Last fall, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld proudly showed photographs of U.S. special forces troops riding on horseback in Afghanistan. Rumsfeld explained how these American soldiers acted as liaison with the opposition forces, living as they lived, traveling as they traveled, fighting where they fought; while still bringing to bear the decisive advantages of modern technology in the form of precision-guided munitions carried by B-2 bombers.

This is indeed a great story but, as Max Boot writes, it is hardly unprecedented. The U.S. military has been engaged in “the savage wars of peace” (Kipling’s phrase) since the early days of the Republic. Americans tend to remember the big wars—lately, the War of the Greatest Generation (World War II). They assume that the country is either at war—fully mobilized against a major adversary; determined upon total victory through the enemy’s surrender after the defeat of its armed forces—or it is at peace. In fact, as Boot points out, these periods of peace have been punctuated with small wars, what others call “low intensity conflicts” or in a related category, “military operations other than war.” Between 1800 and 1934, for instance, the Marine Corps staged 180 landings abroad, including on the fabled shores of Tripoli, the isthmus of Panama, the Samoan islands, and Leyte Gulf in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War.

Boot, the editorial features editor of The Wall Street Journal, seeks to redress our understanding of American military history in order to provide a different strategic model for the uncertain world we now face. He divides small wars into four types: punitive (to punish attacks on American citizens or property), protective (to safeguard American citizens or property), pacification (to occupy foreign territory), and profiteering (to grab trade or territorial concessions). There is a certain imprecision in distinguishing between big and small wars, but you will know the latter when you see them—campaigns fought by a relatively small number of professional soldiers, pursuing limited objectives with limited means, often against irregular forces. Although Boot acknowledges the role of the U.S. Army and Navy in small wars, he focuses on the special expertise of the Marine Corps, captured most notably in its Small Wars Manual of 1940.

When you think about it, as Boot does for us, America’s small wars have involved an astonishing range of unilateral and multilateral actions. American forces waged naval and amphibious war against the Barbary States of North Africa to guarantee freedom of commerce in the Mediterranean, and fought to rescue the foreign legations in Beijing during the Boxer uprising in China. In Mexico, General John J. Pershing pursued Pancho Villa in response to cross-border raids just before American entry into World War I. At about the same time, U.S. Marines landed in Haiti and stayed for 19 years (eight years in the Dominican Republic). The Vietnam War began as a U.S. counterinsurgency campaign. Boot recalls other less prominent cases that have largely disappeared from our historical consciousness, if they were ever present at all.

Boot is a bracing storyteller, and one of the book’s strengths is his recounting of some of these forgotten episodes. For example, Second Lieutenant George S. Patton wangled a staff appointment with Pershing in the Mexican expedition, and then dashed off with a small unit to search for one of Villa’s key generals. Using his ivory-handled Colt .45 revolver, Patton shot several Mexicans off their horses, including the general, whose corpse he lashed to the fender of his Dodge touring car for the trip back to camp. Pershing referred to Patton affectionately as “my bandit.”

For the most part, these professional soldiers labored in obscurity. Brigadier General “Fighting Fred” Funston did achieve contemporary fame when he helped end the Philippine War by capturing rebel leader Emilio Aguinaldo. Funston used friendly Filipino natives to pose as reinforcements for Aguinaldo’s forces. These counterfeit rebels “guarded” Funston and four other American officers who pretended to be prisoners of war. They infiltrated the rebels’ heavily guarded camp in the remote mountains of northeastern Luzon and seized Aguinaldo, who later issued a proclamation accepting American sovereignty and calling on his comrades to give up the struggle.

Certain points stand out from reading Boot’s account. First, small wars happen. The United States is a global power with strategic, political, economic, and moral interests. Many nations and groups don’t much like us. Even without looking for trouble, the United States, and its citizens abroad, will inevitably find it.

Second, small wars often follow a pattern; we should avoid having to learn the same lesson twice or thrice in dealing with particular peoples and regions. Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan all had to deal with hostage crises and terrorism in North Africa. The United States first intervened militarily in Haiti in 1915 (not 1994). American forces have been involved in suppressing Muslim rebels in the Philippines, off and on, for over a century. Troops from the Asiatic Squadron landed at Inchon in Korea—to open trade and assure the protection of shipwrecked sailors—in 1871. Chances are the Persian Gulf and Central Asia will become new theaters for small wars, whatever the fate of Iraq.

