Grinding the Great Plains in the Teeth of Tank Treads, Research Time, 16/06/2017

The American conquest of North America was more than just a war. The United States is the oldest democracy still functioning. Many times, it’s merely creaked along.

Civil wars, assassinations, uprisings of political violence. Don’t forget the festering wounds of the country’s birth defects – the genocide of indigenous peoples, slavery, then Klan terrorism, Jim Crow, then the War on Drugs.

As the United States government spread out from the original Thirteen Colonies to conquer French, Spanish, and Indigenous territory all the way to the Pacific Coast, the armies and militias carried the name of the USA. But the government came after the conquest.

A mass grave from the killing of hundreds of Lakota warriors and
civilians at Wounded Knee in what is now South Dakota.
Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist #8, describes how the conquest of the rest of the American continent would require war machines. It would not be accomplished through the authoritative violence of the state.

They could conquer the American west only through the high-speed brute force of the war machines – nomadic forces spreading at their own will across the continent’s territory. Only the British and Iroquois were able to hold them off. Other than that, these militias and armies flashed across the continent in wave after wave.

The violence that settled the American West was a force that needed no sanction but its own acts. Nothing enfolds or controls this violence – it’s a pure desire that goes where it will, destroying all that it encounters.

This is the violence of Judge Holden. But where Cormac McCarthy read the conquest as a religious experience – the reign of satan in a world that’s become a continent-wide forest fire – an attentive ontologist sees only the fire itself.

There was no real agency directing the expansion. Yes, there were laws and declarations from Washington, territorial and city governments appeared. But the genocidal violence was autonomous. Violence was the agent, and people were the expression of violence.

We’re accustomed to thinking of forces and processes the other way around. But the war machine of American conquest is a force that becomes the space itself. Its violence moves as space emptying itself of all existing structures of humanity.

Tribes, existing empires, peoples, and people all pushed farther and farther until the sheer weight of intensifying violence grinds all these subjects into particles indistinguishable from the plains.

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari called the war machine the creation of a nomad space. It’s an effective name, but it does an injustice to nomadic peoples themselves, who’ve too often been crushed by such machines. Just ask a Bedouin.

American people too often depict their old west with too much virtue.
No, what I’m riffing on here is the “smooth space that gnaws, and tends to grow, in all directions . . . they themselves make them grow . . . make the desert no less than they are made by it . . . The variability, the polyvocality of directions, is an essential feature of smooth spaces of the rhizome type, and it alters their cartography.” These are words from A Thousand Plateaus.

The war machine is space and territory itself become violence. A militia reconstitutes land itself as a bloodbath, soaking the soil until the beaches and cliffs of the Pacific coast. The only limit to expansion was the end of land itself. The hungry consumption of violence grows the territory that it razes and fragments into particles.

This was the American expansion west from the Thirteen Colonies, the story of how the United States got its continent-sized shape.
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Alexander Hamilton wrote about the danger that the coming conquest of the American west posed the people of the United States. If, in 1789, the citizens of the Thirteen Colonies decided to split the union into multiple states and confederacies, Hamilton said it would tear the American people apart.

Yeah, like I said, there’d be the internecine wars over territory as the different North American countries expanded west. But it wouldn’t be the same as the conflicts among the different South American states. They mostly had border wars, wars over small territorial possessions, wars of independence, or civil wars.

No, the United States’ expansion from 1810 to the start of its civil war was not the imposition of order. It was the wholesale cleansing of a continent’s territory through the annihilation of all societies, organizations, and cultures but that which extended from the Thirteen Colonies.

The state came later, with its sheen of law. The myth was that the USA’s expansion brought the law to a lawless land. The land was only lawless because they cleared away all the old laws first.

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