COIN Lessons Ignored: The Philippines Campaign (1899-1902)

In December 2006, the US Army and Marine Corps published their new counterinsurgency doctrine manual to much fanfare.  Field Manual (FM) 3-24 Counterinsurgency (Marine Corps Warfighting Publication 3-33.5) was well received by a military that has called for an updated counterinsurgency doctrine since at least 2003.  FM 3-24’s writing team used counterinsurgency literature from European anti-colonial struggles to form FM 3-24’s foundation.  Surprisingly, the FM 3-24 team chose to not utilize the vast numbers of US experiences in counterinsurgency, which date back well over 100 years.  One of these discounted experiences was the US Army’s counterinsurgency campaign in the Philippines in 1899-1902, which is regarded by many as one of the US Army’s most successful counterinsurgency campaigns.

The key tactical lessons learned during the Philippines experience are as relevant today as they were in 1902.  These lessons learned are the importance of small-unit leadership; the need for small-unit operations and mobility; the importance of local troops; the need for an effective intelligence apparatus; and the significance of degrading the insurgent shadow government infrastructure.  The Army, however, failed to place these lessons into doctrine after 1902 because of its long tradition of relegating insurgent warfare to the fringes of military art and science.  This decision ensured that Army officers and soldiers were not exposed to the Philippine lessons learned and that these experiences were eventually forgotten.  This trend, unfortunately, continues to the present day as FM 3-24 excludes the numerous insights gathered from a close examination of the Philippine campaign, thus preventing them from being part of Army counterinsurgency doctrine.

On 10 December 1898, Spain signed the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Spanish-American War and ceded the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Guam to the United States.  The US had been active in the Philippines since Commodore George Dewey defeated the Spanish fleet at the Battle of Manila Bay in May 1898. Philippine rebels under the leadership of Emilio Aguinaldo declared independence on 12 June and began attacking Spanish forces throughout the archipelago.  US forces arrived to besiege Manila and tensions immediately increased between the US forces and Aguinaldo’s forces.  The Spanish in Manila made an agreement with US forces to surrender the city after providing only token resistance to reaffirm Spanish honor.  US forces subsequently attacked Manila on 13 August and took the city without Filipino help, although the Filipinos did seize some of Manilla’s suburbs.   Aguinaldo’s men returned to their trenches and began their own “peaceful” siege of the city, except this time the Americans were the ones in Manila being besieged. [1]

Tensions continued into the fall as both the US Army and Filipino forces worked to avoid a conflict.  The McKinley administration increasingly leaned toward making the Philippines a colony, despite a strong anti-imperialist movement in the US.  Aguinaldo and his supporters hoped those Americans opposed to colonizing the Philippines would win out.  Both sides did not want to make a move until negotiations between Spain and the US in Paris were concluded.  On 10 December 1898, the Spanish-American War was concluded when Madrid and Washington agreed to the Treaty of Paris, which gave the Philippines to the US in exchange for $20 million.  McKinley subsequently notified the secretary of war on 21 December that he wanted to administer the Philippines.[2]

Hostilities broke out on 4 February 1899; the US Army defeated the Filipino forces in a number of running engagements.  By mid-November 1899, Aguinaldo sought refuge in the hills and called on his forces to turn from conventional to guerrilla warfare.  According to Brian Linn, his strategy was to protract the conflict until the US Army “broke down from disease and exhaustion or the American public demanded a withdrawal.”  The Filipinos hoped the anti-imperialist candidate, William Jennings Bryan, would win the 1900 presidential election and demand a US withdrawal from the Philippines.[3]  They were to be let down yet again.

The Filipino forces were better able to fight an insurgency than a conventional fight.  They had experience fighting this kind of conflict against the Spanish in 1896-1897.  The geography was in their favor too:  the Philippines was composed of 7,000 islands (with a population of over seven million).  The insurgents were from the areas they were fighting in, spoke the language, understood the culture, and knew the terrain.  There were groups of full time partisans who operated in the countryside while a part-time militia remained in the towns.  The Republican government also established municipal and provincial governments and these later served as the insurgent underground government infrastructure.  These shadow elements collected taxes, supervised the organization of supplies, gathered intelligence about the US Army, hid guerillas, and intimidated those that worked with the Americans.[4]

By December 1899, the Americans under General Otis controlled the majority of the Philippines, had overwhelmed the Republican army, and were pursuing Aguinaldo and the remnants of his leadership.  Otis was convinced the war was, for the most part, over.  As occurred in Iraq in 2003, however, the Americans failed to understand that the war had transitioned from a conventional phase to an insurgency.[5]

One of the key reasons for success in any counterinsurgency effort is small-unit leadership.  This was certainly the case for the US Army in the Philippines.  US Army junior officers were in charge of small garrisons in isolated districts where they were expected to pacify the area, create local government, and engage in infrastructure development.  US army posts in the Philippines increased from several dozen by the end of 1899 to 639 two years later. The junior officers leading these posts quickly realized that Otis was incorrect in believing the war was over and that civic pacification programs would be enough to garner Filipino support.  They struggled, initially, to build municipal governments, as many of the townspeople were either supporting the guerrillas or were afraid the guerrillas.  Despite the initial frustrations, stumbles, and failures, the junior officers adapted to the environment and began developing counterinsurgency efforts tailored to succeed in their areas. Those that did not were eventually replaced.[6]

The successful officers engaged in many activities to defeat the insurgents.  They collected intelligence; hired Filipino auxiliaries to assist them even when Manila did not support this policy; used policies such as crop burning, food rationing, and concentration to isolate the population from the insurgents; and developed ways to reward Filipinos who supported US efforts, while penalizing those that did not.  The US Army had no counterinsurgency doctrine and leaders at the tactical level, at least in the beginning of the guerrilla fight, received inadequate guidance from the generals running the war in Manila.  Andrew Birtle believes one of the key reasons for US success in the Philippines was how US Army junior officers’ were willing to use trial and error to learn how to conduct counterinsurgency.  The junior officers were the tip of the spear in the fight.  Without their adaptability and initiative, the US Army would have been hard pressed to succeed in Philippines.[7]

