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Small Wars and the Rise of American Power
Published on December 2, 2003 By russellmz In Politics
Reservists and citizen-soldiers stand ready, in every free nation, to stand to the colors and die in holocaust, the big war. Reservists and citizen-soldiers remain utterly reluctant to stand and die in anything less...The man who will go where his colors go, without asking, who will fight a phantom foe in jungle and mountain range, without counting, and who will suffer and die in the midst of incredible hardship, without complaint, is still what he has always been, from Imperial Rome to sceptered Britain to democratic America. He is the stuff of which legions are made."
            Historian T. E. Fehrenbach
            This Kind of War (1963)

The Savage Wars of Peace by Max Boot is a very educational book. Published in 2002, it is a must read for anyone with an opinion on the US occupation of Iraq. Why? It is an easily accessible history book that tells the story of American small wars. It shoots down preconceptions about US military actions abroad. It provides the history of successful and unsuccessful small wars. Most importantly, it tells why they were successful or not.

Boot provides much needed information on the type of war the US is fighting in Iraq: "the small war." The term applies not necessarily to the size of a conflict but to the style: military action against guerrilla forces. He doesn't cover every small war. According to him, the United States Marines staged 180 landings between 1800 and 1934, with a few more engagements from the Army and Navy.

Most Americans know that the US was involved in World War I, World War II, and Vietnam. But only a small number know about the Boxer Uprising(1900), the Phillippine War(1899-1902), or even the time we were in Russia(1918-1920). These are not the only small wars Boot covers. He goes back to the Barbary Wars(1801-1805, 1815) all the way up to the small wars of the 90s.

The most important information is how we win and lose small wars. Most of the lessons learned were written down by the Marines in the 1930s. The Small Wars Manual still resonates even after all this time. It was ignored by leaders in the Vietnam War, which was fought as a big World War II-style war. Here is a bit from of Boot's writing where he provided some quotes and points from the Small Wars Manual.
"Peace and industry cannot be restored permanently without appropriate provisions for the economic welfare of the people," the manual says..."In small wars, tolerance, sympathy and kindness should be the keynote to our relationship with the mass of the population."

Such operations are harder, in may ways, than a military's traditional duty. After all, "in small wars no defined battle front exists and the theater of operations may be the whole length and breadth of the land." U.S. troops are sent out on policing functions, where the main task is simply to figure out who the enemy is. American soldiers will be facing "members of native forces [who] will suddenly become innocent peasant workers when it suits their fancy and convenience." The enemy will always have better intelligence and knowledge of the countryside than the Americans will- and they can choose the best moment to ambush small American detachments. "It will be difficult and hazardous to wage war successfully under such circumstances," the Small Wars Manual warns. And time consuming: Such operations can drag on indefinitely and never result in a clear outcome such as Appomattox. Yet as the manual makes clear, there is no alternative. Small wars cannot be fought with big war methods.

The final edition of the Small Wars Manual was published at the most inopportune of times, 1940...By the time America found itself embroiled in a small war in a place called Vietnam, however, the Small Wars Manual and its lessons had been all but forgotten.
An example where both "attaction" and "chastisement" was used in the Phillippines at the turn of the century, is most striking. The US was outnumbered around 3 to 1, had little technological edge(Mauser and Remington rifles vs Springfield and Krag-Jorgensen rifles), and while they had more firepower in naval gunboats and artillery, the dense jungles often offset that advantage. Plus, as usual, the insurrectos had informers in every barrio, and thus better intel than the Americans. Local diseases and foul weather also ravaged the US forces, which the locals were acclimated to. An average of 24,000 troops were used to control/guard a population of 7 million.

Despite these disadvantages, Boot states the cause of the US victory was the carrot and stick approach and in basic counter-insurgency methods, not to comitting atrocities (some did occur on both sides). The US offered rewards to those who cooperated: peace for peons and political or business opportunites for elites. Captured rebels were usually treated well. Filipinos were given more and more political autonomy, and the army ran schools and hospitals and did other charitable works to generate goodwill.

The army garrisoned the countryside to cut guerrillas from civilian support. This forced the Americans to get aquainted with their area and the locals, which then helped provide better intelligence. Another factor was that the generals in the Phillipines had much experience in fighting insurgents from fighting Indians. One general who did not have this experience had knowledge of guerrilla warfare from fighting with Cuban rebels.

This general, Frederick Funston, was the one who captured of the leader of the guerillas (the story is really great: he and a couple of his aides managed to decode a dispatch from the leader, then snuck into his camp with some friendly Filipinos...when the Americans had the leader at gunpoint he was stunned and asked, "Is this not some joke?"). Despite the entertaining story the capture makes, it was not the main reason for the US success. After the guerrilla leader called for the insurrectos to surrender, General MacArthur bragged that, "The armed insurrection is almost entirely supressed." This was before the US suffered its worst military setback when 48 men were killed in a surprise dawn attack by insurrectos.

Another reason for victory was the Navy: gunboats provided firepower for garrisons and blockaded the Phillipines so the rebels could get no foreign supplies. There was no equivalent to a Ho Chi Minh trail or sanctuary for the guerrillas. Despite some brutalies on both sides, the benevolent US colonial government and growing political autonomy for the Filipinos stopped the organized guerilla war. Years later, in World War II, many Filipinos fought with Americans against the Japanese. In 1946, it was granted independence.

The cost was high: 4,234 US dead, 16,000 guerrilla Filipinos, and as many as 200,000 civilians due to famine, disease, and both sides' cruelties.

Boot manages to keep everything quite readable with many anecdotes on the exploits of fascinating people such as Medal of Honor recipient Smedley Butler while at the same time not avoiding the darker aspects of American involvment in small wars, like the "water cure" in the Phillippines (learned from the Spaniards who used to govern the Phillippines, they would force water down a man's throat until he was full then step on his stomach to push it out). He also does not bog down over-explaining the politics behind decisions and events, simply giving you what you need to know without boring you.

A good book that shares a lot of knowledge. Along with almost scary parallels between past and modern times.

on Jun 17, 2004
Looks like a book well worth reading to get a better perspective on our current tribulations in Iraq. Perhaps someone should send a copy to President Bush's "War Cabinet", who seem unable or unwilling to find a successful way to handle the problems in Iraq!