The American Maginot Line, Part 1

US Empire Past and Present at the Mexican Border

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“It all started with the border, and that’s still where it is today.”—Drive-By Truckers, “Ramón Casiano”

The War on Terror post-9/11, we tend to forget, possessed a southern front: the US-Mexico border. In a widely-covered 2004 article, Samuel Huntington updated his “clash of civilizations” thesis to posit “unassimilable” Mexican migrants as the main civilizational threat to “Anglo-Protestant culture.” (Pat Buchanan made a similar argument in his 2002 screed, The Death of the West, but poor Pat did not possess that Harvard social capital.) Congressional reports that alleged alliances between leftist “Pink Tide” Latin American governments and transnational terrorist organizations and/or Iran mirrored the re-emergence of anti-migrant nativism and paramilitarism in the US southwest in 2005 that connected undocumented migration and “open borders” to possible terrorist infiltration of the country. Minutemen vigilantes claimed they found prayer rugs in the desert, along with Arabic-speaking migrants—some of whom had allegedly adopted Latin American noms de guerre to avoid detection.

These examples—not to mention the current debate about the so-called “border crisis” eagerly trumpeted by Republican politicians and whose “border security” framing is accepted by a majority of Democratic political leaders—reveal two “iron laws” of mainstream US political discourse regarding the US-Mexico border. First, during moments of US imperial anxiety (provoked by territorial expansion) or defeat (Vietnam, Iraq circa 2005-06), the border becomes dangerously insecure. As George W. Bush announced in May 2006 during a prime time television address focused on immigration, “we do not yet have full control of the border.” Second, the more militarized, walled-off, and deadly the border becomes on the ground for migrants, the more open and “out of control” it is in political discourse. We are entering the fifth decade of sustained militarization of the southern border and yet it is allegedly more out of control now than ever.

Thus, the border must constantly be secured militarily—permanent war as a security response to permanent insecurity, a tautology in which the building of border walls only results in demands for more walls. For the border to “work” politically, it must be a perpetual American Maginot Line that, as drug warrior Democratic Congressperson Lester Wolff argued in 1977, “is outflanked, overflown and infiltrated. And you know what happened to the French.”

So far I have described the US-Mexico border as a nearly 2,000 mile long region consistently acted upon by US policies and politics negatively driven by a sort of existential dread. In this short introduction—followed by a forthcoming historical article—I propose an alternate approach, one that is key to understanding the how and why of US empire today. The US-Mexico border, now and historically, is a primary site of US imperial formation in all of its settler colonial, colonial, and pointillist forms. More than just a fixed, physical space, it is a laboratory where these imperial forms converge and produce people, ideas, logics, practices, laws, and technologies oriented toward social control that proved influential in the expansion and development of US empire from the nineteenth century to today. Focusing (as I will in my next piece) on the long history of Fort Huachuca in southeastern Arizona, from the war against the Apaches to the War on Terror, reveals how the border is a “productive regime,” to borrow from activist-writer Harsha Walia, “concurrently generated by and producing social relations of dominance.” Even as the “guardian of the frontier“ stayed put some fifteen miles north of the border with Mexico, Fort Huachuca participated in the creation of other imperial frontiers throughout the Global South.

Yet those “social relations of dominance” that Walia writes about don’t stay in far-away military occupations; or in a country ruled by death squads trained and supported by the US; or even in the US-Mexico borderlands with its walls, cages, and pinche border police described by historian Greg Grandin as a lawless “cult of brutality.” Read through this lens, the history of the border suggests a rethinking of the domestic consequences of US empire not just as “blowback” per say, but more as a boomerang—less Rambo III and more Aimé Césaire. As the recent example of BORTAC units (a Border Patrol unit previously sent to Afghanistan for training and military experience) deployed to quell the 2020 Portland protests suggests, empire came home, in part, because it began at home. “And then one fine day,” Césaire wrote in his 1955 classic Discourse of Colonialism, “the bourgeoisie is awakened by a terrific boomerang effect: the gestapos are busy, the prisons fill up, the torturers standing around the racks invent, refine, discuss.”

The OG War on Terror (on the Border)

As indigenous scholars and social movements powerfully remind us, empire never left even as it shaped imperial adventures elsewhere. “Might as well say that Vietnam was where the Trail of Tears was headed all along,” journalist Michael Herr wrote in the late 1970s.

At the core of US empire—in practice and imagination—are the enduring legacies of settler colonialism. From the first Authorization for the Use of Military Force during the Northwest Indian War of 1790-95 to the legal justifications for the military prosecution of alleged transnational terrorists that cite nineteenth century “Indian Wars” as “closely analogous” to the 9/11 attacks, these settler wars have provided both the form and content of US empire. They are the original “War on Terror,” with a civilization-versus-barbarism frontier framing that legitimates horrific indiscriminate violence in “lawless,” “stateless” regions populated by rebellious racialized Others. It’s not an accident that unrepentant imperialists like Max Boot still talk about the US occupation of Afghanistan as yet another chapter of the “Indian Wars” in which soldiers police “the frontiers of Pax Americana.” Or that in the 2011 military operation that killed him, Osama bin Laden was codenamed “Geronimo”—the Apache resistance leader who refused to respect the international boundary created after the 1846-48 US-Mexico War.