Similar to the Philippines campaign, small unit leadership remains a core of counterinsurgency efforts in the present day.  Chapter Seven of FM 3-24 focuses exclusively on “Leadership and Ethics for Counterinsurgency.”  Paragraph 7-15 says, “Success in COIN operations requires small-unit leaders agile enough to transition among many types of missions and able to adapt to change…alert junior leaders recognize the dynamic context of a tactical situation and can apply informed judgment to achieve the commander’s intent in a stressful and ambiguous environment.” Additionally, Paragraph 1-157 of FM 3-24 says, “Many important decisions are not made by generals.”  Small unit leadership was essential in helping turn the tide in Iraq and it has played a critical role in the current effort in Afghanistan.[8]

A second reason for US improvements in the Philippines was the army’s use of small-unit operations and mobility.  Army leaders at the tactical level realized early on that large-scale operations against the insurgents would not be enough.  The rebels were too fast and possessed a better understanding of the terrain.  Many American commands began to operate in small units at night, laying ambushes, and launching efforts to surround and surprise an insurgent camp at dawn.  US forces also sought to be more mobile.  They jettisoned heavy packs and created mule trains and hired indigenous means of transport such as native workers or water buffalos.  Garrisons also formed elite mounted units, which served as a quick relief force, but also conducted offensive actions against guerrilla camps and supplies.[9]

US forces also used Filipino auxiliaries as mobility troops, and these forces served as a long range reconnaissance or strike force that sought out insurgent camps.  General Arthur MacArthur, who replaced General Otis as Commander in the Philippines, also redistributed his forces by pulling troops from peaceful areas to utilize them as “flying columns” that would go after insurgents in more dangerous areas.  Small unit operations and improved mobility helped US forces eventually capture or force the surrender of many insurgent leaders and their soldiers.[10]

Although small unit operations do not have a specific chapter in FM 3-24, the manual does place great importance on the topic.  FM 3-24 states, “Squads and platoons execute mostly COIN operations.  Small-unit actions in a COIN environment often have more impact than similar actions during major combat operations.” The manual also talks about the need for denying sanctuary to the insurgents and for conducting offensive operations.  US Special Forces and regular units in Iraq and Afghanistan have undermined enemy forces by targeting insurgent leaders, protecting the population at the local level, and gathering intelligence.  Mobility was important in reducing the insurgent threat in Baghdad, and it is essential in remote Afghanistan.  Small-unit operations and mobility were key to the US success in the Philippines, and they continue to be at the core of any successful counterinsurgency effort in the 21st Century.[11]

A third reason why the US Army succeeded in the Philippines was because it employed native forces against the insurgents.  Auxiliary troops are needed because they better understand the culture, language, local dynamics, and terrain.  Local troops can also help the foreign counterinsurgent by serving as a bridge to the population.  In 1899, some Indian War veterans realized the “divide and conquer” strategy of the American West would be needed in the Philippines.  They also realized how demoralized the insurgents would be once they realized their own people were opposing them.  Some senior US Army leaders did not support such ideas.  They were concerned about local troops’ reliability and whether they would help the insurgents as spies and as an insider threat.  There was also concern about local troops committing atrocities that could undermine the pacification campaign.[12]

This apprehension frustrated many leaders at the tactical and district level.  They knew they needed local police and troops to defeat the insurgents.  Some officers chose to ignore Manila’s concerns about local troops and developed informal units of auxiliaries and volunteers, such as the Ilocano Scouts and Bicol Volunteers in Southern Luzon.  MacArthur initially followed Otis’s cautious policy regarding local troops, but he reversed this course in December 1900.  The US victory in the 1899-1902 Philippine counterinsurgency campaign would not have been possible without their support.[13]

The importance of local troops in a counterinsurgency effort continues to this day.  US forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan quickly realized the need for local support because Americans did not understand the language or the culture.  FM 3-24 emphasizes the importance of this with an entire chapter devoted to local troops.  Chapter Six, “Developing Host-Nation Security Forces,” discusses the challenges and the need for adequate local military support.  Paragraph 6-107 says, “Developing effective host nation security forces is one of the highest priority counterinsurgency tasks.”  It is essential to have local auxiliaries or security forces support in an effort to divide the insurgency’s base of support.[14]

A fourth reason the US Army succeeded in the Philippines was because it developed an effective intelligence apparatus.  Many American commanders were unaware during the pacification effort that the insurgents had a shadow government and infrastructure in the towns.  The shadow government ran a parallel administration, collected taxes, and intimidated those Filipinos that might work with the Americans.  The insurgent infrastructure also supplied the insurgents with food and intelligence about American policies and troop movements.  An American colonel said the US Army was like “a blind giant.”  He further added, “The troops were more than able to annihilate anything that could be brought against them…but it was impossible to get any information in regard to the insurgents.”[15]

Progress toward getting better intelligence began with a junior officer in northern Luzon in spring 1900.  Lt. William Johnston allied himself with a Filipino faction opposed to the insurgents and they began educating him on how the rebels operated.[16]  He wrote a paper called “Investigation into the Methods Adopted by the Insurgents for Organizing and Maintaining a Guerrilla Force.”  Johnston utilized Human Intelligence to accurately expose the provincial insurgent organization.  He demonstrated how the insurgents in the field were tied to the shadow governments and part-time militias in the towns.  Johnston claimed his report was “the first news that the insurrectos were actively at work organizing and the first indication that the American authorities had that the native officials of the town and others were playing a double role.”  MacArthur called it “altogether the best description which has reached these headquarters of the insurgent method of organizing and maintaining a guerrilla force.”[17]

