Retired U.S. Army Major Danny Sjursen offers a year-ending look at what "forever war" really means in the American experience. To do so, he turns not to the wars in which he personally took part in Afghanistan and Iraq, but to one that took place almost a century before his birth (and, in a fashion, is still ongoing). It was a war in the southern Philippines that most Americans have never heard of, but that TomDispatch readers might indeed remember because Nick Turse brought it up here in October 2009, at a moment just before President Barack Obama, having won a Nobel Peace Prize, launched a major "surge" in the Afghan War.
As Turse wrote then, in response to a report by New York Times correspondent Norimitsu Onishi on years of U.S. military activity in the significantly Muslim and insurgent southern Philippines:
"Days after Onishi's report appeared, two American soldiers were killed on nearby Jolo Island. As a Reuters story noted, it 'was the first deadly strike against U.S. forces deployed in the southern Philippines since a soldier in a restaurant was killed in 2002...' As in Basilan, however, the U.S. counterinsurgency story in Jolo actually goes back a long way. In early January 1905, to cite just one example, two members of the U.S. military -- the 14th Cavalry to be exact -- were killed during pacification operations on that same island.
"That U.S. forces are attempting to defeat Muslim guerrillas on the same two tiny islands a century later should perhaps give President Obama pause as he weighs his options in Afghanistan and considers his recent award."
Pause, as TomDispatch regular Sjursen suggests today, was never given, not at the beginning of the previous century, nor in this one, not even, it seems, now. What is it, you might wonder, about Washington and its forever wars? Tom
Remembering America's First (and Longest) Forgotten War on Tribal Islamists
It Was "Progress" All the Way Then, Too
By Danny Sjursen
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 search for "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.