Search This Blog


He advised us not to forget! - selected excerpts from Robert M. Utley's "THE CONTRIBUTION OF THE FRONTIER TO THE AMERICAN MILITARY TRADITION"

These pearls of wisdom dovetail nicely with several main themes I am interested in..unremembered or misapplied traditions, organizations, doctrine or historical lessons learned - bureaucratic and institutional inertia. Robert M. Utley's evocative contribution in 1976 - a year after South Vietnam fell and as the US Army began its turn towards Air-land warfare with its
All- Volunteer Army (VOLAR) force (& my commissioning year) - while not then in vogue with a military anxious to forget its immediate past - was astutely prescient given today's ongoing GWOT or long war - or whatever some current administration and their sycophants may be choosing to call it.

"...tradition must also be responsive to the “limited wars” that the nuclear specter has spawned, and these do disclose parallels with frontier warfare.

"This year’s Harmon lecturer, Robert M. Utley, ... (his) topic, “The Contribution of the Frontier to the American Military Tradition,” fitted perfectly as the keynote address for this symposium. He argued that the American military has failed to benefit from the lessons of its frontier experience, that while the frontier has provided inspiration for movie makers to create heroic images of “cavalry to the rescue,” and for reformers to create contrasting images of blue-coated troopers brutalizing innocent Indians, it has not inspired enough serious study by military strategists and tacticians. The military therefore has failed to learn from a significant episode in its past, an episode which can offer valuable insights into the problems of training and organizing conventional forces for unconventional war, into the nature of total war between irreconcilable cultures, into the myths behind the American militia tradition, and finally into the role of the military in the integration of minorities into American society." (p.1)

Selected excerpts from THE CONTRIBUTION OF THE FRONTIER TO THE AMERICAN MILITARY TRADITION by Robert M. Utley (pp. 3-13), The American Military on the Frontier : the proceedings of the 7th Military History Symposium, United States Air Force Academy, 30 September-1 October 1976, edited by James P. Tate, The Minerva Group, Inc., 2002


"...I see the American military tradition as in part a record-a record as we perceive it today, not necessarily as it was in fact-of those people and events of the past that we have singled out to provide us with inspiration, edification, guidance, and even, as I have intimated, self-reproach. Besides this record, I take the American military tradition to be the accumulated body of military usage, belief, custom, and practice that has descended to us from the past. It is also policy, doctrine, thought, and institutions as they have evolved by selection, rejection, and modification through past generations to today. Let us examine how the frontier, which formed so long and prominent a part of the nation’s military history, may have contributed-or indeed may have failed to contribute - to some of these aspects of the American military tradition." (p.4)

"What we choose to remember and the way we choose to remember it may unduly flatter or unfairly condemn our military forebears, may indeed be more legend than history. Legends thus form a conspicuous part of our military tradition and are often far more influential in shaping our attitudes and beliefs than the complex, contradictory, and ambiguous truth. Our reading of truth, or at least the meaning of truth, changes from generation to generation. What is uplifting to one may be shameful to the next. We select and portray our heroes and villains to meet the needs of the present, just as we formulate doctrine, policy, practice, and other aspects of military tradition to meet the conditions of the present. The US Army’s frontier heritage, replete with stereotypes and legends as well as with genuine historical substance, has furnished a galaxy of heroes and villains. In the people and events of the military frontier we have found a major source of inspiration, guidance, pride, institutional continuity, and, not least, self-depreciation. But several centuries of Indian warfare should have contributed more to the national military tradition than a kaleidoscope of images." (p.5)

