“Goodness gracious. I don’t think any time we’ve ever gone anywhere and acted in the capacity of a policeman that we’ve been overly popular.”
—Lieutenant General Edward A. Craig, USMC (ret.)“Where troops have been quartered, brambles and thorns spring up.”
—Lao TzuIn the initial heady weeks of the April 2003 invasion of Iraq, a Washington Post correspondent embedded with a U.S. Army company in Baghdad asked the soldiers if they thought the Iraqi people wanted them to stay. “Oh yeah”, stated a twenty-year-old specialist from Louisiana. A staff sergeant answered the same question, “Maybe 10 percent are hostile. About 50 percent friendly. And 40 percent are indifferent.” The journalist then interviewed an Iraqi a block away who had his own estimation. “We refuse the occupation—not 100 percent, but 1,000 percent.”
These Army imperial grunts were not the only ones with an optimistic sense of the American campaign. In September 2002, Vice President Dick Cheney told Tim Russert on Meet the Press, “I really do believe we will be greeted as liberators.” According to at least one account, the CIA was so confident the American forces would be embraced that one CIA agent suggested sneaking hundreds of small American flags into the country for the joyful Iraqis to wave at their liberators. We learned at the cost of enormous blood and treasure that much of the initial goodwill towards the American presence was replaced by resentment and mistrust. Polls throughout the war placed Iraqis’ desire to end the occupation at 75 percent.Jump back almost a century to 1911 when a U.S. major general spying in Mexico reported on rumors of an American invasion. “Mexicans of the better classes did not hesitate to inform American residents that not a ‘Gringo’ would escape assassination.” When U.S. forces occupied the coastal city of Veracruz in 1914 for seven months, riots broke out across Mexico. “Eggs, rocks, and tomatoes rained on the main U.S. citizens who fled.” These two cases of American incursions into Iraq and Mexico are a reminder of the age-old truism that foreign occupations can be a lot like weekend guests who overstay their visit: Hospitality can quickly turn to resentment.In his timely and indispensible book, The Invaded: How Latin Americans and Their Allies Fought and Ended U.S. Occupations, young diplomatic historian Alan McPherson reminds his readers that some of America’s first experiences with nation-building were in Central America and the Caribbean in the first three decades of the 20th century. Equally, if not more, important for McPherson is that these now-mostly-forgotten Banana War episodes were also some of the “first laboratories for resisting US power” both in the occupied countries and on the American home front. McPherson reckons that, depending on how we define the term “intervention”, there were anywhere between 40 to 6,000 of them south of the Rio Grande between the Civil War and the 1930s. His book examines the three longest and most complicated, which started out as limited interventions but turned into protracted occupations with armed opposition: Nicaragua (1912-1933); Haiti (1915-1934); and the Dominican Republic (1916-1924).If nothing else, The Invaded is a bitter reminder of that nation-building maxim that we would have done well to have kept in mind before invading Iraq, and that should be kept in mind when future military actions are proposed: if you lie down with mangy dogs, you stand up with fleas. But to see why, the history of the Banana Wars that McPherson offers is crucial.At its respective height, each entailed a significant number (2,000-5,000) of mostly Marine Corps troops, but none of them were as large as the occupations of the Philippines after 1898, or later Iraq and Vietnam. U.S. officers and diplomats took over key functions of the state—less so in Nicaragua, more so in Haiti, and completely in the Dominican Republic, where the Americans led a military government. Washington’s costs were also very low, with less than 80 killed while 5,000 fell on the resisters’ side. The $100 million price tag for all three occupations far outweighed any profit from the investments they might have protected given that in 1913 the three countries comprised less than 1 percent of U.S. investments in the Caribbean Basin.A meticulous scholar who spent ten years examining documents in five countries and three languages, McPherson shows how Dominican and Haitian insurrections against American rule failed, while Nicaragua’s resistance, under the redoubtable guerrilla leader Augusto Sandino, outlasted the American presence. McPherson’s novel argument is that those who resisted were not motivated primarily by ethereal nationalism but more by local and regional political and social factors. As most studies of occupations by definition focus on the occupier, McPherson refreshingly tells much of the story through