Filipino Lessons for U.S. Strategy in Iraq

April 30, 2004 • Commentary
This article was published in the Financial Times, April 30, 2004.

America’s first experience of a relatively “easy” war followed by an extended period of guerrilla combat was not in Iraq; it was a century ago in the Philippines. Max Boot, the neoconservative commentator, described the defeat of the Filipino insurrection as “one of the most successful counter‐​insurgencies waged by a western army in modern times”, a model of how US forces could prevail in Iraq. The parallels to date, however, are ominous.

First, some brief history: in December 1897, Commodore George Dewey left the US to head the US Navy’s Asiatic Squadron with orders to attack the Spanish naval forces in the Philippines in the event of a war with Spain.

Following increasing disorder in Havana, an explosion aboard the USS Maine (which had been sent there) and a stream of sensational newspaper stories about Spain’s alleged atrocities in Cuba, the US Congress declared war on Spain on April 25, 1898. On May 1, Dewey’s squadron destroyed Spain’s ships in Manila Bay within a few hours, sustaining only a few non‐​fatal casualties.

A Filipino insurrection against Spanish rule had been under way since 1896, and a US gunboat brought Emilio Aguinaldo, the exiled Filipino leader, back from Hong Kong to lead a renewed revolt. The Filipino insurgents defeated the Spanish forces almost everywhere in the country except in Manila before 8,500 US army troops arrived after Filipino leaders issued a declaration of national independence in June.

The US troops crossed Filipino lines to engage the Spanish troops in Manila, who surrendered swiftly on August 13. The Filipinos welcomed the US troops as liberators, but that soon changed. In a US agreement with the Spanish captain general, the Filipino forces were kept out of Manila and given no role in the surrender. After the capture of Manila, the US refused to recognise the new Philippine Republic, and signed a peace treaty with Spain on December 10 that ceded the Philippines to the US. Shortly after, the US announced it would establish military rule in the Philippines. President William Mc‐​Kinley stated that US objectives were to “educate the Filipinos and uplift and civilise and Christianise them”.

On February 4, 1899, US troops provoked an incident with Filipino forces surrounding Manila that led to many Filipino casualties. That event, in turn, triggered a broad Filipino insurrection of unexpected severity and duration. The insurrection lessened somewhat after the capture of Aguinaldo in 1901, but sporadic combat continued throughout the decade.

The insurrection involved more than 120,000 US troops and 4,000 US fatalities. Filipino combat fatalities were about 20,000 and more than 200,000 Filipinos died during the insurrection, many from cholera. In a grim potential parallel, the Philippines was not granted complete independence until 1946.

Some of the more obvious parallels with Iraq include the way the Mc‐​Kinley administration planned for war against Spain months before the reported disorder in Havana and the explosion on the Maine. The administration planned to attack Spanish forces in the Philippines even though the public rationale for war against Spain was to restore order in Cuba. However, the administration had made no plans to respond to Filipino demands for independence, despite the long insurrection against Spain and the insurgents’ victory over Spanish forces throughout most of the Philippines before the US arrived.

The US rhetoric supporting the military occupation of the Philippines reflected both an imperialistic perspective and a paternalistic attitude toward the Filipinos. Their insurrection involved many more US troops and casualties than expected; and Aguinaldo’s capture was not sufficient to end the insurrection.

It is not clear whether other dimensions of the Filipino insurrection will have parallels in Iraq — for one thing, it is not yet obvious whether the US public will continue to support US policies in Iraq. In contrast with US policy in the Philippines, the Bush administration now appears ready to restore limited sovereignty to the Iraqis. But how long will US troops will have to remain to restore a minimally acceptable level of security?

The main lesson from both the Filipino insurrection and Iraq are that these wars, both emerging from other concerns, turned out to be more severe and protracted than expected. This does not provide very helpful guidance to near‐​term US policy in Iraq. Longer‐​term, however, it should help avoid such tragic and unnecessary wars.

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