The Savage Wars of Peace by Max Boot

The book covers the history of American “small wars,” those uses of military power that haven’t involved a massive buildup of forces or the pitting of large armies against each other in formal battle. The time period spans from the early 1800s to the modern day. Not surprisingly, as a reader you can sense the driving force of September 11 in the development of the book’s arguments.

I heartily recommend it. It’s full of fascinating stories about all-too-often obscure men and women in American military history. These stories pertain to bravery, buffoonery, and everything in between.

From a modern day standpoint, one of the most gripping lessons of the book is the gap between the military’s preferred mission and the actual challenges that it faces in the field. The military prefers to fight a different form of war than what it is often called upon to do. One of the few times in which this didn’t occur was in the late nineteenth century when most of the army was involved in the final stages of “Indian war” in the American West. The lessons of this service (and as we know, some of these lessons were unfortunate) helped many American officers cope with guerrilla war in the Philippines from 1900 to 1907. This, however, is the exception to the rule.

The consequence of this tendency is a spotty record of waging small wars. They’ve been messy, ragged, and not all of it is the result of the nature of small wars. I would add something else to this—that the American public and what I’ll call our “governing bodies” often do not pay attention to or understand the reality of small wars. Therefore, hard lessons have to be relearned over and over. This process has costs in the public’s will to withstand small wars.

For those of you thinking that I’m speaking in code about the connection between Iraq in 2003-2005 and Vietnam, I’m not. They’re different situations entirely and I don’t think we’ve reached the point where the similarities outweigh the differences. Such a point does exist, I’ll grant you, but we’ve not reached it in my view.

A sidebar comment is that the book also shows the deep impact that a relatively small number of families have had on the military. It’s interesting to note that such a small number of people can leave so large an imprint.

Finally, I think a leadership lesson is that you always need to shorten the gap between what you think, hope, or believe occurs and what actually occurs. This correlates to my point about the military preferred and actual experiences. Simple? Maybe, but that doesn’t guarantee that we act on it every day as leaders. Spend as much time as you can with followers and with the people (customers, patients, etc) that they serve. Find out the real details that drive the work, the service, and all the rest.