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Remembering America’s First (and Longest) Forgotten War on Tribal Islamists

The four-day battle of Bagsak Mountain on Jolo island in 1913 – US Army Center of Military History

For a decade and a half, the U.S. Army waged war on fierce tribal Muslims in a remote land. Sound familiar?

As it happens, that war unfolded half a world away from the Greater Middle East and more than a century ago in the southernmost islands of the Philippines. Back then, American soldiers fought not the Taliban, but the Moros, intensely independent Islamic tribesmen with a similarly storied record of resisting foreign invaders. Precious few today have ever heard of America’s Moro War, fought from 1899 to 1913, but it was, until Afghanistan, one of America’s longest sustained military campaigns.

Popular thinking assumes that the U.S. wasn’t meaningfully entangled in the Islamic world until Washington became embroiled in the Islamist Iranian revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, both in the pivotal year of 1979. It simply isn’t so. How soon we forget that the Army, which had fought prolonged guerrilla wars against tribal Native Americans throughout the nineteenth century, went on — often led by veterans of those Indian Wars — to wage a counterinsurgency war on tribal Islamic Moros in the Philippine Islands at the start of the new century, a conflict that was an outgrowth of the Spanish-American War.

That campaign is all but lost to history and the collective American memory. A basic Amazon search for “Moro War,” for instance, yields just seven books (half of them published by U.S. military war colleges), while a similar searchfor “Vietnam War” lists no less than 10,000 titles. Which is curious. The war in the Southern Philippines wasn’t just six years longer than conventional American military operations in Vietnam, but also resulted in the awarding of 88 Congressional Medals of Honor and produced five future Army chiefs of staff. While the insurgency in the northern islands of the Philippines had fizzled out by 1902, the Moro rebels fought on for another decade. As Lieutenant Benny Foulois — later a general and the “father” of Army aviation — reflected, “The Filipino insurrection was mild compared to the difficulties we had with the Moros.”

Here are the relevant points when it comes to the Moro War (which will sound grimly familiar in a twenty-first-century forever-war context): the United States military shouldn’t have been there in the first place; the war was ultimately an operational and strategic failure, made more so by American hubris; and it should be seen, in retrospect, as (using a term General David Petraeus applied to our present Afghan War) the nation’s first “generational struggle.”

More than a century after the U.S. Army disengaged from Moroland, Islamist and other regional insurgencies continue to plague the southern Philippines. Indeed, the post-9/11 infusion of U.S. Army Special Forces into America’s former colony should probably be seen as only the latest phase in a 120-year struggle with the Moros. Which doesn’t portend well for the prospects of today’s “generational struggles” in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and parts of Africa.

Welcome to Moroland

Soldiers and officers streaming into what they dubbed “Moroland” at the turn of the century might as well have been entering Afghanistan in 2001-2002. As a start, the similarity between the Moro islands and the Afghan hinterlands is profound. Both were enormous. The Moro island of Mindanao alone is larger than Ireland. The more than 369 southern Philippine islands also boasted nearly impassable, undeveloped terrain — 36,000 square miles of jungle and mountains with just 50 miles of paved roads when the Americans arrived. So impenetrable was the landscape that soldiers called remote areas the “boondocks” — a corruption of the Tagalog word bundok — and it entered the American vernacular.

The Moros (named for the Muslim Moors ejected from Spain in 1492) were organized by family, clan, and tribe. Islam, which had arrived via Arab traders 1,000 years earlier, provided the only unifying force for the baker’s dozen of cultural-linguistic groups on those islands. Intertribal warfare was endemic but more than matched by an historic aversion to outside invaders. In their three centuries of rule in the Philippines, the Spanish never managed more than a marginal presence in Moroland.

There were other similarities. Both Afghans and Moros adhered to a weapons culture. Every adult male Moro wore a blade and, when possible, sported a firearm. Both modern Afghans and nineteenth-century Moros often “used” American occupiers as a convenient cudgel to settle tribal feuds. The Moros even had a precursor to the modern suicide bomber, a “juramentado” who ritualistically shaved his body hair and donned white robes before fanatically charging to his death in blade-wielding fury against American troops. So fearful of them and respectful of their incredible ability to weather gunshot wounds were U.S. soldiers that the Army eventually replaced the standard-issue .38 caliber revolver with the more powerful Colt .45 pistol.

When, after defeating the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay and forcing the quick surrender of the garrison there, the U.S. annexed the Philippines via the 1898 Treaty of Paris, the Moros weren’t consulted. Spanish rule had always been tenuous in their territories and few Moros had even heard of Paris. They certainly hadn’t acceded to American rule.