Johnston’s report helped US forces better comprehend the threat.  Birtle highlights how the US Army began to realize it needed to devote more attention to intelligence gathering.  It developed source networks to gather information, created a special agency to translate captured documents, and developed intelligence files on insurgent leaders. These improvements in intelligence greatly assisted US efforts to dismantle the insurgents’ underground infrastructure.  Intelligence is a key aspect of any counterinsurgency effort.  It is difficult to defeat an insurgency without understanding how it fights, how it is supplied, and who its supporters are.  US forces did not understand this in 1899, but once they did, they were able to develop a good intelligence infrastructure that was critical in helping defeat the insurgency by 1902.[18]

Intelligence continues to be a critical component of counterinsurgency efforts.  FM 3-24 says “Intelligence drives operations.”  It also states that, “Without good intelligence, counterinsurgents are like blind boxers wasting energy flailing at unseen opponents…with good intelligence, counterinsurgents are like surgeons cutting out cancerous tissue while keeping other vital organs intact.”  Chapter Three of FM 3-24 is called “Intelligence in Counterinsurgency” and has 35 pages devoted to intelligence in a counterinsurgency effort.  Intelligence was a key component in the US defeat of Filipino insurgents in 1902, and it will always be a key part of any counterinsurgency effort.[19]

Success in the Philippines could not occur unless the US Army was able to dismantle the insurgents’ shadow government infrastructure.  The insurgents needed the people’s support or, at a minimum, their compliance.  They used their underground system to achieve this support through appeals to patriotism or by coercion.  The US Army struggled in its initial pacification effort because the insurgent underground government was well established.  The Army also did not realize the towns were the primary insurgent bases for supplies and that the shadow systems were the real authorities in the towns.[20]  The Filipino people were not going to support American efforts unless the US Army demonstrated that it could protect its friends and punish its enemies.[21]

Some commanders realized they had to go after the insurgents’ underground infrastructure, and MacArthur’s December 1900 declaration gave official sanction to do this.  He realized the rebels’ ultimate survival rested on their ability to control the civilian population.  US forces developed intelligence networks and began to identify insurgent supporters.  Once they were identified, US and Filipino auxiliaries used positive incentives (the carrot) or negative consequences (the stick) to dismantle the shadow governments.  If someone supported the rebels, that person could lose his crops, land, and ultimately be jailed.  If they supported the US, they could keep all of their holdings, engage in trade, and hold public office.[22]

As the war continued, many Filipinos realized accommodation with the US was safer and more profitable.   As a result, insurgent commanders turned to more coercive methods to retain support and these ultimately failed and alienated the population.  A “bandwagon effect” occurred as more Filipinos sided with the US Army because they realized the insurgents were going to lose the fight.  Insurgent morale plummeted and many commanders and fighters began to surrender.  Without the underground infrastructure, the fighters in the field could not continue.[23]

The targeting of insurgent shadow governments and their corresponding infrastructure is a key component of FM 3-24.  Paragraphs 1-128 to 1-130 discuss how insurgents must be isolated from their cause and support: “It is easier to separate an insurgency from its resources and let it die than to kill every insurgent…Eventually, the people marginalize and stigmatize insurgents to the point that the insurgency’s claim to legitimacy is destroyed.”  This occurred when one of the most famous insurgents, Major General Miguel Malvar, surrendered.  He said he did because of, “reconcentration, the complete cleaning up of food supplies outside the towns, persecution of the insurgent soldiers by the people, the search for myself by the people, and the demoralization of my troops.”  The destruction of Malvar’s infrastructure resulted in a loss of support and led to his eventual surrender.[24]

On 4 July 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt declared an end to the Philippines conflict.  As in all successful counterinsurgencies, there was no one single reason for the US Army’s success.  All of the previously mentioned key lessons learned were significant in their own right, but they had to be combined to ensure success.  The US Army’s ignorance of the threat at the end of the conventional war doomed it to a longer conflict.  The initial benevolent pacification policy had some success, but it alone could not defeat the insurgents.  The insurgent shadow government infrastructure’s influence over the Filipino population had to be reduced if the US Army was to succeed.[25]

The Army learned through trial and error that the carrot alone was not going to be enough to defeat the insurgents.  The Philippines campaign demonstrated there is no magical formula for conducting a counterinsurgency.  It did, however, show the need for a mixed stick/carrot approach while highlighting that military solutions cannot be relegated to secondary measures.  The insurgent shadow infrastructure must be uprooted and its influence over the population diminished before carrot approaches can make a significant impact. 

Despite learning these important lessons, the Army did not create any doctrine or lessons learned in writing that could have helped future Army officers.  As Brian Linn points out, “most veterans of the imperial conflicts devoted little attention to retrospective analysis.  Nor did the army make much effort to incorporate the lessons of its Philippine experience into training or professional education.”  US Army Major General Leonard Wood echoed these sentiments when he said the lessons learned in such conflicts were “of little value and usually result in false deductions and a confidence, which spells disaster when called upon to play the real game.”  Students at Fort Leavenworth and the Army War College in the pre-WW I period studied conventional conflicts such as the American Civil War, German wars of unification, and the 1905 Russo-Japanese War.[26]

Linn opines that the reason why so many in the Army ignored insurgent warfare was because Army leaders believed such conflicts taught the wrong lessons.  These leaders were concerned that too many officers had developed individual initiative and small unit leadership skills in insurgent conflicts.  According to Linn, they believed these skills were not helpful to the “discipline and doctrinal adherence required by large-unit operations.”  Birtle offers a slightly different perspective.  He cites three reasons for why the Army did not incorporate Philippine lessons learned into doctrine.  First, the Army believed the Philippines fighting validated prewar small-unit tactical doctrine and that only small adjustments needed to be made.  Second, the Army’s successful efforts reaffirmed the belief that guerrilla warfare was not capable of bringing about victory.  Birtle’s last reason may be the most important: the Philippines fighting was unpopular in the US and the Army was reluctant to record official lessons learned that could have led to more public scrutiny of the conflict.[27]

