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Home / Book Reviews / The Worst Book of 2002
The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power
by Max Boot
ISBN: 0-465-00720-1
Publisher: Basic Books (Perseus)
Publication Year: 2002
Publisher Price: $30.00
Cover Type: hardcover

We are trying to get the world, by peaceful means, to believe the truth. That truth is that Americans want a world at peace, a world in which all people shall have opportunity for maximum individual development. The means we shall deploy to spread this truth are often called `psychological.” Don't be afraid of that term just because it's a five-dollar, five-syllable world. `Psychological warfare” is the struggle for the minds and wills of men.--Dwight D. Eisenhower

Author Max Boot is not above making ad hominem attacks on public figures, so I think it is only fair that I do not consider him to be beneath the aim of similarly reductive argumentation.

So let's start first with the author's cred.

Boot is 33 years old, and more than likely of the same age and certainly of the same political persuasion as those white males who cheered wildly when the White House blew up in the 1996 movie Independence Day.

Boot is one of the more prominent public policy analysts now, with his name popping up frequently on the Google searches posted by right-wing web loggers. Based upon his appearances on TV and on radio talk shows, he appears to be an articulate spokesman for unbridled militarism; an effective and effusive cheerleader who unashamedly urges the current Bush Administration on to greater feats of imperialistic derring-do.

A history major from UC-Berkley who earned a MASTER'S DEGREE (`remember, he knows more than you do”) from Dartmouth in the same field, Boot is currently an Olin Fellow who serves at the Council on Foreign Relations. You can also find Boot's contributions in various policy wonk periodicals such as Foreign Affairs, The Weekly Standard, etc. He was a well-respected features editor at The Wall Street Journal during the latter half of the 1990's, and before that, he had been an editor at The Christian Science Monitor.

Despite this impressive journalist's experience, however, Boot seems to have been vulnerable enough and impressionable enough—and undoubtedly confused enough about his moral preferences—to fall under the fish-eyed gaze of cruising conservative think tankers from The National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA), a Texas-based non-profit organization dedicated to downsizing and privatizing every aspect of government except the military, police, and correctional facilities.

The NCPA also is a strong supporter of enabling what they refer to as `married intact families”—the Christian Right's monad—to invest their Social Security benefits RIGHT NOW, preferably with a blue-chip company like Enron, uh, ExxonMobil, so married intact family members can afford to consume things RIGHT NOW at a rate that will ensure that The American Way of Life will be viable for married intact families in the future.

So Boot was recruited successfully by NCPA, and subsequently forced to swallow all of Morgan Reynold's blather about our nation's supposedly squeamish and overly-liberal criminal justice system, blather that he later Booted up—albeit in a much more polished manner—in the form of his first best-selling book: Out of Order: Arrogance, Corruption and Incompetence on the Bench. To his credit, Boot did publicly thank Reynolds, who was at that time the criminal justice director for NCPA, for the `research materials” for Boot's book.

Out of Order could have been written by many a pliant and willing graduate student, of course. But what really drop-kicked Boot's first book into the public eye was to have his book's forward written by Robert H. Bork.

Bork, if you will recall, was Nixon's third-string attorney general who followed sein Fuehrer's orders in 1974 to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox, even after Bork's two predecessors would not.

Cox's firing offense had been to ask for incriminating White House tapes.

A venomous doctrinaire who is dedicated to returning America to 1950's levels of credulity, passivity, racial segregation and fear, Bork was President Reagan's mercifully failed Supreme Court nominee in 1987. Since that time, he has been trying to overcome his instinctive need to be a self-parody of the clucking, scolding, muttering, spluttering, wholly unfocused malevolent public policy meddler who blames liberals for everything (like in his book Slouching Toward Gomorrah). Oddly enough, his most prominent effort towards reinventing The Heel has been to blame Microsoft for everything. This strange turnabout occurred during Bork's legal representation of Netscape during the famous 1998 antitrust lawsuit.