Afghanistan demonstrates the costs of treating small wars as one-time affairs. After the Soviet invasion in 1979, American officials in the field did more than support the resistance. They developed an understanding of which opposition leaders were competent, reasonably honest, and favorably inclined to the West—and which were not. They learned something of the terrain, the weather and the tribes, of the goals and interests of outside powers such as Pakistan, China, and Saudi Arabia. But when the Soviets withdrew and the Cold War ended, Afghanistan no longer seemed so important. Experts retired or were reassigned. American political officials paid relatively little attention to the seemingly obscure civil war that continued to rage there. Much of this neglect was perhaps understandable. It will not be so in the future. We cannot assume the last small war has been fought in and around Central Asia.

Third, small wars often lead not to clean, quick exits but to messy long-term commitments. Americans cannot expect to “butcher and bolt,” the blunt expression that Boot takes from the British Army in India, describing punitive expeditions into hostile territory. President Clinton may have promised that the United States would be out of Bosnia in a year, but he knew better, and we should too. Americans ought not aspire to govern other peoples as an end in itself. But history shows that we will often be forced to do so—as in the Philippines after the Spanish-American War, Haiti in 1915, the Dominican Republic in 1916, as well as the “big war” occupations of Germany and Japan—or at least to work with the locals to see that some measure of good governance is in place. The ultimate success of small wars often turns on “draining the swamp,” literally and figuratively, that gave rise to the problem in the first place.

Boot argues persuasively that American occupations have improved the short-term lot of the locals from the standpoint of health, education, infrastructure, the rule of law, and the like. Indeed, these impressive benefits have often been America’s greatest asset in fighting small wars: the vast majority of the indigenous population will not support armed resistance once it realizes that it is better off under a Marine constabulary (or its equivalent) than under local misrule. Once American forces leave, the record is mixed. Haiti is still not “fixed” nearly a century after the first U.S. military intervention. But the cases of Germany and Japan—and the Philippines, which shows a stubbornly democratic culture years after gaining independence from the United States—indicate that patience and commitment to good, democratic governance can pay real dividends.

Finally, the best perhaps that American military power can do to support democracy abroad is to help maintain, in critical regions, the overall security and peace. The success of the United States in World War II and the Cold War led to one way of thinking about how to maintain regional stability—being prepared to deter and fight big wars. The Cold War featured small wars but they were regarded as sideshows, always to be viewed in the context of a possible big war. In Vietnam we fought a small war with big war tactics, imprudently (so Boot concludes), and lost. The uniformed military vowed to fight only when public support was manifest, the application of force overwhelming, the definition of victory obvious, with an agreed-upon “exit strategy” to terminate any American occupation. Victory in Iraq (the Gulf War) seemed to confirm this model. American officers developed a great aversion to fighting in difficult places, in cities and jungles and mountains, where the line between combatant and civilian is difficult if not impossible to determine. That is, the military—and its civilian leadership, for the most part—lost confidence in the value and feasibility of fighting small wars.

The historical record recounted by Boot, however, demonstrates that Americans are pretty good at small wars, and small wars have an important place in U.S. national strategy. American soldiers and sailors have demonstrated the skill, innovation, courage, and resolution to fight and win (or at least endure) the costs and risks of small wars. But he goes too far by creating a stark dichotomy between big and small wars and drawing absolute conclusions, such as “small wars cannot be fought with big war methods.” To be sure, the forces and techniques needed to attack a terrorist camp or pacify a failed state differ in important ways from those required to deter or defeat a major power. But we cannot assume that small wars will now dominate the horizon, as Boot’s analysis seems to suggest. The challenge to American military leadership, civilian and uniformed, is to ensure that there is creative tension, rather than opposition, among the various elements of the armed forces; and that those forces are used innovatively and effectively, whatever the scale of conflict. The events of the past year may demonstrate that the big war/small war distinction is actually breaking down: Americans may face various forms of conflict involving simultaneously terrorists, rogue states, and major powers.

Most importantly, there needs to be a strategic connection between military operations of all kinds. The United States once fought small wars overseas principally to prevent big wars, or to see that big wars were fought on the most favorable terms. In the future, the United States likely will undertake smaller-scale military operations, in conjunction with intelligence-gathering units, law enforcement agencies, and the like, in order to prevent the equivalent of a big war—mass-casualty, civilization-threatening attacks—from occurring again on American soil.