Looking Back At The Future: The Practice And Patterns Of Expeditionary
Operations In The 20th Century
SUBJECT AREA - Operations
Title: Looking Back at the Future: The Practice and Patterns of Expeditionary
Operations in the 20th Century
Author: Major Richard S. Moore, United States Marine Corps
Thesis: For military planners attempting to prepare for the future, the record
of expeditionary operations during the 20th Century offers clear guidance at
the strategic, operational, and tactical levels.
Background: As the United States emerges from the Cold War, it faces a world
for which it seems unprepared. Regional and ethnic strife, unforeseen enemies,
and lingering dangers of weapons proliferation have combined to complicate
strategic planning and military force structure decisions. Expeditionary
operations, emphasized in the National Military Strategy, continue to grow in
importance, yet remain a source of confusion. No specific doctrine exists.
Given the historical record of the past century, however, confusion need not
continue. Between 1898 and 1992, the British, French, and Americans conducted
over 70 expeditionary operations which demonstrated common characteristics at
the strategic, operational, and tactical levels. Despite sometimes
revolutionary transformations in the world, the basic traits of expeditionary
operations have changed remarkably little, offering valuable lessons for
planners. As the military forces of the United States prepare for the future,
they would do well to remember from the past.
Recommendations: The lessons of past expeditionary operations should be used
to assist military planners as they develop forces and plans for future
LOOKING BACK AT THE FUTURE:
THE PRACTICE AND PATTERNS OF EXPEDITIONARY OPERATIONS IN THE 20TH CENTURY
Thesis: For military planners attempting to prepare for the future, the record
of expeditionary operations conducted during the 20th Century offers clear
guidance at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels; the patterns and
traits they exhibited remain valid today.
I. Renewed emphasis on expeditionary operations
A. Post-Cold War world remains unstable
B. National Military Strategy stresses crisis response
C. Expeditionary operations are not understood
D. Past operations offer guidance
II. Definition of expeditionary operations
A. Early experiences underscored political, limited nature
B. Definition encompasses three basic elements
1. Crisis planning
2. Deployed forces
3. Political objectives and constraints
III. Strategic characteristics of expeditionary operations
A. Aims centered on five basic missions
1. Restoring order
2. Protecting Interests
3. Punishing insults
4. Conducting initial wartime operations
5. Providing humanitarian relief
B. Political objectives determined nature and scope of operations
C. Third World formed the theaters of operations
IV. Operational characteristics of expeditionary operations
A. Most operations faced limited opposition
B. Ports and airfields needed to be secured
C. Commanders relied on two echelons of forces
1. Forward deployed forces
2. Follow-on forces
D. Expeditionary force comprised joint forces
V. Tactical characteristics of expeditionary operations
A. Fighting conducted in urban areas
B. Tactical success depended on small units
C. Infantry skills predominated
VI. Model for the future
A. Characteristics remain valid
B. Patterns of the past should not be forgotten
LOOKING BACK AT THE FUTURE:
THE PRACTICE AND PATTERNS OF EXPEDITIONARY OPERATIONS IN THE 20TH CENTURY
As the landing craft plowed toward the Shore, nervous Marines, most
barely comprehending that, in a few minutes, they might be under fire, waited,
lost in their thoughts. From the beach, a few locals gazed seaward with a
mixture of relief and fear, alert to the possibility of gunfire. For the past
several days, they had dodged bullets fired by soldiers, a loose term that
described the current wave of armed thugs fighting for political control of
the city. The Americans, now approaching from the sea and guarded by a
prowling warship, promised relief. As they watched, however, the locals felt
uneasy; their future depended on a foreign power. Thousands of miles away,
American political leaders struggled to cope with an unexpected crisis
unfolding in a remote nation while additional troops prepared to deploy. The
Marines, soon to cross the beach, had begun yet another expeditionary
This scene, reminiscent of the past, offers a prophetic view of the
future. As the United States emerges from the Cold war, it faces a world for
which it seems unprepared. Sometimes vehement debates rage within Congress and
between the military services attempting to define the threats of the future
and the best means of dealing with them. No consensus has been reached,
perhaps because the questions possess few answers. General C.E. Mundy,
Commandant of the Marine Corps, framed the problem eloquently when he recently
stated, "I'm not sure anyone... today could tell me with any degree of
certainty who the bad guys might be in a decade or two hence."1 Since the
end of the Cold War Americans have found themselves coping with crises in the
Middle East, Africa, Somalia, and Bosnia. Regional and ethnic strife,
unforeseen enemies, and lingering dangers of weapons proliferation, both
conventional and nuclear, have combined to complicate the United States'
efforts to mold a coherent response.
