The American Maginot Line, Part 2

Exploring the history of Fort Huachuca, the “Guardian of the Frontier.”

This column is free to everyone. To receive more in depth analysis of US foreign policy and international affairs, sign up for Foreign Exchanges’ email list today! Better yet, please consider subscribing to support the newsletter and help it continue to grow:

(Part one of this two-part series can be found here.)

In a different time and place, V.I. Lenin wrote a caution useful for our understanding of the US-Mexico border as a primary site for the formation of American empire: “there is no more erroneous nor harmful idea than the separation of foreign and internal policy.” Indeed, as I argued in the first part of this essay, the US-Mexico borderlands represent the space—physical, political, ideological—where the foreign and the internal historically collapse into one, shaping the development and contours of US empire in its various iterations. Tracing the history of Arizona’s Fort Huachuca, from its origins as a settler colonial outpost waging war against the Apaches to its current role as the world’s largest drone training base, reveals how and why those imperial iterations came to be.

This history also suggests that the southern US border is the focus of its own “forever war,” fundamentally dependent on conflict against an array of “enemies” for its creation, maintenance and expansion. Since the 1870s, that list of enemies has included rebellious indigenous polities, migrants, refugees, racialized communities living and working in the borderlands, illicit drugs, and even popular movements seeking radical change throughout Cold War Latin America. Past imperial efforts to contain, repel, or destroy those enemies decisively shaped our current “forever war,” the War on Terror.

“Fighting the Wind”

On paper, the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe that ended the US-Mexico War largely created (when paired with the the 1853 Gadsden Purchase) the recognizable border between the two countries. In reality, though, the border—along with vast swaths of the Apachería in Arizona and New Mexico—remained under the control of the Chiricahua Apaches for decades after 1848. Having launched devastating raids deep into Mexico before the war, they continued their raiding activity after 1848, including raids and attacks on Anglo settlers who had moved into indigenous lands. After a decade of skirmishes and minor conflicts, the US military undertook the “Apache Wars,” also known as “America’s longest war,” lasting from the early 1860s through the late 1880s. As an oft-neglected theater of the US Civil War, this “three-cornered war” pitted competing Anglo settler colonial visions for what became the US West against Apache efforts to defend their autonomy and self-determination.

First built in 1877, Fort Huachuca represented one part of the Army’s counterinsurgent strategy against the Apaches: the building of an estimated 50 forts and camps in Arizona—along with reservations—that allowed for the rapid deployment of cavalry to locate and fight Apache warriors. This was a classic guerrilla war. “Fighting the Apache,” wrote the fort’s biographer, “was like fighting the wind.” In the final battles against Geronimo in 1885-1886, the fort served as the main headquarters for the last commander of the campaign, General Nelson Miles.

With extensive experience waging war against indigenous communities in Texas and the Great Plains, Miles bought a technological innovation into the Geronimo campaign (borrowed from British colonial efforts in Africa and India): the use of heliographs (mirrors) to signal messages across long distances between dispersed forts located on mountain tops that could locate and communicate the location of Apaches moving in the valleys below. These were the first “drones,” one of the first counterinsurgent technologies that attempted to resolve the issue that still beguiles “border enforcers” today: how to render the borderlands and border crossers as legible—or, in other words, how to translate surveillance into social control.

In addition to technologies, the fort came to house many individuals who went on to play key roles as military “architects” of US empire. They continued fighting, as General Miles expressed after putting down the 1894 Pullman Strike with army troops, the “war of civilization” against an array of rebellious colonial subjects racialized as biologically inferior and incapable of self-governance. Miles fought in Cuba during the 1898 Spanish-American War and led the invasion of Puerto Rico. A Medal of Honor recipient for his actions in the war against Geronimo, General Leonard Wood later served as colonial governor for both Cuba and the Philippine Islands, amassing a record that included the killing of thousands of Moros and culminated with the 1906 Bud Dajo massacre.

Like Miles, John J. Pershing participated in the final brutal colonial war against the Lakota in 1890, after fighting the Apaches. Following his stints in Cuba and in the Philippines (including as colonial governor of Moro Province), Pershing the “prairie imperialist” would help physically make the US-Mexico border in response to the Mexican Revolution.

“Villa, Dead or Alive!”

Since its inception, Fort Huachuca had another mission, one that also deployed a counterinsurgent sensibility underscored by a civilization-barbarism framework: securing the US-Mexico Border from “foreign threats.” In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as the US federal government began to build and expand its restrictive immigration regime, those threats included Chinese migrants, “individuals with contagious diseases” or “likely to become public charges,” women accused of “immoral acts,” and supporters of radical political ideologies. When a workers strike broke out just south of the border at an American-owned mine in Cananea, Sonora in 1906, the fort sent soldiers to the border to prevent spill-over violence and intervene if American lives were threatened.

