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Book Review: The Moro War, by James R. Arnold

By HistoryNet Staff 
Originally published on Published Online: July 08, 2011 
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The Moro War: How America Battled a Muslim Insurgency in the Philippine Jungle, 1902–1913, by James R. Arnold, Bloomsbury Press, New York, 2011, $28

Most readers recall the nasty 1899–1902 Philippine Insurrection, when U.S. troops crushed rebels who expected independence after America defeated Spain in 1898. They may be less aware that the fighting largely spared Mindanao and surrounding southern islands, inhabited by Moros, Muslim Filipinos who had even worse relations with Spain than did Christian Filipinos. Preoccupied American forces left the Moros alone until matters were settled in the north.

In his lucid political and military history of this second campaign, James Arnold makes no secret of American racism and smugness about our institutions but maintains that we were better than Spain: We didn't want to convert the Moros, and among the American institutions we sought to install were sanitation, roads, schools and honest government. Since these required eliminating slavery, piracy and general lawlessness, no one expected an easy time. American military officers did what came naturally, but many showed surprising sophistication.

Among the best was Captain John J. Pershing. Placed in charge of a major Mindanao garrison, he studied the language and toured the area to negotiate with Moro strongmen but fought when it seemed unavoidable. Americans won essentially all engagements in this 11-year campaign because the Moros were incompetent insurgents, preferring to fight from behind massive earthwork forts rather than in the jungle, which was perfect for guerrilla warfare.

Pershing left in 1903, but returned in 1909 as governor. He supported reforms but chafed at the persistent disorder. His solution was to disarm everyone. He proceeded with his usual efficiency and made great use of the native constabulary. Much bloodshed followed, but he ultimately succeeded.

It's a cliché that Americans don't tolerate long wars, but they tolerated this one because it occurred with little publicity and few deaths. Only 107 regulars died in action.

Over the next decade the Moros not only accepted American hegemony, they protested when we began transferring direct rule to Philippine leaders in Manila. Sure enough, by the 1930s the Philippine army was battling Moro rebels; it still is.

This is not another example of how not to fight an insurgency but a fine history of an obscure colonial war in which both sides fought bravely, suffered cruelly, often behaved horribly and accomplished little.

—Mike Oppenheim 


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