The Army’s lack of attention regarding insurgencies continued into the post-WW I era.  US Army officers studied conventional conflicts and paid only minor attention to counterinsurgency efforts, even though the majority of the Army’s history had been spent fighting insurgencies.  When Army officers examined insurgencies, they studied European colonial struggles.  Lessons learned from the Philippines campaign were largely forgotten or relegated to the fringe of military science.  During the Cold War era the US Army concentrated on conventional fighting, with the Soviet threat being the focus.  The Vietnam conflict, however, forced the army to reexamine counterinsurgency, and some US officers likely studied the Philippines conflict.  Any lessons learned, however, were mostly overlooked, as the Army, in Linn’s estimation, transitioned back to concentrating on conventional threats in the post-Vietnam era.[28]

Following the 9/11 attacks, the Army found itself embroiled in fighting insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan.  To counter these efforts, the Army and the Marine Corps reexamined their counterinsurgency doctrine and published FM 3-24.  Despite the Philippines campaign’s success, however, FM 3-24’s writers chose to exclude it, even though many of the tenets discussed in FM 3-24 were learned in the Philippines. 

This is illustrated by comments made by Dr. Conrad Crane, the Director of the US Army Military History Institute, who was the lead author for FM 3-24.  He wrote, “When the Army–Marine Corps writing team for Field Manual (FM) 3-24 began their deliberations, they turned to these sages (David Galula, Frank Kitson, Robert Thompson, and Roger Trinquier) of the past to develop a baseline list of principles upon which to build the new doctrinal manual.”  Dr Crane’s comment is reinforced by Dr. John Nagl, another writer on the FM 3-24 team, who said, “It is true that the manual draws heavily from the ‘classical’ counterinsurgency theorists such as David Galula and Sir Robert Thompson and their experiences combating Maoist insurgencies and anti-colonial conflicts that marked the first two decades of the Cold War.”[29]   US experiences and lessons learned, such as those from the Philippines campaign, were not used for the most part.  Indeed, there is only one mention of the Philippines campaign in FM 3-24.  It can be found in Paragraph 1-16 and it says, “The United States began that century [20th Century] by defeating the Philippine Insurrection.”  The Source Notes section does not include any references to materials on this campaign, although the Annotated Bibliography does mention Linn’s book The Philippine War, 1899-1902, and calls it “the definitive treatment of successful US counterinsurgency operations in the Philippines.”  Birtle’s impressive book on US Army counterinsurgency experiences from 1860-1941 is not mentioned anywhere in FM 3-24.  This seems a significant oversight as the US military has learned all the counterinsurgency lessons found in FM 3-24, and then some, in American-led campaigns.  Birtle’s comprehensive effort captures US Army counterinsurgency lessons learned spanning an 81-year period from the American Civil War to WW I.[30]

Despite the Army’s success, the Philippines campaign of 1899-1902 remains one of the least known counterinsurgency efforts in the US Army today.  The key tactical lessons learned during the conflict remain as relevant in today’s fights as they were in 1902: the importance of small-unit leadership; the need for small-unit operations and mobility; the importance for local troops; the need for an effective intelligence apparatus; and the significance of degrading the insurgent shadow government infrastructure.  Each of these aspects can be found in FM 3-24 in some capacity, and remain core components of the military’s counterinsurgency doctrine.  Unfortunately, the Philippine lessons learned were never codified into any type of doctrine and this is one of the reasons why these lessons were forgotten. The Army has an unfortunate tradition of considering insurgent conflict a sideshow effort and relegating the study of insurgencies to the fringes of military science. The Philippines campaign is a prime example.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US Army Reserve, the Department of Defense, or the US Government.

[1] David J. Silbey, A War of Frontier and Empire (New York, 2007) 58.  Brian McAllister Linn, The U.S. Army and Counterinsurgency in the Philippine War, 1899-1902 (Chapel Hill, 1989) 1. Brian McAllister Linn, The U.S. Army and Counterinsurgency in the Philippine War, 1899-1902 (Chapel Hill, 1989) 1.

[2] Linn, The U.S. Army and Counterinsurgency in the Philippine War, 9. Silbey, A War of Frontier and Empire, 121.

[3] Andrew J. Birtle, U.S. Army Counterinsurgency and Contigency Operations Doctrine 1860-1941 (Washington, D.C., 1998) 112. Brian McAllister Linn, The Philippine War 1899-1902 (Lawrence, 2000), 42. Silbey, A War of Frontier and Empire, 121.

[4] Linn, The U.S. Army and Counterinsurgency in the Philippine War, 17. Silbey, A War of Frontier and Empire,

[5] Linn, The Philippine War 1899-1902, 180-181. Linn, The U.S. Army and Counterinsurgency in the Philippine War, 21.

[6] Silbey, A War of Frontier and Empire, 145. Birtle, U.S. Army Counterinsurgency and Contigency Operations Doctrine 1860-1941, 111-113, 124-127.

[7] Birtle, U.S. Army Counterinsurgency and Contigency Operations Doctrine 1860-1941, 112-119. Linn, The Philippine War 1899-1902, 206.

[8] Department of the Army.  FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, December 2006), 7-1, 7-3.

[9] Birtle, U.S. Army Counterinsurgency and Contigency Operations Doctrine 1860-1941, 114.  Linn, The Philippine War 1899-1902, 222.

[10] Linn, The Philippine War 1899-1902, 216. Silbey, A War of Frontier and Empire, 156.

[11] Department of the Army, FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency, A-3

[12] Birtle, U.S. Army Counterinsurgency and Contigency Operations Doctrine 1860-1941, 116.

