Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Studying war . . .

Author James R. Arnold has lived on a farm near Lexington for the last 16 years, doing a little "subsistence farming" and writing books about Napoleon and counter-insurgency warfare. The first subject has been a life-long love; the second a later-blooming interest suggest by his publisher, Bloomsbury Press -- which just happens to send me boxes of its lovely and interesting books.

Jungle of Snakes: A Century of Counterinsurgency Warfare From the Philippines to Iraq came about three weeks ago. The following is a loose and truncated transcription of a conversation I had with Mr. Arnold about the Moro Campaign, which took place in the Philippines around the turn of the last century. This campaign is the subject of Mr. Arnold's next book, scheduled for 2011. I've intermixed some snippets of manuscript Mr. Arnold sent me with our conversation when I thought it would make for greater clarity.
J.A.   I knew nothing about the Moro Campaign and found that very few other people did, either. It turns out that it was kind of the cradle of leadership for many of the men who led us in World War I.  Men like Pershing, who's just a captain in this war;  a guy named Tasker Bliss, for whom Fort Bliss is named; and Leonard Wood, the surgeon, who became Army Chief of Staff. Most of these people had their combat experience in this little known episode in American history, a ten-year fight against a force you could arguably call Islamic terrorists. But this depends upon your point of view.
M.W.   When was the Moro Campaign?
J.A.   1903 to 1913
M.W.   Let me be clear – this was the first time we fought Muslims driven by their religious beliefs?
J.A.    That is correct. The only other time we fought against Muslims was back in the early 1800s against the Barbary pirates. They were Islamic, but that was largely irrelevant to the combat. This is the first time where we’re fighting Islamic peoples, people who are religiously inspired, and this heavily influences how we view them and how they view us.
M.W.   What would it have been like to fight in this conflict?

J.A.    The terrorists had a practice they called juramentados. These were suicidal assassins called by the Spanish word, juramentado (from the Spanish to swear an oath; in Moro macsabil, "to die for the faith"). Because of their ability to masquerade as a peaceful civilian one moment and turn into a frenzied assassin the next, juramentados imparted a unique fear among American soldiers. An officer who had served in the Indian Wars remarked, "Even the veteran Indian fighters...had to learn that a Moro juramentado was more dangerous than a renegade Apache and twice as hard to kill." Stories abounded about incidents such as the one in which a juramentado fought for five minutes, struggling and slashing the whole time, in spite of his fourteen bullet wounds, including three to the skull. Such incidents led to a re-evaluation of the standard American handgun, the .38 caliber revolver. In kill or be killed moments, the Americans did not have a reliable handgun.
M.W.   How present were these juramentados? 
J.A.   They were constantly present, and they inflicted terror on the American soldiers who were on garrison duty throughout the Philippines. The Moros were racially indistinguishable from Filipinos, who were mainly Catholic. And the two had thought of each other as separate people for hundreds of years before we got there.
M.W.  How did the Moros inflict terror?
J.A.   The Moros thought, just as Islamic terrorists do now, that if you killed an infidel you went to Paradise, so they were partially religiously inspired . But they also were defending themselves against a foreign occupying power.
This whole campaign took place sort of out of sight and out of mind of the American public until the anti-Imperialist, anti-Roosevelt (Teddy Roosevelt) press picked up on the story and actually broadcast a picture of essentially a massacre where Americans indiscriminately killed women and children and men in a pitched battle. And that became a big political issue at the time.
On March 7, 1906, US troops under the command of Major General Leonard Wood massacred as many as 1,000 Filipino Muslims, known as Moros, who were taking refuge at Bud Dajo, a volcanic crater on the island of Jolo in the southern Philippines. Above, US soldiers pose for the camera in the aftermath of the massacre. (Photo from The National Archive)
It's remarkably echoed in what goes on today. We’ve been there before, we’ve had these experiences before. It’s interesting to see what the people of that time thought and what they wrote and their attitudes toward the killing.

M.W.  What do you see as the parallels between the Moro Campaign and our current campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan? Did we learn anything from this that we are applying in Afghanistan or are we keeping it mostly in glorious historical isolation?

J.A.    The latter, mostly.
M.W.  Oh, why can we not learn from our past mistakes?
J.A.    Oh yes, that’s one of the recurring themes I’ve been writing about for the past 30 years. I’m trying to do my little bit to broadcast the message that we can learn from our experience. Last fall a professor at VMI had me come in and talk to his Keydets who were taking an advanced course in counter-insurgency. And those Keydets were just a very impressive bunch of kids. But I felt very bad because five of them are, upon graduation (which just happened, as you know) are going to Afghanistan. And it’s sobering to meet the next generation of warriors and realize what they’re being sent to.
M.W.  In looking at the Moro campaign of 1903-1913, what could we have learned?

J.A.   I think we could have learned about the value of cultural awareness. At the time of the Moro campaign, we had some skilled people who were sensitive to Moro traditions and did learn their language. And were very good. But the balance of the force had no clue.
This was the Progressive era. Basically we were literally trying to impose our progressive notions on a feudal Islamic society, and they didn’t like it. And that surprised us. Because we said, look,  here's schools, here’s sanitation, here’s hospitals, roads, all the things we do now, that we did in Iraq and we’re trying to do in Afghanistan. I think the parallel is we still have trouble understanding why they don’t welcome us. That said, today’s military has really reformed a lot since the Vietnam War. And it is an institution that can learn.
M.W.   How did official hostilities end in 1913? What was resolved?
J.A.    The Moros got tired of being killed. We were pretty brutal. But then they thought that, having surrendered to the Americans, the Americans would protect them. They knew they would be an outnumbered and exploited minority group dominated by the Christian Philippine government in Manila.
M.W.   And did we protect them?
J.A.    Nope. We abandoned them. There is still tension and occasional conflict today between the Moros and the Philippine Government.
M.W.  Anything to add about our country's history with the Moro people?
J.A.   In 2003, when the Philippine army announced that it would participate in a joint exercise — called "Balikatan" [shoulder to shoulder] — with U.S. forces on Jolo, many people protested and said that the Philippine constitution prohibited it. A banner near the main port read, "We will not let history repeat itself! Yankee back off." Jolo's radio station played traditional ballads, known as kissa, that combined current events with historical reflections. A kissa vocalist sang, "We heard the Americans are coming and we are getting ready. We are sharpening our swords to slaughter them when they come. Our ancestors are calling for revenge." The voice could be heard in the poor neighborhoods, wafting above the port's dense cluster of ramshackle homes built on poles.

Tomorrow, more about the Moro campaign with guest blogger, Mark Twain  . . .


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  2. There are certainly elements of these historical attacks in those in 2014 at Ottawa and the guy with the cleaver in Queens.