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Assessment of the American-led Constabulary during the American Occupation of Haiti from 1915-1934 in Comparison to Later Occupations

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Assessment of the American-led Constabulary during the American Occupation of Haiti from 1915-1934 in Comparison to Later Occupations

Travis Prendergast

This article is published as part of the Small Wars Journal and Divergent Options Writing Contest which ran from March 1, 2019 to May 31, 2019.  More information about the writing contest can be found here.

During the American occupation of Haiti from 1915-1934, the United States Marines officered a native constabulary called the Gendarmerie d’Haiti. Throughout the occupation, the Gendarmerie built infrastructure and assisted in the administration of the country. The success of the Gendarmerie can be compared with the failures of the Coalition Provisional Authority during the occupation of Iraq.

The United States of America began its longest military occupation of a foreign country in August 1915 when United States Marines landed in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti. The occupation was the Wilson administration’s reaction to the potential establishment of a European naval base that could control the Windward Passage, combined with growing instability in Haiti. This instability culminated in the violent execution of Haitian President Guillaume Sam by a group of Haitian elites. After landing, the Marines met little resistance and rapidly established control of the country. By September, the Marines had established garrisons in all the major towns in Haiti. In 1915 and again in 1918, the Marines used superior training and tactics to quell uprisings of the native cacos during the First and Second Caco Wars. Between these two wars and for the rest of the time that the Marines administered the government in Haiti, the Americans ran a native constabulary called the Gendarmerie d’Haiti[1].

The constabulary was comprised mostly of the noirs, which made up most of the population, but the officers of the constabulary were Marines. This was an attractive assignment for the Marines stationed in Haiti, as they would receive an additional stipend and a higher rank. For instance, a Corporal or Sergeant in the Marine Corps would be an officer in the Gendarmerie. In the same way, then Lieutenant Colonel Smedley Butler held the rank of Major General in the Gendarmerie while acting as its first commandant. The Gendarmerie d’Haiti was as a joint army-police organization, but their role didn’t stop there. The American-led constabulary also “administered prisons, roads, bridges, the water supply, telegraph lines, sanitation, and other vital services[2].” Despite allegations of war crimes and three resulting investigations, the American military presence in Haiti continued throughout the 1920s with general success. Towards the end of the decade, the Gendarmerie d’Haiti became gradually more comprised of Haitians, and in 1928, the government renamed it the Garde d’Haiti. With the help of the Garde d’Haiti, the American administrators ran an efficient government while reducing graft and increasing stability. Upon leaving Haiti in 1934, the American-run government left behind “1,000 miles of roads constructed, 210 major bridges, 9 major airfields, 1,250 miles of telephone lines, 82 miles of irrigation canals, 11 modern hospitals, 147 rural clinics” and more[3]. America also achieved its strategic goals of keeping out the Germans and creating stability. The occupation was ultimately a success, with the Gendarmerie a large part of that success.

Although the model used by the Gendarmerie d’Haiti had seen use in previous small wars, once the United States withdrew from Haiti, the native constabulary model did not see use again in the many counter-insurgency operations in the following century. The ensuing general distaste for overt American Imperialism ensured that white officers leading black foreigners in the service of an American-led government would not be a viable option. Instead, America favored train, advise, and assist (TAA) operations during the Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan conflicts to the extent that the United States Army is now establishing units to carry on TAA operations as an enduring mission[4]. However, these operations were and are mainly concerned with establishing security to enable the success of a new government in an unstable nation. To truly examine the legacy of the American-led constabularies of the early 1900s, we must look to institutions that sought to exercise authority over a foreign government in an unstable state. The best example of this is the Coalition Provision Authority (CPA) of the early Iraq War.

Formed in the early days of the Iraq War and led by L. Paul Bremer, the CPA exercised executive, legislative, and judicial power in Iraq for 14 months from April 2003 to June 2004 as a caretaker government which attempted to set the conditions for a sovereign Iraqi government to take control of the country[5]. Planners for the occupation of Iraq had looked to the military occupation of Japan for guidance, considering that if they modeled the occupation off a previously successful one, the occupation would transform Iraq into a functioning democracy[6]. In 2019, we know that this was not the case. Looking back at the CPA through the lens of the Haitian Gendarmerie can help us understand why.