Yet Bork has largely failed at even these lowly aspirations. He has been recognized as a successful cultural critic only to the extent that he has been identified as the right-wing's judicial St. Sebastian: a political martyr who suffered cruelly at the hands of those vicious Democrats who had the temerity back in 1987 to try to stop Bork's nomination.

The Dems thought that by stopping Bork, they might also be able to stop the Supreme Court from metastasizing into a violently corporatist, activist, right-wing small business concern whose sole product would be judicial rubber stamps designed expressly for the next mean-spirited Republican to come along and last longer than four years in the Oval Office.

Paybacks are hell, as they say. The Dems received theirs in 2000 from former Republican Supreme Court nominees Rehnquist, Scalia, Thomas, Kennedy, and O'Conner. Those justices made sure Al Gore would never be able to enter the White House without knocking first.

So, hey, Robert Bork--what an appropriate guide for Boot's survey of America's Courtroom Hell, eh?

At any rate, with a published book under his belt, the forceful imprimatur of a lavishly-endowed right-wing think tank behind him, and Bork's batwings flapping protectively above him, Boot was never in any danger of finding himself in the uncomfortable position of having to rely upon his non-existent military experience in order to construct a sweeping treatise on the use of American military power—the treatise which would eventually become The Savage Wars of Peace. Rather, his political backing ensured that the keys to the vast academic libraries, the great government records repositories, and the sacred military archives, would be rendered unto him unconditionally. He could delve at length into a century's worth of political intrigues, business shenanigans, declassified security briefs, harrowing soldier's narratives and after-action combat reports.

Indeed, he swam through it all, that sea of information, and came up with the kind of book that old Council on Foreign Relations codgers expect, and one that I consider to be the apotheosis of what passes now for intellectual analysis in this country: short-sighted, hypocritical, politically-driven policy talking points puffed up as true insight.

For approximately half of his 428-page book, Boot describes and attempts to analyze those pre-World War II military actions—those conflicts he calls `small wars”—that America undertook against foreign countries or against foreign nationals who transgressed against our vital interests directly or against those of our” third-party client” nations (an Americanism for colonies). The range of these so-called `small wars” spans, in Boot's eyes, from The Barbary Wars that occurred at the beginning of the 19th century to the last US police actions in China in the late 1930's.

Boot's designation `small wars” is problematic from the start, being at once overbroad and yet still speciously narrow. By `small wars” Boot is distinguishing armed conflicts according to the military tactics deployed therein and the rules of engagement (or the lack of same) thereof. His distinction does not consider either the scale of the conflict itself nor the total net cost of the conflict in terms of the resulting death, disease, and long-term political consequences.

Thus, for Boot, both the high-tech Vietnam War (half million US troops involved, 58,000 dead; over 2 million Vietnamese dead) and the comparatively primitive Caco Wars of 1915-1934 in Haiti fit comfortably inside the context of imperial intervention first provided in the 19th century by the British, and which is described (quoted by Boot) as follows: `campaigns undertaken to suppress rebellions and guerilla warfare in all parts of the world where organized armies are struggling against opponents who will not meet them in the open field.”

In short, these `small wars” were our version of the imperialistic, Kiplingesque `savage wars of peace,” the logical, bloody, and perniciously racist export of Manifest Destiny and "Injun' fightin'” abroad.

Boot prefers to use the term `counterinsurgency,” which is just another `five dollar word” to describe the process of fighting dirtier than poorer natives who have no choice but to fight dirty. Boot's further classification of `small wars” into `punitive,” `protective,” `pacification,” and `profiteering” are just so many useless semantic tits on his wild boar of a book, because he proves throughout the first half of his book that virtually all of these `small wars” were undertaken to either directly protect American business assets, or to otherwise safeguard a particular `client” government that would guarantee the profitable flow of resources to those American businesses.

In the second half of his book, Boot attempts to argue that we should measure the relative success or failure of our post-World War II interventions in Vietnam (not a `small war,” at all, but Boot thinks it could have stayed one), Grenada, Iraq, Haiti (Version 3.0, in 1994), Bosnia, and Kosovo according to how well these interventions conform to the `lessons learned” from the pre-World War II `small wars”--lessons that Boot has taken great pains to invent for us in his book.

