Courtesy Reuters

A Tale of Two Wars: The Other Story of America's Role in the Philippines

Greg Bankoff is Senior Lecturer in Asian Studies at the University of Auckland.

As the impact of September 11 continues to ripple through American society, its aftershocks are not only determining the future but also reshaping the past. Not since the Vietnam War have external affairs so influenced the direction of U.S. historiography. Whereas that debacle generated critical introspection, however, the operations in Afghanistan appear to have restored confidence in the efficacy of foreign military intervention. This is the backdrop for the recent "rediscovery" of the Philippine-American War, a trend represented well by Max Boot's book The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and American Power and Thomas Donnelly's review of it in these pages ("The Past as Prologue," July/August 2002). Reappraising the past to shed light on the present is generally to be welcomed. But seen from abroad, this particular discussion seems marked by a disturbingly narrow and America-centric perspective.

Boot's broad study, written largely before the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon but completed afterward, charts the rise of the United States from commercial power to superpower. What intrigue him are the low-intensity military engagements -- what he calls "small wars" -- waged to establish and then police America's growing global interests. Ranging from the Barbary Coast in 1804 to Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo in the 1990s, Boot spins a narrative of no mean interest and considerable literary skill. He reminds the reader that the projection of U.S. power overseas has a long pedigree and that America's much-vaunted isolationism prior to World War II extended only to Europe. There is a moral, at times almost religious tone to Boot's prose when he concludes that the United States has a "mission" to place its awesome military machine at the service of the "down-trodden of the world." Ultimately, the book is a warning to his fellow citizens about the dangers of undercommitment and the need to fight future "savage wars of peace" so as to maintain and enlarge

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