Such interventions became the model for US involvement in the first great social revolution of the twentieth century, the Mexican Revolution of1910-11. If cattle disease had prompted the building of the first barbed wire border fences in 1909 California, the threat of revolutionary “Barbarous Mexico”—and an increasingly eugenics-minded US political elite fearful of racial miscegenation—only encouraged their expansion.

By the time he arrived in El Paso in 1914 to lead a border patrol that comprised the largest American military contingent formed since the Civil War, Pershing had already honed his colonial administrative experience. In the Texas border city, the general employed “the sanitary expertise of the army” forged previously in Panama, Cuba, and the Philippines to wage medicalized counterinsurgency against segregated, working-class Mexican neighborhoods imagined as disease-ridden and against Mexican migrants crossing the border for work, while “securing” the border against revolutionary violence. This dual struggle against contagion—biological and ideological—transformed into outright foreign invasion in early March 1916, after Pancho Villa invaded the US and attacked the small town of Columbus, New Mexico. Charged with leading the “Punitive Expedition” into Mexico to capture the Mexican revolutionary leader, Pershing found himself chasing yet another Geronimo, waging colonial guerrilla war amid a period that witnessed an estimated 34 US military interventions in Latin America during the first third of the twentieth century.

Fort Huachuca served as a staging point for state militias dispatched to the US-Mexico border. The fort also provided soldiers and scouts forged in the earlier colonial wars against the Apaches and in Cuba and the Philippines—namely, the famous “Buffalo Soldiers” from the 10th US Cavalry that Pershing had earlier helped lead in Arizona and Cuba, along with a number of Apache scouts. The hapless, nearly year-long search for Villa, involving airplanes and even a fleet of Dodge Touring cars led by a young George Patton, became a quagmire for Pershing and his troops. After agitating both local campesino communities and the president of Mexico, the defeated Americans departed. Watching them leave from a safe location, Villa allegedly remarked, “they came like eagles and they left like wet hens.”

The troops may have left Mexico but many remained at the border (up to 60,000 in 1919), consolidating a process of border militarization that continues to this day. Making the border physically manifest turned the geographical boundary into a racial one, one part of the global “color line” that W.E.B. Du Bois identified as the problem of the twentieth century. This color line border transformed Mexican migrants into a race threatening to the US “white” body politic but whose labor was nonetheless needed by large-scale agro-businesses throughout the Southwest. The racial warmaking against migrants at the southern border had begun.

“A War About A Border”

Border wars dominated both the family history and personal military experience of General Leonard Chapman. Tracing his military settler ancestors back to 1776—including “one lost at the Alamo”—he fondly remembered the “old Core” Marine officers that violated sovereign borders in Latin America for the sake of US capital in the three decades after 1898. It was in late 1960s Vietnam where Chapman personally directed “a war about a border” as head of the US Marine Corps. After failing to secure the South Vietnam-North Vietnam border, Chapman became commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in 1972, tasked with securing another border increasingly described by mainstream media as out of control.

The counterinsurgent fight against guerrilla supply trails in Southeast Asia actually began at the US-Mexico border, and Fort Huachuca played a key role in its development. In 1954, the US Army established the fort as its main Electronic Proving Ground (USAEPG) to develop and test the latest avionics and surveillance technology. A decade later, the Army created the Combat Surveillance and Target Acquisition Training Command (USACSATATC) at the fort to provide training in the use of radar, sensors, drones, and pilotless aircraft.

By 1967, with the US now fully committed to colonial war in Vietnam, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara tasked this unit at Huachuca with creating his infamous border “electronic fence,” designed to prevent the infiltration of North Vietnamese units and supplies into South Vietnam. Employing the latest in sensor and radar technology—supported by forts, barbed wire and radar planes called Mohawks—McNamara’s wall imagined the Vietnamese border as a readable “information system,” as Iván Chaar-López writes, made legible by collected surveillance data. Legibility, in theory, would translate into commanding and controlling territory. Fort Huachuca—“this army post originally established to chase down intransigent Indians”—was now using more sophisticated heliographs to chase down other intransigent Indians in a different “Indian Country.”

McNamara’s fence ultimately failed. Yet despite its failure in Vietnam, the electronic fence and its illusions of control returned to the US-Mexico borderlands in the early 1970s, amid a social and political context in which politicians and mainstream media characterized the increasing number of mostly undocumented Mexican migrants—a consequence of US immigration policies like the 1965 Hart-Celler Act—as “illegal aliens” perpetrating “a silent invasion” through a southern border described as a “combat zone.” This new war against “illegals” converged with that other war declared by Richard Nixon in the late 1960s. Nixon, according to the The Globe and Mail headline from 9 September 1969, declared “electronic war on drug-smuggling from Mexico.”

General Chapman did much to both frame the debate about undocumented migration and wage war against migrants. While head of the INS from 1972-1975, the general preached the dangers of undocumented migration to anyone who would listen, from the pliant press to congressional committees. “I acquainted the American people with a problem they didn’t know they had,” he told a Marine Corps historian in 1979.

