Monday 13 May 2013

Guerilla Tactics of Apache Resistance

Battles between Europeans and Native Americans in North America started with the first landfall and continued until the late 19th Century. Typically, the wars were limited in duration as the mass of European immigrants expanded into and pacified new areas.  Tribes decimated by war and disease had few alternatives.  In most parts of what is now the United States, peace followed settlement by not too many years.

The deserts of the West were another story. Vast distances and non-arable land meant that for many years more people transited the land than settled in it. What the land lacked in agricultural potential, it made up for with mineral wealth. That is what brought first the Spanish, then the Mexicans, and finally the Americans to the land of the Apache. Their range extended from Arizona to West Texas and from Southern Colorado to Northern Mexico.
 An Apache warrior was minimalist and efficient.  Reflecting the harshness of their land, the Apaches had none of the splendid head dresses, painted tepees, or beaded parfletches of the Plains Tribes. Additionally, there was no cult of the horse; Apache saw horses as tools first and food when necessary. Even on foot, an Apache warrior could travel 70 miles per day in the harsh terrain they called home.  Given their numbers, they were arguably the most effective guerrilla warriors in history. At the time of the Geronimo campaign, one-quarter of the U.S. Army (5000 men) were deployed looking for 50 Apache warriors.

One anecdote from 1876 is informative. In 1876 the Chiricahua reservation was to be closed and the tribe was divided on whether they should peacefully go to a new reservation, or leave in armed rebellion. Lacking agreement, it escalated to an armed battle and the “peace faction” literally shot down the more militant tribesmen. All members of the tribe had to be tough and capable of hard travel in austere conditions. Men were warriors and Apache boys were trained from an early age to fight and apprenticed in war as adolescents. Apache society was a meritocracy. Leaders were successful guerrilla fighters who exhibited and inspired toughness and patience. For that reason, many renowned Apache chiefs were in their 50s or older. Success was valued, but risk taking was not. A raid is simply a surprise attack against an immobile target. The attacker chooses the time, and the location is fixed. Apache raiding was largely to procure livestock and other booty. This was not warfare for the Apache. Raiding was to gain property and warfare was to take life. Studying their engagements show this clearly. Northern Mexico suffered more from Apache raiding than did the Americans. Inevitably, on both sides of the border, Apache raids caused pursuit and attempts at reprisal. In response, the Apaches would seek to evade or ambush their pursuers.In an ambush, the attacker chooses the location, and the time is whenever the target enters the kill zone.

The planned ambush required real-time intelligence to establish patterns and find “exploitable weaknesses.” Many of these attacks were to capture livestock. Other categories of ambushes are:  the killing ambush, seeking retribution against the enemy; ambush by decoy, using false trails/simulating panic/etc.; and ad hoc ambushes. These quick ambushes relied on Apache trade-craft to hide where there seemed to be no concealment and spring a deadly trap at close range. Often these would be set before or after a perceived danger area when the enemy was less alert. Watt makes the case that the Apaches understood psychological operations and used it to their advantage. In one instance an Apache war party was particularly brutal. This incensed responding miners and the Apaches goaded them on with distant gunfire. Thinking another attack was taking place; the miners ran pell-mell into an ambush and were killed.

Like all great guerrilla warriors Apaches avoided direct attacks and were famously risk adverse. Disparity of numbers and technology led to the inevitable failure of the Apache resistance, but students of guerrilla war can learn much from their efforts.

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