the “eyes of the invaded.”McPherson acknowledges that geostrategic motivations likely justified the initial U.S. interventions in its notorious backyard. With war percolating in Europe, the U.S. Navy wanted to control the key shipping passages in the basin, including those to the newly-opened Panama Canal. Washington bought Mexican oil and Chilean nitrates, for example, so keeping European powers out of neighboring countries was critical. Yet, McPherson contends, broader U.S. visions of political and cultural transformation eventually eclipsed these narrow national security imperatives. He argues, moreover, that this messianic urge to reshape Latin America’s political behavior created its own “unstoppable momentum”, embroiling the region in chaos; seven Haitian presidents were assassinated or overthrown, for example, in just four years of civil war.Contrary to what we might assume about the nature of these wars, in some cases the occupations were marked by their lack of military and political violence. McPherson describes, for example, how the first decade of the American occupation of Nicaragua was “largely bloodless.” In fact, between 1913–22 only about a hundred marines were stationed in the country in what today’s parlance would call a light footprint. One marine intelligence captain recalled, “there was no friction between the marines and the population other than small fights in canteens and an occasional rub between individual marines and police.” A navy captain wrote that there was “nothing for [marines] to do in town except to visit the numerous cantinas where prostitutes and vile liquor are cheaply obtainable.”As the three invasions turned into much more expansive campaigns, the frustrated American occupiers found their dreams of democracy and stability were up against entrenched partisanship, corruption, strict social hierarchies, and disrespect for the rule of law and a free press. One U.S. customs administrator privately bemoaned to a superior, “all ideas relative to assisting or advising [Haitians] in running their own government, which Ideas I was inclined to favor at first, I now regard as entirely hopeless. There is not a man in the Government who is concerned with anything except his private gain and finding places for his friends. Force and force alone can control the situation.” Or as marine company commander William Upshur described in a letter to his mother in March 1916, “The natives down here are all bad, and irresponsible and we are having trouble with them constantly.”McPherson reminds us that, contrary to how the story is sometimes told even today, a good number of locals—elite and otherwise—initially welcomed the interventions or even believed the occupations were preferable to the chaos that appeared endemic to their societies. There was also a good deal of resignation. One Haitian palace guard recalled how, when he saw the USS Washington and the flotilla of launches unloading troops, “Everyone fled. Me too. You only had to see them, with their weaponry, their massive, menacing appearance, to understand both that they came to do harm to our country and that resistance was futile.”In what might be a harbinger of contemporary counterinsurgency scholar David Kilkullen’s thesis about the “accidental guerrilla”, numerous insurrections of varying seriousness rose to challenge the American rule or that of its domestic allies. Augusto Sandino is easily the most-remembered insurgent allied against these American occupations. In the late 1920s, Sandino’s group refused to lay down its arms and sign the U.S.-brokered peace accord between the feuding Nicaraguan Liberal and Conservative political factions. Likely born in 1895 as the illegitimate product of a middle class coffee landowner and his Indian maid, the young Sandino traveled across Central America during the 1920s “toiling at working class jobs.” McPherson thinks his most ideologically significant experience was in 1923 in the oil fields of Veracruz and Tampico—sort of the Mexican variants of Louisiana— where he “imbibed a variety of intellectual and spiritual traditions”, even embracing yoga and vegetarianism. Interestingly, it was anarcho-syndicalism, more prominent than Marxism in Mexico at the time, that most influenced the young Nicaraguan. Sandino even borrowed syndicalism’s colors—red and black—for his flag in his campaign against the U.S. marines and their Nicaraguan lackeys.The Sandinistas called the U.S. marines “blonde beasts”, “degenerate pirates”, “morphine addicts”, and “the enemy of our race and language”, among other epithets. Sandino’s seal, used on his forged coins and letters, featured a Sandinista beheading a marine. One Sandinista poem celebrating a decapitation sarcastically referred to “Poor Mister Bruce,” a name for Lieutenant Arnold Bruce. “They stuck a wire in his nose and strung him up on the main road, so