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

By Norton, Richard | Naval War College Review, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

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


Norton, Richard, Naval War College Review


Boot, Max. The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power. New York: Basic Books, 2002. 428pp. $30

If the story of the military history of the United States could somehow be presented in a single museum, the most grand and widely visited halls would be those dedicated to the American Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II. Less visited, but still of interest, would be much smaller exhibits devoted to World War I, Korea, Vietnam, and DESERT STORM. Conflicts such as the War of 1812 and the war with Mexico might rate a single dusty showcase in some obscure corner. Tucked out of sight, rarely seen, and all but forgotten would be cabinets, crates, and cartons packed with the jumbled stories of bush wars, expeditions, occupations, pacifications, and reprisals-the often sanguinary and surprising "small wars" of the U.S. military experience.

Reporter and Wall Street Journal editor Max Boot provides us with a long-overdue survey of the all too often slighted and neglected realm of these lesser conflicts. His work is of necessity an overview, but it is eminently readable and entertaining. Along the way, Boot reminds us that the conduct of these small conflicts is as much an "American way of war" as that which mobilizes and employs mass citizen-armies in protracted combat. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Boot suggests that many of the lessons learned from these small wars may be applied to the security dilemmas of today.

This work deserves praise on several levels. To begin with, Boot has rescued the history of these conflicts from a regrettable level of obscurity (as far as the general reading public is concerned). As the merits and limitations of the United States taking on the role of an imperial police force are increasingly debated, it is useful to recall that this is not the first time America has attempted to do so. The author has the courage to suggest that under certain conditions, imperial police forces may provide a much higher quality of life for indigenous people than would otherwise be possible. Boot notes that Haiti's greatest period of prosperity arguably occurred during its long occupation by the U.S. Marine Corps. He also points out that the Dominican Republic actually benefited when forcibly placed on a fiscal diet by the United States. Although the U.S. Marines were ensuring that nearly half the Dominican Republic's revenues went to repay foreign creditors, their honesty in disbursing the remainder was so notable that the country received more funds than it had under its own rulers. …

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