- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 21, 2002

By Max Boot
Basic Books, $30, 428 pages, illus.

Max Boot's book on America's small wars comes at a particularly good time given the War on Terrorism in the wake of the September 11 atrocities. "The Savage Wars Of Peace: Small Wars And The Rise of American Power" is not a September 11 exploitation book; Mr. Boot has been working on it for a number of years, but he acknowledges its relevance in the wake of the September 11 incident in the forward. Indeed, the War on Terrorism may be the first global small war.
In Mr. Boot's definition of such things, the current war is likely to be open-ended, long-term, and will not end with a clear victory or a parade. Unlike many in the conventional defense community, he does not think that this is necessarily a bad thing. He views it as the practical consequence of being the world's leading power. His prescription is to stop whining and get used to it. I agree.
Mr. Boot chronicles America's small and undeclared wars from the campaigns against the Barbary Pirates to peacekeeping operations in Kosovo, omitting domestic campaigns against the American Indians. His narrative is crisp and exciting. Many of these stories could be made into movies, and some have.
The gallant defense of the foreign legation in Peking (Beijing) by a mixed international force, including U.S. Marines during the Boxer Rebellion in China at the turn of the century was made into a movie starring Charlton Heston in the Sixties. "The Shores of Tripoli," about a group of seven Marines and a rogue U.S. consul who organized a mercenary army and took over an entire country during the Barbary Wars, was a successful movie of the Fifties. Unlike the silver screen, the reality of America's small wars over the past few centuries however has been characterized by long periods of boredom accentuated by moments of pure terror. Pure terror is more interesting.
Most of the heroes of the small wars were notable in their time, but have passed from public knowledge. Many of them were Marines. The Marine Corps has been the overseas intervention force of choice over the years since it has been viewed more as police force for the State Department than as an occupying force. Chesty Puller, Smedley Butler, and Herman Hannaken are burned into the consciousness of every Marine recruit, but these are names that are largely forgotten by the American public.
However, some familiar Army names pop up as well. Douglas MacArthur first made a name for himself in the hunt for Pancho Villa in Mexico on the eve of World War I as did George Patton who personally killed a Mexican bandit leader and brought his carcass home to Gen. "Black Jack" Pershing on the hood of his automobile, "trussed up like a deer".
Mr. Boot includes the Vietnam experience as a small war. This will be perhaps the most controversial chapter of the book as many see the guerilla portion of the war as a matador's cape for a North Vietnamese conventional attack on South Vietnam that actually occurred. Both views are probably correct.
In my opinion, Gen. William Westmoreland's decision to eschew counterinsurgency strategy for destruction of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces by destroying as many of them as possible was the right approach in the wrong place. We should have destroyed the North Vietnam Army in North Vietnam. The first article that I ever wrote for the Marine Corps Gazette in 1971 advocated a series of large-scale raids into North Vietnam to destroy their army in its lair. It got the attention that most articles by second lieutenants merit, but I still believe I was right.
Marine Lt. Gen. Victor "Brute" Krulak tried to convince the defense establishment that a low level counterinsurgency "ink blot" strategy would work, but the more conventional approach prevailed. That said, Army Special Forces and Marine Combined Action programs worked well. Many analysts believe that the 1968 Tet Offensive was launched out of desperation because the Viet Cong guerillas had been eliminated as an effective fighting force. The reality is that the final North Vietnamese victory was a triumph of conventional arms against a demoralized South Vietnamese Army abandoned by an equally demoralized U.S. Congress.
The book was completed before the campaign in Afghanistan began, and perhaps a chapter can be added regarding that experience when the paperback edition comes out. Nonetheless, it is a great read with some very solid conclusions.
Max Boot is the editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal. His sources are meticulous and he obviously enjoys the subject matter. The Marine Corps captured its early experiences with these conflicts in its "Small Wars Manual" in 1940. It is in the process of creating a "Small Wars II Manual" to capture the experiences from Vietnam to today. Mr. Boot's effort is an outstanding addition to this body of literature.

Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps Officer who served as a UN Observer in Lebanon and as military advisor to the U.S. Liaison Office in Somalia in 1993. He is the director of the Center for Unconventional Thought at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.

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