The recently released National Military Strategy recognizes the
challenges of the future. With its emphasis on crisis response and regional
threats, it attempts to reconcile the volatility of the post-Cold War world
with military cutbacks imposed by fiscal realities and lack of specific
threats to justify expenditures. Additionally, it introduces a new planning
process, adaptive planning, that demands increased flexibility by military
commanders while ensuring adequate forces remain prepared to rapidly respond
to unfolding contingencies. A key element of adaptive planning and crisis
response centers on the ability to deploy and sustain forces in remote areas.
In short, the National Military Strategy largely focuses on the United States'
ability to conduct expeditionary operations.2 These operations, planned and
executed against unanticipated threats, have assumed a predominant place in
American military policy.
Yet, while America seems to have embraced expeditionary operations as
the means of dealing with the unknown, confusion still abounds. Indeed, the
term expeditionary may be the most misused in the military lexicon. Enshrouded
in such catchy phrases as "Global Reach" and "From the Sea", the term often
relates more to programs and budgets than military strategy or operations. In
fact, each service defines expeditionary operations largely in self-serving
phrases. Unfortunately, current doctrine offers little to allay the confusion.
The Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms fails to define the term,
referring only to expeditionary forces as those "organized to accomplish a
specific objective in a foreign country"3, a broad definition of little
practical use. Compounding the problem, no specific doctrine for expeditionary
operations exists. Surprisingly, Navy or Marine Corps doctrine remains
conspicuously absent, despite recent pronouncements by the Navy embracing
littoral warfare, and the Marines' longstanding commitment to being a force-
in-readiness. As the United States military prepares for the future, it does
so with only a vague appreciation of the most likely demand it will face.
Given the historical record of the past century, there need not be
confusion over the nature and demands of expeditionary operations. As the most
practiced types of military campaigns of the 20th Century, two world wars
notwithstanding, they hide no secrets. Indeed, the United States, Britain, and
France, alone, conducted over 70 expeditionary operations between 1898 and
1992. Most have been extensively chronicled. For military planners attempting
to prepare for the future, the record of expeditionary operations offers clear
guidance at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels; the patterns and
traits they exhibited remain valid today. These operations can no longer be
viewed as interesting, but largely irrelevant, historical episodes. Instead,
examined collectively, the expeditionary operations conducted during this
century demonstrated common characteristics and lessons that can aid in
planning for the future.
No attempt to analyze the past can proceed without a clear and useful
definition of what constitutes expeditionary operations. Colonel C.E.
Callwell, a British Army officer writing at the turn of the century, defined
them as "campaigns other than those where both the opposing sides consist of
regular troops." He continued by emphasizing the highly political and limited
nature of such campaigns, offering four classifications, "campaigns of
conquest or annexation, campaigns for suppression of insurrection and
lawlessness, ... campaigns undertaken to wipe out an insult, to avenge a
wrong, or to overthrow a dangerous enemy" and, finally, campaigns of
"expediency undertaken for some political purpose."4 Several years later, the
Marine Corps, drawing from its experiences in Latin America, narrowed
Callwell's definition even further, defined these operations as those
"undertaken under executive authority, wherein military force is combined with
diplomatic pressure in the internal or external affairs of another state...
for the preservation of life and such interests as are determined by the
foreign policy of our nation." The manual went on to state that such
operations were "not limited by their size, in the extent of their theater of
operations nor their cost in property, money, or lives."5 Both Callwell and
the Marines, although separated by almost four decades, agreed on the
essential traits and political nature of expeditionary operations.
A useful definition emerges from these early writings and experiences.
Expeditionary operations comprise those military campaigns undertaken short of
war for specific political purposes, usually limited in scope, with little or
no advanced warning or planning, and involving the use of rapidly deployed
forces from outside the theater of operations. Implicit in this definition
reside three basic elements. First, expeditionary operations deal with crises
short of war or the opening stages of a war when plans are nonexistent or
incomplete. The crisis nature of expeditionary operations proscribes extensive
planning, training, or preparation. Second, an expeditionary operation
involves a situation beyond the capabilities of forward-presence forces. Naval
presence missions, landings by routinely deployed amphibious units, or
expanded operations by land and air forces already operating in the theater of
operations, while important, do not fall within the definition of
expeditionary; however violent, these tasks constitute the raison d'etre of
such forces. Third, political objectives and constraints determine the
operation's measure of success and its conduct. Although not always clearly
articulated, political objectives govern the scope and nature of expeditionary
operations. In sum, expeditionary operations must mesh limited reaction time,
the necessity to deploy additional forces, and political limitations to be
While specific situations differed markedly, and the world underwent
revolutionary changes, the nature of expeditionary operations between 1898 and
1992 remained remarkably consistent. Politically, two general eras framed
their conduct. Imperialism dominated the period from 1898 until World War II.
