The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power

A Poor Track Record of Pacification
New books dissected over email.
May 8 2002 11:19 AM

The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power


Dear Max,


I was so taken by the derring-do of Smedley Butler, Fighting Fred Funston, Chesty Puller, and the other forgotten Pax Americanistas you describe so well in your Savage Wars of Peace that I almost ran out and joined the Marine Corps. Then I remembered that I was living in the 21st century, not to mention getting fat and going bald.

You're right, the United States has a long, pre-Cold-War history of intervening in other countries affairs—something that only Americans seem to have forgotten. And, yes, in the days before America's political leaders became obsessed with overwhelming force and zero casualties, they almost routinely sent small forces out on risky foreign missions with minimal public support and no exit strategy. But no, I don't think we should get in the habit of doing so again. In today's world, unilateral military interventions are as likely to succeed as Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson are to rise from the dead.

I'm not talking about protective or punitive missions. As you correctly point out, the U.S. military is going to be busier than ever safeguarding U.S. citizens abroad and hunting down killers and kidnappers like the Abu Sayyaf guerrillas in the Philippines. Instead, I'm talking about the "pacification" missions that you recommend the United States take on "to help the downtrodden of the world," whether fighting tribalism or gangsterism or intervening in civil wars. While I agree with you that "a world of liberal democracies would be a world much more amenable to American interests than any conceivable alternative," I think that solo pacification efforts by even a relatively benign hegemony won't get us there.

For starters, with the exception of the Philippines, our track record on pacification isn't all that good. In fact, one of the main lessons I took away from the repeated interventions you catalog is that Uncle Sam needed the equivalent of special ed for imperialists, because he seems to have had a hard time learning from his mistakes, especially close to home. Look at our occupation of Haiti in the 1910s and 1920s. Yeah, we left the Haitians a lot of roads, bridges, airfields, etc. But we also force-fed them a constitution and a president, stoked racism, censored the press, and revived forced labor. While I give you great credit for covering both the good and the bad of U.S. behavior—and you get extra points not only for telling a good story but using the word "tatterdemalion"—somehow I'm not consoled by your conclusion that the natives had never had it so good.

Or consider Nicaragua. After Calvin Coolidge sent the Marines into Nicaragua for an encore in 1926, following their earlier 14-year engagement, Walter Lippmann acidly observed that Nicaragua "was not an independent republic, that its government is the creature of the State Department, that management of its finances and the direction of its domestic and foreign affairs are determined not in Nicaragua but in Wall Street." You argue that in Nicaragua, "democracy was a foreign transplant that did not take, in part because America would not stick around long enough to cultivate it." But for one country to control the government of another for more than a decade seems like a strange way to cultivate democracy. And while I don't agree with leftist dogma that blames the U.S. military occupation of Haiti and Nicaragua for their current status as global basket-cases, it's hard to argue that the U.S. intervention had any overall positive effect.

Moving from the past to the present, it's hard to see why any unilateral "pacification" effort would be any more successful in today's loser states than it was generally in the past. After all, most of the problems that prompted Uncle Sam to swing his big stick in the Caribbean and Central America 60 years ago seem quaint compared to the challenges posed by Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Bosnia, North Korea, or Sierra Leone. In fact, I'd argue that even with America's overwhelming military power, everything from the spread of cheap automatic weapons to 24/seven global media coverage have made intervention in many ways more difficult rather than less. And let's not even talk about how hard it would be for any one nation, even the United States, to muster the resources needed for the state-building that must inevitably follow. Afghanistan is a case in point. We've easily spent more than $10 billion fighting the war but have pledged less than one-twentieth that amount for assistance and reconstruction. That kind of money won't do the trick, and Congress is unlikely to significantly increase it.

I agree with you that U.S. political leaders should get over their fear of casualties and that the U.S. military should get over its obsession with overwhelming force (though not junk the Powell Doctrine, of which overwhelming force is only a small part). But for a whole host of reasons that I'm sure we'll get into, the only way for the United States to get involved to lasting good effect in this century's version of the savage wars of peace is with international sanction and international support. There, I've outed myself as a liberal internationalist. Let's put away the pith helmets and bring back the United Nations.



Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

The XX Factor

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.


Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

Trending News Channel
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
Brow Beat
Sept. 20 2014 3:21 PM “The More You Know (About Black People)” Uses Very Funny PSAs to Condemn Black Stereotypes
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 21 2014 8:00 AM An Astronaut’s Guided Video Tour of Earth
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.