Small Wars

I was talking to someone the other day and mentioned the Marine Corps Small Wars Manual, initially published in 1940. The gentleman with whom I was speaking looked at me and asked, “Small Wars Manual … are you kidding me?”

No, I was not kidding. When some future date arrives and people think of me at all, a sense of humor may not immediately come to mind.

Marines Korea 1890Today, the manual is part of the Fleet Marine Force Reference Publications library. It was, and continues to be one of the finest books on military operations in peacekeeping and counterinsurgency operations ever published. That said, however, context is important. The Small Wars Manual depicted pre-World War II operations.

Admittedly, “Small Wars Manual” seems a bit vague for any one of a large variety of military operations. As it applied to the Marine Corps, small wars were operations undertaken by the direction of the President of the United States in matters he believed were issues of national interest. Individuals who fancy themselves as historians will continue to debate whether this is true.

The Small Wars Manual propagated the notion that military force is only effective when combined with diplomatic pressure on the affairs of another state, whose government is unstable, inadequate, or unsatisfactory[1].

During the pre-War years, US military assistance provided to other nations could vary from completely benign acts, such as offering bureaucratic assistance, which certainly has no overt military connection, to the establishment of a military government supported by an active combat force. Between these extremes, we may identify a large number of involvements. One example of an intervention at the beginning of the Twentieth Century was the so-called Perdicaris Affair, which involved (then) Captain John Twiggs Myers. Hollywood’s fictional account of this incident was at least entertaining.

Marines HaitiSmall wars vary in degrees, from the simple to the exceedingly complex, short of general war. They are not limited in size, in the extent of their theater of operations, nor in their property or human costs. The essence of a small war is its purpose and the circumstances surrounding its inception.

The ordinary Marine Corps expedition does not involve a major effort, such as might be discovered in general war against a first-rate power—it was rather created to address the normal type of duty or operations assigned to Marines. It is interesting to note that by the time of its publication, the Marine Corps had engaged in small wars throughout the world. Between 1800 and 1934, American Marines landed on foreign shore 180 times, and in 37 different countries. In every year between 1898 and 1940, Marines engaged in active field operations. In 1929 alone, higher authority directed the employment of two-third of the entire Marine Corps in various expeditionary or sea duty outside the United States.

It is impossible to undertake complex operations at sea and on foreign shore without a solid foundation of Marines, both officer and enlisted, capable of examining the complexities of military operations, and devising solutions to very complex problems. Marines are always questioning things: Why are we doing this, when we could be doing it another way? Time after time, Marines epitomize the notion, improvise, adapt, overcome. We have been doing this now since 1775 and the truth is, we are good at it. Small wars, large wars … the American people know that they can always count on their Marines.

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[1] This could easily describe the US government under Barack Obama

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Retired Marine, historian, writer.

7 thoughts on “Small Wars”

  1. Reblogged this on AZVHV and commented:
    “Small Wars” seems like an oxymoron to me. I do find it interesting that the information contained in a book published in 1940 is still so relevant today.


  2. “Small Wars” seems like an oxymoron to me. I do find it interesting that the information contained in a book published in 1940 is still so relevant today.


  3. Sir, I cannot agree more. America can ALWAYS count on the Marines.

    The number of actions/landings you just reported are astounding. Beyond belief, almost. I cannot conceive, however, at how many young Marines lost their lives in fulfillment of their mission in some far off place. For that, I am sad.


    1. I think one must recall the reasons young men joined the Corps back before World War II. It was a grand adventure, as compared to a somewhat bland existence back home. Given the choice between working in dry goods, or serving as an American Marine … which would you choose? The question asked of a modern day young man or woman might result in a similar response … except that American schools today do such an abysmal job of preparing people for a career, military service is very often a pathway to bigger and better things—not the least of which is education. Military technical schools, professional academies, colleges of higher education are among the best in the world. Besides that, once a Marine … always a Marine.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I find it interesting that the term “Small War” is still being used. As anyone who has spent time with boots on the ground knows there is no such thing as a small war.


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