Part Three




The Small Wars Manual

With the end of the mission to China, a chapter in American military history had come to a close. The nation now girded itself for an epic, globe-spanning struggle that would demand the conscription of millions of soldiers and total mobilization of the home front, a struggle that would not end until the enemy’s unconditional surrender. It was a far cry from the small, cheap, limited interventions routinely undertaken by professional soldiers on the fringes of America’s prewar empire. After the signing of the armistice on the deck of the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Harbor on September 2, 1945, Americans had only the briefest interlude to savor peace before being plunged into the maelstrom of another major war, this one on the Korean peninsula, part of a larger struggle against communism that would consume the nation’s energies for more than four decades. There would still be a few small wars—U.S. troops were landed, for instance, in Lebanon in 1958 and the Dominican Republic in 1965, both times at the behest of the local government, both times successfully—but for the most part the nation’s preferred method of waging the Cold War was through covert operations.

In actions that harked back to William Eaton’s attempts to overthrow the pasha of Tripoli in 1805, America’s secret agents helped topple left-leaning governments in countries ranging from Guatemala to Iran. (Sometimes, as in the landing at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs in 1961, such efforts went spectacularly awry.) And in operations that recalled the establishment of constabularies in the Philippines, Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua, U.S. military advisers helped train government forces in the 1940s and 1950s to put down communist insurgencies in countries ranging from Greece to the Philippines. Many of these interventions involved small war methods, but they did not, for the most part, call on American troops, save for scattered advisers.

This left the American armed forces free to concentrate on their primary mission—preparing to wage World War III. Dwight D. Eisenhower, army general turned president, instituted a “New Look” for American strategy that eschewed an ability to fight limited wars in favor of escalating any conflict through the use of atomic weapons, an area in which the U.S. then had a preponderance of power.

The armed forces, the army especially, were not happy with the doctrine of “massive retaliation,” which minimized their conventional war-fighting role. But this in no way implied that the army wanted to engage in small wars. Soldiers preferred World War II-style conflict that was limited only in the sense that it did not involve strategic nuclear weapons. For the most part they were glad to be free of the headaches associated with lower-intensity conflicts, in which both the means and ends were usually severely circumscribed. These interventions had seldom been popular with those called upon to carry them out. It should not be hard to see why. True, many of these operations offer some chance of glory, an opportunity eagerly seized by the likes of Stephen Decatur, Frederick Funston, and Herman Hanneken. But such glory is more fleeting than most. Whereas the generals who lead big armies in big wars—from Sherman to Schwartzkopf—remain household names, who now remembers Smedley Butler, John Rodgers, or J. Franklin Bell?

Professional soldiers naturally want to prove their mettle fighting against other professional soldiers. True warriors would like nothing better than to take part in a clash of armies on empty plains or fleets on the high seas or airplanes in the blue skies, all spheres where martial skill can be displayed in its “pure” form, without worrying about nettlesome political complications. The primary characteristic of small wars is that there is no obvious field of battle; there are only areas to be controlled, civilians to be protected, hidden foes to be subdued. Soldiers must figure out who the enemy is before killing him; make a mistake and, like Major Littleton W. T. Waller or later Lieutenant William Calley, you are likely to face a court-martial. There is little satisfaction in winning such a war—would the New York Yankees rejoice after beating a Little League team?—but much grief if you lose, as the army found out after Russia in 1919 and in Vietnam. Even if you do everything right, what is your reward? Often it means staying and assuming unfamiliar and probably unwelcome duties as administrators and tax collectors, road builders and agricultural advisers, police officers and judges, garbage collectors and public health workers. Most professional soldiers have no desire to be politicians.

Small wonder then that most military services conceive their role in big war terms—closing with and annihilating the armed forces of the enemy. Many professional soldiers share the disdain of Antoine-Henri Jomini, the Swiss-born military strategist of the nineteenth century, who wrote that wars involving nonprofessional combatants were “dangerous and deplorable,” because “they always arouse violent passions that make them spiteful, cruel, terrible.” Jomini’s considered view was that professional soldiers should simply avoid this sort of “organized assassination” in favor of more “chivalresque” violence. That seems to be the view of many American officers too.

