January 7th, 2010
08:14 AM ET

Past war offers Afghanistan lessons. And it's not Vietnam

The war ignited protests at home. American soldiers battled elusive fighters in remote jungles. The enemy used hit-and-run tactics to drain America’s will.

As President Obama begins to send more of the 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan in the new year, some critics are invoking those snapshots from history to argue that the United States can’t afford to get bogged down in another Vietnam.

But those snapshots actually come from another war: The Philippine-American War, which lasted from 1899 to 1902. The war is largely forgotten today, but it was a bloody preview of the type of warfare that the U.S. military faced in Asia and now in Afghanistan, historians say.

“It was the 19th century version of Vietnam,” said Edward Sheehy, a professor of military history at La Salle University in Pennsylvania.

There was, however, one big difference: The U.S. won. How did a far weaker U.S. military prevail in the Philippines and what lessons can Obama apply from that victory to Afghanistan today?

Historian: ‘It was a very savage war’
Obama faces the same challenge that American leaders faced at the start of the war in the Philippines: How to mobilize public support. A recent poll shows that Obama is already losing support for the war in Afghanistan.

A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll released December 23, 2009, found that the majority of the U.S. public opposes the war, with 55 percent of respondents opposed and 43 percent in support of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.

The war in the Philippines provoked skepticism among some Americans as well. For one, victory seemed implausible, said Paul Kramer, author of “The Blood of Government: Race, Empire, the United States and the Philippines.”

Kramer said the U.S. military was small at the time. Filipino forces knew the terrain and had local support. The U.S. military had also never fought a guerilla war outside the mainland. (The 19th century wars against American Indians are considered guerilla war by some military historians.)

When they first started fighting, American soldiers struggled to adjust, Kramer said. Filipino guerillas attacked them and then blended in with the civilian population.

“American soldiers really found it disturbing and traumatizing. They didn’t know who was an enemy and who was an ally,” Kramer said.

Origins of the Philippine-American War
The Philippine-American War grew out another war, the 1898 Spanish-American War. The U.S. defeated Spain, which then ceded the Philippines to America. But Filipino forces that had been fighting for self-rule against Spain didn’t want to live under another occupier.

Filipino nationalists declared their independence, ratified a constitution, and elected a president. But the United States claimed the land, seized the Philippines in February of 1899 and war erupted.

All war is brutal, but several historians and military experts say the war in the Philippines was barbaric, even by military standards.

Yet the United States won, in part, because it was willing to be brutal, some military historians say. According to an official State Department account of the war, at least 4,200 American soldiers, 20,000 Filipino combatants and as many as 200,000 Filipino civilians died from violence and famine during the war.

Filipino fighters deliberately sought to drag the war on with hit-and-run tactics that would turn the American public against the war, historians say. It was the classic guerilla strategy: Win by avoiding big, pitched battles and melt into the civilian population.

But the U.S. military responded to the guerilla strategy with a simple strategy of their own, some historians say: Kill them all.

Civilian casualties were not accidental, but intentional, says Lt. Col. Michael E. Silverman, an Iraq war veteran and a counterinsurgency training consultant for the U.S. Army.

“Victory there was achieved by a brutal strategy of near genocide. … Many of the officers and sergeants who fought the war were veterans of the Indian Wars and brought with them the idea from Gen. Philip Sheridan: ‘The only good Indians I’ve seen were dead.’’’

The U.S. military forced Filipino villagers outside of their villages into population centers where they could be separated from guerillas. They killed villagers’ livestock and torched crops, says John Hinshaw, a history professor at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania.

“They were the same tactics that worked against the Plains Indians in the 1870s and 1880s,” he says

“We killed hundreds of thousands of people in the process. A lot of it was due to disease and starvation. It was a very savage war.”

How the U.S. overcame its internal divisions
The war ignited debate in America. Critics said America was behaving as a colonial power and denying Filipinos the right to self-government.

