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Less than a year after the attack of September 11, Americans have just about succeeded in absorbing the war on terror into their daily routine. In the home, the classroom, and the workplace, normalcy has returned. For most of us, the day said to have changed everything has changed remarkably little.

Meanwhile, acting on our behalf, a small number of military professionals wage the ongoing campaign against terror, chiefly in Central Asia but also in a growing list of subsidiary theatres now including Yemen, Georgia, Colombia, and the Philippines. Other American soldiers, in greater numbers, occupy themselves with the unfinished business of the 1990s—the legacy of interventions undertaken by the previous two administrations. Some keep the peace in Bosnia and Kosovo. Others patrol the skies over northern and southern Iraq and the waters of the Persian Gulf and prepare for another go at Saddam Hussein.

The institution known as the Department of Defense is today engaged in a project far more ambitious than its name implies. Standing in readiness to fight and win the odd major war only begins to describe its actual role. Every day around the world, U.S forces undertake a panoply of activities to maintain a semblance of international order, advance important national interests, promote (albeit selectively) American values, and, through their very presence, enhance the clout and influence of the United States. In the aftermath of the Cold War, the lot of the American soldier has been—and seems likely to remain—an intensely busy one.

To which Max Boot, editorial features editor of the Wall Street Journal , offers the rejoinder: So what else is new?

According to Boot, a proper rendering of U.S. military history shows that American soldiers, sailors, and Marines have always been busy with such work. From the earliest days of the republic, they have waged a seemingly endless list of “small wars” in places remote from America’s shores. Ranging from brief punitive raids to protracted campaigns, these conflicts pitted conventionally organized and trained U.S. regulars against insurgents, guerrillas, or bandits in the employ of some despot or warlord. Typically characterized by little fights rather than big battles—although bloody enough for all that—such conflicts seldom attracted the interest of the American people, who have (with a few exceptions) been content to avert their gaze from whatever their soldiers might be up to abroad.

For readers accustomed to thinking of U.S. military history in terms of all-out crusades fought for grand causes and high ideals, Boot offers an alternative narrative. Indeed, Boot’s explicit purpose in writing The Savage Wars of Peace was to recover—with an eye toward reviving—the rich imperial tradition that U.S. forces accrued during the course of America’s rise to world power, a tradition that he considers eminently relevant to the present day.

The result is a book as readable as it is timely. In a series of finely honed chapters, Boot recounts the exploits of plucky soldiers and intrepid seamen across two hundred years of American history. He brings back to life figures whose exploits in the Maghreb, the Caribbean, or the Far East once made them household names, but who are now mostly forgotten. Prominent among them are the gallant young Stephen Decatur, hero of the war against the Barbary pirates; Frederick Funston, daring captor of the Filipino nationalist Emiliano Aguinaldo; Calvin P. Titus, the young army private who won a Medal of Honor and an appointment to West Point for volunteering to scale the walls of Peking; and a clutch of colorful Marines, prominent among them Herman “Hard Head” Hanneken, Dan Daley (two-time winner of the Medal of Honor), Chesty Puller (five times awarded the Navy Cross), and “Old Gimlet Eye,” the irascible and irrepressible Smedley Butler.

But there is more here than rousing tales told with verve and élan. Boot shows how after a century of “butcher and bolt”—smiting the ne’er do well to teach him a lesson, but departing just as quickly—U.S. forces after 1898 began to adopt a more deliberate approach to small wars, one involving longer-term presence and more ambitious objectives. The “benevolent assimilation” of the Philippines signaled this shift in emphasis, which soon thereafter further found expression in China and throughout the Caribbean and Central America. By the late 1930s, the armed services—most notably the United States Marine Corps—had derived from these sundry experiences a coherent and well-conceived doctrine for the general conduct of small wars and imperial policing.

With the coming of World War II, however, this doctrine was largely lost to institutional memory. As a result, when U.S. forces next faced the challenge of a small war—in Southeast Asia—they misconstrued the problem. General William C. Westmoreland applied the big war methods with which he was familiar with disastrous results. Had the war’s architects drawn on the hard-won lessons previously learned in places like the Philippines and Nicaragua, Boot believes, Vietnam might have had a different outcome.

As it was, the officer corps came home from that defeat highly allergic to operational untidiness and political uncertainty. Thus, when the end of the Cold War threw up any number of such situations, military leaders wrung their hands and shook their heads and reacted with a wariness that would have baffled can-do types like Smedley Butler. During a period of unprecedented U.S. military activism, reluctant senior officers had to be coaxed and cajoled every step of the way.

Boot, an advocate of a neo-imperial foreign policy, finds such hesitation to be both counterproductive and misplaced. When it comes to shouldering the burdens of empire, he writes, “history suggests we need not worry unduly.” U.S. forces enjoyed considerable success handling such missions in the past. They can be counted on to do so in the future—indeed, the times and U.S. global interests demand that they do so. Hence the imperative of restoring and revalidating an imperial heritage that most Americans, soldiers and civilians alike, have forgotten.

Boot argues his case effectively. Yet one can endorse much of that argument while still concluding that his outlook is far too sanguine.

Boot’s warts-and-all narrative raises political, moral, and strategic questions regarding the costs and consequences of small wars that undermine his concluding call for a global Pax Americana. Thus, in detailing the results of U.S. involvement in the small wars of earlier eras, Boot does not hesitate to recount their brutality. In the now all but forgotten Philippine Insurrection, for example, over four thousand American soldiers died—ten times more than all those killed during the Spanish-American War. Benevolent assimilation also took the lives of 16,000 guerrillas along with an estimated 200,000 Filipino noncombatants, who died of starvation, disease, and the occasional military atrocity. Small wars conducted in distant outposts of empire tend to be dirty wars and seldom bring out the best in mankind.

Furthermore, hardly had U.S. forces prevailed in the Philippines than President Theodore Roosevelt concluded (correctly) that the islands constituted a strategic liability. They proved to be an economic liability as well. Over the next several decades, successive administrations never did figure out how to defend them. Nor did Washington ever figure out how to make this crown jewel in the American imperial crown pay.

Did a half century of American tutelage benefit the people of the Philippines? Although the evidence here is more ambiguous, the fragility of present-day Philippine political institutions, the bizarre character of its political culture, and the notoriously poor performance of its economy make it hard to argue that the legacy of empire has been a positive one.

Yet the Philippines qualify as a smashing success in comparison with other cases. In Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Smedley Butler and his compatriots labored for a couple of decades to imprint American-style methods and institutions on the locals. In the end, they accomplished little apart from sullying the reputation of the Marine Corps. “The only thing more unsavory than U.S. intervention,” Boot observes, “was U.S. nonintervention”—a muted endorsement, at best.

Boot is probably correct that small wars of the sort that played such a large role in the U.S. military’s past will also define its near-term future. Properly read, his book should temper expectations of what the United States is likely to accomplish today as it extends the benefits of liberal democracy to Afghanistan or Iraq or other precincts of the new American empire.

Andrew J. Bacevich teaches international relations at Boston University. His book American Empire will be published by Harvard University Press this fall.

Image by Joshua Santos licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.