creating more warfare was a warning against arms dealers and politicians not a warning about soldiers. So then the argument gets interesting. Is the ‘tradition’ or ‘culture’ of Posse Comitatus the result of federal intervention or did the distaste for counter-insurgency develop semi-autonomously within military ranks? I dont have the data or knowledge to answer this question definitively in any way but I will say that violations of Posse Comitatus have all been at the instigation of civilian leadership. Also I think the distaste for counter-insurgency and generally offensive military action varies across branches a great deal. Almost all of the most prudent and thoughtful military thinkers are Army and Marines. The people that think you can project power, have quick in and out wars, use coercive force for counter-insurgency from the air (Col. John Warden) etc are all Navy and Air Force so I think it is impossible to talk about the changes in military doctrine in a unified way.

    In fact I think many of the contemporary critics of counter-insurgency that ignore the broader history of CI are unfair in their criticism of people like David Kilcullen and to some degree even General Patreaus. The on-the-fly version of counter-insurgency that was slapped together and experimented with in Iraq maybe was or wasnt effective. I think ultimately it was not that effective but time will tell. However Kilcullen and Patreaus were both trying to get out of a war not into one. So we might want to distinguish between defensive and offensive or defensive and genocidal counter-insurgency. Kilcullen in particular has been an outspoken critic of drone warfare and in the entirety of his academic work has been critical of fighting the war in Iraq. The problem which we academics do not have to deal with is what do you do if you are already in a war and some asks you to get out of it. I dont know but the kind of chastened version of CI proposed by Kilcullen in Accidental Guerrilla is not what was practiced in the U.S. frontier or even implemented in Afghanistan after Patreaus took command. I am not suggesting the former is not violent but I do think it is an unhelpful exaggeration to say the various attempts at reinventing counter-insurgency were genocidal. So strategic thinking and strategic goals change practices intensively. CI as settlement is catastrophic (U.S., Israel, South Africa). CI abroad in an age of many other means of destruction less so. In fact in the contemporary period there has been much too much interest in the ‘sexiness’ of counter-insurgency and not nearly enough attention to the fact that economic sanctions against Iraq, a liberal go to strategy, were vastly more lethal than all of the post-911 CI operations, globally, combined. The post-911 deaths are disproportionately the result of applying air power in various forms. I do not disagree with many of the critiques of population-centric warfare but if we were going to prioritize our critical scholarship on the basis of what is most destructive and unjust than we have failed the victims of these wars. Plain, boring war was vastly more lethal than anything cooked up by Human Terrain program and yet twice as many articles and books have been written about the latter.

    Just to conclude I dont research counter-insurgency very much. I was around it a lot and so my knowledge is spotty in places. I have talked to more people involved in implementing it than I have read recent scholarship on it. I have read the classics and much of the historical work particularly General Sheridan’s diaries and others who were his contemporaries like Hays and Merriman. I have also been slowing going through West Point dissertations. The focus on western frontier warfare diminishes as a topic and case but even into the 70s it does not disappear. So my hypothesis is that the cybernetic/management revolution during World War II really diminished the tactical archive the Armed Forces regularly drew from as the heavy industrialization of warfare, rise of air power and then nuclear revolution replaced much of tactical thinking that was more important in smaller scale incursions. That historical momentum combined with the size of the major U.S. competitors, the closing of the U.S. frontier, and the innovation of more efficient forms of black social control, as well as the settling down of unions (no more stand offs with the armed forces like in Colorado) meant that Counter-Insurgency faded into the background but I think there is a lot to say it never disappeared. Instead CI continued as a kind of minor tradition in military thinking and a normalized hegemonic practice among militias and police (federal, state, and local) between World War II and say Vietnam. However, and this is my point, the selection of French and British case studies in the contemporary development of CI in the U.S. after 911 is a process of erasure that is concomitant with the myth perpetuated in the found of the U.N. that the U.S. was never a colonial empire. This idea that the U.S. was not an empire was a powerful legitimating discourse for the U.S. through out the second half of the 20th century and it is just false. And the falsity has allowed for extraordinary violence and injustice. So, for me, every time we talk about counter-insurgency and the U.S. it has to begin with the beginning, that there has never been any difference between state formation and counter-insurgency in the United States. Settlement, slave management, reconstruction, the era of treaties, the reservation system, the trust doctrine, separate but equal, the KKK, cointelpro, all have more than a family resemblance. They all draw on and contribute to a vast archive of counter-insurgency much of which was oriented towards the wholesale eradication of peoples, some of which was satisfied with depopulating and regulating survivors, and other forms that merely incarcerate and police with slow-motion genocide that moves while lethally too slowly for many privileged people to see.


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