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…

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