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Is There a Case for Little Wars?

The first quarter of the nineteenth century was a time of high adventure for the sailors and soldiers of Europe and America. The officers were fighting leaders, the men tough, inured to hardship, and in need of a job. It took at least three months—usually more—for even the simplest orders to arrive from home. The British Royal Navy was preeminent in this time of naval bravado, with the United States an avid junior partner rapidly catching up. The rest of the world was still, for the most part, unprepared to resist the determination, fighting spirit, and technological superiority of these supremely self-confident white men.

In its high-spirited early chapters, Max Boot’s The Savage Wars of Peace recalls Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin saga. Both describe, for example, the 1812 voyage of the thirty-two-gun US frigate Essex, one of the central episodes in O’Brian’s The Far Side of the World.1 Under the command of the relentless Captain David Porter, the Essex rounded Cape Horn and captured so many British whalers as nearly to wipe out British whaling in the Pacific. This heroic period did not last. Sail gave way to steam, wooden ships to iron or steel. Communications steadily improved, and the independence and buccaneering initiative of commanders steadily diminished. America’s position in the world also changed, and its policies and the reasons for them became more complex. Furthermore, the opposition in the “small wars” fought in remote parts of the world began to acquire Western weapons and Western ideas of liberty and independence, and generally became much more difficult to deal with.


Max Boot’s book begins in 1804 with the Barbary Wars in the Mediterra-nean, where the rulers of Morocco and three states that were nominally loyal to the Ottoman regime in Constanti-nople—Algiers, Tripoli, and Tunis—had taken to financing their governments by seizing European and American ships and selling their crews and cargo to the highest bidder—a popular operatic theme from Mozart to Rossini. More than a hundred Americans had become captives of the Dey of Algiers when in 1794 the US Congress, by the narrowest of margins, voted to deal with this situation by ordering the construction of six new ships for the United States Navy. Boot, an editor of The Wall Street Journal, recounts the dramatic series of exploits, failures, and successes that followed, ending in 1815 when the American naval commander Stephen Decatur secured from the rulers of Algiers and Tripoli large sums in compensation and the release of all American captives. (The Barbary Wars provided the first occasion on which the United States government attempted to overthrow a foreign government, the regime of Yusuf Karamanli in Tripoli; it did not succeed.) Thirty-five American sailors and marines were killed in the Barbary Wars, and sixty-four wounded. The narrative part of Max Boot’s book ends, a century and a half later, with Vietnam, where 58,000 Americans and 1.2 million Vietnamese were killed.

In between these extremes, the scale and the objectives of America’s many small wars varied widely, although the relatively small numbers of sailors and marines involved consistently performed with skill and bravery. The initiative, ingenuity, and courage of a series of extraordinary leaders allowed small groups of men to overcome far more numerous enemies and enormous physical obstacles. In 1804 Lieutenant Decatur, dressed in Maltese costume and commanding a captured ketch, entered the harbor of Tripoli; under the guns of the main fort, he boarded the captured US frigate Philadelphia, fought off its Tripolitanian crew, and set it on fire. Lord Nelson called this “the most bold and daring act of the age.” Later on, Smedley Butler of the Marines, a Quaker from Philadelphia, set the standard of leadership, daring, and initiative in virtually all the small wars from the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900 through the Philippines, Nicaragua, Mexico, and Haiti, as well as in World War I, when he became known as “General Duckboard” for his skill in getting lots of this essential wooden flooring for his troops. He went back to China in 1927. In retirement at last, Butler became anti-imperialist and a pacifist. He had spent most of his time as a marine, he wrote in 1935, “being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers.”

Another marine, “Fighting Fred” Funston, among other exploits in a varied and dashing career, forced Mexicans to construct sanitary facilities at gunpoint. “Chesty” Puller, yet another legendary leatherneck, commanded the awe-inspiring Company M of the Nicaraguan Guardia Nacional during the fight against Sandino, and was known as “El Tigre.”

From the adventurous beginnings in the Barbary Wars, Boot describes a progressive loss of innocence in subsequent US interventions throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Successive administrations were determined to avoid the stigma of European colonialism and the crass acquisition of foreign territory by force, but this wasn’t always easy. After the defeat of Spain in Cuba and then in the Philippines in 1898, the subsequent American campaign against Filipino resisters aroused the opposition of many distinguished Americans, including Grover Cleveland, Samuel Gompers, William James, Jane Addams, and Mark Twain. Andrew Carnegie offered to buy the islands for twenty million dollars in order to set them free. President McKinley, after much prayerful thought, called US control “benevolent assimilation.” The costs were high. In pacifying the Philippines, Boot writes, “by their own count US forces killed 16,000 Filipinos in battle. As many as 200,000 civilians also died, victims of disease and famine and the cruelties of both sides.” Inevitably, quelling native insurgencies overseas began more and more to resemble European colonialism.

