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Marines Returning to Iraq Consult Old Standby

'Small Wars Manual' draws on the Corps' experience from Cuba to the Philippines. Six decades later, it's still required reading.

March 08, 2004|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

CAMP PENDLETON — As 25,000 Marines return to Iraq in a bid to take control of the volatile Sunni Triangle, the Marines plan to do things by The Book.

The Book is a 375-page encyclopedic volume called "Small Wars Manual, U.S. Marine Corps," written more than six decades ago by Marine officers as a record of tactics used in suppressing insurgencies and restoring stability in dozens of deployments stretching from Cuba and Haiti to Guam and the Philippines. Although the popular image of the Marines was forged by the amphibious assaults of World War II and the battles of Korea and Vietnam, much of the Corps' experience has been in fighting insurrections amid politically chaotic and culturally complex situations in which tact and persuasion were as important as firepower.

Written in 1936 and expanded in 1940, the "Small Wars Manual" is still on the reading list for Marine officers. Until 1972, it was classified as secret. With the prospect of more "small wars" in the future, there are tentative plans to publish an updated version, possibly with chapters on the Marines' experience in Iraq and, after last week's deployment, in Haiti.

The Haiti deployment, which will eventually involve about 2,000 Marines, is seen as a brief and limited duty, but the mission in Iraq will test whether the "Small Wars Manual" is still viable in a long mission with large numbers of troops.

Maj. Gen. James N. Mattis, commander of the 1st Marine Division, suggested that his top officers reread the manual before the division leaves Camp Pendleton for Iraq to relieve the Army's 82nd Airborne Division in a sprawling region west of Baghdad this month.

In a letter to his troops, Mattis said the Marine experience in small wars, which the manual chronicles in detail, made the Corps the ideal service to go "back into the brawl" in Iraq.

"This is the right place for Marines in this fight, where we can carry on the legacy of 'Chesty' Puller in the Banana Wars in the same sort of complex environment," Mattis wrote, referring to Lt. Gen. Lewis B. Puller, who led Marines in Haiti and Nicaragua and later in World War II and Korea and remains a legend in the Corps.

When officers met to decide the outline of Marine strategy in Iraq, the guidelines they developed were directly traceable to the manual, said Dale R. Davis, a former Marine Corps counterintelligence officer and Middle East specialist.

"The lessons in the 'Small Wars Manual' are as applicable today as 50 or 60 years ago," said Davis, director of international programs at the Virginia Military Institute. "The bottom line is that the secret to beating a guerrilla force is to provide security for the local populace -- and that unless you provide that security, you'll never win hearts and minds."

Certain parts of the manual are outdated. There are chapters, for example, on the care, feeding and discipline of horses and pack mules. There is a patronizing tone to discussions of the "native population" that would not pass muster with modern sensibilities.

But much of the manual evokes a world similar to the Iraq of today: armed rebels, a frightened civilian population unsure of the Americans' motives and staying power, a local government struggling to survive, local police in need of support and training, and street demonstrations that can quickly turn violent.

The manual preaches an approach that includes limited use of firepower, maximum effort to capture insurgents or rebels, and an all-out attempt to convince the populace that the Americans are liberators, not conquerors.

As Marines load into planes for the trip to Iraq, many have dog-eared, underlined copies of the "Small Wars Manual" in their gear.

"Its lessons are as good today as they were then," 2nd Lt. Nathan Braden said. "Why learn something the hard way when it's all there in the book? People don't change that much. Whether it's the Banana Wars in the 1930s or Iraq, it's about learning to deal with people and their culture."

Emphasis on Diplomacy

In a small war, the manual teaches, the objective is diplomatic as well as military: the restoration or creation of a friendly government.

"There is no service which calls for greater exercise of judgment, persistency, patience, tact and rigid military justice than in small wars, and nowhere is more of the humane and sympathetic side of a military force demanded than in this type of operation," the book says.

Respect for the culture and mores of the local population is paramount, the manual says: "Strategy should attempt to gain psychological ascendancy over the outlaw or insurgent element.... While curbing the passions of the people, courtesy, friendliness, justice and firmness should be exhibited."

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