Conspicuously absent from Boot's post-WWII tally sheet is the US `police action” in Korea during the 1950's. Also missing is Boot's proper analysis—or even mention—of our even smaller-scale counterinsurgency wars: covert actions that were planned, implemented, or directly carried out by US covert personnel or by their trained proxies since 1948.

A serious, exhaustive review of fifty-four years of US covert actions would be pretty demoralizing stuff to anyone who is still in contact with their conscience, so Boot's negligence, here, is understandable, but not excusable. To give some idea of the egregiousness of Boot's omission, I have offered below a descriptive, yet by no means authoritative or exhaustive sample of US covert operations that were conducted from 1948 to 1990. I did not include the whole Saddam-former-US ally-turned-Hitler thing, because it's already being beaten to death right now, literally so in some instances:

--Philippines 1945-1953: US involvement in directing counter-insurgency fight against the nationalist Hukbalahap (Huks) peasant movement, even though the Huks are still fighting Japanese troops; Huks oppose US control of their country after WWII, and their opposition earmarks them for extermination; CIA officer Col. Edward Lansdale continues the fight against the Huks, and with the help of Filipino Col. Napolean Valeriano, Lansdale creates Philippine security forces that will support future president Ramon Magsaysay; these forces will later be used to also suppress popular democratic movements in the Philippines, as well as to infiltrate and suppress other Southeast Asian populist movements, whether they are affiliated with communism or not; CIA relies heavily on Lansdale's success at crushing the Huks for the counterinsurgency model of eradicating the Viet Cong in the 1960's; CIA will continue to rely on covert action in Philippines to undermine its sovereignty and pro-democracy movements for over thirty years;
--Cuba 1952: regime change effected by bloodless coup against existing Cuban government by US-supported Juan Batista; US recognizes Batista within weeks, sends military aid;
--Iran, 1953: regime change effected by joint CIA/British MI6-planned assassination of ardent nationalist Mohammed Mossadegh; Mossadegh's fatal mistake was to nationalize oil assets; Shah restored via Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, who proceeds to allow US/British oil concerns to fleece Iran for 25 years until Islamic militants oust Shah in 1979; Teddy Roosevelt's grandson, former CIA agent Kermit Roosevelt, is repeatedly identified as key player behind deadly regime change;
--Guatemala,1954; regime change effected by CIA-planned assassination of Jacobo Arbenz, the democratically-elected president;
--Panama, 1955: CIA implicated in effecting regime change by asssassination of Panamanian president Jose Antonio Remon, during a time when the US and Panama were embroiled in Canal Zone negotiations;
--Costa Rica, 1955: CIA-sponsored regime change against Jose `Pepe” Figueres fails; CIA supported invasion by Nicaraguan leader Somoza attempts to invade and overthrow the most stable and democratic republic in Latin America; Figueres smeared as being a `Communist” for granting asylum to hundreds of exiles from right-wing dictatorships and providing them with pro-democracy plans;
--Philippines, 1957: CIA `dirty tricks” election campaign against democratic reform senator Claro Recto, who was opposed to increased US military presence in his country; dirty tricks include CIA distribution of condoms with needle holes; sealed condom packages bear the logo `Courtesy of Claro M. Recto—The People's Friend”; several years later, Recto dies in Rome from mysterious heart attack after being visited by `two Caucasians”; government documents later reveal that CIA Chief of Station Ralph Lovett and US Ambassador Admiral Raymond Spruance had discussed poisoning Recto prior to Recto's death;
--Lebanon 1957-58: CIA-rigged election in favor of Christian minority infuriates Muslim majority, thus lighting the spark of the Lebanese civil war that will rage for 25 years;