Early on, U.S. Army officers deployed to Moroland contributed to the locals’ sense of independence. General John Bates, eager to focus on a daunting Filipino uprising on the main islands, signed an agreement with Moro tribal leaders pledging that the U.S. would not meddle with their “rights and dignities” or “religious customs” (including slavery). Whatever his intentions, that agreement proved little more than a temporary expedient until the war in the north was won. That Washington saw the relationship with those tribal leaders as analogous to its past ones with “savage” Native American tribes was lost on the Moros.

Though the Bates agreement held only as long as was convenient for American military and political leaders, it was undoubtedly the best hope for peace in the islands. The limited initial U.S. objectives in Moroland — like the similarly constrained goals of the initial CIA/Special Forces invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 — were so much wiser than the eventual expansive, futile goals of control, democratization, and Americanization in both conflicts. U.S. Army officers and civilian administrators couldn’t countenance for long Moro (and later Afghan) practices. Most advocated the full abrogation of the Bates agreement. The result was war.

Leadership by Personality: Different Officers, Views, and Strategies

The pacification of Moroland — like that in the “war on terror” — was run mostly by young officers in remote locales. Some excelled, others failed spectacularly. Yet even the best of them couldn’t alter the strategic framework of imposing “democracy” and the “American way” on a distant foreign populace. Many did their best, but due to the Army’s officer rotation system, what resulted was a series of disconnected, inconsistent, alternating strategies to impose American rule in Moroland.

When the Moros responded with acts of banditry and random attacks on American sentries, punitive military expeditions were launched. In the first such instance, General Adna Chaffee (later Army chief of staff) gave local Moro tribal leaders a two-week ultimatum to turn over the murderers and horse thieves. Understandably unwilling to accept American sovereignty over a region their Spanish predecessors had never conquered, they refused — as they would time and again in the future.

Colonel Frank Baldwin, who led the early campaign, applied brutal, bloody tactics (that would prove familiar indeed in twenty-first-century Afghanistan) to tame the Moros. Some younger Army officers disagreed with his approach, however. One, Captain John Pershing, complained that Baldwin “wanted to shoot the Moros first and give them the olive branch afterwards.”

Over the next 13 years of rotating commanders, there would be an internal bureaucratic battle between two prevailing schools of thought as to how best to pacify the restive islands — the very same struggle that would plague the post-9/11 “war on terror” military. One school believed that only harsh military responses would ever cow the warlike Moros. As General George Davis wrote in 1902, “We must not forget that power is the only government that [the Moros] respect,” a sentiment that would pervade the book that became the U.S. Army’s bible when it came to the twenty-first-century “Arab mind.”

Others, best personified by Pershing, disagreed. Patiently dealing with Moro leaders man-to-man, maintaining a relatively light military footprint, and accepting even the most “barbaric” local customs would, these mavericks thought, achieve basic U.S. goals with far less bloodshed on both sides. Pershing’s service in the Philippines briefly garnered attention during the 2016 presidential campaign when candidate Donald Trump repeated a demonstrably false story about how then-Captain John Pershing (future commanding general of all U.S. forces in World War I) — “a rough, rough guy” — had once captured 50 Muslim “terrorists,” dipped 50 bullets in pig’s blood, shot 49 of them, and set the sole survivor loose to spread the tale to his rebel comrades. The outcome, or moral of the story, according to Trump, was that “for 25 years, there wasn’t a problem, OK?”

Well, no, actually, the Philippine insurgency dragged on for another decade and a Muslim-separatist rebellion continues in those islands to this day.

In reality, “Black Jack” Pershing was one of the less brutal commanders in Moroland. Though no angel, he learned the local dialect and traveled unarmed to distant villages to spend hours chewing betel nut (which had a stimulating effect similar to modern Somali khat) and listening to local problems. No doubt Pershing could be tough, even vicious at times. Still, his instinct was always to negotiate first and only fight as a last resort.

When General Leonard Wood took over in Moroland, the strategy shifted. A veteran of the Geronimo campaign in the Apache Wars and another future Army chief of staff — a U.S. Army base in Missouri is named after him — he applied the scorched earth tactics of his Indian campaigns against the Moros, arguing that they should be “thrashed” just as America’s Indians had been. He would win every single battle, massacring tens of thousands of locals, without ever quelling Moro resistance.