An Anti-Imperialist League was founded to lead protests against the war. Public figures such as Mark Twain, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie and three-time Democratic Party presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan spoke out against the war.

“People like Mark Twain were pointing out the Philippines was a country that had set up a republic modeled on the American Constitution, and we were basically saying you’re not ready for it,” says Hinshaw.

After three years, part of the American public began to grow disenchanted with the war. “The Forbidden Book,” a book that explored the racial and commercial justifications for the war, cited a 1901 New York Times editorial that declared: “The American people are plainly tired of the Philippine War. … Is it the lack of troops, supplies, transportation, ammunition and artillery? Is it the lack of a competent commander? How long is this Philippine War going to last?”

Despite the protests, political leaders in the United States were able to maintain support from most of the American public by employing several strategies, historians say. They told Americans they were in the Philippines to civilize and Christianize its inhabitants, historians say.

“They ignored the fact that most of them [Filipinos] were already Roman Catholic,” says Sheehy, professor from La Salle University.

Supporters of the war also squelched the voices of opponents by dismissing them as unpatriotic and effeminate “aunties,” historians say.

America’s political leaders also correctly read the mood of the country, historians say. Ordinary Americans wanted to flex their newfound military muscle and business leaders wanted to make money in Asia. Many Americans were aware that several European countries were also trying to gain control of the Philippines, according to Sheehy.

“There was this sense that we had to take our place in the world. If we don’t, someone else might.”

The United States also won because it didn’t just rely on military might. They found strong, local allies, historians say. They did so through a tactic called the “policy of attraction,” according to a State Department account of the war. Under the policy, the United States introduced social reforms, economic development and permitted some forms of self-government. The policy won over key elites and other Filipinos, the State Department says.

The United States also found local allies on the battlefield. It created an auxiliary Filipino military force called the Philippine Scouts to take on Filipino guerilla fighters, historians say.

The Scouts allowed the United States to reduce troop levels after the war was declared over in 1902. Armed resistance by the Filipinos continued after the war was declared over but the United States simply described that résistance as “crime,” says author Kramer.

“It [the Scouts] allowed the American forces to declare war over long before the resistance was over,” Kramer says. “It frees American troops to come home. It got the war out of the American papers.”

The crucial question Americans face
History can teach but it also can mislead. Scholars and military experts concede that there are crucial differences between the Philippines and Afghanistan.

The Philippines had already been colonized by Spain before its war with the United States, while Afghanistan has resisted conquest by various nations for centuries.

The Philippines was, and still is, a majority Roman Catholic country, while Afghanistan is predominately Muslim. And the U.S. military was able to isolate the Filipino guerillas on several islands, while it’s more difficult to isolate the Taliban since Afghanistan shares a porous border with Pakistan, experts say.

Yet the U.S. still can learn several lessons from its war in the Philippines, scholars and military historians say.

One is what not to do. The U.S. military can’t employ the brutal tactics it once did against Filipinos in a world where there is a 24-hour news cycle, historians say.

“I don’t think we’re willing to do what it took back then and that’s a good thing,” says historian Hinshaw.

“Modern counterinsurgency is focused on winning the support of the population,” says Silverman, the Iraq war veteran and counterinsurgency expert. “The Philippine counterinsurgency strategy was to ‘kill them all.’ ’’

Perhaps the primary lesson from the war in the Philippines is that the United States must be willing to settle in for the long haul, said Dan Roberts, a Vietnam veteran and host of the public radio history program, “A Moment in Time.”

Though the war was declared over in 1902, American soldiers continued to die in the Philippines for 46 years - up to the onset of Word War II, Roberts says. The United States granted independence to the Philippines in 1946.