--Indonesia, 1958: US-backed, CIA-trained and initiated so-called `native rebellion” against mildly ineffectual Socialist leader Sukarno; Sukarno immediately turns into effective tyrant, crushes rebellion, suspends democratic government and names himself `President for Life”;
--Hungary, 1956: CIA organizes, directs financial and military assistance to Hungarian resistance movement, including radio propaganda, which the Hungarians take to heart and are moved to rise up against Soviets—US backs out, resistance is crushed; those who can't flee country wait until Soviet Union collapses in 1989;
--Cuba, 1959: Fidel Castro overthrows Batista military dictatorship; US relations turn sour when Castro nationalizes banks and industries; CIA begins to train Cuban exiles as terrorists;
--Cuba, 1961: Cuban exiles, trained in US by CIA, launch CIA inspired-invasion at Playa Giron (Bay of Pigs); invasion fails;
--Dominican Republic, 1961: regime change by CIA-assisted assassination of president, effected by airplane crash; death of president Rafael Torrijos leads staunch anti-Communist Juan Bosch to ascend to power; CIA-backed coup then removes Bosch only several months later because of his intended land reform programs;
--Congo (Zaire), 1960: CIA plans fatal regime change by assassination; CIA assists forces led by Joseph Mobotu to capture and eventually kill the popular Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba with poison; 1973 Church Committee reveals the CIA sense of humor towards assassination when the Committee publishes a cable sent by CIA Chief, who was responding to the delivery of Lumumba by his killers: `THANKS FOR PATRICE IF WE HAD KNOWN HE WAS COMING WE WOULD HAVE BAKED A SNAKE;
--Brazil, 1960: regime change of popular president Joao Goulert by tandem effort of military junta and CIA-trained operatives working for Brazilian telephone and telegraph companies;
--El Salvador, 1963: US Special Forces and CIA case officers help set up the first paramilitary `death squad” organization—ORDEN—for Salvadorean dictator general Jose Alberto Medrano;
--British Guiana/Guyana, 1964: regime change of three-term Socialist president Cheddi Jagan; defeat sparked by economic turmoil that was triggered by CIA-inspired and manipulated labor strikes;
--Dominican Republic, 1965: Popular attempt to re-install Juan Bosch fails as the result of CIA operations;
--Indonesia, 1965: US-backed, CIA-trained, equipped, supported and initiated violent overthrow of Sukarno by US proxy Suharto; Suharto's forces, aided by CIA intelligence and technology, hunts down and massacres an estimated 500,000 `suspected” Communist and activists; Suharto forces were trained and supported by CIA operatives based in the Philippines;
--Greece, 1967: Joint CIA, Greek military and royalist effort stages military pre-emptive strike against possible electoral victory of former liberal prime minister George Papandreau; following month of martial law, assassinations, torture and beatings allegedly claim 8,000 victims;
--Libya, 1969: CIA/MI5 intelligence fails to understand full nature of military coup that installs a young, bright, intensely religious army colonel named Muammar Quadhafi; CIA concerned only with Quadhafi's anti-Communist stance, which Quadhafi possesses because of atheistic component of Communism; Libya changes almost overnight from a conservative, stable Arab traditionalist state that allows US/British oil interests free reign to a radical nationalistic state with strong sympathies towards Palestine and with a distaste for being controlled by foreign investments;
--Cambodia, 1970: long-term CIA attempt at regime change finally succeeds against Prince Sihanouk; country's integrity devastated by Nixon/Kissinger carpet bombing of 1969-1970, power vacuum after Sihanouk departure leads the way for Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge (of the `killing fields” notoriety) to ascend to power;
--Philippines, 1972: president Ferdinand Marcos declares martial law; CIA obtains and approves of list of people targeted for death or imprisonment; Marcos will rule for 14 more years as the epitome of the US-supported, fraudulent, unstable dictator who (with the help of his wife, Imelda) looted his own country;