"The regular army was almost wholly a creature of the frontier. Frontier needs prompted creation of the regular army. Except for two foreign wars and one civil war, frontier needs fixed the principal mission and employment of the regular army for a century. Frontier needs dictated the periodic enlargements of the regular army in the nineteenth century.3...Citizen soldiers also contributed, though less significantly. From King Philip’s War to the Ghost Dance, colonial and state militia, territorial and national volunteers, rangers, “minute companies,” spontaneously formed home guards, and other less admirable aggregations of fighting men supplemented or altogether supplanted the regulars on the frontier. Often, indeed, the two worked at dramatic cross-purposes."
3. The 1st and 2nd Dragoons in 1832 and 1836. the Regiment of Mounted Riflemen in 1846. the 1st and 2nd Cavalry and 9th and 10th Infantry in 1855. The Army Act of 1866 expanded the Regular Army to meet both frontier and Reconstruction duty, but the subsequent reduction of 1869. as Reconstruction needs diminished, left a net gain of four cavalry regiments (7th to 10th) and six infantry regiments (20th to 25th) that may be attributed to frontier needs. (All mounted regiments were restyled cavalry in 1861 and the 6th Cavalry added that was a response to Civil War needs.)" (p.6)
(see my post -In search of mobility - Mounted Rangers - Dragoons - Mounted Riflemen - Voltigeurs and Foot Riflemen - Cavalry for Utley's discussion of the failure to pay the price by forming a "best fitted force for western service.")

"The contribution of the frontier to American military history was of paramount significance, but its contribution to the American military tradition was not of comparable significance. Inviting particular attention is the influence of the special conditions and requirements of the frontier on military organization, composition, strategy, and especially doctrine. A century of Indian warfare, extending a record of such conflict reaching well back into colonial times, should have taught us much about dealing with people who did not fight in conventional ways, and our military tradition might reasonably be expected to reflect the lessons thus learned. Some were not without relevance in Vietnam. In examining the role of the frontier in nineteenth century military history, however, we encounter a paradox. It is that the army’s frontier employment unfitted it for orthodox war at the same time that its preoccupation with orthodox war unfitted it for its frontier mission.(pp.6-7)

"The organization of companies and regiments seems wholly conventional in nineteenth century terms; it is difficult to see how they would have been differently organized for conventional war-and in fact they were not basically changed when conventional war came. The cavalry arm traced its beginnings to frontier needs, but the Mexican War or Civil War would surely have prompted the formation of mounted units anyway. The “rough and unsavory” rank and file that Huntington sees as well fitted for Indian fighting and road building were not well fitted for much of any duty, and the record of federalized volunteer units in the west during the Civil War plainly established the superiority of this class of troops over the typical peacetime regular. Nor, with the possible exception of the revolving pistol, a response to the frontier only insofar as mounted troops found a repeating handgun of great utility, can the evolution of military weaponry be linked to frontier needs." (p.7)

"So far as a system of border outposts constituted strategy, it was of course shaped by the frontier. But these forts represented less a deliberate plan than erratic responses to the demands of pioneer communities for security and local markets. The forts, incidentally, encouraged settlers to move beyond the range of military protection, stirred up the Indians, and led to still more forts, many beyond effective logistical support....On the operational level, strategy and tactics are clearly not a product of frontier conditions. Most army officers recognized their foe as a master of guerrilla warfare. Their writings .abound in admiring descriptions of his cunning, stealth, horsemanship, ability and endurance, skill with weapons, mobility, and exploitation of the natural habitat for military advantage. Yet the army as an institution never acted on this recognition. No military school or training program, no tactics manual, and very little professional literature provided guidance on how to fight or treat with Indians, although it should be noted in minor qualification that Dennis Hart Mahan apparently included in one of his courses at West Point a brief discussion of Indian-fighting tactics.8" (p.8)

"Lacking a formal body of doctrine for unconventional war, the army waged conventional war against the Indians. Heavy columns of infantry and cavalry, locked to slow-moving supply trains, crawled about the vast western distances in search of Indians who could scatter and vanish almost instantly. The conventional tactics of the Scott, Casey, and Upton manuals sometimes worked, by routing an adversary that had foolishly decided to stand and fight on the white man’s terms, by smashing a village whose inhabitants had grown careless, or by wearing out a quarry with persistent campaigning that made surrender preferable to constant fatigue and insecurity. But most such offensives merely broke down the grain-fed cavalry horses and ended with the troops devoting as much effort to keeping themselves supplied as to chasing Indians. The campaign of 1876 following the Custer disaster is a classic example...the army they fashioned was designed for the next conventional war rather than the present unconventional war." (p.9)