“I don’t think the U.S. wants to stay in Afghanistan for 46 years,” Roberts says. ”But that’s the way you do these things. You have to be willing to stay there and shed blood decade after decade.”

soundoff (521 Responses)
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    October 18, 2011 at 1:28 am | Report abuse |
  2. bob archer

    suicide bomber solution: if he's willing to die for what he loves, he must know that the ones he love will suffer tenfold for his actions, yes communal blame and communal punishment, his family, his home, his neighborhood, his place of worship. swiftly and completely gone.

    January 6, 2011 at 11:07 am | Report abuse |
  3. nicanor

    putangina mo 02

    July 28, 2010 at 5:15 am | Report abuse |
  4. nicanor

    gago kaonnng lahat

    July 28, 2010 at 5:15 am | Report abuse |
  5. frank

    Afghanistan has been a mistake for anybody ever in history getting involved there. What idiots would supply so many missiles to the mujahadin to fight the Russians(hint: when 2 of your worst enemies are fighting , help them to bleed each other as long as possible) so they could win and come after some other western target.
    Leave the place tomorrow, inform the russians that they are YOUR problem again(its on their doorstep NOT ours) apologize for meddling last time, and assure them it wont happen again. "Have at it"
    Since they are only fighting us because "we are there", they ll soon start making noises in Georgia and the "ex-russian stans"
    With Putin in charge, they ll do their standard CI procedure, no need to win their hearts and minds, as they will burn all housing, crops, round up all civilians put them in dirty camps feed them starvation rations and most will die from cholera etc.
    (example: note muslim Georgia is pretty quiet now after the brutal russian campaign)
    Yes the locals will fondly remember the Americans and their carefull airstrikes as they sit starving in the camps.....

    February 8, 2010 at 8:38 am | Report abuse |
  6. JA

    the United States continue to wage its war for money in almost every corner of the world. he Filipinos were just reeling from the savage rule of Spain before the Americans decided to exploit this wonderful island. untold thousands perished both in the Spanish and american occupation and the filipinos even fought with the GI's during WWII. what an abuse of authority and power! The Filipinos need to be repatriated for their massive loss due to the US occupation. There was no provocation nor aggression that needed military action.just greed if you ask me. Take action now!

    January 29, 2010 at 5:27 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Erin

    Afghanistan is a stupid, costly, no win, police action which makes money for the weapons makers/oil companies, and gives the politicos more power, but achieves nothing of national interest. It allegedly props up an unpopular foreign government which is not very effective ,and not as friendly as our politicos like to suppose. It is losing us more friends than it is making us. It achieves none of it's stated goals. The Taliban/Cong continue to grow, and do as they please. In the end, we will slink off with our tail between our legs, ever the loser, having been beaten by a tenth century nation this time rather than just a stone age power. It is far too much like Viet Nam, and is not worth it in the least. Nuke the region, and leave.

    January 29, 2010 at 12:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • bob archer

      no oil in afganistan dude.
      solution: end war, pull out, covertly murder opposition in power void that comes after.

      January 6, 2011 at 11:10 am | Report abuse |
  8. Ray Barquero

    An Afghan security implementation policy with an attached pre-determined military pull-out is perilous to US interests. If the United States is going to commit to engaging in a long-term intended security Afghan plan they should take into account the negative repercussions that not meeting their proposed deadline would entail. Such repercussions include the non-stabilization of the Afghan-Pakistan border, the strengthening of military insurgencies and the inevitable weakening of the Karzai administration.

    January 29, 2010 at 6:34 am | Report abuse |
  9. pat

    We need to compare this war to the one we won and that stayed won: WWII (World War TWO).
    After WWII we did the right thing: we OCCUPIED! Remember the phrase "made in Occupied Japan", etc. We occupied Japan and Germany for ten years, totally controlling their reconstruction and reconstitution.
    Remember, after defeating Germany in WWI (World War ONE), and leaving it in a democracy that we set up, it took no time at all for Hitler to take over the democracy. Had we occupied Germany after WWI there most likely would not have been WWII,

    We had a military victory in Afghanistan when we drove the Taliban out of power, and then we blew it.
    We need to draw a line around a controllable part of Afghanistan and occupy it for ten years, protect that maintainable border, develop the people and infrastructure there. Then they will have something worth fighting for. The Karzai government is a waste of time. Establishing a democracy in an illiterate country is not going to work.

