Wars for Empire: Apaches, the United States and the Southwest Borderlands, by Janne Lahti, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2017, $34.95

Offering a Western European perspective on the American West, Janne Lahti, an adjunct professor of history at the University of Helsinki, Finland, looks at the more than 40 years of on-and-off hostilities between the U.S. Army and Apaches in Arizona and New Mexico. Next to the Seminole wars in Florida, the Apache conflict was the longest and toughest campaign the Army fought against American Indians. The author examines why it dragged on so long, considering the combined population of the Apache tribes totaled no more than 10,000, of whom only 2,000 were warriors. Contrary to the impression made by so many Western movies and TV shows, the Apaches usually moved and fought on foot, splitting into small groups to stage quick attacks or raids. Even such dynamic chiefs as Mangas Coloradas and Cochise never succeeded in collecting more than 200 braves around them. When they needed supplies, the Apaches often traded at Mexican or American posts—depending on which side they were warring with at the time—though such visits exposed them and their families to attack either by the Mexican constabulary police or U.S. Army. Much of the time any given Apache war band was embattled from both sides in what amounted to a two-front war.

Why then did the Americans find it so difficult to subdue the Apaches? Furthermore, why did the U.S, government find it difficult to assert its authority over the arid region the tribes called home? For one, few Americans had settled there; in the 1870s Arizona Territory had only 10,000 U.S. citizens, of whom 4,000 were soldiers. From a military standpoint, the author concludes, the European style of warfare proved ineffective against Apache tactics. Regardless, in an Army that until 1880 didn’t even have a standardized training program, many of its soldiers were ill prepared.

On the political side, Lahti posits, the United States’ expansion into the Southwest was already taking an imperialistic bent before the Civil War began. The author points to Confederate Lt. Col. John Baylor’s barbarous order for the genocide of all the Apaches, which led to his replacement by order of President Jefferson Davis. He also notes Brig. Gen. Nelson Miles’ decision to have the surrendered Geronimo and his war band transported to Florida in defiance of the War Department’s order to have them court-martialed and hanged.

In the florid language of 19th-century romanticism, one American soldier wrote of his first impression of Apaches, “They were handsome as ancient Greeks.” That image was soon forgotten in the atmosphere of terror accompanying their raids. Readers of this excellent book, however, may yet rediscover at least some of the reasoning behind that first impression. 

—Thomas Zacharis