SAIS Review 23.1 (2003) 257-271
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The Policy Hole
Michael Alexander Innes
The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power, by Max Boot. (New York: Basic Books, 2002. 448 pp. $30).
The Enola Gay exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, held from June 1995 to May 1998, commemorated the role of the Boeing B-29 Superfortress that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. In its original form, the display challenged conservative views of U.S. military power and victory over Japan. Public controversy grew over the remorseful tone of its analysis, and the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian, under intense political pressure, dropped the planned display in favor of one decidedly less controversial. Hence the three-year exhibition eschewed more difficult analytic questions regarding the world's first nuclear event in favor of bland memorialization and a more politique rendering of an American accomplishment. 1
The greater significance of the Enola Gay controversy, according to historian Richard H. Kohn, lay in its Orwellian skewering of truth in favor of politically palatable memory. The Smithsonian had diminished its intellectual authority and forsaken its duty as the caretaker of American cultural and historical identity "to accommodate with a political perspective." 2 For some, this institutional genuflection at the altar of expediency amounted to censorship, and the implications for scholarly inquiry were dire indeed. Kohn, taking the point to its logical extreme, argued, "If the idea that everything is politics now colors American cultural life, civic [End Page 257] discourse could succumb to the suppression characteristic of the totalitarian regimes Americans have fought and died to defeat." 3
If truth's accommodation with politics is a cynical byproduct of the modern era, can there be a more righteous project than reconciling the glories of old with the crimes of the past? The question is central for those attempting to recover from the post-Cold War collapse of socialism and the humbled credentials of the nation-state. National "progress," in this context, has been replaced by competing, sometimes vengeful, quests for the transcendent meaning of simpler days. The imperial and the post-colonial have switched seats in a global auditorium teeming with the twentieth century's disaffected, dispossessed, and downright disdainful. "We thus find ourselves in a 'post-socialist' and 'post-national' condition," writes historical sociologist John Torpey, "which, skeptical of new blueprints for a heaven on earth, instead fixes its gaze firmly on the horrors and injustices of the past." 4
We can scarcely avoid being caught up in this obsessive pursuit of history. Redefining the past in terms that suit present sensibilities, appropriately, has been at once a project of subversive and forward-looking dimensions: unearthing national skeletons from the bone-yards of historical memory can only be a painful catharsis. It should thus come as no surprise that works of military and diplomatic history, and public recognition of their cultural worth, have taken on an altogether different hue in this post-Holocaust age. It is in this light that Max Boot's The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power merits serious discussion. 5 The road to American empire, according to Boot, a features editor at the Wall Street Journal, has been paved with numerous undeclared interventions abroad by U.S. forces—especially the Marines—throughout the history of the Republic. Drawing his title from Rudyard Kipling's now infamous ode to colonialism, "The White Man's Burden," Boot offers an entertaining series of vignettes detailing the lost lessons of America's foreign adventures. This tradition, he argues, should have provided ample precedent for the troubled humanitarian interventions of the 1990s, but did not. Unfortunately, Boot fails to convince on a number of important fronts. His periodization of U.S. foreign policy is crude, and the moniker "Small Wars" is left ill-defined in order to include a broad sampling of massacres, skirmishes, landings, wars, standoffs, and manhunts. Small Wars, he repeatedly points out, are not defined by the scale of the fighting...