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The Marines’ ''How To'' Handbook for Empire

The Marines’ ''How To'' Handbook for Empire

By William Marina
April 13, 2004

The Wall Street Journal, the official cheerleader publication for the neo-conservative effort to rejuvenate the U.S. Empire’s interventionist agenda around the world, carried a page one article April 7, 2004, entitled ''For Guidance in Iraq, Marines Rediscover A 1940s Manual.'' The volume mentioned is the Marine Corps’ Small Wars Manual.

Considering the exploding insurgency in Iraq, the insurgents might well proclaim what General George Patton supposedly commented about General Erwin Rommel, “I read your book!”

Apparently numerous Marine officers have taken the book with them to Iraq. Also, it has been cited by gung-ho congressmen for its insights. Max Boot, then a Journal writer, built a whole book around it two years ago, The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power, and has often since written on how the Philippines provide a “model” for nation-building in Iraq.

The Journal article hints that since the Small Wars Manual wasn’t rediscovered until 1972, it might have helped the U.S. win in Vietnam. William Luti, an advisor to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, even keeps a copy in his Pentagon office.

Americans love a good “How To” book, and the Journal has long touted this 446 page one, which details how “from 1898 to 1934, the Marines fought a number of small wars, in the Philippines, Cuba, Honduras, China, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.”

What no one bothers to mention is that the great Marine Corps hero General Smedley Butler (two Medals of Honor, in combat), who actually fought in most of these wars, turned against all of this interventionism (a kind of early whistle blower). In his 1934 book, War is a Racket, he listed the nations in which he intervened for U.S. global neo-mercantilism, benefiting such firms as Standard Oil, United Fruit, and National City Bank. Indicating that he was “a gangster” for such companies, Butler observed that Al Capone operated in only three Chicago districts, while the Marines did so on six continents.

The Journal does point out the Manual may be popular in Iraq not because of its “excellence” but because there is “little serious competition,” and “ the absence of anything better.” What a comment on the intellectual bankruptcy of the “tactics of empire.”

Granted that the manual does discuss a bit of what is today called “nation building,” I wonder if any of its advocates have examined the list of its so-called “successes” in any dimension other than the short-run military suppression of an insurgency. Let’s then examine those nation-building episodes:

• The Philippines: The U.S. won the Spanish-American War there because the insurgents had few guns. Also, with fissures in the revolutionary coalition, it never really adopted the indigenous guerilla tactics of “people’s war.” With 220,000 dead Filipinos and 2,000 Americans, was this really a small war? Today, the Philippines remain rife with corruption and insurgents.

• Cuba: Now there’s a great example of the “success” of America’s interventionist nation-building skills. First the U.S. installs its proxy to rule after the U.S. fought and defeated a minuscule Spanish force. Corruption sets in and the rise of the Batista regime ensues, followed by the Marxist revolution and totalitarian rule under Castro.

• Honduras: Hardly a great “success.” Also under countries starting with “H” the Journal forgot to mention Haiti, where the Marines have intervened several times, destroying the economy and civil society and plunging the country into poverty under the tyranny of the pro-U.S. Duvalier family. And just recently, Aristide, the U.S.-installed ruler, was deposed by a rebel force. Ask Bill Clinton and George W. Bush about what a great “success” story that has been.

• China: Since U.S. intervention in 1900, China has experienced a revolution in which Sun Yet-sen defeated the United States and other European powers, a subsequent invasion by Japan, a major civil war, and the rise of Maoist totalitarianism. Only after trade was liberalized did China become less belligerent and economically viable.

• Nicaragua: The Marines in the 1920s made A.C. Sandino a hero all over Latin America for his successful tactics against them. A U.S.-supported dictator, the first of the pro-U.S. Somozas, with the knowledge of the American ambassador, murdered Sandino as he was coming in under a flag of truce. Finally, in the 1980s, the U.S. again destabilized the country by supporting the contras against the Sandinista government.

• The Dominican Republic: Like Haiti, with the massive inflation there, hundreds of people are taking to rafts, floating into the shark-infested Mona Passage hoping to reach Puerto Rico.

• Mexico: The Journal didn’t mention it, but General Butler did. With the history of U.S. interventionism in Mexico—including the invasion and wholesale expropriation of lands during the U.S.-Mexican War, 1846-1848—pollsters might ask the average Mexican today what he/she thinks about U.S. interventionism.

“How to” books deal with tactics, not whether you should be doing whatever it is you’re trying to do. When will some U.S. leader take on the really meaningful questions of strategy and grand strategy? The key question is: What is the empire doing to corrupt America and nations around the world?

Summarizing the claimed successes of the U.S.’s “small war” interventions, to paraphrase King Pyrrhus of ancient Greek kingdom of Epirus, “ a few more successes like Iraq, and we may be undone.”


William F. Marina is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif., and Professor Emeritus in History and International Business at Florida Atlantic University.

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