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America’s Once and Future Concentration Camp

Postcards from a homeland outpost where Native Americans, Japanese-Americans, and now lone migrant children have been enemies of the state.

J Pat Carter/Getty Images

The sidearm-clad Army military police officer peered through the back window of my car, and Bella the Dog, my 110-pound Anatolian-Shepherd–Saint-Bernard hybrid, peered back at him from the rear seat. Bella had driven with me on this trip from Arkansas to Texas; on our way home, we were making a stop here, at Fort Sill in Oklahoma—the home of Army artillery—and Bella was all toothy smiles and slobber. “Cute dog,” another gate guard, this one a civilian, said with a smile, before waving me on. Later, more than 200 people would gather at this gate to protest the Trump administration’s decision last month to house up to 1,400 unaccompanied migrant children on the base.

At that moment, the vehicle checkpoint was a comfortable place for me: a reminder of a life spent driving on and off bases, first as an Air Force brat, then as a soldier in the Army’s infantry. I was mindful of my good fortune driving onto the post; unlike many who’d passed through these gates before me—and unlike the children who might soon follow—my dog and I could leave the post whenever I wanted.

I set off toward my destination, a cemetery on the north side of the base, a final resting place that never seemed very restful when I stopped in. To get there, I first drove toward the golf course, past the stone barracks of the “old post” and the parade ground, where there sits a rough boulder with a smooth, square-cut inscription that could not have been clearer on the base’s origins: “TO CONTROL TRIBES.”

Fort Sill is now where all United States soldiers and Marines in the artillery community, known since the time of Napoleon as “the King of Battle,” come to learn or hone their craft—that is, how to precisely fire massive cannons so their shells kill a far-off enemy that they can’t see. They learn how the King of Battle kills targets—people—based on guidance from forward observers. Approaching the cemetery, there is the distant, occasional percussion of small arms gunfire from the training ranges, and—depending on the day—an arrhythmic heartbeat of artillery thumps, the type that you can feel in your chest and sinuses as a small and thundery pressure differential.

On the map, the Beef Creek Apache Prisoner-of-War Cemetery—one of three Apache POW interment sites on the post—is tucked in between a helicopter landing zone and a rock dump, along a mosquito-filled waterway that flows down from the north Arbuckle Range, what the Army calls a “dudded artillery impact area”—an off-limits practice range where unexploded shells are presumed to remain stuck in the ground. On the road, the cemetery lies just past a sign that reads “Landfill & Rubble Pit, 1.5 miles.”

There have been many ways to get stuck at Fort Sill over the years, as the cemeteries attest. Before the announcement that lone undocumented children would be stuck here, there were the newly inducted soldiers, heads shaved for basic training, who all left eventually for far-flung postings and deployments. Before that, there were 707 Japanese-American civilians held prisoners on the post by the U.S. during World War II; one, a Hawaiian father of twelve named Kanesaburo Oshima, was shot dead in spring 1942 attempting to scale the camp’s barbed wire while crying, “I want to go home, I want to go home.”

In the throng of protesters assembling outside the Fort Sill gates after I arrived was Satsuki Ina, who was born in captivity in a similar California camp where her family had been held during the war; now 75, Ina told the assembled reporters why the protest was so important to her. “We are here,” she said, “to say: ‘Stop repeating history.’”

As I drove through the post, my thoughts drifted to more recent history, my travels earlier that week. I’d been driving north on U.S. Route 67 toward Marfa, Texas, with my fiancée, when we had to stop at a checkpoint nearly identical to the one on Fort Sill; instead of soldiers, though, this one was manned by the U.S. Border Patrol. We were well inside the United States and had never ventured beyond its borders, but there wasn’t much civilization on this route in the 63 miles between Marfa and Mexico’s Chihuahua province, hence the scrutiny.

In anticipation of this, I’d worn a blue polo shirt with a Combat Infantryman Badge embroidered on the chest, over my heart; “Afghanistan” was sewn below it in yellow san-serif font, in case anyone missed the badge’s significance. I showed the border guard my driver’s license and he asked where we were going; Back to Marfa, I said. Where were we coming from? Cibolo Creek Ranch. He waved us through. I was glad.

In Marfa, the feds had looked like they were on a near war-footing. Set against the carefully cultivated minimalist-artist-meets-methed-up-cowboy vibe of the West Texas town, it was hard for agents to blend in. Walking Bella at night, I could see an array of low-visibility SUVs and pickup trucks, including one with an orb-like surveillance camera mounted on a telescoping pole, parked around Presidio County’s stunning Second Empire–style courthouse. There were subdued prisoner-transport vans operated by G4S security, and then the cornucopia of marked law enforcement Border Patrol and Sheriff’s Department vehicles. A military-style humvee was stashed almost out of sight behind a sheriff’s station; twice that week, I saw trainloads of military equipment passing through on the rail line that bisects the town.

We had ridden out northwest from Marfa proper to see “Prada Marfa,” a fake Prada store installed in the desert as a piece of federally funded abstract performance art on the south side of Highway 90, which runs parallel to the U.S.–Mexico border. On the way, we saw a giant gray blimp in the air, tethered to a concrete pad off the highway. Once ubiquitous around U.S. bases in Afghanistan and Iraq to protect against insurgent attacks, these blimps were part of the Tethered Aerostat Radar System; their prime directive in the U.S., according to the Air Force, is “to provide low-level radar surveillance data in support of federal agencies involved in the nation’s drug interdiction program.” Similarly tethered drug-spotting blimps may find you at other spots along the border: in Arizona, by Yuma or Fort Huachuca; by Deming, in New Mexico; in Marfa and at two other sites in Texas. One flies in Puerto Rico, and yet another is tethered at Cudjoe Key in South Florida. For a time, the Florida blimp also moonlit as a transmitter, rising and falling on a schedule so American-produced Radio y Televisión Martí could delight audiences in nearby Cuba with broadcast glimpses of the contraband American dream.

