America's 10 Most Important Small Wars

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I’m a libertarian. I don’t like wars. They lead to bigger government. They lead to more bureaucracy. They excuse bad things in the name of patriotism. War is the health of the state.

And yet, I find myself newly intrigued by an old argument from the neo-conservative (and former Republican) scholar Max Boot. Boot’s argument is that small and very savage “wars of peace” helped pave the way for the republic to grow and flourish into the leader of the free world. The boldness of such a claim is worth more time than most people -- including me when I was younger -- will give it.

I’ve been re-reading The Federalist Papers and some of the scholarship on those arguments. It would be nice if the thoughts of “Publius,” “Brutus,” and the criminally underrated “Americanus” (among others) were required reading in civics courses today. One of the main issues facing the federalist and anti-federalist camps in the aftermath of the victory over the British Empire was security: How would 13 sovereign and independent states be able to keep European powers at bay and keep blocs of rival states from forming in North America? The federal union -- the formation of the United States -- was the ultimate answer to this question of security, of course, but this union did more than just secure the peace between the 13 sovereign states. It gave them a military, and this military has been in use since the founding of the republic.

The myth of splendid, peaceful isolation is one of the most pernicious myths within the libertarian movement today. The United States has been fighting small, savage wars since its inception. Whether these wars have been wars of peace or not is a different question, and one I won’t attempt to answer here, but they were definitely wars. Here’s a look at what I consider the 10 Most Important “Small Wars” in American history:

10. Black Hawk War 1865-72. By far the most important of the republic’s small wars were those fought against the indigenous polities that covered the North American continent at the time of American independence. The Black Hawk War, which began officially after the Civil War ended (numerous micro wars were fought before 1865), was a vicious contest between the United States and Mormon settlers on one side, and several Native nations, including the Utes and the Navajos on the other. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints signed several treaties with Native factions, but the US government did not recognize those treaties. When the bloodshed was over with and done, the losing indigenous side did not get what it signed up for in the LDS-brokered treaties, and the Mormon Church found its power in Utah Territory weakened and challenged at every step by a federal government that was able to ensconce itself in Territory government thanks to its help in fighting the Native alliance. The Black Hawk War serves as a prime example of how small wars work: the truth is up for grabs, as is territory, and civilians on both sides are the ones who lose the most.

9. The Polar Bear Expedition 1918-20. The United States sent roughly 13,000 men to participate in the Russian Civil War on the side of the anti-communists. Two expeditions were sent, one to Arkhangelsk (the actual Polar Bear Expedition) and one to Vladivostok (called the Siberian Expedition). The American troops were sent by Woodrow Wilson to ostensibly protect railroads, munitions depots, and ports from Bolsheviks, tribal peoples in the Steppe, and German and Japanese military personnel. The expeditions, of course, contributed to the bad blood between the United States and the Soviet Union.

8. Comanche Wars 1845-75. Officially, the Comanche Wars started only in 1845 with the annexation of Texas by the United States, but the Comanches had been fighting the Spanish since the late 1600s. The Comanches fought (and beat) the Mexicans and Texans, too, before the Americans came along to try their luck. After 30 years of brutality, the Americans finally crushed Comancheria, which opened up the southwest to American settlement, but the wars against the Comanche were hardly easy. The power of the Comanches was one of the prime reasons for Texas seeking membership in the American federation (along with the power of the British Empire and Mexico), and Comancheria’s subtle political system and harsh battlefield tactics forced the United States military to improvise and update its approach to Native polities.

7. Moro Rebellion 1899-1913. This began as part of the Spanish-American War, but by the time the Spanish surrendered to the Americans, in 1902, the Moro Rebellion was just beginning to heat up. The “Moros” are Muslims in the southern part of the Philippines, and they’ve had a long history of fighting would-be conquerors. When the United States arrived on the scene, the polity that claimed the territory of the Moros was a sultanate known as Sulu. The Americans tried everything to extinguish the independent spirit of the Moros, including an appeal for help to the Ottoman sultan, who obligingly wrote a request to the Sulu sultanate to cease hostilities against the Americans. (The Sultan of Sulu obliged Istanbul’s request, though of course unofficial fighting still raged on.) The Moro Rebellion served as a rude awakening for Americans hoping to emulate the imperial systems of their European cousins. Today, the spirit of the Moros lives on, as does the sultanate, albeit in the form of a suzerainty rather than a sovereign, and the Filipino government still struggles with violence in its southern territories.

6. Wars of the Northern Great Plains 1860-90. This series of small wars are the ones Americans mostly associate with Native American cultures, thanks to both history textbooks, old cartoons like Disney’s “Peter Pan,” and films like “Dances with Wolves.” The northern Great Plains were inhabited by several different Native nations, but the most powerful were the Sioux, the Cheyenne, and the Pawnee. (The southern Great Plains were dominated by Comancheria.) It took roughly thirty years and shameful tactics by the U.S. military to rid the northern Great Plains of indigenous sovereignty.

