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Before Yank G.I.s plunged into the jaws of death at Normandy, before the doughboys earned their steel at Belleau Wood, and even before Sherman had marched to the sea, America’s military establishment was shaped by what the U.S. Marine Corps came to define as “Small Wars.” We’re talking the first Barbary War fought by Thomas Jefferson at the start of America’s 19th century, marines storming Chapultepec in 1847 to capture Mexico City, the Chinese Boxer rebellion suppressed in 1900, Haiti stabilized in 1915 —just a handful of the surgical fights fought by America without the famous sort of mobilizations we needed to meet the challenges of total war against highly developed enemies like the Third Reich in 1941 or the Confederate States in 1861. What’s more, we need to start appreciating their importance if not unparalleled influence on the modern American international order as we know it.
That is the leading thesis of military historian (and OR contributor and board member) Max Boot’s SAVAGE WARS OF PEACE. Published in 2002 alongside the dramatic unfolding of two new “small wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq, the book makes a compelling case against the dovish reluctance many Americans have felt for small-scale, frequently long-term U.S. invasions against irregular forces. This is not an easy argument to make in a world of post-Vietnam rabble-rousers and Powell doctrine faithfuls who decry any military operation that lacks a rapid exit strategy as an incorrigible mistake, much less an invasion that seeks long-term solutions through nation-building. Here, the sobering voice of Boot’s history becomes a crucial foil to Powell’s calculus: we are, in fact, a nation of small wars and nation-building. From Haiti in 1915 to Germany in 1945, America has (until recently in the Middle East) chosen lasting stability over chaotic withdrawal — that is the extended reminder which makes Boot’s work so crucial.
The poet who coined the phrase Boot uses as his title is intimately associated with British military greatness. England’s humiliating defeat at Gallipoli is a notable exception to that greatness, and the subject of Peter Weir’s epic film GALLIPOLI. Before Mel Gibson immortalized himself as the buddy cop to end all buddy cops alongside Danny Glover in 1987’s Lethal Weapon, he forged an on-screen friendship in 1981 that was just as, if not more, endearing than two hardboiled cops gunning through L.A. Appreciated in America but downright revered in Australia, Gallipoli tells the story of the eponymous and infamously unsuccessful invasion of the Dardanelles through the eyes of two Australian sprinters, played by Mark Lee and Mel Gibson, who enlist together. ANZAC, the short lived Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, suffered some of the bloodiest and most emblematic blunders of World War I in its campaign against Turkey, and the film celebrates the goodness of soldiers willing to sacrifice their lives so readily for a greater good despite the tragic incompetence of their superiors. Fruitless charges against Johnny Turk at the Battle of the Nek become the story’s bloody climax and ultimate condemnation of zealously ignorant battle solutions employed by Britain’s decaying officer class in the Great War.
Dark as the ending may be, the journey to Gallipoli is fun, fresh, and lively enough to almost make you forget about the inevitable disaster awaiting two friends innocently hopping a freight train to join up with the army in Perth. Their accents and idioms alone are probably enough to keep anyone outside the Commonwealth smiling, but the delicate scenes of friendship in a war tumbling into chaos stand out can resonate with anyone. Gibson and Lee’s characters are separated on their boat ride to Egypt for training, but the moment they see each other again on melee exercises in the desert it’s warm conversations and smiles once again — even as their commanding officer barks at them that they’re supposed to be practicing “bloody combat.” If you want to see a movie that takes seriously the themes of ultimate sacrifice and friendship in a rich historical context, you can’t go wrong with Gallipoli.
Gallipoli was one of the most disastrous engagements of an old line military power; less than three decades later a new and unthinkable military weapon would be unleashed on the world at Hiroshima: the atomic bomb. The birth of that bomb began on this day in 1939, when Albert Einstein sent a letter drafted by legendary nuclear physicists Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard dealing with the possibility of weaponizing nuclear fission to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
If you’re a fan of “What if America hadn’t won World War 2” theories, look no further than this day, for a single decision that changed the entire war. From the beginning of the 1939, international science journals had been alight with interest in Otto Hann’s discovery of nuclear fission, which came only months before Germany took advantage of the flimsy Munich agreement to seize the rest of Czechoslovakia. Captivated by the nuclear science and worried by German scientific hegemony, Hungarian physicist Leó Szilárd teamed up with Enrico Fermi to test ideas for the world’s first nuclear reactor at Columbia University, New York. Their initial success struck a dangerous chord with the both of them: how long before the Germans would make the same discovery and abuse its potential?
Fast forward to July and Hitler had already begun shutting down the export of uranium from freshly captured Czechoslovakian mines. A concerned Szilárd rushed to Long Island seeking help from Albert Einstein. After a month of planning, the pair drafted and had Einstein sign a letter to President Roosevelt warning of a “nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium” made possible by highly recent developments that could propagate a new generation of catastrophic bombs. The contents also duly noted Germany’s sudden interest in uranium. It took until October 11 for the note to actually reach the hands of the President, whose life had been taken over by the Poland crisis. Roosevelt was a smart enough leader to take Einstein’s warning seriously from the start and immediately commission the Advisory Committee on Uranium. Einstein did later regret convincing the President towards researching an atom bomb — in fact, the US Army denied Einstein from working on the Manhattan Project precisely because pacifism made him a security risk — but his decision to sign a letter saved the free world from the first nuclear weapons reaching someone far less humane than Truman.