--Chile, 1973: regime change effected by assassination of Salvador Allende; prior to assassination, Nixon ordered CIA to make Chilean economy `scream” by instigating strikes, shortages, utility outages, etc. to force regime change; installed dictator Agosto Pinochet's reign of terror causes tens of thousands to `disappear” to their deaths;
--Baluchistan, 1973-1977 (Pakistani province): suppression of their national independence from Iran and Pakistan by US-trained and equipped Iranian troops;
--El Salvador, 1974: US Office of Public Safety, the bland moniker for the US AID-allied organization responsible for overseeing US counter-insurgency operations in El Salvador for almost 30 years, is discontinued by US congress. CIA operatives and ex- US Special Forces continue to work with El Salvador security forces despite US congressional restrictions, giving them further training in torture, assassination and intelligence gathering;
--East Timor, 1975-1989: US President Ford/Secretary of State Kissinger assure Indonesia of that country's right to use US arms to invade East Timor to stop independence movement and then to annex East Timor; by 1989, East Timor will have suffered at least 250,000 deaths;
--Angola, 1975-1993: CIA-installed leader Jonas Savimbi's actions leads to hot war between rival factions supported by various Cold War rivals: South Africa, Cuba, USSR, US; in 1993, US eventually recognizes the rival faction to Savimbi's forces—the MPLA—as the legitimate government; oddly enough, the MPLA was the very opposition force the US had been trying to destroy for almost twenty years;
--Nicaragua, 1978-1989: Overthrow of corrupt Antonio Somoza dictatorship by Sandinista forces leads to all out US proxy war against this nation, immediately involving CIA destablization missions and other covert operations; under US President Reagan, US-trained and supported terror squads known as Contrasresort to murder, rape, torture, and kidnapping to end Sandanista government; eventually, Reagan Administration and their operatives will eventually resort to subversion of US Constitution to attempt to win this war, including the illegal sale of arms to US enemy Iran; interestingly enough, US designs on Nicaragua had compelled US troops to occupy the small country on three different occasions since 1900—1910, 1912, and 1927, whereupon the US Marines would stay as the dominant security force there until 1934, when a former Minister of War general named Anastasio Somoza would kill the leftist guerilla leader César Sandino and subsequently establish his control of Nicaragua with his National Guard troops, a supremacy that would lead him to power in 1936; Somoza's legacy would continue through his son until 1979;
--Afghanistan, 1979-1989: US finances and directs the infiltration of arms, explosives, and specially-trained Islamic fundamentalist `freedom fighters,” in order to defeat Soviet occupation forces; many of these `freedom fighters” would become members of the Taliban and Al Quaeda;
--El Salvador, 1979: regime change by CIA-orchestrated coup leads Jose Napolean Duarte to become president of El Salvador;
--Chad, 1981: CIA installs, supports dictator Hissene Habre, in order to spite northern neighbor Libya (Quadhafi); Habre brutalizes his own nation for almost a decade before fleeing to Senegal;
--Panama, 1981: regime change effected by assassination by plane crash; dictator Omar Torrijos killed; CIA-controlled asset and Panamanian intelligence officer Manuel Noriega suspected of sabotaging plane; Noriega begins to consolidate power through leadership of Panamanian Defense Force, and to continue to deal drugs/launder money for his own profits and to assist the US-supported Nicaraguan Contra forces;
--Libya, 1981: US targets Libya for punitive `show of force” because of leader Muammar Quadhafi's support for Palestinians, as well as for his support of the Iranian Islamic revolution; US warships attempt to provoke Quadhafi by cruising up Libya's Gulf of Sirte', Libyan sovereign territory since 1973;
--Libya, 1981: US forces shoot down 2 Libyan jets that were allegedly monitoring US warships located in Gulf of Sirte';
