Home / Articles / Everything You Think You Know About the American Way of War Is Wrong
We meet in a time of war. On distant battlefields, from Kandahar to the Hindu Kush, American soldiers are risking their lives to defeat a shadowy enemy. But it doesn’t feel like a war, does it? Industry hasn’t been mobilized, civilians haven’t been drafted. There have been some added security measures at home but nothing like the rationing and other disruptions that we experienced during World War II. So what kind of war is this anyway?
It’s a small war, a term of art popular around the 20th century to describe encounters between small numbers of Western soldiers and irregular forces in what is now called the Third World. When we think of “war” most of us think of the Civil War or World War I and II-conflicts fought by millions of citizen soldiers supported by the total mobilization of the American home front. By contrast U.S. involvement in places like Kosovo, Bosnia or Afghanistan barely qualifies as a “war” in the popular imagination. Yet, as I discovered during the course of my research, such “small wars”— fought by a small number of professional U.S. soldiers — are much more typical of American history than are the handful of “total” wars which receive most of the public attention.
Between 1800 and 1934, U.S. Marines staged 180 landings abroad. Think about that — 180 landings. That’s more than one a year. And that’s not even counting the Indian Wars the army was fighting every year until 1890. Much of this history is forgotten today. Which is a shame because it’s full of so many thrilling episodes featuring so many amazing characters: sailors such as Stephen Decatur, one of America’s first military heroes, who battled the Barbary Pirates and the British before dying in a duel with a brother officer; soldiers like “Fighting Fred” Funston, an army officer who helped end the Philippine War by leading a daring commando raid to capture the leader of the insurrectionists; and Marines like Smedley Butler, American’s foremost colonial soldier in the early years of the twentieth century, who, on retiring from the Marine Corps, turned into a leading anti-imperialist and pacifist.
The exploits of Decatur, Funston and Butler make for great reading but they also have significance for our own time. The kind of wars we’ve been fighting the past decade, in Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti, Kosovo and now Afghanistan, would have been instantly familiar to Decatur, Funston and Butler. But these conflicts seem disorienting to many in the Pentagon who believe their role is to prepare for big conventional wars — to fight, if not World War III, then a replay of the Gulf War or Korean War. Their ethos is summed up in the Powell Doctrine which holds that America should only commit its forces to battle if it intends to win a quick, decisive victory, and then withdraw immediately.
There was much complaining, at least during the Clinton administration, that U.S. forces were being frittered away on “nation building,” that they were being sent on missions without “exit strategies,” without clearly defined goals, and without mobilizing the American people. During the 2000 presidential campaign, Condoleeza Rice complained that U.S. troops shouldn’t be escorting students to kindergarten— a reference to the U.S. peacekeeping role in the Balkans. And, sure enough, though the Bush administration successfully fought an unconventional campaign in Afghanistan, in its wake the president has refused to commit U.S. troops to a long-term peacekeeping presence, which may turn out to be a costly mistake.
The president’s hostility to “peacekeeping” is based on the widespread belief that U.S. troops have not traditionally undertaken this kind of mission, and are not particularly good at it. This view, like many other common myths about the “American Way of War,” has little basis in historical fact. For more than 200 years, the U.S. military has routinely violated every tenet of the Powell Doctrine—and done so with great success. To be specific, there is absolutely nothing novel about (1) wars without a “vital national interest,” (2) wars without significant popular support, (3) wars without declarations of war, (4) wars without exit strategies, and (5) wars that force US troops to act as “social workers.” All these great taboos of the 1990s are actually very common in American history. Let me briefly explain what I mean, starting with the lack of vital interests in most of our past small wars.
A few small wars, like those against the Barbary Pirates from 1801 to 1805 or the Chinese Boxers in 1900 or the Mexican Villistas in 1916, were fought to protect American nationals or territory, and so presumably would meet a narrow definition of self-interest. But it would be a stretch to claim that most small wars were fought in defense of “vital” interests. Consider the events leading up to the 1914 invasion of Veracruz, Mexico. A handful of US sailors visiting another Mexican port were briefly detained by the authorities. The Mexican government apologized, but this wasn’t good enough for the admiral commanding the local US naval squadron. He demanded that the Mexicans fire a 21-gun salute in honor of the U.S. flag. The Mexican government refused, and, to make a long story short, the US wound up occupying Veracruz for 7 months. Admittedly there were other reasons for the invasion, but this was the precipitating incident. Now, does anyone here think that getting a 21-gun salute to the Stars and Stripes represents a vital national interest?
Most US small wars were undertaken for less trivial causes but many were equally far removed from traditional, realpolitik conceptions of national interests. Often the armed forces were sent into harm’s way for reasons that were as much moral as strategic. The moral component is sometimes hard to discern from the vantage point of the 21st century because the terms in which it is expressed have changed. In the early 20th century, Americans talked of spreading Anglo-Saxon civilization and taking up the “white man’s burden”; today they talk of spreading democracy and defending human rights. But whatever you call it, this represents an idealistic impulse, and it has always been a big part of the reason why America goes to war, whether to free Cuba in 1898 or to free Kosovo in 1999.