    January 22, 2010 at 6:12 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Burt

    To say that the"zionist lobby" is the reason we are in the two wars in the Middle East is ignorant and your tone seems a little anti-semetic. I'd say the occurances of 9/11/2001 have something to do with us being in Afganistan. Israel is a very important allie of ours.
    Our image around the world has been destroyed by our need to be the worlds policeman and for the way we have been treating countries, especially is the middle east for decades. We supported corrupt and evil regimes for the bettermant of ourselves long before Israel ever existed.

    January 22, 2010 at 3:41 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Erin

    Better we should be the puppets, pawns, or whatever of the Jews than of the Muslims.. The Jews at least allow us religious freedom. The Muslims would not.

    January 21, 2010 at 12:52 pm | Report abuse |
  12. joeglas

    I am not surprised by the sheer ignorance and naivete of most of the above posts.The average man-on -the-street globally.particularily in the US and Europe,as the result of from cradle-to-grave indoctrination by the corporate media and other sources is living in virtual reality.Hes concerned with irrelevant things like beer and football and is not aware of the fact that he wont see the real players in global politics,the media and economy on TV.The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are being fought primarily for the strategic security of Israel which includes the isolation of Iran and are already lost.Roughly half of Americans last year never read a single book and have no idea of what is really going on.The zionist lobby has virtually destroyed their country from within and the image of the US is in tatters abroad.It will cost hundreds of billions to rehabilitate US wounded and psychologically damaged soldiers from those two wars.Wake up America,it may already be too late!Your country is perishing and youre doing nothing!

    January 21, 2010 at 12:01 pm | Report abuse |
  13. bill

    People can say what they want about what happened in the Philippines and why, i.e. the greed of a few elite individuals and a president with imperialistic views of the role of America in the world during that time, the "'Yellow Media" machine, and the racial ignorance of that time...The fact remains that in the end, the vast majority of Filipinos appreciate to this day what America did and is still doing for them. Any American that has been to the Philippines, with the exception of Muslim inhabited area, would know that appreciation from the warn, smiling people. There has been, and there is an abundance of positive, Pro-American sentiment in the Philippines. Also, look at the Fil-Am association here in America. There aren't just Filipinos in the Organization. In fact, I've seen a White Male as the President of a Fil Am Chapter. As for the Philippine insurrection, nothing short of a tragedy in and of itself, and nothing we as Americans should be proud of. Having said that, as a nation, following independence in 1946, the Philippines has been the most stable democracy in all of asia. That is a fact. Marcos' Martial Law, communist insurgency, and corruption and graft aside, it has been a success story on the whole as opposed to the numerous other crap-boxes in that area of the world. Now, on the subject of Afghanistan and lessons from the PI insurrection, I don't see many parallels. 98% of Filipinos are Christian. So there was at least some degree of familiarity there. Afghanistan is an almost entirely Muslim nation with no familiarity. This is a religious war no matter how you cut it. Mainly in their eyes. So the real question is how do you win a religious war?

    January 18, 2010 at 10:16 am | Report abuse |
  14. tarek Ben Ziad

    You can never win in afganistan because your army did not have the fiting skilles wich the taliban faiters have.

