Attraction and Chastisement

Attraction and Chastisement

Mini Teaser: The counterinsurgency that worked--a century ago.

by Author(s): Max Boot

Brian McAllister Linn,  The Philippine War, 1899-1902 (Lawrence, KA: University Press of Kansas, 2000).

President Bush famously claimed to have buried the "Vietnam Syndrome" in the sands of Arabia. But, for a corpse, it is still showing plenty of signs of life. When Congress was debating an aid package for Colombia earlier this year, the specter of another you-know-what was once again invoked. Vietnam came up, too, when the NATO commander in Kosovo requested American reinforcements to help police Mitrovica and other trouble spots; the Pentagon blocked the request, in part because the generals apparently wished to avoid another "quagmire."

It is far from clear exactly what the "lessons" of Vietnam are supposed to be, but the general view (and, more important, the generals' view) seems to be that the United States should stay out of conflicts where it does not intend to use overwhelming force and where it lacks a clearly defined "exit strategy." This view, which was formally promulgated in the Weinberger/Powell Doctrine, implies that the United States should not become entangled in peacekeeping missions of uncertain duration. Such operations, after all, might involve combat against guerrillas, a term that has assumed an almost mystical connotation in the wake of America's withdrawal from Vietnam.

In countering this impression, it helps, but does not suffice, to point out that Saigon fell not to the pajama-clad Viet Cong (most of whom had been wiped out in the Tet Offensive), but to the tanks of the regular North Vietnamese army. The U.S. defeat can still be ascribed in some degree to the efforts of the Viet Cong because they kept the conflict going long enough to break the American will to win -- the most that any guerrilla force could hope to accomplish. Still, Vietnam raises more questions than it answers. Was the war in Indochina an anomaly? Was it a conventional war or a guerrilla war? And if it was the latter, are American soldiers really incapable of defeating guerrillas in the field?

To answer these questions, we would do well to cast a glance backward, before a place called Vietnam even existed. We might be tempted to begin with the Indian Wars, the U.S. Army's most prolonged combat against irregulars. But as General William Tecumseh Sherman acknowledged in 1883, his army's victory over the Indians derived less from martial prowess than from "immigration and the occupation by industrious farmers and miners of lands vacated by the aborigines." A more reliable test case is to be found in the Philippine War, which formally lasted from 1899 to 1902 but in reality dragged on for several more years as a series of police actions.

Though the Korean War is called the "forgotten war", it is well remembered in comparison to what was once known as the Philippine Uprising. Oddly enough, even the Spanish-American War, which begot the conflict in the Philippines, is much better remembered, in spite of the fact that it involved fewer combatants, fewer casualties and considerably less time. No doubt this is because the Spanish-American War is widely thought to have heralded America's rise to world power, whereas, in the view of most historians, the Philippine War was a blind alley -- a short-lived U.S. foray into colonialism.

When the Philippine War is remembered, it is typically for the purpose of denouncing the United States as an imperialist power. Here, after all, was another U.S. war fought in the jungles of Asia that generated considerable opposition at home and charges of atrocities committed by U.S. troops. (By their own count, U.S. forces claimed to have killed 16,000 Filipinos in battle, four times the U.S. casualties.) New Left histories, such as Stuart Miller's Benevolent Assimilation and Leon Wolff's Little Brown Brother, depict the U.S. war effort in the Philippines in a distinctly grim light. In their telling, the war is reduced to a simple tale of racist U.S. soldiers torturing, killing and raping Filipinos. Such works aim to prove that My Lai was no aberration -- that this is how U.S. soldiers usually behave, or at least how they usually behave when fighting non-Westerners.

Brian McAllister Linn, a history professor at Texas A&M University who has been studying the Philippine War for two decades, offers a welcome alternative to this tendentious catalogue. Whereas the New Left writers focus almost exclusively on alleged U.S. atrocities and public opinion in America, Linn recounts what actually happened on the battlefield. What he reveals is one of the most successful counterinsurgency campaigns of modern times (rivaled among Western powers only by the British in post-World War II Malaya).

True, the U.S. victory can be credited in some measure to mistakes by the enemy. Emilio Aguinaldo, the first president of the Philippine Republic, was no Ho Chi Minh -- and Antonio Luna, his top general, was no Vo Nguyen Giap. Aguinaldo committed the fatal error of trying to engage the U.S. Army in a conventional war. His forces were mauled during a series of battles in 1899 that began just outside Manila in February and finished in northern Luzon ten months later. Thereafter, Aguinaldo resorted to guerrilla warfare, but his government, dominated as it was by ilustrados (wealthy landowners), never succeeded in rallying the Filipino people to its cause.

Still, the eventual U.S. triumph was hardly foreordained. There were never more than 70,000 U.S. troops in the islands, and an average of only 24,000 men in the field, facing at least 80,000 insurgents. (By way of comparison, in the first Chechen war of 1994-95, the Russians had a 3 to 1 manpower advantage and still managed to lose.) The American technological advantage was not great -- in the beginning of the war, most U.S. troops were armed with Civil War-vintage Springfield rifles that were inferior to the rebels' Mausers (eventually, all U.S. regiments received more modern Krag-Jorgenson rifles). The United States could bring to bear superior firepower from artillery and navy gunboats, but even in the war's early days these advantages were to some extent obviated by the difficult jungle and mountain terrain; later on, heavy weaponry proved almost entirely irrelevant to combating the elusive guerrillas. Moreover, while the insurrectos were acclimated to local conditions, foul weather and disease ravaged U.S. ranks. Finally, the rebels, with informers in every barrio, possessed better intelligence about the U.S. Army than the army had about them.

Ultimately the army pacified the islands using a two-pronged approach -- what has been dubbed "attraction" and "chastisement." The policy of attraction -- renamed "hearts and minds" in Vietnam -- has been slighted by New Left historians, but it contributed significantly to the U.S. victory. The army ran schools, hospitals, sanitation programs and other charitable works. The colonial administration also granted generous terms to rebels who surrendered, and held out the promise of eventual independence for the islands. Eventually, more and more Filipinos tired of the war and concluded that American rule was in fact preferable to the "dons" who had come before, and perhaps even to Aguinaldo's oligarchy.

It is the policy of chastisement that has drawn unwelcome attention to the U.S. war effort, both in the early 1900s and in the years since. The American press avidly reported tales -- some confirmed, some not -- of U.S. soldiers shooting prisoners, burning down towns, gathering up natives in "reconcentration" camps and administering the "water cure" (restraining a suspect and forcing water down his throat) to gain information. This led to Mark Twain's mordant suggestion (not mentioned by Linn) that Old Glory be redesigned, with "the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and crossbones."

Many of these abuses did occur, but Linn puts them into proper perspective. He notes that isolated garrisons in the boondocks (a Tagalog word) had to operate against an unseen enemy who would kill or mutilate their buddies one day and be smiling "amigos" the next. It is hardly surprising that in such trying circumstances soldiers did not always heed Marquess of Queensbury rules. Then, too, it is not entirely fair to judge the actions of turn-of-the-century soldiers through a lens of contemporary norms. This was a more brutal time, when police departments in America routinely used the "third degree" to elicit confessions and U.S. soldiers themselves were subject to harsh hazing and physical punishment that would not be tolerated today. Indeed, by the standards of the day, the conduct of U.S. soldiers was probably better than average for colonial wars -- certainly nothing the Americans did rivaled the depredations of the Belgians in the Congo. What Linn does not point out, but could have, is that U.S. forces probably killed more civilians in one night of bombing Dresden than in all of the Philippine War.

This is easy to overlook because most histories of the war concentrate on only a few of its more brutal episodes; for instance, General J. Franklin Bell herding thousands of residents of Batangas province into "reconcentration" zones where many died of disease. Linn widens this focus to look at what was happening outside the main island of Luzon, the heartland of the Tagalogs and hence of resistance to the occupation. He notes that in half the archipelago's provinces there was no fighting at all. Many of the minority ethnic groups were resentful of Aguinaldo's Tagalog-dominated government and were more than ready to cooperate with the occupiers. Thousands of local men even signed up to fight alongside the Americans in battalions such as the Macabebe Scouts, a unit renowned for its courage and ferocity (and which is today denounced as collaborationist by patriotic Filipino historians).

In the end, the success of the U.S. counterinsurgency effort owed not to atrocities committed but to the attention paid to the rudiments of counterinsurgency strategy. Unlike in Vietnam, the army did not squander its resources on fruitless search and destroy missions; rather, it concentrated on cutting off the guerrillas from civilian assistance by garrisoning the countryside. Even more important, U.S. forces interdicted the guerrillas' lines of supply. Linn credits the navy with an often overlooked role in blockading the Philippines, which "not only prevented foreign arms shipments but also effectively ended inter-island trade", making it difficult for Aguinaldo to raise money and move reinforcements. Geography also played a key role: in the Philippine Islands, there were no sanctuaries and no Ho Chi Minh trails to keep the guerrillas in business.

Even with the insurrectos cut off from outside support, it nevertheless took a long time to bring the insurgency to an end. Optimistic estimates that the archipelago would be pacified in 1899 were not borne out; neither were similar predictions in 1900 and 1901. Just when the army thought it had the situation under control, some fresh setback would occur to remind Americans that victory was not around the corner -- the most notable disaster being the massacre of forty-six men from Company C, Ninth Infantry, at Balangiga on the island of Samar on September 28, 1901. Even after President Roosevelt declared the war over on July 4, 1902, resistance continued for years on outlying islands among the Muslim Moros. (In fact, Moro resistance to rule from Manila has never really ended; even today, Moros battle the Philippine Army.)

Presumably, if the War Department had been in the grip of the Weinberger/ Powell Doctrine in the early 1900s, it would have thrown up its hands in despair. But the generals of that day had a more realistic, or at any rate more resigned, attitude. They realized that only police work could ultimately produce lasting victory. That is true not only in the Philippines but in most wars. When American forces withdraw immediately after winning a battle, as they did in the Gulf War, very little is left decided. As Michael Howard has argued, only long-term occupation can transform battlefield victory into more than a temporary armistice. The U.S. Army applied this insight in the post-1865 South and post-1945 Germany and Japan, but seems loath to apply it today in places like Kosovo. To be sure, the stakes are considerably smaller there, but so is the U.S. commitment.

The Philippine experience is worth recalling because in the post-Cold War era the United States is once again undertaking imperial policing. It is doubtful that any conflict we fight will be as prolonged or bloody as the Philippine War, but the experience of 1899-1902 ought to teach us that guerrillas should not be feared unduly. They can be defeated by a regular army -- so long as it abjures a conventional military mindset.

Counterinsurgency requires a police department, not a war department, mentality. This in turn means demonstrating greater patience than is typical of our instant gratification culture. No one expects the New York Police Department to declare victory tomorrow in the war against crime and go home. Likewise, we should not expect that our mission in the Balkans will be completed anytime soon. In real life, few military commitments offer easy "exit strategies." But that does not mean we will find ourselves trapped in a "quagmire" or headed for "another Vietnam." It simply means that for military professionals there remains a hard, wearying, inglorious job ahead.

Essay Types: Book Review