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Historically Speaking

Border Security

By Brig. Gen. John S. Brown
U.S. Army retired

Border security, closely associated with both immigration and traffic in illegal drugs and contraband, has become increasingly visible as a national issue. Partisans on both sides of now stalemated efforts to advance immigration reform, for example, acknowledge that well regulated borders are central to their visions. The Army has been drawn into these visions as well, provoking considerable grousing from those who believe the Army should be doing something different with its time and resources. A review of historical precedent might indicate how relatively modest current taskings are—and how futile it may be to resist them when called.

Securing international borders has been a primary mission for armies since time immemorial, and threats have at least as often been brigandage, smuggling and unwanted immigration as they have been conventional attack. In earlier years of our own republic, border security was certainly a top priority.

Through the War of 1812, our Army was frequently in conflict with the British or their American Indian allies all along our northern frontier. Shortly after confrontation with the British abated, rivalry with Mexico produced more wars and a different hostile border to secure. In addition, many Indian tribes had a quasi-independent status in theory—and, for periods, actual independence—producing further frontiers with an international aspect to them. Our nation was a century old before breakaway economic and population growth, the effective elimination of American Indian autonomy and a commonality of interests with the British eliminated international conflict on the North American continent as a serious defense issue.

Despite the lack of peer adversaries in North America, border security remained a preoccupation for the U.S. Army. Lawlessness replaced conventional hostilities as the principal threat. Unrest in Mexico spilled over into the United States, and the hot pursuit of fugitives exacerbated tensions on both sides of the Rio Grande. The Mexican Revolution, from 1910 through 1917, particularly inflamed circumstances. The United States favored Mexico’s moderate President Francisco Madero. When he was assassinated, support shifted to the constitutionalist Venustiano Carranza. American support proved sufficient to outrage Carranza’s rival Pancho Villa, who murdered a number of American citizens traveling in Mexico. Unappeased, Villa crossed the border into the United States and killed more Americans, inflicting 24 military and civilian casualties in a raid on Columbus, N.M., in March 1916.

President Woodrow Wilson and Congress committed themselves to armed intervention, and within a week, Brig. Gen. John J. Pershing crossed into Mexico with approximately 6,000 Regular Army soldiers. The campaign against Pancho Villa was no small effort. American forces penetrated 400 miles into Mexico, remained for almost a year and fought a dozen skirmishes with Villa’s elusive forces. Villa lost more than 250 killed and almost as many wounded; Pershing suffered 15 killed and 31 wounded. To bolster this effort and further secure the dangerous border, President Wilson mobilized the National Guard and the Organized Army Reserve. By July, 110,000 troops were deployed along the Mexican border; another 40,000 were standing by in camps around the country. Adjusting for population growth, this would be the equivalent of the United States committing a half-million servicemembers to border security today—three times the number we now have deployed in Iraq.

The border conflagration took some time to cool. The Mexican border patrol stood up in March 1917 after Pershing’s withdrawal; they worked out of more than 200 camps and outposts positioned proximate to high value targets. The 1st Cavalry Division actively patrolled the border as late as 1929 amid yet another spate of Mexican unrest. Eventually, as security concerns grew modest enough, border responsibilities fell to civilian agencies, but the National Guard in the border states remained available as a source of deployable manpower.

After a generation of civilian oversight of American borders, the Army once again had border security brought to its attention. Increased traffic in illicit drugs, illegal aliens and contraband required military assistance. It is unclear how many lives have been lost or ruined in the criminal mayhem associated with all this traffic, but one presumes numbers greater than the two dozen casualties of March 1916. In 1981, Congress passed the Military Cooperation with Civilian Law Enforcement Agencies Act, which authorized military support to agencies countering drug trafficking. In 1989, the Department of Defense became the lead federal agency in detecting aerial and maritime drug traffic and in integrating related command, control, communications and intelligence. Joint Task Force-6 stood up in Fort Bliss, Texas, that same year.

Missions have expanded to include day and night reconnaissance, sensor employment, communications, construction, transportation and training. Millions of dollars worth of equipment have been transferred and millions of hours committed.

Since 9/11, the specter of international terrorism has radically raised the stakes and complicated the issues, which are complex and prone to require surges and spikes of manpower and specialized equipment. Only the military has reserves of such assets available, and only the military can deploy them quickly and support them nationwide. Our national well-being depends upon reducing the mayhem caused by illegal drugs, intercepting terrorists, controlling contraband, precluding illegal immigration, facilitating legal immigration and converting eligible illegal immigrants into legal immigrants as quickly as possible.

The more important these issues become to our society, the more resources will be required to resolve them. The fail-safe when civilian resources fall short will inevitably be the Department of Defense. This should not come as a surprise. Our soldiers will be in good company, however. All but one or two generations of American soldiers have numbered border security among their highest priorities.

Recommended Reading:
Birtle, Andrew J., U.S. Army Counterinsurgency and Contingency Operations Doctrine, 1860-1941 (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, 1998)

FM 100-19, Domestic Support Operations (Washington, D.C.: Headquarters, Department of the Army, July 1993)

Eisenhower, John S. D., Intervention! The United States and the Mexican Revolution, 1913-1917 (New York, N.Y.: Norton, 1993)

BRIG. GEN. JOHN S. BROWN, USA Ret., was chief of military history at the U.S. Army Center of Military History from December 1998 to October 2005. He commanded the 2nd Battalion, 66th Armor, in Iraq and Kuwait during the Gulf War and returned to Kuwait as commander of the 2nd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, in 1995. He has a doctorate in history from Indiana University.