--Libya, 1982: CIA-inspired destabilization tactics against Libya include US import ban of Libyan crude oil, export ban of oil technology to Libya; US fails to get Europe to join destabilization efforts;
--El Salvador, 1982: low point of ongoing civil war is the massacre at El Mazote, where 700 people were killed; eleven years later, it is revealed that 10 of the 12 Salvadoran officers accused of overseeing the massacre graduated from the Ft. Benning, GA-based School of the Americas;
--Surinam, 1982-1983: CIA tries three times during this period to effect regime change by assassination of Colonel Desi Bouterse—they all fail;
--Philippines, 1983: Dictator Ferdinand Marcos receives US funds to continue to fight leftist guerillas;
-- Philippines, 1983: CIA assists Marcos operatives in assassinating popular opposition candidate Benino Aquino; massive anti-government protests ensue for the following three years, forming an anti-Marcos coalition among democrats, Communists, and Muslim guerillas; Aquino's widow, Cory Aquino, helps organize nonviolent anti-government protests;
--Lebanon, 1983: US Marines land in Beirut to protect Christian forces from Muslim factions; suicide bomber kills 285 Marines, US withdraws from Lebanon;
--Nicaragua, 1984: CIA-led operatives mine three Nicaraguan harbors; Nicaraguan officials protest to the World Court, which finds against the US in the amount of $18 billion; the US refuses to recognize the World Court judgment;
--Panama, 1985: Hugo Spadafora, former Panamanian Health Minister who denounces Noriega's drug dealing to US DEA agents, is brutally tortured and killed; CIA station chief based in Costa Rica covers up Noriega's complicity in Spadafora's death;
--Libya, 1986: In January, US declares total trade embargo against Libya; two months later, US 6th fleet warships again enter Gulf of Sirte', attacking Libya's patrol boats and on-shore anti-aircraft missiles;
--Philippines, 1986: Snap election finds opposition parties rallying around Cory Aquino; Marcos flees the country; US loses many CIA assets as it distances itself from Marcos regime; 1991 Mt. Pinatubo volcano will do more to diminish US control of Philippines than all political acts of violence in the nation's history;
--Libya, 1986: Libya's response to recent US `acts of war” and to the 1981 US downing of 2 Libyan warplanes is to conspire with Lebanese and Palestinian terrorist to blow up popular Berlin disco La Belle, resulting in the death of three US GI's;
--Libya, 1986: CIA intelligence directs US airstrikes on two Libyan cities, including personal home of Libyan leader Quadhafi, in retaliation for suspected Libyan involvement in 1986 Berlin disco bombing that killed three US GI's; airstrike kills Quaddafi's daughter;
--Libya, 1988: Libyan terrorist suspected of blowing up Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland; terrorist alleged to have acted in retaliation for 1986 US airstrike; Pan Am explosion and crash kills 270 people, mostly Americans;
--Panama, 1989: US forces invade Panama, in order to arrest and extradite former CIA asset Manual Noriega on US drug charges—the first time in our nation's history we have enforced a US law against a citizen (leader) of a sovereign nation on its own territory; US officials reveal that Noriega's drug activities were known by US for more than a decade; thousands of civilians are killed as part of `collateral damage”;
--Philippines, 1989: Col. James Rowe, Joint US Military Advisory Group (JUSMAG) adviser, is ambushed in 1989 by urban guerrillas of the New People's Army in Timog Avenue, Quezon City; Rowe had been a clandestine organizer for anti-Communist death squads like Alsa Masa and vigilante groups patterned after "Operation Phoenix" in Vietnam, which had the objective of eliminating legal and semi-legal mass activists and their political sympathizers;
(Sources: Kwitny, Endless Enemies, 1984; Blum, Killing Hope, 1995; Blum, The CIA, A Forgotten History,1986; Stockwell, The Praetorian Guard, 1991; Stockwell, In Search of Enemies, 1978; Kirsh, Central America Without Crying Uncle, 1990; Simbulan, The CIA in Manila, 2000; 1973 Church Committee Hearings on CIA Misdeeds)