[13] Linn, The Philippine War 1899-1902, 204. Linn, The U.S. Army and Counterinsurgency in the Philippine War, 169

[14] Department of the Army, FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency, 6-1, 6-22

[15] Linn, The Philippine War 1899-1902, 191. Birtle, U.S. Army Counterinsurgency and Contigency Operations Doctrine 1860-1941, 111-112. Silbey, A War of Frontier and Empire, 148.

[16] Linn, The U.S. Army and Counterinsurgency in the Philippine War, 42.

[17] Linn, The U.S. Army and Counterinsurgency in the Philippine War, 42-44

[18] Birtle, U.S. Army Counterinsurgency and Contigency Operations Doctrine 1860-1941, 117.

[19] Department of the Army, FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency, 1-23, 3-1

[20] Ibid., 191.

[21] Birtle, U.S. Army Counterinsurgency and Contigency Operations Doctrine 1860-1941, 125.

[22] Birtle, U.S. Army Counterinsurgency and Contigency Operations Doctrine 1860-1941, 128,  Linn, The U.S. Army and Counterinsurgency in the Philippine War, 18, 26. Silbey, A War of Frontier and Empire, 208.

[23] Linn, The Philippine War 1899-1902, 192. Birtle, U.S. Army Counterinsurgency and Contigency Operations Doctrine 1860-1941, 132

[24] Department of the Army, FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency, 1-23. Linn, The U.S. Army and Counterinsurgency in the Philippine War, 159.

[25] Silbey, A War of Frontier and Empire, 205.

[26] Brian McAllister Linn, The Echo of Battle:  The Army’s Way of War (Boston, 2009) 86-87, 89

[27] Brian McAllister Linn, The Echo of Battle:  The Army’s Way of War (Boston, 2009) 86-87.  Birtle, U.S. Army Counterinsurgency and Contigency Operations Doctrine 1860-1941, 138.

[28] Linn, The Echo of Battle:  The Army’s Way of War, 90, 179-182, 193-194.

[29] Conrad C. Crane, “Minting COIN,” Air & Space Power Journal-Winter 2007, found at .  John A. Nagl, Constructing the Legacy of Field Manual 3-24, Joint Forces Quarterly, Issue 58, Third Quarter 2010, found at

[30] Department of the Army, FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency, 1-3, Annotated Bibliography-2



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I've seen a number of articles here trying to extract lessons from the Philippine campaign, and they all seem to overlook two critical points. One is hinted at in this excerpt:

They collected intelligence; hired Filipino auxiliaries to assist them even when Manila did not support this policy; used policies such as crop burning, food rationing, and concentration to isolate the population from the insurgents; and developed ways to reward Filipinos who supported US efforts, while penalizing those that did not.

"penalizing those who did not", of course, included burning houses and villages, arbitrary execution and the unrestricted use of torture, aside from the mentioned crop destruction and concentration camps. The model for this "counterinsurgency" was the native American genocide, and many of the same methods were used, not infrequently by Americans with experience in the Native American campaigns. Those methods are effective. They are still effective today, as we saw not so long ago in Sri Lanka. That is not a lesson that's particularly useful to American forces today, because neither international convention nor domestic public opinion permit the use of those methods.

The other critical point is that the US will never again have the luxury of fighting an insurgent force that is as inexperienced, generally inept, and devoid of any access to the means and methods of prosecuting insurgency as they did in the Philippine campaigns. This comment:

The Filipino forces were better able to fight an insurgency than a conventional fight. They had experience fighting this kind of conflict against the Spanish in 1896-1897.

suggests a need to actually study those campaigns, which were fought almost entirely in areas close to Manila, involved a very limited number of insurgents fighting a corrupt, lethargic, and monumentally inept Spanish force and still ended in disaster for the insurgents, who were crippled by internal dissent and rapidly defeated. That hardly sounds like a platform for a successful insurgency against an aggressive, modern opponent. The article overall suggests that the insurgents were much more of a coordinated, unitary entity than they actually were. It's worth remembering that this was long before Mao or Giap or Che Guevara, and there was no gospel of insurgency. Of course there had been successful insurgencies elsewhere in the world, but the Philippine insurgents knew nothing of them and their methods, and their lack of strategic and tactical awareness and individual skill (notably basic marksmanship) were crippling. Those circumstances are not likely to be repeated in the modern world, where templates for successful insurgency abound and are accessible to anyone with a computer and an internet connection.

I think if you look closely you'll find that the most effective enemy the Americans faced in the Philippine campaign was not the insurgents, but their own lack of knowledge of how to survive, let alone fight, in the tropics: most American casualties were from disease, not combat.

I agree with Dave Maxwell's point that conquest, pacification, and the imposition of a regime of occupation is a fundamentally different exercise from an attempt to support or establish an allied government, which limits the relevance of the lessons extracted. Overwhelming force works, if you propose to rule the conquered territory yourself. It works less well if you are trying to install a government that can sustain itself without the use of overwhelming force.


No one denies that the stick was used, but it was in conjunction with the carrot. It could not have worked on its own. Arnold in Jungle of Snakes judged that success was based upon three things, the policy of attraction, population re-concentration and military proficiency at small unit fighting. He judged that without all three, we would not have succeeded. So there was rather more to it than kill them all. The stick, and the carrot were required.

Torture and brutality were there, practiced by both sides. It was a tragedy. But the success did not depend on that. Kobbe's campaign in northern Mindanao illustrated that.

If you want to call the subjugation of the American Indians a genocide you can I guess. That word now seems to mean whatever it is people want it to mean. I wouldn't call it that but I won't argue the point. You call it what you will. I would note that there were a lot of soldiers who did their best to do well by the Indians, like Crook. I would note further that some of the best commanders in the Philippines, good by anybody's standard, men like Kobbe, Scott and Pershing all spent long periods in the west working with Indians.