British, French, and American operations sought to maintain or increase
control of geographic areas. European nations strove to protect and subdue
colonies. Although colonialism continued to be anathema to most Americans,
their operations in Latin America and China belied a desire for economic, if
not political, control of the regions. After 1945, the Cold War and its
aftermath largely determined the objectives of expeditionary operations,
although the British and French persisted in their colonial interests. The
international political structure, however, seems to have little affected
strategic, operational, and tactical concepts and principles underpinning
expeditionary operations. In fact, the radical changes in the international
state system brought by World War II and, later, the end of the Cold War did
not diminish the propensity of nations to conduct expeditionary operations,
nor did it change their basic goals or approaches. Whether quelling unrest in
Haiti in 1915 or feeding starving civilians seven decades later, the
characteristics remained essentially the same.6
Despite the large number of expeditions, certain fundamental strategic
concepts persisted. Political objectives centered on five basic missions-
restoring order, protecting national interests, punishing perceived insults or
transgressions, conducting initial combat operations at the outset of a war,
or providing humanitarian relief. Every expedition attempted to achieve one or
more. Significantly, nearly 90 percent sought to restore order or protect
national interests, aims that included both peacemaking and peacekeeping.
Practice taught that one usually embraced the other. American landing parties
in Haiti, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic during the first three decades
of this century forcibly established control over chaotic situations to
protect property and citizens. In some operations, particularly in recent
years, restoring order served as a precursor to other goals. Humanitarian
relief missions often included the necessity to gain and maintain control
before food or relief supplies could be distributed. While the most hazardous,
combat operations pursuant to a larger conflict proved to be a rarity for
expeditionary forces. Instead, most wartime combat occurred only after several
months of preparation and cannot be classified as expeditionary. Although
fighting may have occurred in an expeditionary operation, it served as a means
to achieving one or more basic political objectives.
Whatever the precedence or combination of objectives, political, rather
than military, considerations determined the nature and scope of operations,
often down to the lowest levels. While at times frustrating to commanders, the
intrusion of political concerns into military decisions typified most
expeditionary operations. In fact, both politicians and soldiers understood
that diplomatic and military actions demanded close integration. Rather than
being a last resort, expeditionary operations comprised but one tool to
resolve the crisis. The British task force commander during the Falklands War
in 1982 remained acutely aware of, if not always comfortable with, the
political ramifications of his actions.7 Long-term results of expeditionary
operations depended largely on political compromise, not military defeat of
enemy forces. As Callwell proclaimed, "the beating of the hostile armies is
not necessarily the main object, even if such armies exist...."8 Because of
the need for an enduring political solution, more than half the operations
lasted in excess of six months. Significantly, those whose mission involved
restoring order tended to extend for more than a year. That the United States'
presence in Somalia continued beyond its planned six weeks should have come as
no surprise to political and military leaders. Politics, not military victory,
dictated its scope.
Finally, undeveloped areas of the world formed the principal theaters of
operations. Suffering from internal chaos and absence of political structure,
countries in what, in the 195Os, became known as the Third World most often
erupted into turmoil. Before 1945, European colonies, Latin America, and China
provided an almost continuous chain of crises. After World War II, former
colonies and emerging nations, many in the same regions, shifted to the
forefront. Given the instability that typified these areas, the need for
Europe and the United States to use armed force to protect their interests and
restore order hardly seems surprising.
