The Successful Iraq
How the United States defeated an insurgency in the Philippines.
When history is drafted into discussions of the war in Iraq, the easy reach has been for Vietnam. That defeat, still so much a part of our culture and politics, is an obvious analogy. But the example is so obvious that we lose sight of other helpful comparisons. One of those comparisons, a long neglected one, is the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902. It was a war that the United States had not planned, and did not expect, to fight. It was a war in which the superiority of American civilization was supposed to bring grace to a foreign people. It was a war that the United States seemed to win quickly and with ease, but that somehow did not end. It was a war that aroused controversy at home and abroad. It was a war in which the United States was accused of great cruelty, and one that mixed conventional fighting and counterinsurgency in equal measures, fought against an enemy who attacked and then faded back into the mass of civilians.
And yet, in the Philippines, the United States won with relatively few casualties. A little more than three years after the start of the war, President Theodore Roosevelt could declare victory and, unlike George W. Bush, not be undercut by a continuing insurrection. America succeeded less by waging war and more by waging politics, politics that co-opted much of the Filipino population and isolated the revolutionaries. That victory offers a central lesson for our current involvement in Iraq: Counterinsurgency is less about conquest and more about persuasion.
The Philippines had fallen into America's lap during the 1898 war with Spain. President William McKinley decided, after some vacillation, to take the islands for the United States. There were other claimants. A Filipino army, led by revolutionary Emilio Aguinaldo, was besieging Manila by the time American Army units reached the archipelago. Aguinaldo and the Filipinos were not pleased when the Spanish essentially handed the capital city over to the Americans in August 1898, and were even less pleased when Spain and the United States negotiated the Treaty of Paris, which included the sale of the Philippines to the United States for $20 million. It was enough to start a shooting war. On Feb. 4 and 5, 1899, American and Filipino forces clashed around Manila. The day of Feb. 5 ended in an overwhelming American victory that sent the Filipino army reeling backward.
The battle at Manila also produced a victory in Washington, D.C. President McKinley had found the Treaty of Paris a tough sell to the Senate. Ratification was not assured, despite the intervention of British poet Rudyard Kipling, whose poem The White Man's Burden urged the United States to annex the Philippines and civilize its "new-caught sullen peoples, half devil and half-child." Anti-imperialism warred with the messianic sense that it was America's responsibility to bring the fruits of her civilization to a benighted and savage people. But the vote in the Senate was scheduled for Feb. 6, and when news of the outbreak in Manila reached the American capital, the wave of indignant patriotism gave McKinley the votes he needed.
Victory followed victory. The American Army continued successfully to attack through the spring of 1899, culminating in the capture of Aguinaldo's capital, the Central Luzon city of Malolos on March 31. Slowed by the summer rainy season, the Americans finally scattered the Filipino army for good in October, sending Aguinaldo fleeing high into the mountains, "a fugitive," as one American officer put it, "without command." Such a decisive conventional victory meant "mission accomplished" to the Americans, just as it did to George W. Bush in 2003.
But Aguinaldo was not without options. If the Americans could not be beaten in a war of battles and attacks, perhaps they could be beaten in a war of ambushes and concealment? The number of attacks on American forces, which had died down after the victory of 1899, began to increase in 1900. The Americans could not, at first, figure out what to do. The enemy was hard to find. American units would be attacked, with a few wounded and killed, and their attackers, called insurrectos, would fade back into the jungle. The civilian population served as a ready camouflage. "Enter American troops [into a village] white blouses, all 'Amigos' and smiles; exit Americans, blue print trousers, sullen looks, and 'Viva Aguinaldo' " said one American soldier.
The situation of Arthur MacArthur, the father of Douglas MacArthur and commander in chief of American forces in the Philippines, was not made easier by a divided command structure. McKinley had sent a friend, William Howard Taft, to organize a civilian government for the islands. Taft was a large, cheery man who traveled with his own bathtub, and he and MacArthur disliked each other from the start. Taft was responsible for creating a civilian government for the Philippines. After all, the war was almost over, right?
MacArthur wanted to use sterner measures against the Filipinos, but he had to wait until fall of 1900, after McKinley had won a comfortable re-election. Once that was past, MacArthur moved. Most American troops were spread through the islands in small garrisons, while the rest were put into flying columns that chased the enemy forces deep into the jungle. MacArthur also built up native forces allied to the Americans, playing on rivalries between the hundreds of different ethnic and religious groups on the islands. Information and intelligence came from these native groups and through the torture of prisoners. The "water cure"—in which a captive was forced to drink gallons of water and then vomit it back up—was a particular favorite. On a number of islands, the civilian populations were sequestered in camps so they could not give aid and comfort to the insurrectos. The Navy blockaded the islands, preventing any outside help to the insurgency. The Americans also offered carrots to offset the stick. Schools and hospitals were built for civilians. Insurrecto leaders who turned themselves in were often given amnesty and appointed to official positions in the civilian government. Filipino trade was supported. The legal system was modernized.
The result was a whittling away of Aguinaldo's forces and the co-optation of Filipino civilians, including many of the business and governing elites. By the beginning of 1901, MacArthur could send a message home that the situation was "satisfactory and encouraging." Even more satisfactory was the capture of Aguinaldo himself a few months later in a daring American raid. The war again seemed close to resolution.
It would not be so easy. An audacious ambush by insurrectos in Balangiga on the island of Samar in September 1901 led to the death of 48 American soldiers, their worst loss of the insurgency. The American response was to turn Samar into a "howling wilderness," though how much of this was policy and how much the independent actions of the commanding general in Samar, Jacob Hurd Smith, remains open to question. There was also an epidemic of cholera among the Filipinos during the summer of 1901, a legacy of the American concentration of civilians. The disease killed tens of thousands of Filipinos. The war was ending, but convulsively and in agony.
David Silbey is an associate professor of history at Alvernia College and the author of A War of Frontier and Empire: The Philippine-American War, 1899-1902.