"That the army as an institution never elaborated a doctrine of Indian warfare does not mean that it contained no officers capable of breaking free of conventional thought. The most original thinker was General George Crook, who advocated reliance on mule trains as the means of achieving mobility and who saw the conquest of the Indian as dependent upon pitting Indian against Indian. Army organization provided for Indian scouts, but Crook’s concept went considerably beyond their use as guides and trailers....Had the nation’s leaders understood the lessons of General Crook’s experience, they would have recognized that the frontier army was a conventional military force trying to control, by conventional military methods, a people that did not behave like conventional enemies and, indeed, quite often were not enemies at all....Had the nation’s leaders acted on such understandings, the army might have played a more significant role in the westward movement- and one less vulnerable to criticism. An Indian auxiliary force might have been developed that could differentiate between guilty and innocent and, using the Indian’s own fighting style, contend with the guilty. Indian units were indeed developed, but never on a scale and with a continuity to permit the full effect to be demonstrated." (p.10)

"Such an Indian force would have differed from the reservation police, which in fact did remarkably well considering their limitations.13 It would have been larger, better equipped, and less influenced by the vagaries of the patronage politics that afflicted the Indian Bureau. Above all, it would have been led by a cadre of carefully chosen officers imbued with a sense of mission and experienced in Indian relations-the kind of officers artist Frederic Remington said were not so much “Indian fighters” as “Indian thinkers.”14 How different might have been the history of the westward movement had such a force been created and employed in place of the regular army line. How vastly more substantial might have been the contribution of the frontier to our traditions of unconventional warfare...By contrast, a major aspect of twentieth-century practice owes a large debt to the frontier. Total war-warring on whole enemy populations- finds ample precedent in the frontier experience." (p.11)

" precedents of total war may nevertheless be viewed as part of the historical foundation on which this feature of our military tradition rests.16"
16.The role of Sherman and Sheridan is discussed in my Frontier Regulars: The United States Army and the Indian, 1866-1891 (New York, 1973), pp. 144-46."

"So firmly implanted was the militia tradition in the thinking of the Revolutionary generation, together with abhorrence of standing armies, that the architects of the nation conceived it as the foundation of the military system, the chief reliance for national defense as well as frontier employment. Frontier experience demonstrated how wrong they were. The Indian rout of Harmer and St. Clair so dramatically exposed the inadequacies of militia as to give birth to the regular army, a contribution of the militia to US military history of no small significance, however negative. The organized militia fell apart after 1820, as foreign threats receded, but the militia tradition, nourished in part by the Indian frontier, evolved through various mutations into the twentieth century."(p.12)

"A clear and undeniable contribution of the frontier to the national military tradition is its large role in the rise of professionalism in the army...This separation, so costly in terms of public and governmental support, had one enduring benefit. Turning inward,the army laid the groundwork for a professionalism that was to prove indispensable..." (pp.12-13)

"A final feature of our military tradition with strong frontier roots is the prominent role of minorities. The regular army’s black regiments served on the frontier for three decades following their organization in 1866 and wrote some stirring chapters of achievement. They saw harder service than the white regiments and, because they afforded continuous and honorable employment in a time when blacks found few other opportunities, boasted lower desertion rates and higher reenlistment rates. Immigrants, too, found a congenial home in the army, as well as a means of learning the English language and reaching beyond the teeming port cities of the East where so many countrymen suffered in poverty and despair. And not to be overlooked are the Indians themselves, who loyally served the white troops as scouts, auxiliaries, and finally, for a brief time in the 1890s,in units integral to the regimental organization." (p.13)