In the process, he threw out the Bates agreement, proceeded to outlaw slavery, imposed Western forms of criminal justice, and — to pay for the obligatory American-style roads, schools, and infrastructure improvements — imposed new taxes on the Moros whose tribal leaders saw all of this as a direct attack on their social, political, and religious customs. (It never occurred to Wood that his taxation-without-representation model was also inherently undemocratic or that a similar policy had helped catalyze the American Revolution.)

The legal veneer for his acts would be a provincial council, similar to the American Coalition Provisional Authority that would rule Iraq after the 2003 U.S. invasion. That unelected body included Wood himself (whose vote counted twice), two other Army officers, and two American civilians. In his arrogance, Wood wrote to the American governor of the Philippines, future President William Howard Taft: “All that is necessary to bring the Moro into line and to start him ahead is a strong policy and vigorous enforcement of the law.” How wrong he would be.

Career advancement was Leonard Wood’s raison d’être, while knowledge about or empathy for the Moro people never ranked high on his list of priorities. One of his subordinate commanders, Major Robert Bullard — future commander of the 1st Infantry Division in World War I — noted that Wood exhibited “a sheer lack of knowledge of the people, of the country… He seemed to want to do everything himself without availing himself of any information from others.”

His tactical model was to bombard fortified Moro villages — “cottas” — with artillery, killing countless women and children, and then storm the walls with infantrymen. Almost no prisoners were ever taken and casualties were inevitably lopsided. Typically, in a campaign on the island of Jolo, 1,500 Moros (2% of the island’s population) were killed along with 17 Americans. When the press occasionally caught wind of his massacres, Wood never hesitated to lie, omit, or falsify reports in order to vindicate his actions.

When his guard came down, however, he could be open about his brutality. In a macabre prelude to the infamous U.S. military statement in the Vietnam era (and its Afghan War reprise) that “it became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it,” Wood asserted: “While these measures may appear harsh, it is the kindest thing to do.” Still, no matter how aggressive the general was, his operations never pacified the proud, intransigent Moros. When he finally turned over command to General Tasker Bliss, the slow-boiling rebellion was still raging.

His successor, another future Army chief (and current Army base namesake), was a far more cerebral and modest man, who later would help found the Army War College. Bliss preferred Pershing’s style. “The authorities,” he wrote, “forget that the most critical time is after the slaughter has stopped.” With that in mind, he halted large-scale punitive expeditions and prudently accepted that some level of violence and banditry in Moroland would be the reality of the day. Even so, Bliss’s “enlightened” tenure was neither a morality play nor a true strategic success. After all, like most current American generals addicted to (or resigned to) “generational war,” he concluded that a U.S. military presence would be necessary indefinitely.

After his (relatively) peaceful tour, Bliss predicted that “the power of government would, stripped of all misleading verbiage, amount to the naked fact that the United States would have to hold the larger part of the people by the throat while the smaller part governs it.” That vision of forever war haunts America still.

The Bud Dajo Massacre and the Limits of “Enlightened” Officership

Behind the veil of road-building, education, and infrastructure improvements, American military rule in Moroland ultimately rested on force and brutality. Occasionally, this inconvenient truth manifested itself all too obviously, as in the 1906 Bud Dajo massacre. Late in 1905, Major Hugh Scott, then the commander on Jolo and another future Army chief, received reports that up to 1,000 Moro families — in a tax protest of sorts — had decided to move into the crater of a massive dormant volcano, Bud Dajo, on the island of Jolo. He saw no reason to storm it, preferring to negotiate. As he wrote, “It was plain that many good Americans would have to die before it could be taken and, after all, what would they be dying for? In order to collect a tax of less than a thousand dollars from savages!” He figured that life on the mountaintop was harsh and most of the Moros would peacefully come down when their harvests ripened. By early 1906, just eight families remained.

Then Scott went home on leave and his pugnacious, ambitious second-in-command, Captain James Reeves, strongly backed by outgoing provincial commander Leonard Wood, decided to take the fight to the Jolo Moros. Though Scott’s plan had worked, many American officers disagreed with him, seeing the slightest Moro “provocation” as a threat to American rule.

Reeves sent out alarmist reports about a bloodless attack on and burglary at a U.S. rifle range. Wood, who had decided to extend his tour of duty in Moroland to oversee the battle to come, concluded that the Bud Dajo Moros would “probably have to be exterminated.” He then sent deceptive reports, ignored a recent directive from Secretary of War Taft forbidding large-scale military operations without his express approval, and issued secret orders for an impending attack.