    January 18, 2010 at 7:37 am | Report abuse |
  15. Victor Rocales

    This topic is really interesting. I'm 36 years old and I'm a Filipino-Catholic. The HUKBALAHAP (Hukbong Bayan Laban sa Hapon), founded during WWII. Is an insurgency group in Luzon and Visayas. They were anti-japanese and anti-american. This group only started during the WWII, this group never excisted during the Phil-Am War. They were the founder's of the CPP-NPA (communist party of the philippines). Up to now american troops are still fighting or helping Filipino troops fight the CPP-NPA and the muslim insurgents in Mindanao (the MNLF, MILF and the Abu Sayyaff). This is a war of religion that has brought lots of death around the world. Christians vs. Muslims. This is a war that has been fought for hundreds of years, it started in the 11th century during the CRUSADES. Or maybe much earlier than the CRUSADES. During the CRUSADES, their was no VICTOR, all were losers thousands of Christians, Muslims and Jews died. This war was fought by the Spaniards vs Muslims in Mindanao for 300 years, The Americans fought this war in Mindanao for 50 years before WWII. Up to know the war is still not yet over, though it transformed into another form, ( US troops and Filipino troops ) vs ( MNLF, MILF and Abu Sayyaf ). The american and filipino troops have been fight the muslims since 1960's. This war will continue for more decades I guess. A new hybrid of this war has resurrected in 9/11 started by Osama Bin Ladin. Take note Osama Bin Ladin visited Mindanao in the early 1990's he visited MNLF, MILF and Abu Sayyaf camps during this time. He solicited the support and allegiance of the MNLF, MILF and Abu Sayyaf and he promised fundings to this group. In 2001 the Osama Bin Ladin draw FIRST BLOOD and fired the first shot by attacking the USA. This war was not yet solved by Spaniards for 300 years, this war was not yet solve by the Americans when they colonized the Philippines. This christian vs muslim war will not be a short term war. This war will continue for decades I guess. So I guess the american public has to think of this war in long terms, not 3 years or 5 years. The american public has to think of this war in 10 or 20 or 30 years span or more. They have to change or win the hearts and minds of the muslims in the Middle East ( Afganistan, Iraq, and etc in long term planning). The West ( Britain, France, Germany, Spain and etc ) was not able to solved this problem in the 11th century. Now the new leader of the West (which is lead by the USA) will have to tackle this problem in long term planning. This new battle between Christians vs Muslims will be fought in another form. With Osama Bin Ladins new tactic of SUICIDE as a tool for the jihadist. The WEST was has to find a way to counter this tool or tactic. The jihadist will used nuclear weapons i guess, their primary objective will be to over-run Pakistan and take control of its nuclear war heads. In the end the west will have to prevent any more muslim countries from acquiring nuclear war heads. It will have to stop Iran from acquiring the nuclear bomb. America can not solve this problem alone. US will have to solicit the help of other christian and jewist nations including the Philippines, Israel, Mexico, Australia, Canada, EU, and Latin Americas. I don't know which side will be RUSSIA and CHINA? The Russians and the Chinese are somehow always trying to oppose the WEST. This problem will not be solved by leaving behind Afganistan and Iraqi people to solve the problem themselves. The evil hearts of the jihadist will grow and expand. Al-queda will try to take hold of the entire middle east and over throw the clerics and arab-governments. This is something Jews and Christians around the world will have to fight, not only Americans... in long term basis. I guess in the end righteous men will flourish and win. Satan and his menions the JIHADIST will perist and suffer.

    January 18, 2010 at 3:17 am | Report abuse |
  16. Kjell

    There is a very interesting book called the “Imperial Cruise” written by James Bradley that deals a lot with the Philippine American war. Wide spread terror against the civilian population, torture of innocent Filipinos and other ghastly behaviors by the US army is documented in this book, one favorite tool used by the US army against suspected insurgency participants was actually water boarding which is as we all know a tool that became popular again during the disaster presidency of George W Bush!!

    But, USA has never really lost any war on the battle field, when the USA loses, it is lost (or given up) when the home opinion gets tired of the war before it could be won on the battle field. The most typical example would be Vietnam and unfortunately Afghanistan could be another such war which I think would be a disaster as we in the west must win that war

    January 18, 2010 at 1:09 am | Report abuse |
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