In the Caribbean, many motives, economic, strategic, commercial, and nationalistic, came together in the imposition of a Pax Americana. In order to secure the site for the Panama Canal, rebels against the government of Colombia were encouraged to establish the new Republic of Panama, which the US recognized in 1903. Boot describes how President Theodore Roosevelt, accused of committing an “act of sordid conquest,” asked his attorney general to construct a defense of the acquisition of the Panama Canal. Attorney General Philander Knox, who also coined the phrase “dollar diplomacy,” is said to have replied, “Mr. President, do not let so great an achievement suffer from any taint of legality.”

Theodore Roosevelt’s convenient doctrine of foreign intervention is best summed up in Boot’s quotation from Roosevelt’s message to Congress in 1904:

Chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society, may in America, as elsewhere, ultimately require intervention by some civilized nation, and in the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrong-doing or impotence, to the exercise of an international police power.

This statement, made well before the birth of international political organizations, gives a disarmingly simple and authoritarian basis for the still highly controversial matter of intervention. As Boot points out, Roosevelt believed in military force to right wrongs. His successor, Woodrow Wilson, believed in moral force and therefore tended to intervene militarily more often. “I am going,” Wilson said, “to teach the South American republics to elect good men!” He pursued this policy in the Dominican Republic (1914) and in Haiti (1915).

The transformation of the Caribbean into a more or less American lake had, in Max Boot’s view, many consequences. It kept foreigners out. It created a considerable degree of stability and built, temporarily at least, an administrative infrastructure in the countries where the US intervened. In the Dominican Republic, for example, according to Boot, “under US direction, the educational system was revamped (the number of students enrolled increased five-fold), roads built, jails cleaned up, sanitation imposed, hospitals updated, taxes overhauled.” After the marines departed the infrastructure tended to crumble, as did the will to establish democracy. Dictators—Somoza, Trujillo, Duvalier—moved in.

These interventions gave US forces a unique training in counterinsurgency warfare and in new techniques of fighting. The first use of dive-bombing in close support of troops on the ground relieved the beleaguered US garrison of Ocatal in Nicaragua on July 16, 1927. The US pursuit of Pancho Villa in Mexico in 1916 under the command of John J. “Black Jack” Pershing provided Pershing and his men with rigorous training on the eve of the United States’ entry into World War I.

President Franklin Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor policy put an end to US efforts to stamp out unconstitutional takeovers of power among its immediate southern neighbors. As Boot puts it, “Dictatorship was indigenous; democracy was a foreign transplant that did not take, in part because America would not stick around to cultivate it.” Of course if America had stuck around, it would have seemed to join the ranks of the colonialists that FDR was determined, through the UN Charter, to reduce and finally to do away with altogether.


Of all the “small wars” that he describes, only one, in Boot’s view, might have changed world history. That was the halfhearted and muddled Allied intervention in Russia in 1918. The Allies were war-weary. Wilson’s instructions to the American commander, Major General William S. Graves, were so ambiguous that Graves refused either to fight the Bolsheviks or to help the White Russian forces, whose 70,000-strong Czech Legion at the start held the Trans-Siberian railroad from the Pacific to the Volga. The Allied expedition, landing at Archangel and Murmansk, never attempted, or had a chance, to link up with this force. Bruce Lockhart, the British intelligence agent in Moscow, believed that an Allied force of 24,000 to 36,000 men with clear orders would certainly have defeated the Bolsheviks. The Allied force that landed at Archangel in July 1918 consisted of 1,200 men. It had no hope of forcing its way to Moscow and overthrowing the still shaky Bolshevik regime. In January 1920 the American and British governments decided to withdraw their troops.

Vietnam is the last of the wars analyzed in detail in Boot’s book. He infers that because the experience and tradition of small wars were forgotten in the cold war period, Vietnam, which should have been a “small war,” was fought with the strategy and tactics of a large war, with big military units. In his view, small, highly trained special groups might have been more effective. Gaining control of large amounts of territory was wrongly given more importance than protecting the areas containing most of the population. Highly skilled anti-guerrilla operations, organized by a professional volunteer US army, might have had more success than the eight million tons of bombs dropped by the US air forces. If, as many would argue was inevitable, America had still lost the war, “the defeat would have been considerably less costly and less painful.” Instead, Boot writes, the US military leaders seem to have concluded from Vietnam that they should avoid fighting small wars altogether in the future.

  1. 1

    Norton, 1992. In O’Brian’s book the American ship is called the Norfolk, another English county, and its skipper, Captain Butcher.

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