The blimp on Route 90 was a permanent fixture of the Texas landscape, but there was a reason for the heavy presence of border cops down in Marfa. Earlier in June, more than 100 Central American immigrants arrived by bus at the border checkpoint in Presidio, Texas; the overwhelmed officers there called for help from nearby stations, including Marfa, temporarily leaving their own border station unmanned to process the huge influx of asylum seekers. Some were sent to the hospital and others to detention centers. The matter was further complicated by the fact that many of the migrants spoke an indigenous language other than Spanish or English. 

Minors from groups like that could very well wind up at the planned detention center on Fort Sill. They wouldn’t be the first children held prisoner there.

Fort Sill “remains the only active Army installation of all the forts on the South Plains built during the Indian Wars,” according to the official base history online. “The post has seen its share of the Indian Wars and every war that has followed.”

Geronimo is buried here, along with more than 300 other Apache prisoners who died in captivity. While researching a book about the trials of Bowe Bergdahl, who walked off from his post in Afghanistan a decade ago, I’d developed an obsession with the namesake of Bergdahl’s unit—“Task Force 1 Geronimo.” I was struck by the troubling parallels between the Army’s nineteenth-century pursuit of the Apache peoples and its twenty-first-century prosecution of the “War on Terrorism,” in which I’d helped do the hunting. (The Army itself recognized some of these parallels early on in a 2004 white paper, “In Search of an Elusive Enemy: The Victorio Campaign.” It focused on “efforts in tracking down Victorio, the infamous Apache chief who raided large tracts of New Mexico and Texas at will,” a U.S. infantry lieutenant colonel wrote in the foreword, but “it could just as easily have featured the stories of Osceola, Aguinaldo, Pancho Villa, or Osama bin Laden.”)

Geronimo’s grave on Fort Sill, flanked by the graves of his wife and youngest child, who was born, lived, and died in captivity on the Army base.
J Pat Carter/Getty Images

After stealing the land of the Chiricahua Apache, the U.S. government—using Indian agents and Army guns—pursued Geronimo and his band of holdouts for 25 years. Geronimo was said to possess an uncanny ability to foresee the American soldiers’ plans, ceaselessly raiding the Army and its scouts around the deserts and hills of New Mexico and Arizona, frustrating American soldiers with his ability to elude them on his home terrain. When the federals got too close, Geronimo could melt across the border into Mexico. There were no tethered radar blimps then.

The U.S. finally got Geronimo to surrender in 1886 in the old-fashioned way: They held his family hostage. Geronimo, his fighters, and their families were held in military stockades in Florida and Alabama before arriving at their final prison at Fort Sill. There they remained, except for a few occasions when they were put on display by politicians. In 1905, Theodore Roosevelt paraded Geronimo through the streets of Washington for his presidential inauguration. At Fort Sill, Geronimo was the rare case of a leader actually retiring from a brilliant career to spend more time with his family. He spent much of that time doting on his last child, Eva—who, like Satsuki Ina in California over a half-century later, was born in captivity in 1889.

Eva, like the children who will soon arrive at Fort Sill, was further separated from her family in captivity, one of many Native children forced to attend boarding schools that would work to strip away their identities and familial bonds. Pacify and imprison the elders; separate, indoctrinate, and reeducate the youngsters; protect the supply routes at all costs: This was the order of the day.

The sign at the front of the Beef Creek cemetery notes the site is full of women and men from various bands of captive Apache—Warm Springs, Chiricahua, and Nedni among them—but does not mention that, in his old age, Geronimo had wanted to return to his home in the southwestern deserts to die. It was not to be: He remains here at Fort Sill, his grave a steeply angled pyramid as tall as a man, made of six-inch, round river stones set in mortar. He is flanked by a wife who preceded him in death, and by Eva, who died of tuberculosis when she was barely in her twenties, two years after her father passed on. The rest of the prisoners’ graves are marked with the simple white headstones normally reserved for dead service members in national cemeteries.

At Fort Sill, it seems impossible that anyone in the cemetery can ever know peace. The artillery barrage has been going on for years. There are no signs of stopping. It is the American way to prepare for peace by training for war. The same pops and crumps and booms that haunt these ghosts are now supposed to be a soundtrack in the ears of 1,400 captive migrant children who crossed the desert in search of a new life and found … this. 

As I left the cemetery and drove off, I couldn’t help but think of Fort Sill as one of the Army’s oldest active “forward operating bases,” no different from Forward Operating Bases Sharana or Ghazni, or any of the other frontier posts that I’d operated out of in Afghanistan. I thought of myself in Afghanistan and recalled the war-weary children I could shoo away from my position only by racking the action of a shotgun.

Then my mind returned to the migrant kids bound for Fort Sill; I couldn’t help but wonder what those children might learn about the United States, what sort of education they would get at the base that killed Geronimo and Kanesaburo Oshima. It occurred to me that what I felt guiltiest about, what I’d taught those Afghan kids—to fear America—might be the right lesson.