The occupation of Haiti was successful compared to the occupation of Iraq due to the continuity and command-structure provided by the Gendarmerie d’Haiti. By giving enlisted Marines commissions in the Haitian constabulary, the occupying force garnered a commitment to the institution for which they were working. Furthermore, the Gendarmerie benefited from having the “advisors” in a command position over those they were seeking to influence. Unlike the current model of organizations tasked with TAA missions, placing Marines in command positions added to the buy-in needed to garner a vested interest in the organization. Finally, the constabulary gave the American administration the benefits of a military-run government. Like in the successful military occupation of Japan, the Marines of the Gendarmerie stayed for long periods of time, with a clear military structure. Compare these facts with the experience of the CPA. Few leaders in the CPA stayed for the duration of its short lifespan, and organizations within the CPA suffered from the lack of a clear structure[7]. The continuity and structure of the American-led constabulary allowed the Marines to see successes in their administration of the country.

Even considering the above, it is important to remember that the American-led Gendarmerie was not without its problems. The reintroduction of the corvée labor system and sometimes brutal methods of enforcing the corvée were morally wrong and almost immediately led to the Second Caco War, despite Butler’s predecessor abolishing the system in 1918. Also, not all Gendarmerie officers had enlightened views of their Haitian subordinates. Smedley Butler led them with affection, but Colonel Tony Waller had a decidedly more racist and less compassionate view of the Haitian gendarmes under his command[8]. Even with these problems, the Gendarmerie d’Haiti showed how an American-led military organization can aid in the occupation and administration of another nation. While the United States will likely not employ this type of organization in the future, the successes of the Gendarmerie d’Haiti are worth remembering if the United States once again engages in the risky act of nation building.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and not necessarily those of the U.S. Army or U.S. Department of Defense.

End Notes

[1] Boot, M. (2014). The savage wars of peace: Small wars and the rise of American power. NY, NY: Basic Books.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Lopez, C. T. (2017, June). SFABs to Free BCTs from Advise, Assist Mission. Infantry Magazine, 4.

[5] Ward, C. J. (2005, May). United States Institute of Peace Special Report: The Coalition Provisional Authority’s Experience with Governance in Iraq (Rep. No. 139). Retrieved May 29, 2019, from https://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/sr139.pdf

[6] Dower, J. W. (2003, April 01). Don’t expect democracy this time: Japan and Iraq. Retrieved May 30, 2019, from http://www.historyandpolicy.org/policy-papers/papers/dont-expect-democracy-this-time-japan-and-iraq

[7] Hunter-Chester, D. (2016, May/June). The Particular Circumstances of Time and Place: Why the Occupation of Japan Succeeded and the Occupation of Iraq Failed. Military Review, 41-49.

[8] Boot, M. (2014). The savage wars of peace: Small wars and the rise of American power. NY, NY: Basic Books.

 

Categories: irregular warfare - IW

About the Author(s)

Travis Prendergast has served in the United States Army for eight years as a Rifle Platoon Leader, Staff Officer, and Rifle Company Commander. He currently works in USAREC.

Comments

With regard to possibly some of the matters presented here, the following 2003 "Parameters" article by Nadia Schadow entitled "War and the Art of Governance, and her 2017 book "War and the Art of Governance: Consolidating Combat Success into Political Victory," may make interesting reading:

2003 article:  https://ssi.armywarcollege.edu/pubs/parameters/articles/03autumn/schadlow.pdf

2017 book: https://www.amazon.com/War-Art-Governance-Consolidating-Political/dp/162616410X

Likewise, this item by Sir Adam Roberts: https://weblearn.ox.ac.uk/access/content/user/1044/AJIL_-_Roberts_on_Transformative_Military_Occupation.pdf