The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power (review)
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Reviewed by
Max Boot, The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power. New York: Basic Books, 2002. 427 pp. $30.

One has only to turn on the television these days and see the awful grist that is offered to the public in the guise of badly written situation comedies and dramas, not to mention the proliferation of supposed news shows consisting of people shouting at each other in stage-managed entertainment on sets with pictures of the U.S. Capitol in the background. Surprisingly, one sees few historical dramas on television, unlike, for example, in England, where the British Broadcasting Corporation routinely draws on some episode in the country's history to provide well-done and generally interesting popular entertainment.

One cannot help but wonder why Max Boot did not try to write a historical drama for television when he was working on The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power. Boot spends three-quarters of his book (nearly 300 pages) regaling the reader with stories of the courage and bravery of American heroes across the centuries battling in distant lands in difficult and trying circumstances, but almost always triumphing against evil. Anyone interested in a dramatic and breathless retelling of Stephen Decatur's battles with the Barbary pirates, or Smedly Butler's daring encounters with the Boxers in China and with South American rebels, or General John J. Pershing's dashes around Mexico in his unsuccessful attempt to catch Pancho Villa will greatly enjoy reading this book. These and other incidents that chronicle America's "small wars" experience show Boot's flair for the dramatic. As retold by Boot, in fact, these incidents probably would make for fine television drama.

But Boot's purpose in retelling these tales is decidedly not to impress the reader with the drama of the country's history. He seeks instead to demonstrate the relevance of the country's history to the modern era. Boot would have us believe that the U.S. record in "small wars" around the globe over the centuries is part of a national experience and tradition that will allow the United States to play the role of a global Robocop enforcing a Pax Americana in the new century. But Boot's argument, though interesting in itself, is built on a house of cards insofar as it involves his assertion of the relevance of the U.S. historical experience to the modern era.

As an analytic tool, the drawing of inferences from historical case studies should be a rigorous and painstaking process based on time-consuming research. Each case study must be laboriously dissected to determine what actually happened and why in a particular historical circumstance. Once this part of the equation completed, [End Page 124] the process of drawing inferences can credibly begin. Unfortunately, Boot did none of the critical research, and thus the inferences he draws from his uncritical rendition of history are essentially meaningless. All that emerges from the major part of his book is a potted history of U.S. involvement in small wars. This makes most of the book essentially unreviewable, except that Boot generally acknowledges in a backhanded way that most of America's episodic interventions around the world prior to World War II had a negligible impact—a point that does not in fact support his main argument. Sadly, Boot misses an opportunity for a genuinely interesting discussion of why the wars of the modern era are fundamentally different from those of the last century. A far more interesting example of the use of historical analogies to analyze the modern era is Robert Kaplan's wistful Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos (New York: Random House, 2002).

The real point of Boot's book is delivered in the remaining 100 pages, which treat the reader to a politically motivated and inspired argument about why civilian leaders should disregard the advice of professional military naysayers (who have often been "wrong") when making decisions about when to use force as an instrument of foreign policy. Boot's argument would probably have been more effective if it had been boiled down...