As word reached the Moros through their excellent intelligence network, significant numbers of them promptly returned to the volcano’s rim. By March 5, 1906, Wood’s large force of regulars had the mountain surrounded and he promptly ordered a three-pronged frontal assault. The Moros, many armed with only blades or rocks, put up a tough fight, but in the end a massacre ensued. Wood eventually lined the rim of Bud Dajo with machine guns, artillery, and hundreds of riflemen, and proceeded to rain indiscriminate fire on the Moros, perhaps 1,000 of whom were killed. When the smoke cleared, all but six defenders were dead, a 99% casualty rate.

Wood, unfazed by the sight of Moro bodies, stacked five deep in some places, was pleased with his “victory.” His official report noted only that “all the defenders were killed.” Some of his troopers proudly posed for a photograph standing above the dead, including hundreds of women and children, as though they were big game trophies from a safari hunt. The infamous photo would fly around the world in an early twentieth-century version of “going viral,” as the anti-imperialist press went crazy and Wood faced a scandal. Even some of his fellow officers were horrified. Pershing wrote his wife: “I would not want to have that on my conscience for the fame of Napoleon.”

The massacre would eventually even embarrass a president. Before the scandal broke in the press, Theodore Roosevelt had sent Wood a congratulatory letter, praising “the brilliant feat of arms wherein you and they so well upheld the honor of the American flag.” He’d soon regret it.

Mark Twain, a leading literary spokesman for the anti-imperialists, even suggested that Old Glory be replaced by a pirate skull-and-crossbones flag. Privately, he wrote, “We abolished them utterly, leaving not even a baby alive to cry for its dead mother.” The photograph also galvanized African-American civil rights activists. W.E.B. Du Bois declared the crater image to be “the most illuminating I’ve ever seen” and considered displaying it on his classroom wall “to impress upon the students what wars and especially wars of conquest really mean.”

The true tragedy of the Bud Dajo massacre — a microcosm of the Moro War — was that the “battle” was so unnecessary, as were the mindless assaults on empty, booby-trapped Afghan villages that my own troop undertook in Afghanistan in 2011-2012, or the random insertion of other American units into indefensible outposts in mountain valleys in that country’s far northeast, which resulted, infamously, in disaster when the Taliban nearly overran Combat Outpost Keating in 2009.

On Jolo Island, a century earlier, Hugh Scott had crafted a bloodless formula that might, one day, have ended the war (and American occupation) there. However, the careerism of a subordinate and the simplistic philosophy of his superior, General Wood, demonstrated the inherent limitations of “enlightened” officership to alter the course of such aimless, ill-advised wars.

The scandal dominated American newspapers for about a month until a sensational new story broke: a terrible earthquake and fire had destroyed San Francisco on April 18, 1906. In those months before the massacre was forgotten, some press reports were astute indeed. On March 15, 1906, for instance, an editorial in the Nation — in words that might be applied verbatim to today’s endless wars — asked “if there is any definite policy being pursued in regard to the Moros… There seems to be merely an aimless drifting along, with occasional bloody successes… But the fighting keeps up steadily and no one can discover that we are making any progress.” This conclusion well summarized the futility and hopeless inertia of the war in the southern Philippines. Nonetheless, then (and now, as the Washington Post has demonstrated only recently), the generals and senior U.S. officials did their best to repackage stalemate as success.

Corners Turned: The Illusion of “Progress” in Moroland

As in Vietnam and later Afghanistan, the generals leading the Moro War perennially assured the public that progress was being made, that victory was imminent. All that was needed was yet more time. And in Moroland, as until recently in the never-ending Afghan War, politicians and citizens alike swallowed the optimistic yarns of those generals, in part because the conflicts took place so far beyond the public eye.

Once the larger insurgency in the main Philippine islands fizzled out, most Americans lost interest in a remote theater of war so many thousands of miles away. Returning Moro War veterans (like their war on terror counterparts) were mostly ignored. Many in the U.S. didn’t even realize that combat continued in the Philippines.

One vet wrote of his reception at home that, “instead of glad hands, people stare at a khaki-clad man as though he had escaped from the zoo.” The relatively low (American) casualties in the war contributed to public apathy. In the years 1909 and 1910, just eight regular Army soldiers were killed, analogous to the mere 32 troopers killed in 2016-2017 in Afghanistan. This was just enough danger to make a tour of duty in Moroland, as in Afghanistan today, terrifying, but not enough to garner serious national attention or widespread war opposition.

In the style recently revealed by Craig Whitlock of the Post when it came to Afghanistan, five future Army chiefs of staff treated their civilian masters and the populace to a combination of outright lies, obfuscations, and rosy depictions of “progress.” Adna Chaffee, Leonard Wood, Hugh Scott, Tasker Bliss, and John Pershing — a virtual who’s who in the Army pantheon of that era — repeatedly assured Americans that the war on the Moros was turning a corner, that victory was within the military’s grasp.