"Today the American military tradition must be responsive to the imperatives of nuclear warfare, and nuclear warfare discloses few parallels with the small-unit Indian combats of forest, plains, and desert. But the tradition must also be responsive to the “limited wars” that the nuclear specter has spawned, and these do disclose parallels with frontier warfare. It is a measure of the failure of the Indian fighting generations to understand their task that today’s doctrine does not reflect the lessons of that experience. And yet, as we have seen, the American military tradition owes a debt of noteworthy magnitude to the frontier experience." (p.13)

also available online as pdf (19 mb!) at Air Force Historical Studies Office - The American military on the frontier : the proceedings of the 7th Military History Symposium, United States Air Force Academy, 30 September-1 October 1976 (out of print) Maj. James P. Tate, ed. 1978

from wikipedia:

"Robert Marshall Utley (born in 1929) is an author and historian who has written sixteen books on the history of the American West, including The Lance and the Shield: The Life of Sitting Bull. He was a former chief historian of the National Park Service. Fellow historians commend Utley as the finest historian of the American frontier in the 19th century. The Western History Association annually gives out the Robert M. Utley Book Award for the best book published on the military history of the frontier and western North America (including Mexico and Canada) from prehistory through the twentieth century...."

Selected bibliography

* Lone Star Lawmen: The Second Century of the Texas Rangers. Oxford University Press, USA (January 30, 2007).
* Lone Star Justice: The First Century of the Texas Rangers. Oxford University Press, USA (March 22, 2002).
* A Life Wild and Perilous: Mountain Men and the Paths to the Pacific. Henry Holt & Company (1997).
* The Lance and the Shield: The Life of Sitting Bull. Henry Holt & Company (1993).
* Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life. University of Nebraska Press (1989).
* Cavalier in Buckskin: George Armstrong Custer and the Western Military Frontier. University of Oklahoma Press (1988).
* High Noon In Lincoln: Violence on the Western Frontier. University of New Mexico Press (1987).
* The Indian Frontier of the American West, 1846-1890. University of New Mexico Press (1983).
* Clash of Cultures: Fort Bowie and the Chiricahua Apaches. National Park Service Washington DC (1977).
* Frontier Regulars; the United States Army and the Indian, 1866-1891. Macmillan, New York (1973).
* Frontiersmen in Blue; the United States Army and the Indian, 1848-1865. Macmillan, New York (1967).
* The Last Days of the Sioux Nation. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT (1963).

flash forward - 2008

"In the aftermath of Vietnam, we failed to capture and integrate the most important lessons of the war into our training and education. We turned away from the bitter experiences of that time and left behind a rich body of lessons learned, especially the tactics, techniques, and procedures necessary to conduct successful counterinsurgency. The remarkable insights concerning the necessity and efficacy of unity of effort would never be institutionalized in doctrine or law, and the lessons of that experience would soon be lost to time and a far more insidious threat to national security, the Soviet Union."

- Field Manual 3-07, Stability Operations: UPSHIFTING THE ENGINE OF CHANGE, William B Caldwell IV, Steven M Leonard. Military Review. Fort Leavenworth: Jul/Aug 2008. Vol. 88, Iss. 4; pg. 6, 8 pgs

Notably, as a Background and Foundation article appearing in the Combined Arms Center Interagency edition referencing the above , is a 2001 article 'America’s Frontier Wars: Lessons for Asymmetric Conflicts, by Congressman Ike Skelton, suggesting "how to overcome the threat of asymmetrical warfare by examining yesteryear’s battles to develop strategies and tactics for tomorrow’s conflicts" (first appeared in Military Review 81:22-27 September-October 2001). As the Congressman rhetorically posits and rightly asserts:

"Why do I begin an article addressing tomorrow's conflicts with an account of a battle fought two and a half centuries ago? As an avid student of history, I believe it is critically important for us to understand that asymmetric warfare is not something new. In fact, it has been a recurring theme of American military history and is familiar to many of today's military officers. Many of its best historical examples come from the series of conflicts we collectively refer to as the Indian Wars."

No comments: