Small Wars Journal

Lessons from American Counterinsurgency Operations During the Occupation of Haiti

Wed, 06/16/2021 - 4:23pm

Lessons from American Counterinsurgency Operations During the Occupation of Haiti

By Nick Kramer

The United States occupied Haiti and ran many of its critical governmental functions between 1915-1934 in one of America’s most protracted conflicts and occupations. During this occupation, multiple internal conflicts arose that required the small garrison of American Marines and the Marine-led Haitian Gendarmerie to execute brief but generally effective counterinsurgency campaigns. An examination of these campaigns will illuminate what lessons can be drawn for contemporary and future use. 

Paolo Coelho, author of The Alchemist said that “Everything that happens once can never happen again. But everything that happens twice will surely happen a third time”[1]. After 20 years of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, many may have tired of hearing about the subject. If history is any indicator though, which it all too often is, then it should be clear that these will not be the last conflicts of this nature we will engage in, simply because they are not the first. It seems clear then why there is value in looking at how, from 1915-1934, the U.S. occupied the island nation of Haiti, one of the longest military occupations in American history. This was done to bring political stability to both the island and the western hemisphere and to ward off any European powers who might try and assert their influence on the island, in particular, Germany [2]. Foreign influence and potential naval presence on the island could threaten access to the barely one year old Panama Canal, which was of major economic and military importance to the U.S. in its efforts to make and keep the Carribean as an “American lake”. 


By 1915, Haiti had become the most politically unstable nation in the Caribbean, with civil wars, coups and ineffectual government plaguing it for over 60 years. While the most recent president met his untimely demise at the hands of an angry mob, a new contender was fighting his way to the capital with the aid of a small army [3]. This instability concerned the American government and European ambassadors on the island equally and provided the U.S. the perfect excuse to intervene [4]. As a result, Washington ordered in a contingent of Marines and Sailors, who landed near Port-Au-Prince under the pretext of protecting foreign lives and property [5]. Soon enough, most large Haitian cities and governmental functions, including the management of customs houses, security, and healthcare facilities, were all under American control [6]. A new, pro-American president was then selected and put into office while the State Department drafted a treaty to give the occupation a legal shine, a treaty that the new president signed after initial hesitation [7]. The signing of this treaty greatly angered the Cacos, bands of fighters from the northern mountains who were primarily noir (fully native, literally “black”, in French) in as well as generally poor and uneducated. Their groups layed dichotomous to the mulatto elite who usually dominated and controlled Haitian politics [8]. The Cacos had found the previous system of constant revolutions very profitable, as they often fought as soldiers of fortune [9]. Thus, the First Caco War  began. The First Caco War would be followed by the Second Caco War in 1919, which began over grievances with American reintroduction of the corvee system, an old French system of civic service through forced labor, in order to build roads and other infrastructure [10].


At the time, there were only approximately 2,029 Marines garrisoning an island the size of Maryland with a population of approximately 2 million people [11]. These Marines were not all engaged in combat roles. Many were assisting in administering the many government functions, such as public works, customs houses, and financial institutions, and others were assigned as officers in the native security force, the Haitian Gendarmerie [12]. To further put things in perspective, the current U.S. COIN doctrine recommends a ratio of 20 troops for every 1000 inhabitants, which would call for approximately 40,000 troops [13]. In Haiti, between 1915-1920 the Marines faced approximately 13,000 Cacos, meaning they were outnumbered by a factor of almost seven [14]. Starting in December of 1915, the American officerred Gendarmerie d'Haiti was formed, growing to the size of 2,553 men and becoming a competent and effective fighting force [15]. While not significantly altering the ratio between the insurgents and counterinsurgents, their quality as fighters compensated for their small numbers. While every situation is different and requires a unique calculus to determine what is necessary, these numbers help to illustrate the counterinsurgents’ situation.

While theorists usually recommend large numbers of troops to help garrison a region during an insurgency, at the tactical level, less is usually more. In Malaya, the British in the early years of the Malayan Emergency opted for battalion-level formations to comb the jungle looking for insurgents [16]. It was not until a premium was placed on platoon and squad level patrolling that the British began seeing military victories at the tactical and operational level, that supported changes which unified the civil and military command hierarchy, allowing for the insurgency to be finally gotten under control. Patrols with large formations that go crashing through the jungle alert insurgents to the presence of friendly forces and very easily create a target rich environment. Smaller patrols allow for more effective command and control and maneuvering, while also mitigating the aforementioned issues. They began with a more enemy centric approach, hoping to force the enemy to do battle out in the open so they could be destroyed. Their colonial experience informed them of the value of population centric operations, so most tactical and operational activities were occurring against the background of colonial and indigenous forces manning guard posts and positions across the colony in order to secure the population. The Marines did not have these growing pains, partly because they simply lacked the troops and partly because they believed their competency and training would overcome their deficit in numbers. While this arrogance of sorts and underestimating the enemy may have been dangerous, it served the Marines well and it helped to drive their offensive spirit.  Instead of large sweeps of the island, smaller elements went hunting down Caco bands, launching raids, and responding to fires as they popped up. This is not to say there were not those who thought more troops were necessary. Colonel Eli Cole, based in Cap Haitien with 700 men, was hesitant to take the initiative against the Cacos in north Haiti unless he had at a minimum 3,000 men, more than the garrison of the entire island at the time [17]. Aggressive officers such as Major Smedley Butler understood these small patrols' value, taking platoon and company-sized forces on reconnaissance and raiding actions, usually against a numerically superior enemy and coming out on top. 


Another area in which the Marines performed well was using the minimum necessary amount of force.  All too often, counterinsurgent forces rush to use excessive amounts of firepower and are not careful enough to keep civilians out of the crossfire, sometimes even intentionally targeting civilian areas as retribution for attacks against counterinsurgent forces. One example is Vietnam, in which U.S. forces usually used massive amounts of firepower and occasionally would use unnecessary force against and even target civilian areas, alienating the population [18]. Another example of this can be seen in COIN operations attempted by Axis troops in the Balkans from 1941-1944, where mass reprisals against the civilian population were common, leading to the alienation of potential collaborators [19]. Counterinsurgent forces often have the instinct that their only job is to find and destroy the enemy and that by destroying the enemy in some decisive battle, the conflict can be resolved [20]. In this effort to destroy the enemy, large amounts of infantry, artillery, armor, and air assets are brought to bear, usually resulting in unnecessary destruction and death. This is an often hard-won and understood lesson. The Marines luckily did not have to learn, as they utilized small light infantry formations as mentioned above and usually traveled lightly armed, winning engagements not because of their numbers or firepower, but because of their training [21]. There still were accusations of criminal conduct, and even indiscriminate killings of natives by the Marines, which became a hot topic in the 1920 U.S. election [22]. Multiple internal and external investigations by military and congressional delegations found little evidence to support these claims, determining that while isolated abuses did occur, these were the exception and not the rule [23]. The Marine’s ability to manage their use of violence would win them victories on the battlefield and would help to keep the population on their side. 

An insurgent is very different from a conventional, uniformed and (usually) state-associated enemy combatant. Unlike a uniformed soldier fighting on some foreign field, an insurgent is fighting in their own backyard, and possesses influence as a community member. The counterinsurgent could devote resources to holding them as a POW, but if they could be turned, all the better. That insurgent probably has friends and a family they can influence, and it is to the advantage of the counterinsurgent to make that influence positive. During the First Caco War, surrendered Cacos were granted amnesty, cash for guns and preferential consideration for government employment [24]. This was generous, and encouraged those cacos who may have been on the fence that fighting was not worth it. It turned enemies into friends, or at least neutrals, and took personnel and weapons off the battlefield. 

Another area, arguably the most important, in which the Marines excelled, was their management of the civil government of Haiti and their ability to present a favorable alternative to the people. Ultimately, few COIN campaigns can succeed unless they can win over a significant portion of the people or at least prevent them from aiding the insurgent cause. Haiti is an island nation with a single land border, shared with the Dominican Republic, and which was controlled by the U.S. on both sides, as the occupation of the Dominican Republic overlapped with the occupation of Haiti. Additionally, Haiti’s ports and waters were controlled by the U.S. Navy. This forced the insurgents to have to rely on the people for support instead of outside benefactors, as is common in many insurgencies. The Cacos though, were already an unsavory group, that held little appeal for the majority of the Haitian people. The potential may have existed for them to rally the Haitian people behind the cause of ending the occupation, but a competent American administration prevented that potential from gaining any real momentum. While the Haitian people may not have liked having their nation occupied, many appreciated that the U.S. was better than the immediate alternative, which was reinforced by the variety of infrastructural, governmental and military improvements that were made to the country while it was occupied (examples of which will be discussed below). Many nations have made the mistake of identifying insurgencies as a military problem alone. The semi-colonial nature of the conflict forced the Marines to be both a security force and an administrative one and meant that they were forced to deal with political, economic, social, and military issues. This, combined with how they handled administrative matters would aid their military successes in their final victory over the insurgencies. 

The Marine’s primary task on the island was to stabilize its government, which meant that the small garrison had to run vital governmental functions while also dealing with the Cacos. They succeeded in both of these tasks, with the former playing an essential role in the success of the latter. The Marines succeeded in winning the Haitian people's support firstly because they made significant infrastructural improvements to the island. By the time the U.S. left Haiti in 1934, 1,000 miles of road, 210 bridges, 9 airfields, 1250 miles of telephone line, 82 miles of irrigation canals, 11 modern hospitals, 147 rural clinics, and much more had been constructed [25]. These projects helped improve the quality of life for many Haitian citizens. Secondly, compared to the cacos, and to the previous governments, the U.S. ran a relatively clean house. The U.S. led gendarmerie’s system of empowering junior Marine NCOs to become officers in the gendarmerie created a sense of ownership, which played a key role in the development and success of the gendarmerie as a competent fighting force [26]. This force was then used to administer many key public services, such as prisons, sanitation, utilities, and other critical national infrastructure elements. American officers served as magistrates at the local level, and for the most part were fair and just [27]. Fair treatment and good government won over, or at least dissuaded most of the population from wanting to rise against the Americans. This illustrates a fundamental principle advocated for by population-centric COIN theorists, such as David Galula. The conflict cannot be resolved favorably without the insurgency’s military defeat, but this defeat cannot occur without the insurgency’s political defeat. In the case of Haiti in 1915 and then 1919, this meant ensuring the population, the primary potential support network for the insurgents, did not desire to help the insurgency. Thus, the successful Marine and U.S. administration of the island set up the forces in the field for military success, which is a lesson worth carrying forward. 

Several key lessons regarding COIN operations can be pulled from this occupation. The first is that less can be more. While it is usually necessary to be willing to commit large amounts of troops to an area where an insurgency is being combatted, at the tactical level, small patrols and sweeps hold many advantages over sweeps done by larger formations. Second, it is critical that the minimum necessary amount of force is used. This can be hard when training regimens, especially for American troops, emphasize overwhelming amounts of firepower brought to bear in order to suppress and destroy the enemy. This fits a broader mindset that is nothing if not natural, that the only role of the Army is to destroy the enemy’s troops, and through this destruction will come victory [28]. It is thus necessary to carefully manage violence to prevent unnecessary destruction and death that could alienate the civilian population from being willing to support COIN operations. Third, sometimes there is value to be found in winning the hearts and or minds of the people, and of the enemy. For, the enemy in an insurgency is of the people, one's greatest asset, or liability. Finally, and most importantly, winning the peoples support is paramount if an insurgency is to be overcome. The people are the lifeblood of an insurgency and can be a counterinsurgent’s best friend or worst enemy. Haiti shows us what good can come when the populace is on the counterinsurgent’s side, and none of that would have been possible if not for good governance and administration on the part of the Marines, Sailors, gendarmerie, and civil administrators.

Understanding what specific actions and decisions made the Marines successful in Haiti is  undoubtedly important, and provides for us several lessons worth carrying forward, but something almost equally important is understanding what drove them to make these decisions and take the actions that they did. Understanding these underlying motivations, and the organizational culture of the Marines can help to inform what changes may be worth making to our own organizations in order to be better prepared to handle insurgencies. The first decision driver was simply the nature of the organization that was assuming the role of the counterinsurgent. The USMC was made to be America’s primary expeditionary force, as it was traditionally already forward deployed on naval vessels around the world. It was created to provide security aboard American warships, act as a boarding party, and to conduct raids and landings when necessary.The early 20th century though the heyday of American expeditionary action, with the Marines seeing action in low-intensity conflicts in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Nicaragua and China, among other places. The Corps in the early 20th century possessed an expeditionary organizational culture which was necessary to fight and win these conflicts, while also being able to fight in more conventional conflicts, as the U.S. would enter World War I just two years into the occupation of Haiti. They didn’t necessarily attempt to construe them as conventional conflicts, but saw them as small, expeditionary wars that required different tactics and techniques than what were required in a large inter-state conflict. The Marines unique understanding of these types of conflicts is further evidenced by the fact that the last manual published by any branch of the military that seriously discussed the topic of combating insurgencies and fighting small wars before FM 3-24 in 2006 was FMFRP 12-15 The Small Wars Manual and was published by the USMC in 1940 [29]. The Marines and the Corps’ leadership understood the importance and role of respecting local populaces in securing victories in expeditionary actions. This is evidenced by a letter published by the Commandant, General John A. Lejeune, on 19 September 1922, right in the midst of the Haiti occupation. In one excerpt, he imparts that “Obedience to orders and regulations must always be insisted on, and good conduct on the part of the men exacted. Especially should this be done with reference to the civilian inhabitants of foreign countries in which Marines are serving.” [30]The Marines in Haiti had among them many seasoned veterans of small wars and interventions, a prime example being Smedley Butler, two time Medal of Honor recipient, and a major during his time in Haiti, who saw service in China, Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Haiti [31]. It was the officers and NCOs like him who formed the backbone of the American occupation force, and the officer corps of the gendarmerie, which allowed for competent decision making at all levels of the conflict. The most important lesson that can be pulled from an examination of the underlying motivations for the decisions made during COIN operations in Haiti is that it is crucial to have an organizational culture that is adaptable and does not become hyper-focused on one type of threat. The Marines were a warfighting organization whose primary role was as an expeditionary force, but were able to adapt when sent to the Western Front in 1918. This same adaptability and mental flexibility allowed them to succeed as a constabulary and counterinsurgent force during the occupation of Haiti. Insurgencies almost always require changes on the part of the counterinsurgent, and the Caco insurgency was no exception, but the Marines were well equipped to meet this challenge.

Fighting an insurgency seems to be like tailoring a custom suit. Every insurgency occurs in a unique context, in which the course of the insurgency is shaped by the weapons, technology, culture, people, and political beliefs, among a wide array of elements, that are available and at play at the time it occurs. Thus, there is no one right way to fight an insurgency, and every situation requires a tailored solution that considers all these factors. That said, there are many similarities at a tactical, operational, and strategic level, that make insurgencies and thus potential COIN strategies similar. These similarities make this analysis relevant to future conflicts, as our history, and the history of many other nations suggest we will find ourselves in a similar one in the future. 

 In Haiti, we see a conventional counterinsurgent conduct multiple successful COIN campaigns against native insurgents. The occupation of Haiti reinforces and brings to light several important lessons. While it is important to have enough troops to saturate a nation, and to deny the insurgent freedom to maneuver, at the tactical level, large formations conducting clearing operations may hinder rather than help. In the process of conducting these operations, troops must be cognizant about the amount of force that is used, in order to avoid alienating the civilian population. The enemy, except for its core members, should be seen largely as temporary, and as a body made up of individuals who at least a portion of, can be won over, or will give up their arms when properly incentivized. The population's importance must be understood and considered at all levels of planning and operations, as, though there do exist exceptions, the population fuels the insurgency, and it’s power to support or oppose the counterinsurgents' cause is of the utmost importance. While many of these lessons may not be new, an examination of the occupation of Haiti allows for their importance, and relevance to be understood. They provide another set of tools which the 21st century counterinsurgent can and should consider for use in their operations in the future.

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



[1] Paulo Coelho, Alan Clarke, and James Noel Smith, The Alchemist (New York, NY: Harper Luxe, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2014).

[2] Max Boot, “Lords of Hispaniola,” in Savage Wars of Peace (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2002), pp. 156-181.

[3] Ibid, 160.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, 161.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 162.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid, 160.

[12] Ibid, 165.

[13] “Field Manual FM 3-24 MCWP 3-33.5,” Field Manual FM 3-24 MCWP 3-33.5 § (n.d.).  

[14]Boot, “Lords of Hispaniola,” in Savage Wars of Peace, 175.


[15] Ibid, 165.


[16] John A. nag, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam (Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

[17] Boot, “Lords of Hispaniola,” in Savage Wars of Peace, 163.

[18] “'Anything That Moves': Civilians and The Vietnam War,” NPR (NPR, January 28, 2013),

[19] “German Antiguerrilla Operations in the Balkans (1941-1944),” German Antiguerrilla Operations in the Balkans (1941-1944), accessed May 26, 2021,

[20] Nagl, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam, 116.

[21] Boot, “Lords of Hispaniola,” in Savage Wars of Peace, 176.

[22] Ibid, 176-178.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid, 165.

[25] Ibid, 180.

[26] Travis Pendergast, “Assessment of the American-Led Constabulary during the American Occupation of Haiti from 1915-1934 in Comparison to Later Occupations,” Assessment of the American-led Constabulary during the American Occupation of Haiti from 1915-1934 in Comparison to Later Occupations | Small Wars Journal, September 16, 2019

[27] Boot, “Lords of Hispaniola,” in Savage Wars of Peace, 166.

[28] Nagl, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam, 116.

[29] “Small Wars Manual” (United States Marine Corps, 1940),

[30] John A. Lejeune, “Home,” Marine Corps University > Research > Marine Corps History Division > Frequently Requested Topics > Historical Documents, Orders and Speeches > accessed May 26, 2021,

[31] Kennedy Hickman, “Profile of Major General Smedley Butler, Banana War Crusader,” ThoughtCo, accessed April 5, 2021,


Special thanks to Cadet Jacob Lapin, USMA, for his assistance in editing this article.



“'Anything That Moves': Civilians And The Vietnam War.” NPR. NPR, January 28, 2013. 

Boot, Max. “Lords of Hispaniola: Haiti, 1915-1934; Dominican Republic, 1916-1924.” Essay. In The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2014. 

Coelho, Paulo, Alan Clarke, and James Noel Smith. The Alchemist. New York, NY: Harper Luxe, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2014. 

Field Manual FM 3-24 MCWP 3-33.5 § (n.d.). 

Galula, David, and John A. Nagl. Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice. New Delhi: Pentagon Press, 2010. 

German Antiguerrilla Operations in the Balkans (1941-1944). Accessed May 26, 2021. 

Hickman, Kennedy. “Profile of Major General Smedley Butler, Banana War Crusader.” ThoughtCo. Accessed April 5, 2021.

Lejeune, John A. “Home.” Marine Corps University > Research > Marine Corps History Division > Frequently Requested Topics > Historical Documents, Orders and Speeches > Accessed May 26, 2021. 

Nagl, John A. Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam. Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 2009. 

Pendergast, Travis. “Assessment of the American-Led Constabulary during the American Occupation of Haiti from 1915-1934 in Comparison to Later Occupations.” Assessment of the American-led Constabulary during the American Occupation of Haiti from 1915-1934 in Comparison to Later Occupations | Small Wars Journal, September 16, 2019. 

“Small Wars Manual.” United States Marine Corps, 1940. 


Categories: counterinsurgency

About the Author(s)

Nick Kramer is currently a Cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point and is interested in researching and studying the future of counterinsurgency operations.