Can the US Win Small Wars? Do We Want To?

Recently read “The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power“, by Max Boot, whose editorial features editor at the Wall Street Journal.
In a nutshell — the history is lively and informative; the ideology is insane.
The book makes a persuasive case against the Powell Doctrine, and a scary, unpersuasive argument in favor of imposing a Pax Americana around the world.
Boot tells the stories of many small wars fought by the US throughout its history: suppression of North African pirates; invasions and occupations in the Carribean and Central America, counterinsurgency in the Phillipines, protection of Americans in crumbling Imperial China. These wars were fought to protect American trade, to avenge attacks on American soil, defend the lives of Americans abroad, and to ensure friendly governments in areas the US wanted to control. Some small wars were quite short, others involved military occupations that lasted years or decades. These “small wars” are much less well known than the major conflicts, and, Boot argues, the historical lessons of these wars have been forgotten.
These stories show how the US developed highly effective tactics for fighting guerillas and irregular armies:
* use small, flexible forces
* use bluff, daring, and fighting skill to intimidate and kill opponents
* reduce the guerilla’s support among the local population by befriending and defending local people, improving sanitation and healthcare, building roads and bridges, and helping to establish local self-government
* use local knowledge to identify the enemy and avoid indiscriminate killing
Boot uses his historical analysis to soundly discredit the Powell Doctrine, which has shaped US military policy in recent decades. In reaction to the US failure in Vietnam, the Powell doctrine states that wars should be fought only when the US can stage an overwhelming attack and achieve rapid victory, incurring few casualties; and leave quickly, following a defined “exit strategy”, without becoming embroiled in “nation-building.”
Boot draws very different conclusions from Vietnam. The US military failed in Vietnam, not because they didn’t fight a conventional war aggressively enough, but because they used conventional tactics against a guerrilla army. The book includes a compelling step-by-step analysis of the flaws in the execution of the Vietnam war, based on the historical lessons of past wars against guerrilla forces. The book considers recent U.S. military engagements, in Iraq, Bosnia, Somalia, Haiti, and Kosovo, and explains how the Powell doctrine gets in the way of effective use of US military policy.
The book’s history is well-researched, its argument is well-constructed, the writing is vivid and clear. Its philosophy is also highly troubling. Boot is an aggressive apologist for US imperial policies. He argues rather unpersuasively that trade was a minor factor in U.S. “small wars.” He is correct that trade with the countries in question accounted for a small proportion of US business; but that is irrelevant, a small number of influential businesspeople with a grievance can have a disproportionate impact on policy, as can be seen in recent resurgence of steel tariffs and mohair subsidies. Instead, Boot makes the case that the US went to war largely for moral reasons. He argues repeatedly that US military interventions and occupations were humane on the whole, and whenever US rule was less than perfect, it was less cruel than European colonial masters, and more fair and competent than rule by brutal and greedy locals.
At times, the apologies for imperialism verge on the laughable. Boot describes US missionaries in China as “predecessors to today’s human rights workers”, with no awareness that locals might resent foreigners’ attempts to change their beliefs and culture. Boot states with no irony that “the 19th century free trade system was protected and expanded by the British Royal Navy.” No qualifications about the relative levels of “freedom” in, say, British-Indian commerce.
In fact, Boot is an unabashed imperialist. He argues that the US has a responsibility to use military might to impose a Pax Americana, establishing order and imposing government in chaotic regions all over the world. He has no qualms about playing the role of “world police”. The goal of a civic police force is not to end crime but to identify and catch criminals; likewise, the goal of “world police force” is not to win wars but to stop malefactors and keep order. Boot sees that US vacillation encourages our enemies, and believes that a more aggressive US policy would help to deter violence.
Boot likes war altogether too much. He enthusiastically recounts tales of heroism: valiant hill charges, crafty ambushes, and noble endurance against pain, weather, and odds. The book is spiced with tales of gruesome violence — beheadings, impalings, disembowlings, and numerous other forms of injury and torture. The vivid style reads like it was written by someone who grew up reading too many Western novels.
Boot was born in 1971; his family immigrated from Russia in 76. He was raised in Los Angeles, went to Berkeley for an undergrad degree, got a masters degree in European history from the sages of realpolitik at Yale. Boot has followed a typical pundit’s career track, with a stint at the Christian Science Monitor, followed by a post as the editorial features editor at the Wall Street Journal, where he supervises the production of bellicose propaganda from the (relative) safety of his office in downtown Manhattan. He lives with his family in Westchester County.
Boot’s academic and journalistic credentials are good, and his research and writing live up to the resume. But he has no apparent military experience. Unlike fellow journalists at top-tier papers, like columnist Tom Friedman or, say, correspondent Daniel Pearl, Boot doesn’t even seem to have notable international experience as journalist. This makes his avid enthusiasm for overseas wars rather suspect.
To be fair, I don’t have a strong counter argument to explain when the US should go to war. I’m not a pacifist — I think war is sometimes necessary, and justification for war is sometimes obvious. But I don’t have a coherent opinion about when and how often to fight. Boot has made a very persuasive case that “small wars” can be effective. But he hasn’t argued convincingly that the US should aggressively police the world. And despite the exciting narrative, there is plenty of other evidence that war isn’t quite as much fun as good war stories.

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