In his final chapter, `In Defense of the Pax Americana—Small Wars in the 21st Century, Boot sums up our military's performance as follows: based on his research, the Vietnam War was an anomaly for `small wars” and therefore a poor role model for those who are interested in gearing up our nation, post-September 11, for interminable counterinsurgency wars to be waged in order to consolidate our American Empire all over the globe. For Boot, the ideal counterinsurgency model worth emulating was The Philippine War 1899-1902. This back-to-the-future argument of his appeals to US military self-esteem, because at least in the Philippines, we were able to defeat a numerically-superior nationalist force while fighting in rugged, tropical jungle conditions.

Boot's argument does not appeal at all to Filipino self-esteem, as the Filipinos must contend with the following bittersweet and surely schizoid context of the US `victory”: US forces were responsible for bolstering Filipino independence movements—first by liberating them from Spain, who had been their colonial oppressor for 300 years, then by liberating them from Japanese occupation forces in 1945—and then crushing them.

In Boot's rush to celebrate this particular counterinsurgency war, he fails to factor in the overall net cost of our capricious good cop/bad cop role played in the Philippines, a role we would play for more than eighty years after our supposed `victory” there in 1902.

Again, the appeal of our `victory,” in this instance and in many others, as well, vanishes altogether when you consider the corrosive irony inherent to it: that our own nation, born from armed revolution against colonial oppression, should take pride in its success with stamping out the flames of liberty all over the globe.

But Boot has absolutely no problem with just such an American role. The sole purpose of this book (the author's self-aggrandizement notwithstanding) is to argue for the exponential expansion our counterinsurgency capabilities and targets.

To that end, Boot offers some stirring and sage advice—advice that was hard won, no doubt, during his 33 years experience in battling rebellious computer keyboards and standing up to those sniffy, Commie/Hippie-type library assistants back at Cal Berkley:

One final bit of advice, based on the lessons of history. In deploying American power, decisionmakers should be less apologetic, less hesitant, less humble. Yes, there is a danger of imperial overstretch and hubris—but there is an equal, if not greater, danger of undercommitment and lack of confidence. America should not be afraid to fight ‘the savage wars of peace' if necessary to enlarge the ‘empire of liberty.' It has done it before.

There it is. The Chickenhawk Imperialist's Manifesto, in all of its hypocritical glory.

There is much this puffed-up chickenhawk must be held accountable for, obviously, but I think his worst transgression is his smearjob on the reputation of Major General Smedley D. Butler, USMC.

Smedley Butler, called `The Fighting Quaker” and `Old Gimlet Eye,” had faced gunfire 120 times. He was awarded two Congressional Medals of Honor. He had fought battles in the Spanish-American War; in China, during the Boxer Rebellion and again during the 1927-1929 intervention; directed counterinsurgency campaigns in Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Haiti; commanded the American Expeditionary Forces troop embarkation camp located in Brest, France, during the end of World War I.

That is to say, in Boot's own words, that Butler `played a prominent role in every small war fought by marines between 1899 and 1929.”

At first, Max Boot reveres Butler, characterizing him as the quintessential counterinsurgency commander: a tough, bluff, straight-talking, foul-mouthed, no-bullshit leader who leads in front of his men, not from behind them.

But Boot's reverence for Butler falters when the author is confronted with the spectacle of Butler's post-retirement re-evaluation of his own role in imperialistic `small wars.” Indeed, his former reverence for Butler seems to vanish altogether, when faced with such Butlerian anti-interventionist rhetoric as this:

I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-12. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras ‘right' for American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927, I helped see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested . . . . Looking back on it, I feel that I could have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three city districts. We marines operated on three continents.

Even worse, the author must contend with even more acts of so-called `radicalism” by this renegade Marine.

Boot's former idol supported the 1932 `Bonus Expeditionary Force” that assembled in Washington DC. This `Bonus Army” was actually a protest led by unarmed, unemployed military veterans and their families, numbering almost 20,000, who were devastated by the Depression and who were demanding the passage of the Patman Bill, a law that would provide early cash payment of their war service `bonus” that was due them in 1945. They squatted in their tents despite the torrid July heat, and heard such speeches as this one by Butler:

You hear folks call you fellows tramps, but they didn't call you that in '17 and '18. I never saw such fine soldiers. I never saw such discipline. . . You have as much right to lobby here as the United States Steel Corporation …. This is the greatest demonstration of Americanism ever seen. (source: quoted in Schmidt, Maverick Marine1987.

