The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power
by Max Boot
Basic. 384 pp. $30.00

Few books published this decade will be timelier than Max Boot’s The Savage Wars of Peace. It is not about Afghanistan, and it is not even about today: Boot’s tale does not reach the year 1945 until around page 300. What Boot does instead is to explode the myth that the traditional American way of war has been to fight with massive superiority, win quickly, and leave. This myth has served in recent years to restrain and sometimes to paralyze American foreign policy. In fifteen lucidly written chapters, Boot shows that such large-scale conventional wars have always been the exception in American history, while protracted, complex, “political” conflicts have been the rule. It is a history lesson we would do well to learn.

Organized into three chronological sections (covering the 19th century, 1900-1945, and 1945 to the present), The Savage Wars of Peace explores America’s efforts at peacemaking and counterinsurgency in a vast array of places around the world: the Pacific (China, Korea, Vietnam, and the Philippines, but also Samoa and the Marquesas); Latin America (Nicaragua, Cuba, Panama, Mexico, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic); North Africa (against the Barbary pirates); and Russia (against the Reds during the Russian Civil War). Drawing on extensive primary and secondary research, Boot, an editor at the Wall Street Journal, argues persuasively that such small wars (as he calls these sorts of guerrilla conflicts) are historically not only something the United States has done frequently, but something it has done well. Vietnam may have been our most spectacular failure, but we have had many successes.

These successes, moreover, have formed a fairly consistent pattern. Typically, a political crisis erupts in a country in which the U.S. has an interest. The President, unwilling to abandon the interest but equally unwilling to undertake a massive commitment of force, sends a small element composed of professional military personnel, frequently the Marines, to “deal with it.” Generally, as Boot shows in his chapters on the Boxer Rebellion, the Philippines, and the Caribbean, the small U.S. force enjoys both technological “overmatch” and vastly superior training, and has been able to face down much larger but less well-equipped and less well-organized insurgents.

Until the 1980’s, “dealing with it” rarely stopped at shooting guerrillas. Almost everywhere they went, U.S. troops bettered the lot of local inhabitants by building roads, hospitals, and schools, improving sanitation, housing, and food distribution, reducing malaria, and vaccinating adults and children. They stayed for years, sometimes decades, delicately poised in the complex politics of the country, working to gain the support of the population and to stabilize the situation. On the whole, it worked; areas that had previously not known months of peace were pacific for decades at a time.

The legacy of American “imperialism” has thus by no means been entirely negative. Indeed, what emerges from the picture drawn by Boot is that, in many troubled regions, the positive aspects of modernization would have been much slower to arrive had America failed to step in and permitted other “colonizing” states freely to work their will. Filipinos have their complaints against the U.S., but they might usefully inquire of Koreans about their experience under Japanese tutelage, or of Kazakhs and Uzbeks about the devastating effects of decades of Soviet-Russian misrule, or of Congolese about the hideous benefits of Belgian dominion. Whether or not American motives were altruistic—usually they were not—or always praiseworthy, there is a reason why, despite the intense hatred of the U.S. that persists in some precincts, people across the planet seek to emulate us.



Vietnam remains the exception—not because we have not usually fought such “small-war” conflicts, but because we usually win them. The literature on Vietnam is now so vast, and the controversies so fierce, that in a certain sense it is impossible to write a “chapter” on that conflict. Boot’s own reconstruction is partial, and open to debate—especially his claim that the United States could have prevailed in Vietnam if it had settled on a proper strategy. But by setting that ill-fated adventure in a larger context, he very pointedly underlines the false lessons we have learned from it. Those lessons have been encapsulated in the so-called Powell/Weinberger doctrine, according to which we should never intervene anywhere except by means of overwhelming force, with an “exit strategy” in hand, in the company of allies, and with the clearly enunciated approval of the American public.

Legions of military officers, civilian leaders, and demagogues now recite these mantras as if they were self-evident; they are not, but their effects have been pernicious. These days, when we involve ourselves in foreign lands, we prefer to do so from the air, with bombs and missiles. If we send ground troops at all, we send as few as possible, barricade them into barbed-wire-protected blockhouses, and attempt to restrict their interaction with locals. We send out imperious calls for others to commit troops for peacekeeping or contribute to international aid, while insisting that we will be involved only briefly and will abandon the area totally as soon as possible.

The recent crescendo of dislike for America around the world, may, in fact, have something to do with this approach. What we take for resentment of our power may be resentment of our unwillingness to use that power to help people directly as we did in the past. In the first half of the 20th century, a Nicaraguan, Haitian, Samoan, Filipino, or Dominican could see for himself the benefits that came with American interference in his life. What can we promise to the Iraqis now? To the Haitians? To the Somalis? What will we be able to say to the Afghans in a few years’ time?

Our only hope of reestablishing and maintaining a secure peace, Boot suggests, lies in restoring the traditions overturned in Southeast Asia and in shedding our inhibitions about the exercise of American power that were forged in the aftermath of that war. By almost all the examples of our history, as well as by rational examination, it is clear that we will not succeed in Afghanistan until we have helped to establish a stable, viable, legitimate regime in Kabul and to rebuild that country’s ravaged economic, social, and political infrastructure. This hardly means staying there forever, but few courses of action could be worse than to have smashed the Taliban and al Qaeda and then to have simply abandoned Afghanistan to its fate. As this fine book demonstrates, that is not the American way.


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