What's the Moral of the Story?

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

What's the Moral of the Story?

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

What's the Moral of the Story?
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May 8 2002 11:37 AM

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


Dear James,


Thank you for your kind words about my book and for mentioning, if only in passing, the exploits of Smedley Butler, Fighting Fred Funston, Chesty Puller, et al. They are amazing stories, but they are also more than that. Despite your implication that they have little to tell us about the conduct of war today, I think they're very relevant—in fact even more relevant than I realized when I wrote the book. In my chapter on the Marines' Small Wars Manual, written in the 1930s, I suggested that, although its philosophy of interventions was very timely, much of its specific tactical advice was "now archaic." The example I used was the manual's instructions on the proper way to pack a mule. How wrong I was! It turns out that U.S. troops in Afghanistan have been not only loading mules but also riding horses into battle.

More generally, it's probable that some of the adventures of the special forces in Afghanistan rival anything that Funston or Puller did. As in olden days, we sent only a handful of American ground forces to Afghanistan, but they managed to organize a large native army and achieve stunning results at low cost. Somewhere, the ghosts of 19th-century imperial soldiers are smiling. If only the Pentagon would get over its publicity aversion and tell us those stories, we might have new small-war heroes for our time.

Before I get to our points of disagreement, I'd like to briefly highlight an area where we seem to agree: We're much more likely to fight small wars rather than big ones in the foreseeable future, and therefore the Pentagon had better get over its aversion to low-level, messy missions and not insist that they be casualty-free. Too many generals are still fixated on Vietnam, a small war turned bad. What we forget is how many messy situations that could have turned into "another Vietnam" were resolved very successfully by American forces in the past—the most notable example being the Philippine War of 1899-1902. In The Savage Wars of Peace, I try to resurrect this forgotten history and suggest that it should be studied for lessons about the future.

OK, now to the areas where we differ. Actually, I'm not positive exactly what your beef is. You write that you're opposed to "solo 'pacification' efforts" but I'm not clear whether it's the "solo" part or the "pacification" part that most bothers you. If it's the solo part, you can rest easy: I concede near the end of my book that unilateral occupations of the kind the United States once undertook are no longer viable in today's climate of opinion. I agree that we need some kind of international sanction for long-term occupations. Borrowing an idea from David Rieff, I suggest that perhaps we should revive the old League of Nations mandate system to allow the international community to administer failed states. This has already happened, de facto, in places like Kosovo, Bosnia, Sierra Leone, and East Timor.

By the way, it's wrong to argue that America is "unilateral" just because we don't sign on to the ICC, Kyoto, or other flawed treaties. Even in Afghanistan, we are acting with allies—witness the British and Canadian troops scouring the mountains for al-Qaida remnants. And many other nations are helping us in the war on terrorism by breaking up radical groups in their own countries, freezing their assets, etc. What I advocate is not American unilateralism but American leadership. As we saw in the Balkans and Rwanda in the 1990s, other nations can't get their act together to stop ethnic cleansing unless the United States takes the lead (as we did in the Balkans but not in Rwanda).

It sounds like you're skeptical not just of "solo" American pacifications but of all such efforts. If so, I would trot out the well-known examples of post-World War II Germany, Japan, and Italy: All transformed by U.S. troops. The record in the Third World is more ambiguous, as I concede in the book. The longest U.S. occupation was also the most successful—that of the Philippines. What about Haiti and other Caribbean countries that were occupied for briefer periods? I still think that a U.S. military presence in those places created the most stable, prosperous periods in their history. It's true, as you point out, that many of the liberal, democratic institutions created by American occupiers did not survive the end of the occupation. The question is, what moral do you draw from this? Is it that we should never intervene, or that if we do intervene, we should stay a long time?

For my part, I have no problem with long-term occupations of a few places, and I don't think the American people do, either. I don't see any protests about the U.S. role in Kosovo and Bosnia, even though it's clearly a mission without an exit strategy. In the future I think we (and our allies!) need to engage in "state-building" in post-Taliban Afghanistan and in post-Saddam Iraq.

There, I've outed myself as a liberal imperialist. Let's forget about the blue helmets and put on pith helmets.

Max Boot is editorial features editor of the Wall Street Journal.