The strategic objectives and setting greatly influenced operational
level actions. Nearly three-fourths of expeditionary operations initially
faced limited opposition, although sporadic, and occasionally vicious,
fighting might continue for long periods. As expeditionary forces established
order or achieved their immediate objectives of protecting citizens and
property, opposing forces frequently dispersed or disbanded, often to reappear
later as guerrillas or bandits. They tended to be poorly organized and
trained, although some possessed weapons equal to and occasionally more
advanced than those of the expeditionary force. Rather than applying
overwhelming strength, however, relatively small expeditionary forces found
they could attain their objectives by exploiting superior discipline and
training. Success, as the French reaffirmed in Kinshasa in 1978, depended on
relatively small, rapidly deployed forces able to decisively react to
Yet, despite the relatively light opposition normally faced by
expeditionary forces, they enjoyed only limited freedom of maneuver. In
virtually every case, the need to secure ports and, after 1945, airfields
dictated initial objectives and constrained subsequent actions. The fact that
many areas lacked extensive facilities mattered little; essential anchorages
or landing strips could be improved. While initially committed forces might
possess the capability for amphibious or airborne assault, follow-on forces
and their logistics support required protected ports of entry. Modern
strategic sea and airlift continue to demand safe havens to unload, while the
forces they deliver consume vast quantities of supplies. In fact, as military
forces became more technologically advanced, their need for ports and
airfields increased. Whereas British expeditions and American landings early
in the century might partially support themselves off the local
infrastructure, their successors deploying to undeveloped regions in the final
decade could not. Expeditionary forces increasingly found it necessary to
secure a base area as a prerequisite to accomplishing their primary mission.
In developing their plans, operational commanders relied on two echelons
of forces. The first consisted primarily of forward deployed units. Often
naval, these forces routinely maintained a continuous presence in distant
parts of the world, showing the flag and prepared for sudden crisis. As such,
they provided quick reaction capabilities. The British after World War II
hastily deployed units based in Singapore and Hong Kong to crises in Malaya,
Brunei, and Indonesia. The United States relied extensively on Marines and
landing parties embarked aboard cruising squadrons to gain footholds.
Whatever their source, forward deployed forces provided initial leverage to
protect interests and secure lodgements for reinforcements. Their importance
cannot be overstated, for they often averted crises by their proximity and
ability to subdue budding problems; failing that, they formed the vanguard for
larger operations. The second echelon, consisting of follow-on forces and
logistics sustainment, sailed or flew from more distant bases, often the
mother country itself. Several days or weeks might elapse before their
arrival. Notably, units deployed from bases near the contingency area greatly
increased responsiveness and probability of success. Once on the scene, these
forces expanded the operating area, continued to provide security, and, all
too often, faced increased opposition from enemy bands recovered from the
initial incursion. Their stay might extend weeks or even months, long after
the expeditionary phase of the operation ceased.
Linking forward deployed and follow-on forces usually meant an
expeditionary force, by design or accident, became a joint force. Before 1940,
naval forces most often executed early actions, landing sailors, Marines, and,
occasionally, soldiers. Later, amphibious landings became the primary domain
of Marines, who often joined with hastily airlifted airborne troops. Follow-on
forces normally consisted of army units, additional naval forces and Marines,
and, after 1945, air forces. Rarely did expeditionary forces consist of a
single service. The relationships between components at times proved
contentious. A serious row occurred at Vera Cruz, Mexico in 1914 when the Navy
passed control of operations ashore to the Army; no one agreed on how the
previously landed Marine brigade fit into the command structure. In addition,
expeditionary forces sometimes fought alongside local or other national
forces. In 1927 Shanghai, units from Japan, the United States, France,
Britain, and Italy combined to guard the foreign legations in Shanghai. After
World War II, United Nations involvement in crises meant that expeditionary
force commanders sometimes found themselves in charge of polyglot
These operational level characteristics directly affected the way
tactical units carried out their responsibilities. Restoring order and
protecting interests while seizing a port or airfield meant the first units
deployed also found themselves securing urban or populated areas, sometimes
under fire. While combat may not have equalled the more costly battles of the
Western Front or Pacific Campaigns, routing snipers and machine gunners from
alleys could be deadly business. Complicating the problem, political concerns
frequently negated conventional tactics relying on extensive use of firepower
to reduce strongpoints. As the British painfully discovered in Northern
Ireland, this necessitated new approaches to urban warfare. Even after gaining
control, continued security demanded constant vigilance and seemingly endless
manning of checkpoints and patrols. As units moved into the countryside, the
pattern continued, with extended periods of patrolling punctuated by short,
Tactical success depended on small unit leadership, initiative,
decentralized control, discipline, and a keen appreciation throughout the
chain of command of the political and operational nuances of the expedition.