everyone could see him”, proudly recalled Sandinista fighter Calitxto “Muerte” Tercero.The Invaded shows the reader how new technologies and media allowed guerrilla foes to fight back in the court of public opinion. In Nicaragua, Sandino’s rebellion hoped to spark a “never seen before explosion of global publicity.” Like ISIS today, Sandino was fully aware of the propagandistic value of these mediums. “We learned the tremendous value of publicity in terms of world opinion,” he wrote. An acolyte of the guerrilla leader explained it this way, “every time there is a battle, every time marines are killed, the attention of the United States and the world is drawn to what is going on in Nicaragua.”McPherson believes these American occupations and the propaganda campaigns of the invaded sparked international solidarity movements that were as central to the struggle as the armed insurgents themselves. As one Dominican activist told a group in New York City, “On the international scene there has now appeared a new actor—solidarity. No nation, no people, can realize by itself its destiny.” Indeed, the progressive movement, the surge in higher education, and the vast improvements in communications and transportation all contributed to a proliferation of networks comprised of activists, writers, scholars, and religious leaders committed to ending the occupations—something they helped do sooner than otherwise.Haiti was a particular concern for many African American leaders, ranging from communists such as Cecil Briggs of the African Black Brotherhood to educator Robert Moton of the Tuskegee Institute. Feminists too were opposed, like those who in 1919 founded the International Council of Women of the Darker Races (ICDWAR) to investigate the plight of Haitian women and children. Visitors to the “black republic” included some of the “brightest lights” of the Harlem Renaissance and 1920s civil rights, like Langston Hughes, William Scott, and Zora Neale Hurston. Naval reservist physician James Blackwood wrote to the U.S. chief of the Haitian Gendarmerie to protest abuse. “I am an American citizen, though of colored race, which means that I am little, or not at all regarded at home; yet I cannot help to be loyal to the mother country.” The NAACP likely contributed the most to making Haiti a domestic American cause. From 1915 onwards, its co-founder, W.E.B. DuBois—whose grandfather was Haitian—railed against the occupation. DuBois even urged President Wilson to send African Americans instead of white troops if an occupation had to occur and called on “we ten million Negroes” to write the President.The anti-war movement’s increasing criticism of these three occupations resonated with an American public increasingly interested in Latin America. This was also partly a result of increased disillusionment with Europe as “spiritually and intellectually bankrupt” in the aftermath of the Great War’s carnage. In 1910, only 5,000 American high school students studied Spanish, a number that a decade later jumped to 260,000. The ever quotable Sandino also said to American journalist Carleton Beals, “tell your people there may be bandits in Nicaragua, but they are not necessarily Nicaraguans.” The Dayton, Ohio Journal even considered Sandino to be a combination of “Trotsky, Sitting Bull, and Aguinaldo.” Social critic and vaudeville performer Will Rogers best expressed the swelling anti-imperialist zeitgeist, “why are we in Nicaragua, and what the Hell are we doing there?” Americans would later ask the same thing about Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan—and most certainly future Americans will ask the same about our presence in locales that at present we cannot imagine.Over the course of 1920s, Washington came to believe that the costs of occupation were growing. One U.S. Ambassador remembered, “armed intervention in Haiti and Nicaragua kept us in hot water not only with other countries of Latin America but also with a sizable sector of our own public.” Even big business began to catch on to the fact that the occupations were bad for the bottom line. One American corporate chief lectured President Hoover, saying that “[Nicaraguans] do not want order maintained by marines any more than would Californians want order maintained by Japanese soldiers.” But despite this activism and the growing distaste for America’s presence in these countries, the majority of American opinion makers were still pro-occupation.McPherson reckons that an “expansive shift” in the U.S. awareness largely fueled by activism likely helped end the occupations far sooner than they otherwise would have ended. Another factor is that U.S. officials simply lost patience with the chronic instability that Washington’s enlightened handiwork could not correct. Or, as Wilson said after pulling troops out of Veracruz in 1914, “if the Mexicans want to raise hell, let