Sample 2: The Savage Wars of Peace
AP U.S. History, Daniel Burns
One book that has been a huge hit with previous classes is called The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power, by Max Boot. Boot tells the story of the small wars in America’s history that are not so well known – but nevertheless important to making the U.S. a world power. You will find yourself engrossed in stories all over the world from the wars against the Barbary Pirates in North Africa, to raids in Mexico, and a even a section on “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Find out what part the United States played in suppressing the Boxer rebellion in China or how we subdued the Philippines after the Spanish-American War. A major feature of the book is an engaging writing style, making it very readable.
Here is a sample essay about this book written by Travis, an APUSH student in 2012-2013:
The time was about 11 o’ clock as we sat in our whaleboats ready to be launched into a no resistance occupation. There were about 700 of us, both marines and bluejackets. When we hit the wharf we organized into a marine regiment and a sailor regiment; I was with the sailors. As we started to march down the road towards the custom’s house we came under heavy sniper fire; we sailors weren’t prepared or experienced in land warfare and quickly took casualties. By the time we had control of the city the next day there were 22 dead, and 20 of those fatalities were sailors from the landing. After Admiral Fletcher heard that the sailors were pinned down and were getting nowhere he decided we’d have to call a retreat and wait for reinforcements.
That landing would go on to mark the start of a 7 month occupation of Veracruz, Mexico. In and of itself the operation was largely insignificant; but what was significant about it, in hindsight, was that it showed the marines are really the best at amphibious landings and small war operations. Small wars throughout American history tell the same story; they are most efficient and successful when the marines are tasked with the job. The Philippines, China, Nicaragua, Panama, and Haiti were all very successful small war operations. But when the army tried to fight a small war using typical big war tactics some of the worst military failures in US history are the result.
One of those failures was the defense of Vietnam in 1959-1975. North Vietnam, backed by communist Russia and China, fought South Vietnam, backed by the USA. The general sent to fight the war for the US side was William Childs Westmoreland, who was an up and coming first lieutenant in WWII and got promoted to general in Korea. Under any normal circumstances (i.e. a big war such as WWII or Korea) he would’ve done an excellent job, and we’d remember Vietnam as a smashing success. But the communists knew that they couldn’t go toe to toe with Uncle Sam so they devised guerrilla warfare tactics. If General Westmoreland had matched small war tactics with small war tactics the US would’ve had a much better rate of success. Instead he chose to go on “search and destroy” missions using lots of men and lots of heavy, loud machines. If he ever actually saw his enemy before they heard him they’d be gone before the helicopters and tanks were even in range.
But while Westmoreland was stomping around the Northern Mountains chasing phantoms, a few influential people back in Washington still remembered how successful the marines were at small war conflicts. These people got the president’s signature on a bill to put a plan in motion that would pacify the coastal region; they wanted to use a modified version of the strategy that was hugely successful during the Philippines operation.
This plan was called CAP, or Combined Action Platoon, and the targeted test run was in Binh Nghia located just about half way between the two opposing capitals. The idea of CAP was to shut out the communists from the support of the civilian population base that they so desperately needed in order to continue with their guerrilla warfare. As North Vietnamese General Giap said, “Without the people we have no information… they hide us, protect us, feed us, and tend our wounded.” A Combined Action Platoon was made up of a marine rifle squad under the command of a sergeant, about 12-15 men, coupled with a regiment of about 30 local militia men trained by the marines they served under. This arrangement worked so well that not only could the marines and their foreign allies occupy the town and defend it properly, but they were actually making raids on the enemy outside the city limits. They were so secure inside the city that they patrolled in twos as if they were part of NYPD rather than soldiers in war torn Vietnam.
While the marines were having so much success in their pacification operation, the bulk of the army had 540,000 troops in Vietnam at any one point in time, and yet they could not do what 15 marines and a handful of local militia could. The army brass coming off a big war high following WWII simply forgot about the Small Wars Manual the marines wrote after their stay in the Philippines. And while it is true that hind sight is 20/20, if Washington had read the writing on the wall and used more discernment they could’ve easily saved the majority of the 58,000 service men who lost their lives due to poor leadership and strategy.
The small wars of America should be fought by marines and marines alone, only using the bulk infantry army when there is a visible enemy with a visible army to fight. The Savage Wars of Peace has certainly opened my eyes to the history of wars that the US has been apart of and made a compelling case against the use of large war tactics when a small war approach is necessary. I recommend this book to anyone who truly wants to learn about the history of America’s involvement abroad and the tactics behind such involvement. Furthermore, how might Washington today benefit from dusting off the Small Wars Manual in response to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? And how might both wars be fought more efficiently if the executive powers did so?
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