The Comanche and the Taliban

Published on Foreign Policy FP, by Stephen M. Walt (also on wikipedia), Oct. 13, 2010.

One of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in the past year was S. C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches. It’s a terrific, gripping story, and I learned a great deal about aspects of U.S. history of which I was only partly aware.

In brief, the book tells the story of the U.S. effort to subdue the Comanche, the most powerful Native American tribe on the Great Plains. It was a bloody and fascinating struggle, in part because the Comanche proved so hard for the far more numerous and technologically superior Anglos to defeat. If you grew up with a John Ford/John Wayne/Randolph Scott view of the Old West, this book will be something of a revelation. 

And the saga of Quanah Parker himself, a Comanche war chief whose mother was a white woman kidnapped in 1836 at the age of nine, and “rescued” many years later (when her son Quanah was twelve years old), is itself a heart-rending tale of cultural conflict and personal tragedy.

As much as I enjoyed the book, I couldn’t help but read it with the current war in Afghanistan in mind. In both cases, a numerically superior, wealthier, and more technologically advanced United States confronts a tribal adversary fighting on its home ground. And in both cases, the U.S. government faces an adversary that is cunning, ruthless, and by our standards even backward or barbaric … //

… Finally, it is a sobering fact to realize that despite its clear interest in victory and its clear advantages in numbers, wealth, and technology, it took the United States nearly four decades to finally defeat the Comanche. If you are seeking a similarly decisive victory in Central Asia, therefore, you’d better be prepared to stay there in strength for a long, long time. As readers of this blog know, I don’t think that this is worth it, given the modest stakes involved and the other tasks that we ought to be focusing on. And compared to our war effort in Central Asia, fighting the Comanche was actually pretty cheap.

Again, historical analogies ought to be used with caution, and no doubt there are other dissimilarities between these two struggles that might yield different conclusions. Whatever the implication for our current situation, Gwynne’s book is still an entertaining and beautifully written book, and well worth your time. (full text).

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