It was never so. A hundred and six years after the “end” of America’s Moro War, the Post has once again highlighted how successive commanders and U.S. officials in our time have lied to the citizenry about an even longer war’s “progress.” In that sense, generals David Petraeus, Stanley McChrystal, Mark Milley, and so many others of this era share disturbing commonalities with generals Leonard Wood, Tasker Bliss, and company.

As early as October 1904, Wood wrote that the “Moro question… is pretty well settled.” Then, Datu Ali, a rebel leader, became the subject of a two-year manhunt — not unlike the ones that finally killed al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden and ISIS’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In June 1906, when Ali was finally caught and killed, Colliers magazine featured an article entitled “The End of Datu Ali: The Last Fight of the Moro War.”

After Bud Dajo, Tasker Bliss toned down Wood’s military operations and oversaw a comparatively quiet tour in Moroland, but even he argued against any troop withdrawals, predicting something akin to “generational war” as necessary to fully pacify the province. In 1906, he wrote that the Moros, as a “savage” and “Mohammedan” people “cannot be changed entirely in a few years and the American people must not expect results… such as other nations operating under similar conditions have taken a century or more to accomplish.”

As Pershing lamented in 1913, the 14th year of the war, “The Moros never seemed to learn from experience.” And the violence only continued after his departure, even if American troops took an ever more advisory role, while the Filipino army fought the ongoing rebellion.

The Moros, of course, continue to combat Manila-based troops to this very day, a true “generational struggle” for the ages.

Missing the Big Picture, Then and Now

The last major American-led battle on Jolo in 1913 proved a farcical repeat of Bud Dajo. When several hundred intransigent Moros climbed into another crater atop Bud Bagsak, Pershing, who’d criticized Wood’s earlier methods and was once again in command, tried to launch a more humane operation. He attempted to negotiate and organized a blockade that thinned the defenders’ ranks. Still, in the end, his troops would storm the mountain’s crest and kill some 200 to 300 men, women, and children, though generating little of the attention given to the earlier massacre because the vast majority of Pershing’s soldiers were Filipinos led by U.S. officers. The same shift toward indigenous soldiers in Afghanistan has lowered both (American) casualties and the U.S. profile in an equally failed war.

Though contemporary Army officers and later military historians claimed that the battle at Bud Bagsak broke the back of Moro resistance, that was hardly the case. What ultimately changed was not the violence itself, but who was doing the fighting. Filipinos now did almost all of the dying and U.S. troops slowly faded from the field.

For example, when total casualties are taken into account, 1913 was actually the bloodiest year of the Moro conflict, just as 2018 was the bloodiest of the Afghan War. Late in 1913, Pershing summed up his own uncertainty about the province’s future in his final official report: “It remains for us now to hold all that we have gained and to substitute for a government by force something more in keeping with the changed conditions. Just what form that will take has not been altogether determined.” It still hasn’t been determined, not in Moroland, not in Afghanistan, and nowhere, in truth, in America’s Greater Middle East conflicts of this century.

The Filipino government in Manila continues to wage war on rebellious Moros. To this day, two groups — the Islamist Abu Sayyaf and the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front — continue to contest central government control there. After the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. Army again intervened in Moroland, sending Special Forces teams to advise and assist Filipino military units. If few of the American Green Berets knew anything of their own country’s colonial history, the locals hadn’t forgotten.

In 2003, as U.S. forces landed at Jolo’s main port, they were greeted by a banner that read: “We Will Not Let History Repeat Itself! Yankee Back Off.” Jolo’s radio station played traditional ballads and one vocalist sang, “We heard the Americans are coming and we are getting ready. We are sharpening our swords to slaughter them when they come.”

More than a century after America’s ill-fated Moro campaign, its troops were back where they started, outsiders, once again resented by fiercely independent locals. One of the last survivors of the Moro War, Lieutenant (and later Air Corps General) Benny Foulois published his memoirs in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam insurgency. Perhaps with that conflict in mind, he reflected on the meaning of his own youthful war: “We found that a few hundred natives living off their land and fighting for it could tie down thousands of American troops… and provoke a segment of our population to take the view that what happens in the Far East is none of our business.”

How I wish that book had been assigned during my own tenure at West Point!

[Note: For more detailed information on the conflict in the southern Philippines, see The Moro War by James Arnold, the main source for much of the information in this piece.] 

This essay first appeared on TomDispatch.

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