So templates for successful insurgencies abound and all you have to do is look it up on the internet? Cool. If only fighting a small war from the other side was so easy.

The circumstance of insurgents being lousy shots has been repeated over and over again in the modern world. It wasn't limited to the Philippines. That is understandable. It takes good training and much practice to shoot well. Insurgents often don't have the instructors, the time to train nor the ammunition available to allow them to be good shots. Or sometimes it is they just can't see too good, as C.J. Chivers suggested as one reason the Taliban don't shoot well.

There is one other critical point I would add about the campaign in the Philippines. Maj. Putnam didn't mention it because it was beyond the scope of his article. That point is the fact that the Philippine Islands were islands. The Navy could completely cut them off from outside supply and there were political borders the insurgents could scamper over be safe from pursuit. There was no sanctuary anywhere if the Army cared to expend the effort to get there.

I never said no carrots were used. To the extent that they worked, a lesser extent I suspect than some accounts suggest, they worked because the stick in play was exceedingly harsh, far harsher than could be considered remotely acceptable in today's world. Policies of attraction can work when you are the government. When you are trying to support a government that is less interested in attraction and accommodation than you are, they are a lot harder to manage. Again, an effort to conquer, pacify, and rule is inherently and absolutely different from an effort to support or install a government capable of ruling without you, and methods appropriate for one are not necessarily applicable to the other.

I don't see how you can say that a campaign that featured torture and brutality in such abundance did not rely on torture and brutality. Also, any account of these campaigns that relies entirely on American sources is simply deficient. The Filipinos didn't win, and were in no position to go home and write gloriously exaggerated accounts extolling their own bravery, competence, and benevolence, but their perspective is nonetheless essential to understanding the conflict, especially the limitations and internal issues within the resistance. The art of the self-glorifying memoir of pacifying the benighted savage was not as elevated among Americans as it was among the Brits, but all accounts by those returning from the colonial wars need to be taken with pounds of salt.

I can't see how what was done to the native American population can be called anything but genocide, unless we start with the supposition that Americans are inherently incapable of such things. That doesn't mean that every American who participated was engaged in slaughter, but the history speaks for itself. Certainly there were senior officers who fought in both wars who were not engaged in the pursuits that characterized both, but as the original article pointed out, field commanders enjoyed a great deal of autonomy, and many of them carried along both practices and attitudes that came out of that background. Yes, our country has some blots on our historical escutcheon, just like most others. Deal with it. Doesn't make us any better or worse than anyone else, it's just reality.

I didn't say that knowing the history of insurgency makes it easier, but it absolutely makes a difference. Awareness of strategies and tactics that have worked for insurgents past is only part of that equation. What's most critical is the belief that victory is possible, something no insurgent leader can sustain their fight without. In that sense, the American defeat in Vietnam, the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan, and the whole host of successful wars of decolonization and resistance to neocolonial dictators have permanently altered the insurgent/counterinsurgent dynamic: the perception of invincibility that colonial powers enjoyed in so many places before WW2 is gone forever, and insurgents know they can win. That makes a difference.

Very few efforts to resist colonial conquest enjoyed external support, islands or not: it was not the fashion of the day. Sanctuary, I suspect, was less an issue than you think. Given the size of the area, the paucity of infrastructure, and the limited force available to the Americans, sanctuary was wherever the Americans didn't happen to be at any given time. Except when really extraordinary effort was exerted to find them, as in the case of Aguinaldo, most insurgents could have avoided the Americans indefinitely. They just couldn't win any fights, and that makes it hard to sustain the effort.

Treating Philippine resistance to American occupation as "an insurgency" in a unitary sense comparable to modern insurgencies is, I think, a mistake. It was another era, the landscape has utterly and fundamentally changed, and any lessons extracted have to be taken in a very general sense and with a great deal of skepticism.

All right. I'm not going to let this machine beat me. If you go to the Jan 5 on this link and click on 'You can't play chess when the Taliban is playing poker' the article I am so impressed with will come up. Any direct link disappears for some reason.

Not mentioned in the text or end notes, but of interest to anyone concerned with the topic, Anthony James Joes chapter on the Philippines in "America and Guerrilla Warfare".

This is an excellent article. The thing I liked best about it was the great emphasis Maj Putnam put on identifying and eliminating the shadow government. That is something I think we pay lip service to but don't really do. Swooping in to pick up mid-level leaders, over and over, via night raids then leaving the village is not the same as eliminating the shadow government and then keeping it from reappearing. From my civilian perspective, we don't seem to get that.

A very excellent article dealing with fighting the shadow government in Afghanistan was published by SWJ on Jan 5, 2012. It is "You Can’t Play Chess When the Taliban is Playing Poker" by Neno Danovic. It was one of the few articles I've read, other than this one, that gives the shadow government the attention I think it deserves.

This lack of attention puzzles me. As someone who grew up reading about the Vietnam war and hearing over and over about the critical importance of combating the VCI, the Viet Cong Infrastructure, I always thought that we could never forget. But we did.

Oh, I forgot. The fighting in the Philippines didn't end in 1902. It continued on for some years down in Moroland, a Muslim region. That story is a fascinating one and also filled with lessons relevant to today.

Carl, thanks for taking the time to read the article and for your kind words. I agree, I think there is not enough focus on uprooting the insurgent infrastructure. I think we need to look more at counter guerrilla operations and realize that all the nice stuff in 3-24 isn't possible unless you really target the shadow government.

I would suggest that the Philippines was less counterinsurgency but more a pacification effort by a colonial power conducting an occupation (and the author does use the term pacification in the text). That is a lesson I hope we do not see codified into doctrine as per the author's conclusion (except as a lesson to be avoided). That said there are many important tactical lessons (positive and negative) from the campaign are worth studying as noted in the essay and summarized in the conclusion but I think we have to keep in mind the strategic context. Perhaps if a different strategic decision had been made (e.g., not to colonize the Philippines and instead to allow self determination) we would not have expended such blood and treasure.

