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Small Wars

Low-Intensity Threats and the American Response since Vietnam

Michael D. Gambone

Publication Year: 2012

Today, conventional fighting waged by massed, industrial armies is nearly extinct as a viable means of warfare, replaced by a broad and diverse array of conflicts that consume the modern American military. Fought in sprawling urban areas of the underdeveloped world or in desolate border regions where ethnicity and tradition reign, these “small wars” involve a vast and intricate network of operations dedicated to attacking the cultural, political, financial, and military layers that surround America’s new enemies. In this intriguing study, Michael Gambone explores America’s approach to small wars since Vietnam, providing a fascinating analysis of the basic goals, missions, conduct, and consequences of modern American conflict. Going beyond a simple comparison of Vietnam to the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Gambone thoroughly tracks the continuous evolution of U.S. intervention between these events, revealing a dramatic shift in the role of the American military to covert operations that require fluidity, creativity, and ingenuity. He examines in detail the many different forms of military intervention that America has taken in the last forty years, including actions in Central America in the 1980s, the first Gulf War, airstrikes in Kosovo in the 1990s, and the war on terror, as well as the Iran-Contra affair, the drug war in Columbia, and the role of private military contractors such as Blackwater. After the Cold War, Gambone shows, American military missions served a wide variety of tasks—peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, counterterrorism—that significantly departed from conventional missions, a trend that continued and expanded after 9/11. By exploring the history and assessing the effectiveness of the small wars fought since Vietnam, Gambone reveals the importance of these smaller actions in modern military planning and operations and clearly traces the development of American warfare from the massive military machine of World War II into a complex hybrid of traditional and innovative techniques.

Published by: The University of Tennessee Press

Front cover

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Title page, copyright page, dedication page

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Table of Contents

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Illustrations list

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pp. ix-x

Over a generation has passed since the United States forces completely withdrew from Vietnam in 1975. Although President Gerald R. Ford urged Americans to put the conflict behind them as the war drew to a close, Americans have ever since debated...

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pp. xi-xii

This book enjoyed the support of more people than I can accurately count. I would like to thank many of those who helped with the research, writing, and revisions that made it a better product at each stage...


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pp. xiii-xvi

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pp. 1-12

Contemporary American conflict is defined by the ongoing war on terror. Attempts to disrupt terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda and to discover the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden have absorbed years of effort, hundreds of billions of dollars...

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Chapter 1: The Cold War and Limited Conflict

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pp. 13-38

After 1945 limited war became a dangerous and permanent reality in the world. With the concurrent introduction of atomic weapons into military arsenals and the rapid demobilization...

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Chapter 2: The Seventies Nadir and Recovery

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pp. 39-78

The seventies were a decade defined by a profound sense of aftermath. They began with continued, vicious divisions within American society, rising crime rates, and declining...

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Chapter 3: Low-Intensity War in the Eighties

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pp. 79-106

Military policy in the Reagan era was built upon confrontation and the search for new forms of organized violence. The former California governor embraced the idea...

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Chapter 4: The First Gulf War and the New World Order

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pp. 107-138

The final collapse of Soviet communism in 1991 offered unprecedented opportunities and dangers to the United States and the world. When the Iron Curtain fell, Eastern European markets, culture, and governance lost their old shackles...

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Chapter 5: "Peace," Nation Building, and the New World Disorder

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pp. 139-174

America began the post–Cold War era with a new world and new leadership. As was the case with Mikhail Gorbachev only a few years earlier, Bill Clinton represented a generation...

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Chapter 6: The Drug War

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pp. 175-210

On 2 December 1993 Pablo Escobar Gaviria, head of the Medellín drug cartel, was shot dead on a rooftop by Colombian security forces. Police and intelligence officials celebrated the end of one of the country’s most notorious criminals...

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Chapter 7: The War on Terror

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pp. 211-238

Without question, the September 2001 attacks on the United States focused the country and its leadership on the nature of terrorism and its real threat to American interests. The very label “global war on terror” became an embedded element...

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Chapter 8: Iraq and Afghanistan

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pp. 239-262

War followed the September 11 attacks on the United States, rapidly in the case of Afghanistan, but also in Iraq after a prolonged and controversial public debate. The two conflicts were the first large-scale, sustained U.S. military efforts since...

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Chapter 9: Private Military Corporations in the New Century

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pp. 263-284

We live in a time of postmodern international relations. Since the end of the Cold War, basic features that once consistently defined national sovereignty and legitimate conflict have been...

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pp. 285-296

The Vietnam War is alive and well in America’s many contemporary conflicts. As a country, we have chosen to listen to the famous dictum and learn from the past in order to avoid its mistakes. Critics of our current wars reflexively apply Vietnam’s...


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pp. 297-370

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 371-402


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pp. 403-407

E-ISBN-13: 9781572339231
E-ISBN-10: 1572339233
Print-ISBN-13: 9781572339149
Print-ISBN-10: 1572339144

Page Count: 424
Illustrations: 7 photographs
Publication Year: 2012

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Low-intensity conflicts (Military science) -- History.
  • Intervention (International law) -- Government policy -- United States.
  • United States -- Military policy -- History -- 21st century.
  • United States -- Military policy -- History -- 20th century.
  • Military history, Modern -- 20th century.
  • Military history, Modern -- 21st century.
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