5. Quasi-War 1798-1800. Fought between France and the United States just after the constitution was ratified, the Quasi War was, I would argue, not all that close to becoming an all-out war. The French monarchy was on its last leg, and American commercial interests had no qualms about leaving the French Caribbean in the hands of the British and Dutch. This small war shows just how instrumental the Washington Doctrine of Unstable Alliances is to the republic, then as now.

4. Second Seminole War 1835-42. There were three Seminole wars in total, but the second one was by far the most deadly and the most important of the three. The U.S. military tried to establish several forts in the area, but the Seminoles burned them down and murdered all of the people (white, black, and red) associated with the forts. A second expedition was less cautious and less conscious of the civilian toll. While the U.S. military eventually won, its result was hardly celebrated, as a slow trudge through the undeveloped swamps of Florida led to high death tolls and costly purchases of specialized equipment. The fact that the U.S. military’s victory was not followed up with a treaty was even more reason to ignore the triumph of the armed forces over the Seminoles. While the U.S. military subdued large-scale violence in Florida, the federal government did not finish the job with diplomacy, and by 1855 the Third Seminole War erupted.

3. Banana Wars 1898-1934. The Banana Wars are the wars that actually inspired a written document commissioned by the U.S. Army titled “Small Wars Manual” in 1921 (even today, the republic’s wars against the Native polities are put on the intellectual backburner in favor of more formal fights against internationally-recognized political units). Fought in Latin America and the Caribbean, these small wars helped shape U.S. perceptions of itself and of its closest neighbors up until the present day (2021). The republic’s military was involved in the secession of Panama from Colombia in 1903, several invasions of Cuba, Nicaragua, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic that resulted in the installation (or protection) of American puppet regimes, a decades-long occupation of Haiti, and periodic interventions on behalf of American corporations in Honduras. The Banana Wars were part of the republic’s attempt at mimicking European imperialism at the turn of the century, and were fairly unpopular with broad swathes of the public.

2. Barbary Wars 1801-05, 1815. The shores of Tripoli. The Barbary Wars are included in American lore thanks to “The Marine’s Hymn,” but little is actually known about the Barbary Wars, including the fact that Thomas Jefferson ended up paying the ransom demanded by Tripoli (his administration sought to distinguish the payment as a “tribute” rather than a “ransom”) or the fact that the republic paid Arab and Greek mercenaries to help fight Tripoli. Also unknown is the fact that the republic allied itself with European states: Sweden and Sicily (which was especially receptive of an American presence in the region, given that most of its resources were being poured into its fight with Napoleonic France). The Barbary Wars helped Americans see up close and personal how non-European and non-Native polities behave politically and militarily. In my opinion, this lesson has still not been learned.

1. Northwest War 1785-95. This should be classified in American history textbooks as a major war, ranked alongside World War I, the War of 1812, or the Spanish-American War, but not quite on the level of the Civil War or World War II. The fact that it’s not is just proof that today’s historians don’t care much about either the history of the early American republic or the history of America’s struggle against indigenous polities. Today’s historians would rather have kids believe that the indigenous were helpless victims rather than the competent, rational, and threatening enemies that they were. This war, which saw the early republic fight alongside its Chickasaw and Choctaw allies against the British Empire and a massive indigenous confederacy, led to the United States eradicating the biggest threat to its existence (British forts and Native sovereignty) and gaining lots of territory in the process, too.

Further thoughts

Why not Afghanistan or the Boxer Rebellion?

I think it’s fair to argue that Afghanistan is not really a small war, as the U.S. didn’t treat civilians as enemies, and as Afghanistan was treated as a single, sovereign state rather than a conglomeration of unofficial factions. In the small wars listed above, atrocities against civilians and intrigue among factions play the most important roles in fighting small wars. If the United States had not sought to bring democracy to Afghanistan, and if the United States had recognized the several factions within Afghanistan that actually hold and wield power, then a small war might have been waged and American victory could have been declared 15 years ago.

The Boxer Rebellion is simply too complicated to be considered an American small war.

The libertarian will counter that these wars are just another reason why the founders were wrong to form a federal union. They will claim these small wars prove the anti-federalists right. They might be correct, but I doubt it. Here is one counterfactual: the union never gets enacted, and the worst fears of the federalists come true: regional blocs form and wars between the blocs commence. The Europeans form alliances with the blocs. The Native polities form alliances with the blocs. The blocs become entangled with European balance of power politics and long-held inter-indigenous animosities. The wars between the blocs never end. Small, savage wars may have been the price our ancestors paid for a large territory and a peace based on commerce, well-defined civil liberties, and a military adept in fighting small wars rather than large ones.


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