Controverting an insurgency

Brett M. Decker

Posted on February 21, 2009

Force and flexibility are a winning combination

Contemporary insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan have generated renewed interest in previous uprisings and what measures were undertaken to subdue them. The most common counter-insurgency case studies tend to consider America’s war in Vietnam, the French campaign in Algeria, and Britain’s handling of the Malayan Emergency. To a large degree, until recently, the U.S. military’s extensive experience in “small wars” has been neglected in academia, an oversight that has applied to the Filipino insurgency against U.S. forces following the defeat of Spain in the war of 1898. Only a small number of scholars specialize in this precursory conflict. One of them is Texas A&M Professor Brian McAllister Linn. In The U.S. Army and Counterinsurgency in the Philippine War, 1899-1902, Mr. Linn provides a concise overview of U.S. military operations in part of that controversy. Although useful for his demonstration about how U.S. forces adapted after interaction with the enemy, it does not suffice as a stand-alone history of the Philippine-American War.

In the first page of the preface, the author specifically limits the scope of the work at hand. He makes clear from the outset that, The U.S. Army and Counterinsurgency in the Philippine War, 1899-1902 “is primarily a military history concerned with U.S. Army operations and policies at the local level. The focus is thus on how American soldiers developed and implemented pacification policies and methods designed to deal with specific conditions in their immediate areas.”[1] In other words, this book is not intended to be a broad overview of the multifaceted aspects of national policy and strategy that are central to the Philippine-American War. It does not delve deeply into the relevant machinations of statecraft that led up to and continued throughout this war. Similarly avoided is lengthy commentary into the international dimension of U.S. activity in Southeast Asia. For insight into why the United States undertook such a costly endeavor and how the decision was made in Washington, the reader must make do with a short nutshell summary in chapter one.

In the first chapter, Mr. Linn does provide some useful historical information to put his subject in context. After Commodore George Dewey quickly and easily vanquished the outdated Spanish fleet in the Battle of Manila Bay, U.S. policymakers were faced with what to do next in the Philippines. Capturing the capital of Manila would be advantageous in the larger war against Spain and could serve as the first wave of an occupation army should the White House decide on a larger and more permanent role in the region. At any rate, an opportunity to gain some relatively easy ground against Spain presented itself. To create more pressure on the European colonial power, the Americans teamed up with Filipino independence groups who helped encircle the Spanish garrison within the 17th century walls of the Intramuros section of the capital. There were mixed signals over whether U.S. forces were liberators who would grant independence to Filipinos after the defeat or Spain or simply a new colonial master. When U.S. intentions to establish a protectorate under U.S. rule became likely, an insurgency erupted. The guerrilla resistance movement undertook raids and ambushes to keep U.S. troops off balance, and on occasion perpetrated atrocities against fellow Filipinos to discourage them from collaborating with the Americans.

This book presents a short overview of guerrilla tactics that is handy for a casual reader unfamiliar with how small bands of insurgents can take advantage of the weakness inherent to large forces that are comparably less maneuverable. In many instances, because occupation forces are stationed at crossroads or other important junctures in an effort to keep thoroughfares secure and potential chokepoints open, they make easy targets at these obvious fixed positions. Insurgents, on the other hand, can hit a target and then disperse among the population, a defensive move that is simple to orchestrate since insurgents do not wear uniforms and can thus be immediately indistinguishable from townsfolk. Further undermining the effectiveness of occupation forces is that they often cannot leave their posts to pursue insurgents because that could leave important assets unprotected. As the author describes the situation in the Bicol region of southern Luzon, “The region’s dense vegetation, low hills and few roads allowed [the guerrillas] to set ambushes and snipe at Army patrols almost routinely… they not only inflicted casualties but forced Army patrols to constantly deploy and engage in the exhausting and time-consuming work of sweeping the hills and hemp groves.”[2]

Mr. Linn writes about various ways U.S. soldiers adapted to these challenges in the Philippine countryside. Among them are forward-thinking initiatives such as using native Filipino police units for patrol duty and utilizing U.S. resources to improve the infrastructure, health and standard of living of local inhabitants, thus gaining their support and introducing opportunities to develop willing intelligence sources. In some cases, co-opting local clergy helped pacify their flocks. The introduction of such non-military pacification methods varied from area to area, and in some regions more brutal measures were used. For example, concentration camps were built by one U.S. commander so that his troops could clear an area, remove the inhabitants to a camp and then hold the zone.