Quite often, units as small as squad size found themselves operating semi-
independently to maintain order or quell opposition. Tactical decisions fell
to junior officers and non-commissioned officers and placed a premium on well-
trained professionals. As the American army discovered at Santiago in 1898 and
the Marines learned in Haiti in 1919, poorly trained or hastily recruited
troops proved incapable of coping with the tactical rigors of expeditionary
Paradoxically, given the proliferation of modern weapons, expeditionary
operations continually exhibited a stubborn preference for basic infantry
tactics and skills. From the Boxer Rebellion to Somalia, infantrymen largely
determined success or failure. Only in those infrequent cases when opposition
proved stubborn or during the early stages of large scale combat operations
did modern weaponry and firepower prove fully effective. In the early months
of the Korean War, airpower played a pivotal role in preserving the Pusan
perimeter. This, however, was an exception. In most expeditionary operations,
superior firepower seldom contributed decisively, although its presence may
have been sufficient to discourage potential opposition. Quite often the
situation and enemy threat precluded effective use of air, naval, and
artillery fires.9 Instead, small unit infantry tactics prevailed. The Marines
who deployed to the Dominican Republic in 1916 might easily have returned in
1965 with little additional training.
The fundamental strategic, operational, and tactical characteristics of
expeditionary operations demonstrated over the past 90 years offer a useful
model. While future operations may differ their specifics, they will contain
similar traits to guide planners and commanders. Expeditionary forces can
expect to operate in a lesser-developed country or region, deployed hastily to
restore order and protect citizens or property and limited by political and
operational constraints. The joint task force commander's freedom of maneuver
will be restricted by the need to secure a suitable port and airfield. The
first units on the scene, composed of relatively small forward deployed
forces, will meet limited resistance as they attempt to clear opposition from
the urban areas surrounding their objectives. The task, however, will be
complicated by the requirement to limit damage and casualties, thereby placing
a premium on small unit discipline, initiative, and infantry skills. Firepower
and high technology weapons, while perhaps psychologically overpowering, may
be of only limited utility. With the establishment of at least local
stability, additional units will arrive to expand the lodgement and continue
pacifying the area, perhaps against resurgent opposition outside the immediate
environs of the ports of entry. These forces can expect to remain for weeks,
if not months, while political leaders and diplomats hammer out lasting
solutions. Although the details of each operation may differ, the basic
attributes will persist.
If this model presents a dilemma to force and operational planners, it
also provides guidance. Weapons proliferation and increasing sophistication of
armed forces throughout the world present potentially very dangerous threats.
Yet, while force structure decisions demand attention to the possibility of
wartime combat against enemies armed with modern weapons, highly trained,
relatively lightly armed, strategically mobile units seem more relevant to
expeditionary operations. Despite justifiable concern over the expanding
military capabilities of the Third World, the historical record indicates this
apprehension may be mitigated by political, operational, and tactical
realities. Expeditionary forces must be capable of balancing the need for
overcoming initial opposition with the inevitable political constraints and
operational imperatives under which they will operate. The fundamental traits
exhibited in expeditionary operations for the past century remain valid even
in the face of the rapid changes confronting today's international political
scene. These characteristics offer counsel to those who must execute similar
operations in the future. Military plans for the coming decades will
inevitably fall short if not based on a clear understanding of the practice
and patterns of expeditionary operations. As the military forces of the United
States prepare for the challenges of the coming years, they would do well to
remember the past.
1. General Carl Mundy, USMC, "Naval Expeditionary Forces and Power Projection:
Into the 21st Century," Marine Corps Gazette, January, 1992, p. 15.
2. The National Military Strategy of the United States, Washington, DC: GPO,
1992, passim; "Mobility Requirements Study," Defense, March- April, 1992,
3. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, JCS
Pub. 1-02, Washington, DC: GPO, 1990, p. 138.
4. Colonel C.E. Callwell, Small Wars: A Tactical Textbook for Imperial
Soldiers, London: HMSO, 1906, repr. Presidio Press, 1990, pp. 21-28.
5. U.S. Marine Corps, Small Wars Manual, Washington, DC: GPO, 1940, para. 1-1.
6. Based on an expeditionary operations database developed by the author from
multiple sources. Subsequent discussion, unless otherwise specifically noted,
is drawn from the database.
7. Adm. Sandy Woodward, One Hundred Days: The Memoirs of the Falklands Battle
Group Commander, Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1992, passim.
8. Callwell, Op. Cit.,p.42.
9. Although dealing with the larger scale limited wars of the post-World War
II years, Robert H. Scales, Jr. notes that terrain, political restraints,
training, motivation, and the logistics tail associated with firepower can
negate many of its effects. Robert H. Scales, Jr., Firepower in Limited War,
Washington, DC: National Defense University, 1990, passim.
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Institute Press, 1968.
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