Book Review — The Savage Wars Of Peace: Small Wars And The Rise Of American Power

The Savage Wars Of Peace by Max Boot

The Savage Wars Of Peace: Small Wars And The Rise Of American Power by Max Boot is the detailed history of the wars that are not common knowledge to most Americans. Boot holds a Bachelor’s degree in history, with high honors, from the University of California, Berkeley (1991), and a Master’s degree in history from Yale University (1992). He was born in Russia, grew up in Los Angeles. He was and editor and writer for both The Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal. He is also the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

A colleague from work gave me this book to read. I looked at the title and saw “Small Wars” and immediately assumed it was about the Marines. I was, however, only partially right. Ask the average American what wars we fought and you’ll get the Revolutionary War, Civil War, WWI, WWII, Vietnam, Gulf Wars, and Afghanistan. A few might add the War of 1812, Panama, and Korea. Not many realize how many (undeclared) wars America actually fought in its history. I was familiar with most covered in the book from boot camp on Parris Island. The Marines’ history is full these small wars throughout Latin America and Asia.

Several aspects surprised me probably more than they should have in reading this book. Up until the beginning of the 20th century, American Naval commanders had quite a bit of leeway in making American foreign policy. In an era of very slow communications, quick actions by captains set policy. Secondly, the United States and Britain had a rather cozy, if unofficial, naval alliance.

The first part of the book stresses America’s naval history and the navy as an arm of American policy and interests. Its rise from six ships commissioned in 1794, (a privileged officer corps, and dregs, foreigners and a high percentage of blacks making the the enlisted ranks) to a premiere navy with an elite amphibious infantry force. An interesting look at the army is also included. Throughout America’s history, there seems to be a division of power. The army is successful in big wars and fighting outside of the urban environment. Boot states that even today Marines clear cities and the army prefers to go around them. There is good reason for that too. A very heavy mechanized army finds it hard to maneuver huge M1 tanks down third world streets.

Some of this history may be based on tradition. The Marines spent much of the pre-WWI years and the interwar years fighting insurgencies in Latin America. It entered Vietnam as the insurgency fighting force based on experience decades before. Even then, the only small wars manual was written by the Marines. It stated, “Small Wars represent the normal and frequent operations of the Marine Corps.” It is the big wars that gain the attention and the prestige in the military…and the budget too.

In Vietnam, Khe Sanh is a battle the US wanted. A head to head fight and a way to confront the enemy. The US poured supplies and Marines into Khe Sahn to make a stand that lasted over five months. Once the siege was over, Khe Sanh was immediately dismantled. In the meantime, the Viet Cong built up strength. Forgetting everything the US learned about insurgencies, the US was happy to fight a battle on its terms instead of the enemy’s. Sadly, the victory really did not accomplish anything.

There are plenty of events covered from the beginning of America’s navy through the First Gulf War. The book was published in early 2002 and does not include Afghanistan or the Second War in Iraq although the tone of the US failure to successfully fight insurgencies is clearly set. It is almost as if this book was written in hindsight to the Afghan and Iraq war. I found this book to be very informative and well written. This is an important book as modern warfare is quickly turning into insurgency and counter-insurgency conflicts. The days of large naval battles and large scale tank warfare seem to be over. The new warfare needs to be quick, mobile, and have the ability to operate in urban environments. Boot gives us a history of our past battles and a commentary on the present.

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