And Chapman succeeded. By the late 1970s and into the 1980s, the conflation of undocumented migration with drug smuggling as existential national security crises more dangerous than even the Soviet Union (according to ex-CIA chief William Colby) led to the militarized expansion of McNamara’s electronic fence at the US-Mexico border. In this war against migrants, against displaced poor people, Fort Huachuca would once again provide the logics, training, and technology.

The Boomerang Returns Home…

Project X did not begin at Fort Huachuca, but it did find a home at the old fort in the early 1970s when the Army relocated its Intelligence Center and School. For more than a decade, Project X trained “friendly foreign nationals” in the violent dark arts of counterinsurgency: torture, sabotage, the “elimination” of insurgents, the infiltration of political dissident groups, and other brutal tactics wielded against leftist or reformist movements in the Global South—armed or not. A summary of training manuals detailed the use of truth serum during “interrogation,” along with the “prioritization of adversary personalities for abduction, exile, physical beatings and executions.” With training that included material from the genocidal Phoenix Program in Vietnam, Project X experienced wide dissemination from the Arizona fort to US-allied militaries and death squads trained in a broad constellation of American military bases—including Huachuca and the infamous School of the Americas/Assassins.

Fort Huachuca exported terror—“the methods of Heinrich Himmler’s extermination squads” as JFK and LBJ State Department veteran Charles Maechling Jr. wrote in 1982. Central America, in particular, suffered the consequences. The terror training and instruction provided by Project X manuals contributed to creation of veritable killing fields in 1980s El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, where US-backed oligarchic regimes unleashed their US-trained militaries and death squads against revolutionary movements and nonviolent political opponents. The Contra death squads that destabilized Sandinista Nicaragua received similar training at “secret military sites” in Florida. For having the temerity to challenge dictators, oligarchies, genocidal militaries, and horrifically unequal social orders, the everyday people of Central America suffered state-sponsored, US-enabled terrorism.

In exporting terror, Fort Huachuca helped spark the mass displacement of Central American refugees who fled the carnage during the 1980s and early 1990s. When those refugees finally made it to the US-Mexico border they encountered a highly militarized space replete with Border Patrol agents wielding military-grade weaponry, along with the descendants of McNamara’s Vietnam fence: advanced sensors, drones, aerostat balloons, surveillance aircraft, and radar technologies developed at Huachuca. Additionally, the fort—as during the Mexican Revolution—actively participated in patrolling the border, enabled by legal changes pushed through as part of Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs. Truly the “harvest of empire,” to borrow from journalist Juan González, these refugees may have encountered another Vietnam ghost by the 1990s: 60 miles of new border fencing, erected by the Clinton administration and made out of helicopter landing pads used previously in Vietnam.

The controversy over Project X emerged publicly in the last years of the George H. W. Bush administration. In 1992, Department of Defense personnel destroyed documents and computer disks “because they were obsolete,” after asking Latin American governments to provide copies of the terror training manuals. Then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, the “dark side” overlord himself, allegedly oversaw the destruction “except for a file copy.”

…and is Launched Again

After 9/11, the so-called War on Terror globalized the torture and disappearance tactics of Project X, and of the US-Mexico border war against migrants. Fort Huachuca became the world’s largest drone training base, deploying the unmanned aerial aircraft developed and tested at the southern border abroad to participate in the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. The Fort also received returning War on Terror “violence workers” and technology. Captain Carolyn Wood, the officer in charge of detainee torture units at Bagram Air Base and Abu Ghraib from 2002-2003, was reassigned to Fort Huachuca in 2005 to serve as an interrogation instructor. The honestly named VADER (Vehicle and Dismount Exploitation Radar) system—an idea that originated in the same government agency that developed and funded McNamara’s Vietnam fence back in the 1960s—operated in Afghanistan before coming back to the US-Mexico borderlands to support the permanent border counterinsurgency against displaced poor people in 2013. As recently as 2020, the fort has “been training for the Iranian conflict.”

Fort Huachuca, where the “past and future mingle” as a New York Times journalist wrote in 1972, has never stopped being an old frontier outpost involved in perpetual war-making. Imperial frontiers have shifted, racialized lines between “civilization” and “barbarism” drawn and redrawn, new enemies identified, but the old counterinsurgent fort remains in southeastern Arizona, some 15 miles north of the Mexican border—a key node in the circuitry of the USian “empire of borders” with its global Maginot Line of seven hundred plus bases sprinkled around the world.

This global Maginot Line represents a catch-all violent solution for the massive population displacement generated by US empire abroad and at home, through military interventions, its support of death squad regimes, and its support for global capitalism. As Mexican norteño band Los Tigres del Norte sing, “they have waged war on us by patrolling the borders.”