A Call To Small Arms
Most of our military excursions have been less than epic--yet still significant
America's imperialistic tendencies have never been strong. Nonetheless, after winning the Spanish-American War, President William McKinley decided it was God's will for Americato annex the Philippines, which had been a Spanish colony, to "civilize and Christianize" Filipinos. (McKinley, evidently, didn't realize that most were Catholic.) A bloody insurrection, lasting from 1899 to 1902, was finally quashed by the United States. Independence for the Philippines didn't come until 1946. But Spencer Tucker, former chair of military history at Virginia Military Institute, says the U.S. legacy of public works, schools, and strong government institutions is hard to fault. "Most Filipinos,"he notes, "remained intensely loyal to the United States during World War II."
Gunboats. The United States also used gunboat diplomacy in the wake of the Spanish-American War to install friendly governments in Cuba and Panama. In Cuba, that led to a long-term lease for Guantanamo Bay naval base. In Panama, it opened the way to the building of the canal. American forces, long a mainstay in Nicaragua, returned in 1926 to quell a civil war, uphold democracy, and put down rebel leader Augusto Sandino. They left in 1933. But the Guardia, trained by U.S. forces and run by Gen. Anastasio Somoza, murdered Sandino after a cease-fire ended the war. Somoza installed himself as dictator--an ironic end to the U.S. effort.
Since Vietnam, U.S. troop deployments have had mixed results. In April 1980, Washington sent forces to rescue 53 Americans held hostage in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The effort failed, and it cost the lives of eight servicemen when a helicopter collided with a C-130 military transport during a sandstorm. U.S. forces invaded the island of Grenada in October 1983 after a Marxist coup. The invasion, Tucker says, was in many ways a fiasco: Army and Air Force units couldn't communicate with one another, and some troops took road maps from gas stations to find their way around. In 1989, 25,000 U.S. troops ousted Panamanian dictator Gen. Manuel Noriega. That operation "was a new departure: disproportionate force used to unilaterally overthrow, rather than install, a dictator," writes British historian Niall Ferguson in Colossus.
America's future, Boot argues, will be a rerun of the past: small, thorny conflicts against insurgents or terrorist groups. That means learning to fight a different kind of enemy and to handle occupation chores when an early exit isn't an option. U.S. forces once had these skills, successfully uprooting a tough guerrilla campaign in the Philippines and acting as efficient nation builders there and elsewhere, including Cuba, Haiti, and Nicaragua. In the 1930s, the Marine Corps published a Small Wars Manual. Such lessons have been largely forgotten in the years since WWII, Boot says, as military planners preferred to think big. If he's right, perhaps the time has come, once again, to think small.