The Patman Bill was overwhelmingly defeated by the Senate and denounced by a callous Hoover Administration. Upon President Hoover's command, Douglas McArthur showed his expertise at counterinsurgency (learned in the Philippines) by driving out his fellow American soldiers and their families with cavalry, bayonets, tanks, and tear gas, even setting their tents on fire.

During 1933-1934, Butler had been approached by leaders of the gold standard cabal/Wall Street investment firms, who attempted to bribe him into creating and leading a 500,000-man army of supporters drawn from military veterans and rightwing members of the American Liberty Legion. This `gold army” would march on Washington and demand the overthrow of the Roosevelt Administration. Butler refused to participate in the conspiracy, and ratted out the conspirators to Congress (sources: Schmidt, Maverick Marine, 1987; Archer, The Plot to Seize the White House,1973)

This plot—and all of its ramifications—combined with Butler's apostasy against militaristic imperialism to hit Boot so hard that he resorted to distorting the post-retirement life of Smedley Butler. For Boot, Butler's anti-imperialism became signs of Butler's senility; Butler's attack on Wall Street's `small wars” became his misguided attempts to overcome his growing isolation (his former rich friends abandoned Butler after his Wall Street Conspiracy testimony) by snuggling up to pacifists and Communists; and Butler's understanding of the purpose of all the `small wars” in which he fought became third-hand knowledge limited to that of an officer `taking orders.” As Booth writes:

The reality is that Butler was not involved in the decisions to use force; he carried out his orders, and carried them out well, but he often did no know precisely why they were issued . . . . Butler was hardly the only soldier who felt that . . . the warrior ethos should not be corrupted by commercial considerations. Nor was he the only soldier to feel that small wars overseas were a waste of time. He took these views to a more radical extreme, however, than just about any officer . . . before or since. One cannot help but suspect that Butler's Quaker pacifist beliefs, so long suppressed during his military career, came back with a vengeance upon his retirementBoot, page 270.

A less doctrinaire reading of Boot's own sources for the life and career of Smedley Butler, however, reveal a different `reality.”

Butler's father, Thomas Butler, was a powerful and extremely influential US congressman, a hawkish Quaker who dominated US naval politics in the 1920's and who used his power in Washington, repeatedly, to assist his son's military aspirations and those of the United States Marine Corp. Boot's claim that Butler did not have `the big picture”—that the uppity warlike son of a powerful US congressman would not know why or how the demands of big business are translated by big government and ultimately achieved by military might—is ridiculous.

Any close reading of Butler's post-retirement period cannot support a charge of `pacifism” against Butler. His Quaker upbringings may have affected his manner of communicating with his parents and family (`thee” and `thou”), but it certainly never kept him from hopping to wars overseas, or advocating the use of force to maintain American `fair play” at home, or using earthy and passionately course language in expressing his views. It is instructive, too, to remember that Herbert Hoover was also a Quaker—the President who failed the American people during the Depression, and who gave McArthur the command to evict the `Bonus Army.”

Butler was a much more complicated man than the straw renegade set afire by Boot's book. Butler's anti-imperialism and anti-Wall Street were part and parcel of the same man who lauded the FBI and who found true national security in an incorruptible national police force—a Homeland Security, if you will—that would create a defensive wall around this country `so tight that a rat couldn't crawl through it.” Butler's ballot that he cast for Norman Thomas, the Socialist candidate, in the 1936 election, seems to balance nicely, rather than repudiate, all the bullets, parasites, and illnesses Butler suffered fighting America's `savage wars of peace.”

Between Butler's anti-imperialism, motivated by his personal experience and hindsight, and Boot's pro-imperialism, motivated by the author's own chickenhawk arrogance and by the greed of his rightwing backers, I'll chose the vision of `Old Gimlet Eye every time.

© Copyright 2003 by KNS Maré