Another Perspective

Iraq and Counterinsurgency

America is unlikely to have the patience to stay in Iraq as long as it did in the Philippines a century ago.

By 4.4.07

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Americans don't have much of a colonial experience. Otherwise we would recognize the war in Iraq for what it is -- a colonial occupation.

Whatever dreams we may have had of winning a War on Terror in Baghdad or turning Iraq into a beacon of democracy in the Middle East are now long gone. What we have in Iraq is a series of American fortifications where soldiers live a life that reasonably mirrors conditions back home and then once a day or week put on "full battle rattle" and risk their lives by venturing into what is essentially hostile territory.

Granted we have a lot of people on our side and a sizable portion of the population wants us to stay. "Allah Bless the USA" was one piece of graffiti I saw -- although it did occur to me later that it was written in English.

But no American soldier goes anywhere in Iraq without full body armor and a humvee. Helicopter flights are made at night and under conditions of extreme secrecy. Anyone with a rifle is a potential insurgent and there are thousands of them. There is no margin of safety.

Last week Senator John McCain strolled through a Baghdad market accompanied by 100 American soldiers, a convoy of two dozen humvees, snipers positioned on the rooftops, plus three Blackhawks and two Apache gunships hovering overhead. He said everything to him seemed normal. It was.

Ask military leaders how long this is going to go on and they will give you the same response. "We've done a lot of studies of insurgencies. There's never been one that was put down in less than ten years. The 1920s insurgency in the Philippines, the British experience in Sudan in the 19th century -- all of them weren't quelled in less than a decade. Iraq is going to take the same amount of time. We just hope the people back home have the patience to see it through."

The problem with this analysis is that all the examples are from colonial experiences, both Europe's and ours. The British are often held up as the gold standard -- as in Max Boot's neoconservative manifesto, The Savage Wars of Peace. Since the Philippines is our own experience and in many ways the best analogy to Iraq, let's take a long look at what happened.

AMERICA INHERITED THE PHILIPPINES from Spain in 1898 after winning the Battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War. We were anti-colonialists -- the war, after all, was fought under the Monroe Doctrine -- and our general public declaration was that we would soon grant the Philippines its independence.

Once in possession of the Islands, however, people began to have second thoughts. Were the Philippines really capable of governing themselves? Didn't they need some political experience? Wouldn't they benefit from the tutelage of an advanced country like the United States? Maybe we should hang on to them awhile.

President William McKinley was firmly in favor while his 1896 Democratic opponent William Jennings Bryan led the opposition. Meanwhile, sentiment in Congress was mixed, with Thomas Reed, the powerful Republican Speaker of the House, in the opposition camp.

In the midst of the Congressional debate, Rudyard Kipling, England's most famous writer and a product of British India, sent a poem to his friend Theodore Roosevelt, then the Governor of New York, urging America to live up to its colonial responsibilities. Within a year it had appeared in McClure's and -- in an era when poetry mattered -- became a centerpiece of the debate.

Take up the White Man's burden--
The savage wars of peace--
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hopes to naught.

Take up the White Man's burden--
And reap his old reward:
The blame of those ye better,
The hate of those ye guard--
The cry of hosts ye humour
(Ah, slowly!) toward the light: --
"Why brought he us from bondage,
Our loved Egyptian night?"


The Treaty of Paris, which confirmed American ownership of the Philippines, passed the Senate by only one vote. In The Proud Tower, Barbara Tuchman recounts Speaker Reed's reaction: "We have bought 10 million Filipinos at $2 a head, unpicked. And nobody knows what it will cost to pick them."

The "insurgency" broke out a year later when two American privates on patrol killed three Filipino soldiers in San Juan, a suburb of Manila. While Admiral Dewey had not suffered a single casualty in the Battle of Manila Bay and the whole Spanish-American War only produced 332 deaths, the counterinsurgency was much costlier.

Over the next fifteen years, 126,000 American soldiers were engaged in the conflict. A total of 4,234 died, along with 16,000 Filipino insurgents. The poorly equipped Filipinos were easily overpowered by American troops in open combat but mounted a formidable guerrilla campaign. Atrocities were committed by both sides. Estimates of civilian deaths, largely from famine and disease, ranged between 250,000 and 1,000,000.

The insurgency lasted fifteen years, on and off, even as we tried to establish civilian institutions. Future President William Howard Taft served as the first American Governor-General of the Philippines Commission, replacing military governor Arthur MacArthur (the father of General Douglas MacArthur). Taft's Commission oversaw the creation of a national as well as many local governments but retained most executive and legislative powers. A Philippine Constabulary was also organized to deal with the remnants of the insurgency, gradually shifting responsibility away from the United States Army.

Still, the insurgency did not abate until 1913, when President Woodrow Wilson started a drive toward independence. Over the next three decades, the Filipino Legislature and the powers in Washington went through many stops and starts, with the Philippines Independence Act finally passing in 1933 over President Herbert Hoover's veto. The treaty was subsequently rejected by the Filipino Senate, however, because it retained American naval bases.

We were still in possession of the Islands when the Japanese invaded on December 8, 1941, chasing General Douglas MacArthur to Australia and initiating the Bataan Death March. Complete independence was not granted until after World War II.

IT COULD BE ARGUED that the American colonial occupation of the Philippines was basically a success. The Islands have become a fairly stable democracy and their English-knowledgeable populace is rapidly entering the world information economy. But all this was bought at the cost of decades of conflict and 4,000 American lives.

Can we accomplish anything resembling the same thing in Iraq? It is very doubtful. The Philippines were an isolated country on the other side of the world while Iraq is a cauldron of ethnic and sectarian conflict smack in the middle of the most volatile sector of the planet. Moreover, all this is taking place not in a world knit together by the telegraph lines but in the age of easy travel and instant communication, where every conflict is soon internationalized.

When I was embedded in Iraq, I told the soldiers that I considered it my duty to report to the people back home as precisely as I could what is going on in Iraq. But I also consider it my duty to inform the military leadership in Iraq of the mood of the people back home.

After hearing their arguments for staying the course for a decade or more, my message is simply this: "The American public is not going to put up with daily death tolls for ten years or even another six years. If things haven't changed significantly by 2008, the candidate who wins the Presidency is going to be the one who campaigns on the slogan, 'Bring the troops home now.'"

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About the Author
William Tucker is news editor for RealClearEnergy.org.