Concluding Excerpt:
"Despite the Army’s success, the Philippines campaign of 1899-1902 remains one of the least known counterinsurgency efforts in the US Army today. The key tactical lessons learned during the conflict remain as relevant in today’s fights as they were in 1902: the importance of small-unit leadership; the need for small-unit operations and mobility; the importance for local troops; the need for an effective intelligence apparatus; and the significance of degrading the insurgent shadow government infrastructure. Each of these aspects can be found in FM 3-24 in some capacity, and remain core components of the military’s counterinsurgency doctrine. Unfortunately, the Philippine lessons learned were never codified into any type of doctrine and this is one of the reasons why these lessons were forgotten. The Army has an unfortunate tradition of considering insurgent conflict a sideshow effort and relegating the study of insurgencies to the fringes of military science. The Philippines campaign is a prime example."
End Excerpt.

I do not disagree that COIN techniques are useful and employed during Pacification. The point I am trying to make is that our strategic decision not to allow the Philippines to determine their own form of government and for us to occupy and colonize their nation was a contributing factor to the resistance and insurgency. Furthermore, I do like to parse this out between Pacification and COIN because of the legitimacy issue. I think inherently COIN is a fight for legitimacy among a people and an external occupying power really has little to no legitimacy (except by force of occupation). I am really trying to make the point that we should not be conducting "direct" COIN because by doing so we have inserted ourselves into a nations' and peoples' civil dispute. We can and should support "indirect" COIN to help a friend partner or ally in their fight for legitimacy among their people (which of course may be FID in support of the government or UW in support of resistance or insurgency). My intent is to try to break the mindset that we should be conducting COIN for anyone but rather we should be supporting others COIN efforts (or insurgency or resistance efforts through UW). Ironically I think too many Philippines lessons were learned and applied in Afghanistan and Iraq with the most critical ones that we could conduct COIN to pacify the resistance and that we knew better what those countries needed and that we could create their nations in our image (make the world safe for democracy!). That is why I like to parse this out and say if we are in the lead we are not conducting COIN but instead conducting Pacification because we are de facto an occupying power which by definition fuels insurgency and resistance. I wants us to be experts in COIN, not to conduct it ourselves, but to be able to advise and assist others to conduct it and if necessary with our support.

Dave Maxwell:

It doesn't matter if the Philippines should or should not have been annexed. They were and making that work was the problem the Army was presented with. They handled it well. Besides, I wonder if we hadn't colonized the islands perhaps somebody else would have. A Philippine nation circa 1900 would have been a very weak entity at a time of very energetic colonization by the Europeans and even the Japanese.

As a civilian I am always frustrated by the intense focus given on whether something calls for COIN, UW, FID, Pacification or whatever. A conflict is what it is and will require what it requires. It is a small war. As pointed out in the article, the leaders who figured out what to do in the Philippines didn't have the 'benefit' of printed doctrine or even much guidance from above. That didn't stop them from using their judgment and initiative to win. It seems to me that an additional lesson from the Philippines is that 'doctrine' is less important than having leaders, especially small unit leaders, who have their heads screwed on straight and generally know their business and then allowing them to exercise their initiative and backing what they come up with. It would be nice if a contemporary Lt. Johnston could have the same influence as the one in 1900.

I disagree completely, carl. The strategic setting is everything. The nature of a conflict is everything. Why start in the middle?

It's nothing to do with being a civilian or not, I think (being a civilian myself), it has to do with viewing conflict primarily through the lens of the tactics of small wars without any other consideration.

What if those tactics have nothing to do with the overall larger picture? For instance, a sovereign or occupying power can do things that a third party can't. Like, say, what if you can't build a wall or do some other population or movement control? What if someone in charge says no?

That's kind of a big deal.

"A conflict is what it is and will require what it requires" is exactly what Dave Maxwell is exploring in his latest paper, I believe, and an attempt toward a better understanding of a situation.

So, someone a lot smarter than me wrote, "each insurgency is a contingent event." I just can't remember who wrote that right now. That means that when you lift one lesson out from the past, you have to understand that what you are doing is in real time, that it may combine with facts on the gound to create a different result, and that you can never stop thinking about the whole (at least, the people at the top that are supposed to do this.)

What works in one setting may not in another which doesn't mean that you can't have a set of good practices, you just can't rely on them. The overlying strategic picture and understanding the setting and nature of the conflict and how, or if, one should respond is the bigger and better question.

No way is "they are all small wars" going to get you there. Each event is different. How on earth can being an occupying power be the same thing as intervening on behalf of a third party be the same thing? We also have different norms now, some of those supposedly lovely classic COIN conflicts were plenty bloody with widespread torture and the lot.


The ideal would be that the nation would never do anything that didn't result in bloodless triumphal parades over flower strewn streets. But that isn't going to happen. I think the military has to at least retain an institutional memory of what it has done in the past so when, not if, it happens again in the near or far future it doesn't start from scratch.

There are things that have worked in small wars before and seem to work today, as detailed in the Maj Putnam's paper. But, but, the key to making them work is depending upon the initiative and good judgment of the leaders on the spot, especially the small unit leaders. If you do that, you are automatically going to be adjusting for local conditions. Dogmatism wouldn't be there. In my view, that is a one of the critical 'best practices' of small war fighting, adapting to conditions as they exist.

I tried to make that clear in previous posts. I'll try harder.

You don't need to try harder. You are doing great. You make good points.