them raise hell. We have nothing to do with it. It is their government, it is their hell.”McPherson’s largely critical interpretation of the U.S. interventions are bolstered by his willingness to acknowledge the good they also did—roads, sewers, hospitals, and schools were built and debt was managed responsibly. In fact, even some of the invaded populaces acknowledged the benefits of the American occupation. A Dominican told a visitor in 1928, “you taught us how to work.” A Haitian president, Sténio Vincent, divulged, “the Occupation very sensibly marked Haitian mentality. She impressed upon it a tidier and more practical conception of life, a more developed and surer taste for material comfort, a greater need for peace, security, and work.”McPherson explains how the political culture in all three countries continued to be “anti-democratic, self-interested, and ruinous to the nation” and “largely unchanged from pre-occupation days.” He believes that, on the whole, the occupiers “sabotaged the trajectory” for stable politics. What’s missing in his account, though, is more description of this presumably encouraging trajectory towards stable politics that would have continued had Washington not intervened. It might rather have been the case that the three nations were resigned to political chaos and tyranny with or without American occupations. And while it is certainly politically incorrect to say it, a longer annexation or more colonization-style approach could have produced more stable outcomes.Few readers will quibble much with McPherson’s painstaking research, but some will note that McPherson’s arguments are replete with what appears to be postmodern jargon. This language at times deadens or obfuscates what otherwise is a history loaded with vital lessons for America’s contemporary imperial missions. The reader might also ask why the three countries are lumped together as “the invaded” when in fact in the case of Nicaragua the first decade of intervention only involved 100 marines and saw a mostly bloodless campaign. And even at the height of the anti-Sandino bandit chase, marine numbers were only 5,000, much less than the numbers deployed in a case like America’s post-1898 presence in the Philippines. Maybe in the case of Nicaragua the lesson is that “the invaded” were not in fact invaded. And how do we make sense of the fact that by 1933 it seemed liked it was the invaders who wanted out of Nicaragua, while the invaded wanted the invaders to invade? After finishing The Invaded a reader might wonder why Dick Cheney did not appear to worry that a Sandino-like blowback was possible in Iraq following the U.S. invasion. It certainly turned out that way. The fiery Shi‘a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr might have been the best example of this sort of perilous outcome, but there were, of course, many candidates for Sandino’s role. And, painfully, this time around, the stakes were much greater. At peak strength, the U.S. had 170,000 men in Iraq. It spent roughly $2 trillion, a number that tripled over the four decades. Almost 4,500 Americans were killed in the country, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis lost their lives. The war ended with a strategic outcome that favored Tehran and left the country worse off than before we went in.It might have been that Cheney had read Max Boot’s portrayal of the Banana Wars in his 2002 tome, The Savage Wars of Peace. Instead of the depth and nuance that we get in The Invaded, Boot offers an account of a series of benevolent and almost comically easy marine occupations and bandit-chasing, and he is more charitable to the invaders than even the biased official marine histories are. Henry Kissinger was on to something when he said that great scholarship requires a degree of anonymity in order to allow the depth and focus of a study to mature. McPherson’s magisterial work is precisely that—and it’s sadly not a coincidence that he will remain far less known than Boot.So what should we take away from The Invaded? McPherson’s central lesson from the Banana Wars is that “occupation is a folly to be avoided at all costs.” But what about the post-World War II occupations of Japan or Germany, or, closer to home, the U.S. invasions of Grenada in 1983 and Panama six years later? These occupations didn’t result in quagmires. Today, would it automatically be unwise if we, say, occupied Syria to counter ISIS malignancy? The answer, I suspect, is that it depends on the circumstances.
We should be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water. Had Dick Cheney and Max Boot—and this reviewer for that matter—approached Saddam Hussein’s Iraq with the same sobriety found in McPherson’s account of the Banana Wars, we might never have decided to make that fateful invasion that, despite our expectations, quickly became a long, painful occupation.