The simple fact of the matter is that a unified strategy never was instituted to quell the various isolated insurgencies in different parts of the country. For much of the conflict, U.S. commanders were not even certain what Washington viewed to be a suitable goal for war termination. It is not easy to match tactics to strategy, and strategy to policy, when the desired end state is not clearly articulated. Perhaps more startling is that the White House originally avoided a policy-strategy match by design. Out the outset, because he did not want American intentions known internationally, President William McKinley purposely provided vague directives to keep his options open. Such a fluid approach was only possible because the president was confident in U.S. power and certain the available force could squelch resistance when necessary. In the meantime, U.S. commanders were ordered to keep a lid on things as best they could so peace would gradually be instituted as America’s colonial policy was established over time.

Mr. Linn counters the common misconception that the Philippine-American War was a minor confrontation that was neither very important nor overly demanding of U.S. attention. To the contrary, the deployment of troops was significant, particularly given the size of the Filipino population this force was charged to dominate. At its peak, the U.S. troop strength topped out at 70,000 soldiers.[3] This might not sound like a lot compared to the gargantuan forces mobilized later in World War I and World War II, or even in view of the large national armies fielded in the 19th century, but it nonetheless represented a major presence for the mission at hand. For comparison, it is useful to consider the U.S. contingent for current operations in Iraq. U.S. forces in the Philippines in 1902 equaled roughly half the maximum U.S. force in Iraq, yet a century ago there were only 7 million Filipinos while there are 28 million people in modern Iraq.

Mr. Linn’s most original contribution to the study of the Philippine-American War is his exposition of how U.S. forces adapted when faced with unfamiliar, asymmetric tactics employed by the enemy. Central to this subject is an appreciation for the varied nature of the fighting across the archipelago. Not only was there no consistent or coordinated strategy on the part of the guerrilla forces, this author argues that for the most part there was no unity of effort put forth by U.S. forces either. Instead, different field commanders instituted a multitude of courses of action in reaction to the individual situations they faced on the ground. The benefit of this uncoordinated approach was that it freed units to interact with the enemy and then adapt as they deemed appropriate. As the author writes in his conclusion, “Their extended service [in one area] allowed them the opportunity to experiment with innovative and individualized counterinsurgency methods.”[4] This inherent flexibility generated successful creativity in the Army.

The technical details of this book are impressive. The clarity of the author’s writing makes an academic subject easy to digest, and he took pains to be precise in explaining why he chose certain terms over others. For example, to make clear why one term is inappropriate, he related that, “‘The Philippine Insurrection’ suggests a rebellion against a constituted authority when in fact the war broke out before the United States exercised control beyond the city of Manila.”[5] Such exact distinctions are educational in their own right. His organization of material is straightforward, and the sources he consulted are diverse, especially his recourse to diaries from those involved in the war and fellow academics’ dissertations on the topic. One trait that helped the overall effectiveness of his argument was a very professional tone, which stands as a definite improvement over some more biased works on this subject. For example, Stanley Karnow’s In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines is sneering in its contempt for U.S. policy. Likewise, from the first line, it is obvious where Russell Roth is heading when he opens Muddy Glory with a century-old view stating that, “we must go on slaughtering the natives and taking what muddy glory lies in this wholesale killing until they have learned to respect our arms.”[6] Mr. Linn thankfully eschews such vitriol.

Although not a ruinous shortcoming, the short shrift Mr. Linn dedicated to larger issues does limit the appeal of this book because it necessitates that the reader consult other works to discover relatively rudimentary details about this insurgency, who conducted it and why. Given its short 170 pages of text, it seems that one chapter of 25 pages or so could have addressed this weakness and made this book a more satisfying stand-alone source. As it is, one has to go elsewhere. For insight into what motivated America’s political leadership to invest its blood, treasure and national reputation in a tropical archipelago on the other side of the planet, Rene R. Escalante’s The Bearer of Pax Americana: The Philippine Career of William Howard Taft, 1900-1903, scrutinizes the idealism of President McKinley’s policy of “benevolent assimilation” and sets forth the methods his successors employed in attempting to create a little American-style democracy in Southeast Asia. Mr. Escalante’s conclusion is that U.S. incentives were largely economic. He writes that imperialism was a matter of survival at the turn of the 20th century. In order to continue to expand the U.S. economy and compete with the major European powers of the age, he asserts that, “Proactive leaders saw in advance that the long-term solution to their economic woes was to acquire overseas territories where they could dump their surplus products and capital.”[7] In The American Colonial State in the Philippines: Global Perspectives, the contributors analyze the success of U.S. diplomats in creating effective governing institutions in the Philippines, and what this meant for America’s place in the world. The authors conclude that it is relevant that, “policymakers and administrators indeed attempted to ‘transplant’ American civilization and thereby transform Philippine society.”[8] In short, there was a lot more than commercial interest riding on the U.S. Army’s counterinsurgency operations in the archipelago because a grand experiment was envisioned.

A few additional books are noteworthy for meticulous investigation into military action on the fields of battle during the Filipino insurgency. In Battle for Batangas: A Philippine Province at War, Glenn Anthony May studies resistance against U.S. occupation in one of the last regions to capitulate. Of note is his observation that the insurgency lacked enthusiasm among the lower classes because in most regions guerrilla leaders were comprised of the existing elites who were anxious to maintain their privileged place is society amidst the vacuum created by the Spanish departure. “Thus,” he writes, “so long as the anti-colonial struggles were controlled by elites, lower-class participation had to be coerced.”[9] The class dynamic made it difficult to recruit guerrilla fighters. It also limited the support insurgents could muster among their own people, many of whom hoped their life might improve under U.S. stewardship. This situation proved disastrous because insurgencies must be able to hide among and receive support from locals if they are to successfully outfox and outmaneuver more powerful opponents.

Another deficiency of Mr. Linn’s book is that its study is limited to four districts on the most populous island of Luzon, which is in the extreme north of the 7,000-island archipelago. Although he mentions that communications were a problem for U.S. forces, he examines four districts that at least were on the same island. While he is right to highlight the command-and-control breakdown on Luzon, where most of the fighting was focused, it is pertinent to note that these difficulties were even more calamitous on islands farther from the capital, and these locales were the sites for some of the most vicious interactions of the war. The Balangiga Conflict Revisited, by Rolando O. Borrinaga, is useful because it recounts fighting and occupation policies on the central-western island of Samar, which witnessed some of the insurgents’ most successful attacks. It was here that the so-called “Balangiga Massacre” of U.S. troops occurred, which was the largest single defeat of U.S. forces in the war. It was also in retaliation in Samar that U.S. commanders instituted “bayonet rule,” orders to kill any boy over age ten, and maneuvers to reduce defiant areas to “a howling wilderness.”[10] Mr. Linn mentions these episodes, but they are out of context because he only considers operations on Luzon, where these events did not happen. As his thesis repeatedly reminds, each situation in each area was highly unique. Expanding his research beyond Luzon would have reinforced his narrative.

While Mr. Linn focuses on the countryside, some familiarity with urban operations provides a balanced perspective on the overall war effort. In The Hills of Sampaloc: the Opening Actions of the Philippine-American War, February 4-5, 1899, Benito J. Legarda, Jr. quotes heavily from first-person accounts about U.S. tactics and positions in and around the capital of Manila. He also provides a helpful rundown of the instruments of war and the material disadvantage of resistance forces. “The Americans had not only their own artillery but also what they had captured from the Spanish in Manila,” he writes. “Artillery would prove decisive in the fighting, and the Filipinos had only a motley assortment of captured pieces, including some antiquated smooth-bore cannons.”[11] This material dimension was so lopsided that strategy at times was seen as a luxury by some U.S. leaders. The imbalance of power intimidated many insurgent leaders and convinced them to surrender, thus playing a central role in the eventual outcome.

The utility of these other books on related subjects is not intended to devalue what Mr. Linn offers his field of study. They merely give a more top-to-bottom survey of the numerous dimensions of war that he does not cover. The limited scope of The U.S. Army and Counterinsurgency in the Philippine War, 1899-1902 is not due to the author’s lack of comprehensive knowledge of these broader issues involved. In other books, he has written extensively on the factors related to this conflict that fall outside the limited parameters of U.S. military operations in the four Luzon districts he considers. For example, in Guardians of Empire: The U.S. Army and the Pacific, 1902-1940, he goes to greater lengths to detail what was at stake for U.S. interests in the Far East. The discussion in it takes a decidedly more universal direction than his previous work. In the preface of this second book, Mr. Linn writes that, “Imperialist officers such as Leonard Wood and Douglas MacArthur argued that the security of the United States depended on trade and power projection in the Far East… [and that] the Philippines were valuable not just for strategic or commercial reasons, but as a transfer point for American values and institutions to Asia.”[12] The first four chapters of Guardians of Empire, or nearly half the book, spell out the minutiae of U.S. policy in the Far East and describe strategic developments over several decades, as well as exploring the more intangible motives for U.S. decisions. The extra context makes this second book a more satisfying read overall.

He is even more ambitious in his most recent publication, The Echo of Battle: the Army’s Way of War,[13] which was released in 2007. In this book, he tries to delineate three identifiable patterns in the way the United States prepared for war before every conflict from the War for Independence until the present actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. He gives the U.S. Army failing grades in each case. Some reviewers thought he overreached in this thesis and forced conclusions that ignored the most basic element, which is that America enjoyed a long track record of success in war.[14] Whether or not this criticism is valid, the point is that the limitations of his book on the Philippine-American War were intentional. In his bailiwick, Mr. Linn is a respected authority.

The volatile nature of current events has introduced the history of counterinsurgency operations to a new generation of readers. There are many lessons from the Philippine-American War that are still relevant today. This is especially true regarding the need to pursue non-military pacification programs and the utility of co-opting preexisting social structures in an occupied land. The Filipino insurgency offers many useful examples of good and bad counterinsurgency operations. Mr. Linn’s book is a welcome introduction to the topic.

WORKS CITED and CONSULTED

Borrinaga, Rolando O. The Balangiga Conflict Revisited. Manila: New Day Publishers, 2003.

Bruscino, Thomas A. (Assistant Professor at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College). “Our American Mind for War.” Claremont, CA: Claremont Institute Publications Online, 26 May 2008.

Escalante, Rene R. The Bearer of Pax Americana: The Philippine Career of William Howard Taft, 1900-1903. Manila: New Day Publishers, 2007.

Francisco, Mariel N., and Fe Maria C. Arriola. The History of the Burgis: How the Elite Made It to the Top of the Pile. Manila: Raintree Publishing, 1987.

Go, Julian, and Anne L. Foster, editors. The American Colonial State in the Philippines: Global Perspectives. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003.

Karnow, Stanley. In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines. New York: Ballantine Books, 1989.

Legarda, Benito J., Jr. The Hills of Sampaloc: the Opening Actions pf the Philippine-American War, February 4-5, 1899. Manila: Bookmark, 2001.

Linn, Brian McAllister. The Echo of Battle: the Army’s Way of War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.

Linn, Brian McAllister. Guardians of Empire: The U.S. Army and the Pacific, 1902-1940. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Linn, Brian McAllister. The U.S. Army and Counterinsurgency in the Philippine War, 1899-1902. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

May, Glenn Anthony. Battle for Batangas: A Philippine Province at War. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993.

Miller, Stuart Creighton. Benevolent Assimilation: The American Conquest of the Philippines, 1899-1903. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1982.

Roth, Russell. Muddy Glory: America’s ‘Indian Wars’ in the Philippines, 1899-1935. Hanover, MA: The Christopher Publishing House, 1981.


[1] Brian McAllister Linn. The U.S. Army and Counterinsurgency in the Philippine War, 1899-1902. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1989, pp. xi-xii.

[2] Ibid., p. 102.

[3] Ibid., p. 24.

[4] Ibid., p. 170.

[5] Ibid., p. xii.

[6] Russell Roth. Muddy Glory: America’s ‘Indian Wars’ in the Philippines, 1899-1935. Hanover, MA: The Christopher Publishing House, 1981, title page.

[7] Rene R. Escalante. The Bearer of Pax Americana: The Philippine Career of William Howard Taft, 1900-1903. Manila: New Day Publishers, 2007, p. 252.

[8] Julian Go and Anne L. Foster, editors. The American Colonial State in the Philippines: Global Perspectives. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003, p. 9.

[9] Glenn Anthony May. Battle for Batangas: A Philippine Province at War. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993, p. 288.

[10] Rolando O. Borrinaga. The Balangiga Conflict Revisited. Manila: New Day Publishers, 2003, pp. 7-21 & 155-158.

[11] Benito J. Legarda, Jr. The Hills of Sampaloc: the Opening Actions pf the Philippine-American War, February 4-5, 1899. Manila: Bookmark, 2001, p. 19.

[12] Brian McAllister Linn. Guardians of Empire: The U.S. Army and the Pacific, 1902-1940. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1997, p. xii.

[13] Brian McAllister Linn. The Echo of Battle: the Army’s Way of War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.

[14] See: Thomas A. Bruscino (Assistant Professor at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College). “Our American Mind for War.” Claremont, CA: Claremont Institute Publications Online, 26 May 2008.

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