The Magazine

Small Wars . . .

and why they're worth fighting.

Apr 15, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 30 • By VICTOR DAVIS HANSON
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The Savage Wars of Peace
Small Wars and the Rise of American Power
by Max Boot
Basic, 384 pp., $27.50

WHEN WE THINK of our wars, what come naturally to mind are the great conflicts, the landmark battles, and the intrepid names: the Revolutionary War and World War II, Gettysburg and Iwo Jima, Grant and Sherman, Pershing and Patton. Less well known is an entire parallel universe of conflict that was just as pivotal in protecting American interests and lives. Our "small" wars involved equal courage and risks, and saw soldiers every bit as bold and competent as a Stonewall Jackson or Matthew Ridgeway.

In "The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power," the Wall Street Journal's Max Boot educates us about these conflicts. Far from being isolationist before World War II and the formation of NATO, America from the very beginning of the republic intervened in a nearly continual series of civil wars, coups, and hostage rescues. Starting with attacks on the Barbary Coast pirates between 1801 and 1805, the nation has always interfered in other nations' business far from home.

Two generations of college students have been taught that all such "adventurism" is nothing but imperialism and running-dog capitalism--and Boot does not deny that states naturally send in their forces out of national interest rather than mere idealism. But he shows that the majority of the time the Marines intervened to stop the slaughter of civilians, to retaliate against the killing of Americans and destruction of their property, and to prevent chaos from spreading beyond a country's borders. While such incursions often served the local property-owning elites and corrupt grandees, such interventionists as Thomas Jefferson, Chester A. Arthur, and Teddy Roosevelt assumed that order and stable governments were usually preferable to mass uprisings, constant revolution, and mob rule.

Boot's chronological narrative of American intercession before Vietnam is astonishing. We were in the Pacific islands, China, Korea, and Samoa almost yearly throughout the nineteenth century. The Philippine War (1899-1902) was followed by the Caribbean (1898-1914), Haiti (1915-1934), the Dominican Republic (1916-1924), Mexico (1916-1917), Russia (1918-1920), and then back again to Nicaragua (1926-1934), and China (1901-1941).

The key to success was highly trained officers such as Edward Preble, David Porter, and Admirals Perry and Dewey (what Boot calls the "naval aristocracy"). They were joined by an even rarer group of swashbucklers, which included the likes of Stephen Decatur ("If you insist in receiving powder as a tribute, you must expect to receive balls with it"), "Fighting Fred" Funston (who enlisted "as much from a love of adventure and a desire to see some fighting as from any more worthy motive"), and Smedley Butler ("My show of verve or bluff was what made the expeditions absolutely bloodless"). The rank and file were usually volunteers, occasionally unsavory and frightening in their lethality. The United States Marines once published a manual ("Small Wars Manual") drawing on decades of lore about how to do it right--regretfully forgotten during Vietnam, but recently reprinted and updated for their officers.

The combatants did not care much about domestic criticism, were willing to take casualties, and believed that rapid, bold action aimed at the center of enemy insurrection--such as capturing an Emilio Aguinaldo in the Philippines--would collapse resistance. They were usually right. And their legacy until Vietnam was that Americans overseas were usually safe. A theme throughout Boot's "Savage Wars of Peace" is that only a confident America that believes that its own values are better than those of its adversaries can muster the will to engage in these nasty and easily misunderstood fights.

Boot's well-written narrative is not only fascinating reading, but didactic as well, as we learn that most of our current orthodoxy about intervention is neither historically nor logically sound. American presidents never much worried about "undeclared wars" and rarely sought to consult the Congress about such "constabulary actions." The military was glad to oblige--and paid little heed to whether getting out was as easy as getting in. It certainly had no reluctance to fight when vastly outnumbered or to help treat the sick, feed the hungry, and jail renegades in its way. Nor did Americans seem perturbed that there would always be locals who resented their presence. And rather than getting "bogged down" or "overstretched," our generals felt that such constant fighting ensured that when we really did go to wars in Europe and the Pacific, our large conscript forces would be trained by a small nucleus of veterans of every conceivable landscape and conflict.