A Call To Small Arms
Most of our military excursions have been less than epic--yet still significant
The opening lines of the "Marines' Hymn" are stamped on America's collective consciousness. But it's doubtful that many of us know why the lyric enshrines "the shores of Tripoli." It's a reference to the Barbary Wars, a series of engagements against North African pirates who were menacing American merchant ships in the early days of the republic. It's the type of lesser conflict that history books tend to gloss over in favor of epic wars.
But as important as the big wars are, they're not the norm. Since 1798, U.S. presidents have, absent declarations of war, sent troops into harm's way around 230 times, mostly on relatively small-scale operations. These small wars range from short-term dust-ups to drawn-out sagas, from blood-soaked combat to mere saber rattling. Some were great victories; others dismal failures. Most were fought to uphold the same principles as the bigger ones, says Max Boot, author of The Savage Wars of Peace, a history of America's low-intensity conflicts, and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. The goals have included freedom of the seas, free trade, and promotion of democracy and the rule of law. While lessons from these wars are relevant to the 21st century, "the main problem," Boot notes, " is that we don't learn."
The lesser wars undermine the notion of an isolationist America before the First World War. In Latin America alone, in the 19th century, U.S. troops staged frequent--and often repeat--landings in Argentina, Colombia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Peru, and Uruguay, to name just a few nations. The Marines stormed into Haiti 19 times between 1857 and 1913. Isolationism is "a persistent theme in the history of American foreign policy," writes Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis in Surprise, Security, and the American Experience. But, he adds, "the term is a misnomer" because global affairs have always occupied the United States.
Pirates. In the late 1700s, pirates from the Barbary States of Algeria, Morocco, Tunis, and Tripoli (now part of modern-day Libya) wreaked havoc, capturing and auctioning off ships' cargo and crews. Most European countries, and for a while the United States, paid ransoms for the sailors and tributes to obtain free passage. "These guys were terrorists," says historian Walter Borneman. "It was a wake-up call to establish a navy."
Which is exactly what Congress did in 1794. America's fledgling Navy first went to battle against France, however. French privateers were also harassing U.S. merchant ships. The so-called Quasi-War--a series of sea battles--lasted from 1798 to 1800. After several U.S. victories, France agreed to a settlement.
The first of the Barbary Wars lasted from 1801--when President Thomas Jefferson dispatched ships to the Mediterranean--to 1805. "That established the precedent for American presidents to take military action abroad," Borneman says. The United States won the first round after a contingent of seven marines and a host of mercenaries trekked across the desert to capture the Tripolitan city of Derna. After the War of 1812, the Navy mopped up in the region in 1815.
China's Boxer Rebellion of 1900 was a peasant revolt against western influences. U.S. forces joined an eight-nation alliance--including Germany, Great Britain, and Japan--to crush the uprising after a number of foreign missions in Beijing and Tianjin were attacked. The coalition, says Boot, presaged America's entry into World War I on the side of the Entente allies.
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.
This story appears in the January 30, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.