Second, there is nothing new about wars without significant popular support. Almost all the wars chronicled in my book did not arouse much enthusiasm among the American public. Readers who picked up the New York World — Joseph Pulitzer’s mass circulation daily— on July 29, 1915, would have found news that the Marines had just landed in Haiti relegated to a small item on page nine. Among the more important stories splashed across the front page: “Elsie Ferguson, Actress, Will be a Banker’s Bride.”
When most of these small wars aroused any notice back home it was usually due to opposition mobilizing— particularly notable in the case of the Philippine War, which was opposed by Mark Twain, Andrew Carnegie and other leading Americans. But small numbers of professional soldiers were able to function well far from home even in the face of domestic sniping. Mass mobilization of public opinion is needed for big wars, especially those that call on legions of conscripts. It is much less necessary when a relatively small number of professional soldiers are dispatched to some trouble spot.
Nor are declarations of war needed to send US forces into combat. There is a myth prevalent in some quarters that the Korean War was America’s first “undeclared war,” and that ever since then presidents have been traducing the Constitution to deploy military forces abroad on their own initiative. It is certainly true that Korea was America’s biggest undeclared war up to that point, but it was hardly the first. All the wars chronicled in my book were undeclared, starting with the Tripolitan War, when Thomas Jefferson sent a naval squadron to the Mediterranean without bothering to ask for congressional approval.
Just as there is nothing new about undeclared wars, so there is nothing new about wars without exit strategies: The U.S. military stayed continuously in Haiti from 1915 to 1933 (19 years). We stayed continuously in Nicaragua from 1910 to 1933 (23 years). We stayed continuously in the Philippines from 1899 to 1946 (47 years). We stayed continuously in China from the 1840s to the 1940s (100 years). These long- term deployments should be no surprise. After all, the U.S. still has not found an “exit strategy” from World War II or the Korean War; American troops remain stationed in Germany, Japan, Italy and South Korea more than a half century after the end of the wars that brought them there. This runs counter to the assumption implicit in the Powell Doctrine that U.S. troops should win a battle and go home.
Finally there is nothing new about wars in which U.S. soldiers act as “social workers”: This phenomenon, said to be prevalent in the 1990s, raises hackles among veterans who complain, “It wasn’t like that in my day. Our job was fighting wars, period.” It is true that during World War II and the Cold War the U.S. military did concentrate for the most part on its conventional war-fighting capabilities, and for good reason. But this is far from the norm in American history. Throughout U.S. history Marines, both at home and abroad, have found themselves providing disaster relief, quelling riots, guarding mail trains and performing other unconventional duties. While Condi Rice complains about soldiers escorting kids to school that’s precisely what the 101st Airborne Division did in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1956— with great success. Soldiers also have often acted as colonial administrators— in the Philippines, Haiti, Nicaragua, Veracruz, etc., to say nothing of post-World War II Germany and Japan or the post-Civil War South.
It is clear, then, that many deeply held shibboleths about the American way of war— which can be summed up in the misconception that the job of the armed forces is limited to “fighting wars” in defense of “vital national interests”— have little historical basis. Nor, it must be added, is history kind to the warnings of post-Vietnam alarmists that America risks disaster every time it asks the armed forces to stray into other types of duties. Not all the operations chronicled in my book were a total success— U.S. troops never caught up with either Pancho Villa or Augusto Sandino— but the only real military failure was Woodrow Wilson’s expedition to fight the Russian Bolsheviks in 1918-20, and it was a pretty small-scale failure, hardly comparable to the grand disaster that transpired in Indochina.
In most cases the armed forces, however ill-prepared for the job at hand, quickly adapted, figured out what they had to do, and did it with great success. Look at how successfully the US armed forces have adapted to the unconventional challenges of Afghanistan.
The bottom line is that the American armed forces should not be unduly afraid of small wars. The risk of another Vietnam is relatively small. Much more common are successes like Afghanistan. Which is probably just as well, because small wars are unavoidable as long as America remains committed to preserving its power abroad.
If there is one theme that emerges throughout my book it is that, though the reasons have changed over the years, the United States has always found itself being drawn into “the savage wars of peace.” Economists describe this as a yield curve— when cost is low, demand is high. For America the relative cost of intervening anywhere around the world is fairly low; therefore we’re likely to intervene even when the cause might appear marginal in a realpolitik interpretation of our national interests.
America’s strategic situation today presents more opportunities than ever before for such entanglements. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, America has stood head and shoulders (and also probably torso) above all other nations, possessor of the world’s richest economy and its most potent military. In many ways the chaotic post-Cold War environment resembles that of the post-Napoleonic world, with the U.S. thrust willy nilly into Britain’s old role as globocop. Of course, unlike 19th century Britain, 21st century America does not preside over a formal empire. Its “empire” consists not of far-flung territorial possessions but of a family of democratic, capitalist nations that eagerly seek shelter under Uncle Sam’s umbrella. The inner core of the American empire — North America, Western Europe, Northeast Asia— remains for the most part stable and prosperous, but violence and unrest lap at the periphery— in Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans, Central Asia, and other regions teeming with failed states, criminal states or simply a state of nature. This is where America has found itself getting involved in its recent small wars, and no doubt will again in the future. If history is any guide, and I believe it is, we have a lot more savage wars in our future.