Even though its chief occupation throughout much of the nineteenth century was fighting Indians, the army never bothered to develop a doctrine of anti-guerrilla warfare because the generals always viewed the Indian Wars as a temporary diversion from their “real” job—preparing to fight a conventional army. Likewise, the army made little attempt to draw lessons from its operations against Philippine insurrectos, Mexican Villistas, and Russian Bolsheviks—not “real” wars either. The navy, too, despite its long-standing role in gunboat diplomacy, preferred to think of its mission as sinking enemy fleets, a role laid out by the apostle of sea power, Alfred Thayer Mahan. Even in the Marine Corps, which became known in the early years of the twentieth century as “State Department troops,” many longed for the greater glory of major wars. The marines jumped at the chance to fight in World War I, and in the interwar period marine strategists developed amphibious warfare techniques that would be employed in the Pacific theater during World War II.

In the history of the American military there have of course been some exceptions to the big war mindset—a handful of Americans, such as Francis Marion (the Swamp Fox) and John Singleton Mosby (of Mosby’s Rangers), who relished the role of guerrillas, and a few, like the Indian-fighters Nelson Miles and George Crook and the communist-fighter Edward Lansdale, who showed talent and aptitude for anti-guerrilla warfare. But the first military service to view counterinsurgency and other forms of small war fighting as an integral part of its mission was the Marine Corps. Based on their own experiences in the early years of the twentieth century, and on a handbook that grew out of Britain’s colonial experience, the marines in the 1930s wrote The Small Wars Manual.

Much of this book consists of now-archaic tactical advice—the best way to load a mule, for instance, complete with helpful illustrations—but, especially in its early chapters, the manual is an unparalleled exposition of the theory of small wars.

The Small Wars Manual begins with a definition: “As applied to the United States, small wars are operations undertaken under executive authority, wherein military force is combined with diplomatic pressure in the internal or external affairs of another state whose government is unstable, inadequate or unsatisfactory for the preservation of life and of such interests as are determined by the foreign policy of our Nation.” While the army might view such missions as an unwelcome diversion from its main business, the manual states that “small wars represent the normal and frequent operations of the Marine Corps.”

How do small wars differ from big? “In a major war, the mission assigned to the armed forces is usually unequivocal—the defeat and destruction of the hostile forces,” the manual states. “This is seldom true in small wars.” In these encounters, U.S. forces have a more ambiguous mission: “to establish and maintain law and order by supporting or replacing the civil government in countries or areas in which the interests of the United States have been placed in jeopardy.”

In trying to achieve these vague objectives, the nation’s civilian authorities do not simply set the armed forces free to do whatever they feel necessary. “In small wars, diplomacy has not ceased to function and the State Department exercises a constant and controlling influence over the military operations.” Nor do these missions rely on the military’s traditional approach: using maximum firepower to blast the enemy into oblivion. Instead the Small Wars Manual recommends trying to achieve U.S. objectives “with the minimum of troops, in fact, with nothing more than a demonstration of force if that is all that is necessary and reasonably sufficient.”

The manual is keenly aware of the limits of military power in general. “Peace and industry cannot be restored permanently without appropriate provisions for the economic welfare of the people,” the manual says. In keeping with this attitude, the manual suggests that the “hatred of the enemy” usually inculcated among troops in major wars is entirely inappropriate in these circumstances. “In small wars, tolerance, sympathy and kindness should be the keynote to our relationship with the mass of the population.”

Such operations are harder, in many ways, than a military’s traditional duty. After all, “in small wars no defined battle front exists and the theater of operations may be the whole length and breadth of the land.” U.S. troops are sent out on policing functions, where the main task is simply to figure out who the enemy is. American soldiers will be facing “members of native forces [who] will suddenly become innocent peasant workers when it suits their fancy and convenience.” The enemy will always have better intelligence and knowledge of the countryside than the Americans will—and they can choose the best moment to ambush small American detachments. “It will be difficult and hazardous to wage war successfully under such circumstances,” the Small Wars Manual warns. And time consuming: Such operations can drag on indefinitely and never result in a clear outcome such as Appomattox. Yet as the manual makes clear, there is no alternative. Small wars cannot be fought with big war methods.

The final edition of the Small Wars Manual was published at the most inopportune of times, 1940. It seemed to have little application to World War II, though what is often forgotten is that along with the clash of big armies the 1939–1945 conflict saw plenty of guerrilla operations by forces as disparate as the Yugoslav partisans and the French maquis—not to mention America’s own Office of Strategic Services (OSS), forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). By the time America found itself embroiled in a small war in a place called Vietnam, however, the Small Wars Manual and its lessons had been all but forgotten.

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