I'm touchy on the subject of the American military and especially the Army and its attitudes toward South Asia, in particular. I honestly believe the understanding of of various actors is fundamentally flawed and related to the way in which the American military interacted with allied militaries and 'client' governments during the Cold War and subsequently the GWOT. If we are rebalancing to the Asian region, then this is actually a good chance to go back and understand why a certain view of conflict in the region came to be, and how it related to our NATO parnerships, the Commonwealth countries, trade with China and India and the rest of it.. To be blunt, all this nonsense about the US serving as an intermediary between India and Pakistan so that Afghanistan could be settled when the US has sold weapons, ignored Chinese proliferation, and been as involved with conflict in the region as anyone else. How then could we serve as this supposedly neutral intermediary and why are we still working on a 1950s understanding of regional dynamics, that go all the way back to Madeleine Albright's father and his attempted mediation that went nowhere? Or when Admiral Nimitz was sent back without even having the chance to be an envoy.

How is this history forgotten? I suppose because it is never brought up.

And, yes, this all does relate to strange romanticism of colonialism and the region. That's my theory and I'm sticking to it.

I don't know why I keep writing the same comments over and over. It's not true, currently. There has been a sea change in attitude about regional motivations within the American military, especially in the past few years.

I had suggested in the past either here or at another blog (Abu M) that we study the Punjab insurgency or the Khalistan or similar South Asian movements as a better mental model than 19th century colonial wars and in the manner of Dave Maxwell's recent article on UW.

1. Immigrant diaspora (Mackinley's Insurgent Archipelagos).
2. National and regional movements mixed in with ideological movements, some supported by national intelligence agencies.
3. Lobbying of western officials.
4. Cultivating Western scholars.
5. International banking and black globalization in combination as sources of funding.
6. Sophisticated use of the visual arts and contemporary communications (from television to the internet over time).
7. And so on.

All of this, vaguely witnessed at a distance during my childhood, seems a better fit for what we are witnessing today. You will here many narratives, the ground truth difficult to discern.

I think you're right, and that we are better off drawing lessons from situations that include the world's current circumstances. Americans have a compulsion to look back at "success" and try to deduce lessons applicable to the modern world. Sometimes it puts them on pretty thin ice.

There was a time when big countries could go pretty much wherever they pleased, constrained only by the claims of other big countries, stomp the benighted natives into submission, claim their territory and run it for their own purposes. Those times are over. They are not (I hope, at least) coming back. Any attempt to draw lessons from that environment and apply them to today's environment has to be treated very judiciously indeed.

Yeah, looking to conflicts that are closer to what we are seeing makes more sense, doesn't it?

For that matter, maybe looking at the surge in Iraq differently might have helped in Afghanistan. I will get my COINTRA card revoked for this, but I have no problem believing that the increased troops aided in some way to decreased violence in conjunction with a whole host of other conflicting factors. But the transfer of "lessons learned" to Afghanistan didn't take into account the more advanced state of Iraq where "hearts and minds" was a lot of restoring services, not building something that hadn't existed for ages. Dunno. This summer is supposed to see the release of a bunch of books on the topics so we shall see what the academics do with the declassified and other information.

I think this is one statement we can (or should) all agree on:

"In my view, that is a one of the critical 'best practices' of small war fighting, adapting to conditions as they exist."

But I would just add that the conditions are not just those at the tactical level but at the strategic level as well and of course to be able to adapt to those conditions correctly we must first understand them.


Good points. I concur with you on the names and trying to fit everything into categories and I was guilty in my comments. However, while there are some important tactical successes worth noting and studying, I really think our weakness is in strategic decision making and strategy development and execution. I actually think we have a helluva lot of LT Johnstons (and Sergeants too) that are creative, innovative, and exceptional tacticians and they do great work despite our strategic flaws in such places as Iraq and Afghanistan (and those LT Johnstons and Sergeants are quite capable of recognizing and pointing out our strategic flaws and yet faced with them they still do everything in their power to accomplish the mission). My real concern though is getting the strategy right and one of the important strategic considerations is not to become an occupying power that feeds resistance. The second is that we have to understand that we cannot build nations to create them in our image. And you are also right in that we need today;s LT Johnstons to have similar influence.

Dave Maxwell:

I agree it would be ideal if we were not to become an occupying power. But there are two things with that. First, we can never be sure what history will throw at us. Mr. Linn would know for sure but I would guess the U.S. Army in 1895 would never ever have guessed that 5 years later they would be fighting to effectuate the annexation of tropical islands on the other side of the Pacific. But they were. In 20 years we have no clue what our nation will be doing so I think it would be good if the professional military didn't willfully forget things as seems to happen in our history.

Second, I wonder how much of our being seen as an 'occupation force' is the result of ineptitude. When we got to Afghanistan from what I've read, it was mainly "Whoopee! The Taliaban is gone. Thanks for kicking them out.' Now after 12 years of floundering, errant air strikes, them seeing us always being played by the Pak Army/ISI and on and on, it is only natural they would lose patience with us. 12 years!

You're right about the current Lt. Johnstons. I met a sapper SGT once who seemed a natural born small wars genius. Somebody with your experience has met hundreds. The fact that they don't have similar influence is part of our having floundered about for so long. But in today's power point Army can they ever have influence? This is an Army in which it took a veritable Act of Congress to get somebody like McMaster promoted to General. This is a big question but I ask it anyway, is there any way, in the Army as it exists today, that a modern LT Johnston could have similar influence? What would it take to make that so?

Thanks for the Kings College link. I'll make sure I check it out and engage in a nerd debate...:)


Taken from the (UK) Kings of War website, part of the opening critique: '...It is one of the growing genre of “forgotten COIN lessons” articles, which I think will multiply once 2014 rolls around and pundits everywhere start writing final score cards on American efforts in Afghanistan. The premise is relatively simple: when writing American counter insurgency doctrine, FM 3-24, the authors paid too much attention to some conflicts, and not enough to others. To his credit, Putnam doesn’t treat the lessons that could be drawn from the conflict as a silver bullet'....

Read on: