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Books: Max Boot's The Savage Wars of Peace

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 Peaceis 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.

What was the ultimate result of all this? Boot believes that America's small and savage wars have ensured the safety of the sea-lanes (the Barbary intervention), helped limit disease and corruption (Central America), advanced human rights (at least the nineteenth-century missionaries' version of it in China), protected our borders (pursuing Villa in Mexico), and promoted the global principles of free trade and open access (Japan and Korea).

SO WHAT HAPPENED to this confident policy? Why was there so much resistance to such easy campaigns as Grenada and an insistence that we lose not a single life in Serbia? The answer is Vietnam and the reaction to Vietnam. Here Boot is quite explicit in bringing to the fore the two villains of his argument: generals like Westmoreland, who thought they could fight a conventional land war in Asia while shackled by political restraints; and Colin Powell, who learned the wrong lessons from that fiasco, and whose"Powell Doctrine" requiring almost utopian American advantages before engaging enemies abroad stops us from doing ourselves--and the world--a great deal of good.

Critics will wonder whether a few thousand special operatives really could have galvanized South Vietnamese resistance, or fought effectively as advisers and commandos against an enemy of millions that was armed daily by Russia and China with sophisticated weapons. But Boot is content to answer back that the old method of fighting small wars at least would have been no worse than unleashing tanks, bombers, and search-and-destroy missions against an enemy hardly like the Germans or Japanese.

Boot might have been willing to devote more analysis to the changes that were forced upon us by communism. The rise of a nuclear Russia and China radically changed the complexion of such interventions. Between 1946 and 1990, America's enemies could seek shelter under the nuclear umbrella of the Soviet Union to profess an ideology of egalitarianism that was often appealing to the downtrodden. An awareness of these changes would only enhance much of Boot's argument--for what was feasible for Americans before the rise of worldwide Soviet totalitarianism is practicable again with its demise. With little chance of Russia's threatening our Marines, and communism bankrupt as an ideology in the eyes of most in the world, it becomes increasingly difficult for isolationists and prevaricators to suggest that we either have the wrong message or that we will endanger more than we save.

Powell, who was scarred by that Vietnam quagmire, has opposed nearly all of America's incursions, wrongly believing that we cannot win small wars or that we must husband our stretched resources for a conventional war that can be won cheaply, quickly, and neatly. The problem is, as Boot repeatedly notes, that our enemies may be wise enough not to fight the kind of conflict Powell wants.

Fortunately, there are still interventionists in the American establishment, and there are military units--Special Forces, SEALs, Marines--who are willing and able to carry out these most distasteful of missions. Their most recent work is unheralded, but operations abroad did not all end up like Vietnam, the failed Iranian hostage rescue, Haiti, or Somalia. Panama, Grenada, and Serbia, for example, are all better places because of our past actions. Even the less-known rescuing of diplomats and civilians in Africa or protecting tankers in the Persian Gulf were worth the risks and costs.

THE EVENTS AFTER September 11 give The Savage Wars of Peace an uncanny timeliness and sadly confirm almost all of Boot's dispassionate warnings. Past reluctance to intervene directly against al Qaeda gave the terrorists both material advantages and a sense of confidence to attempt their attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Our conventional forces are able to stop Saddam Hussein, but they have little experience at the kind of work necessary to hunt down the fleeing terrorists in Afghanistan or to root out cells in unfriendly countries. Only a military that has professionals willing to lose their lives in such risky missions, and a method of operation that is time-proven, will allow an American president the range of options necessary to thwart embryonic challenges to our national security over there rather than deal with full-blown ones right here.

Max Boot's The Savage Wars of Peace will seem to a few unapologetically imperialistic, but far more readers will rightly see that its message is instead a moral one--and never more timely than now.

This piece originally ran in the Weekly Standard.