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