Simply put, the US learned how to be an empire in the nineteenth century by waging genocidal war on indigenous polities and invading and occupying Latin American nations. In this history, the US-Mexico border represents a generative site where both settler colonialism and imperialist aggression converged as mutually constituting projects. As the result of the first instance of violent US expansion into Latin America—the US-Mexico War of 1846-1848—the “line in the sand” that eventually became what we recognize as the US-Mexico border required decades of violent, bi-national settler colonial warfare to conquer the powerful indigenous polities (particularly the Apaches and Comanches) that controlled the borderlands for much of the nineteenth century. Indeed, the American surveyors sent to map the border in the early 1850s were constantly forced to seek protection and safe passage from different indigenous groups. To transform the “line in the sand” from aspirational state claim to (unstable) material reality on the ground required war. And in this war, capital, railroads, and barbed wire proved just as decisive as US and Mexican military/paramilitary units.

These late nineteenth century settler wars would go on to shape subsequent American expansion into the Pacific and Caribbean, culminating in the 1898 Spanish-American War. In that conflict the United States not only acquired overseas colonies, it laid the groundwork for the more than 30 invasions of Latin American and Caribbean countries during the first three decades of the twentieth century. Within this expanding imperial circuit, Fort Huachuca represented an important node, forging military officers who cut their teeth fighting against the Apaches during the 1870s and 80s before fighting in Cuba and the Philippines after the declaration of war against Spain in early 1898—officers like generals Leonard Wood and John “Black Jack” Pershing. Units like those that comprised the famous Buffalo Soldiers, stationed at the fort beginning in the early 1890s, helped police the border against indigenous rebellions, outlawed Chinese immigrants, and bandits, before being sent to wage counterinsurgency on the Philippine islands. Both Pershing and the Buffalo Soldiers would return in the 1910s to police the border against another threat: the political radicalism, violence, and migration north unleashed by the Mexican peasantry during the 1910 Revolution.

The transition from frontier to international boundary in the early twentieth century did not end the waging of war on the border. Both border-making and border-maintenance require a sort of permanent war with ever-shifting enemies, depending on political and economic exigencies, and the consistent framing of an “out-of-control,” porous border failing to keep out threats. As the Drive-By Truckers sing in their ballad, “Ramón Casiano”—dedicated to the Mexican teenager murdered in 1931 Texas by future Border Patrol agent and president of the National Rifle Association, Harlon Carter— “There's hardly been a minute since/ There ain't a massing at the border/ From Chinese troops to terrorists.”1

As the next article will detail, the War on Migrants and the War on Drugs in the borderlands both shaped and were shaped by US imperial interventions in places like 1950s Guatemala and 1960s-70s Vietnam. With deep roots in the “Indian Wars,” the brutal “pacification” of the Philippines, and “small wars” in early twentieth century Latin America, Cold War counterinsurgency logics, practices, and technology all contain traces of the border. A Los Angeles Times journalist reporting from Fort Huachuca on 15 October 1967 about Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s “Viet Wall” drew the connection: “the electronic fence planned between the two Vietnams…is being prefabricated here at this Army post originally established to chase down intransigent Indians.” Vietnam was the new Indian Country.

After failing miserably in Vietnam, that technology found its way back to the US in the early 1970s. “The effort to keep Mexico’s problems out of the United States often resembles the Vietnam War,” reported The New York Times in April 1977. By the 1980s-90s, viewing technology developed by Marine Snipers at Khe Sanh, along with Vietnam War-era helicopter landing pads doubling as border walls, policed the border. Along with a massively expanded Border Patrol armed with military-grade weaponry, they policed the border against old “menaces” that reappeared in media and political discussions during the 1970s with new, intensified fury and concern: undocumented migrants and illicit drugs. Fury and concern transformed into urgency, since the new threats represented (anticipating both Huntington and Buchanan) existential civilizational ones. As a Los Angeles Times editorial headline blared on 4 June 1978: “Illegal Aliens Win a Beachhead for the Third World.”

We can thus draw a line from the Heliograph mirror system used at Fort Huachuca to defeat Geronimo’s Apaches in the 1880s to the hi-tech aerostat balloons and drones developed and deployed at the fort—and beyond—a century later. Shadowy frontier wars rage elsewhere as the physical border continues to serve as a laboratory for social control and counterinsurgency. It even added new allies, learning from other settler colonial experiences to make a Palestine-Mexico border. Gaza, to paraphrase journalist Todd Miller, is now also in Arizona.

The border is the place where it all started. Launched from there, the boomerang still flies.


A special thanks to William Holly for telling me about the Drive-By Truckers song during our graduate seminar on North American historiography.