Small Wars Journal

Pershing in Mindanao: Leadership in Counterinsurgency

Wed, 09/26/2012 - 5:30am

Since the events of 9/11 there have been many different articles written about counterinsurgency.  The authors have taken numerous approaches in trying to reveal some fundamental truths concerning the counterinsurgent struggles in Afghanistan and Iraq. Often they have gone back into history to try to find some useful parallels in our past to try to better understand the current challenges facing the coalition leaders in the Global War on Terror (GWOT). The question is often asked what is required of a leader to be able to successfully accomplish the objectives of the nation in operational environments in which he is no doubt unfamiliar, and to the average person would seem chaotic. Why do some succeed where others fail?  This article will explore attributes needed to succeed in complex operational environments by exploring the career of John Pershing in Mindanao from 1900-1903. Pershing operating at the tactical level of war demonstrated that there are certain leadership attributes which are crucial in achieving success in complex operational situations.

FM 6-22, Army Leadership, defines leadership as “influencing people by providing purpose, motivation, and direction while operating to accomplish the mission and improve the organization.”(1) The manual follows with a “laundry list" of attributes including Leader of Character, Leader with Presence, Leader with Intellectual Capacity, and competencies such as   leads, develops, achieves. These lists are all followed by further sub-attributes and competencies, all defined in great detail.(2)  While generally coherent, these lists are too vague to be of any real help in identifying the reasons for success or failure in a complex environment. In FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency, a manual closest to describing and detailing operations in complex situations, chapter 7, Leadership and Ethics in Counterinsurgency, follows the generic line of FM 6-22, but emphasizes the ethical aspects of leadership responsibility, more so than dealing with the leadership attributes required in succeeding in a COIN.(3) Though ethics are necessary for success in COIN, they are not sufficient or even the defining factor on whether a leader succeeds or fails in his mission. So what leadership attributes define success in complex situations?

The following leadership attributes are crucial in achieving success in a complex environment.  Though there are similarities with some of the characteristics and attributes described in the COIN and Leadership Manuals, it is important to go deeper in understanding what it takes for an individual to succeed in a situation that is radically different from his own experience and culture. 

An Open Mind:  All mature human beings deal with complex situations with a developed set of preconceived ideas. This is normal. But a soldier who can look beyond his preconceived notions to see a situation, without his natural cultural blinders, will fare better than who cannot. This is a very hard attribute to develop in an individual. Most soldiers have difficulty of thinking beyond their very narrow cultural milieu. The Army has tried to institutionalize a more open minded viewpoint by developing a design planning process within its decision making process. Also the Army have fielded “Red Teams” throughout the force, giving a commander a small team of individuals, who can develop alternate perceptions concerning complex problems within the decision making processes. It is too early to see whether these additional processes and organizations will stimulate soldiers to escape their ethnocentric experiences and be more open minded.

Respect for the Culture:  Since the events of 9/11 the Army has worked diligently to develop cultural awareness. But cultural awareness is insufficient, what is really needed to succeed in a foreign environment is cultural respect or empathy. One needs to respect the culture to deal effectively within a foreign environment. Too often leaders from developed nations have let their inherent ethnocentrism color their interactions with the local inhabitants when conducting operations. This attribute of respect goes beyond just observing local customs, and delves into understanding and living within the local culture without mentally degrading that culture. One has to respect the people and the culture to effectively operate in that foreign environment.

Philosophical Theory: As an open mind is essential in solving complex problems in a foreign environment, it is also essential to have a philosophical and theoretical approach when solving complex operational problems. This seems counterintuitive but I believe there is logic in this attribute. A philosophical theory is derived from study and experience. Experience is important, but lacks context and clarity without critical review and study. An individual should thoughtfully examine his experiences, in the context of academic study, to eventually derive a philosophical theory encompassing this domain. Having a philosophical theory provides the individual a theoretical method to resolve a problem.  Experience often leads to the use of “best practices”, which usually means the ethnocentric solutions to problems.  Academic study without experience often leads to impractical musing. Both experience and study provides a philosophical theory.

Willing to Work Within Another Culture: As a corollary to the respect for a culture attribute, a leader has to be willing to actually work within the culture to achieve his objective. The keys to working within the culture are first that the leader actually tries to understand the cultural environment that he is working within, and then he uses the culture to further his goals. Since culture includes aspects of the political, economic, social (to include religion), and informational realms, it is essential that any solution to the problem that is derived will be a holistic approach, covering all aspects of the culture. Further to work within the culture you actually have to trust the people within that culture. This would seem obvious; however this historically is a major detractor for leaders trying to deal with complex operational problems in a foreign environment.  Most individuals have an inherent ethnocentrism that hinders them from trusting individuals from another culture. That ethnocentrism has to be placed “to the side” if the leader is going to truly work within a culture, and use the culture to achieve the objective.

Patience:  Since most complex operational problems cannot be solved in a short time period, it would again seem obvious that patience would be an attribute most recognized as essential to leaders. However in the modernized portion of the world, leaders are usually individuals who are normally type A, “gung ho”, can do, energetic, etc, type people. We do not see patience as a virtue. Further external sources, such as politics, elections cycles and budgets, normally pushes the leader into trying to solve complex problems in the shortest amount of time. To actually effect a complex operational problem the leader will have to act on the situation at multiple levels, which normally takes time to affect the solution. A leader who has patience will deal with the complexity, and work through the problem, knowing that nothing comes quickly.

Authority:  The attribute, authority, is both developed by the individual and in most circumstances also inherited by the leader. Authority is defined here as the ability to control all elements within the individual’s purview, with limited interference from outside authority. This attribute is developed by the leader’s ability to exude an aura of confidence and expertise to subordinates, stakeholders, and especially superiors. If the superior is confident the leader can accomplish the objective with assets on hand, usually the organization will let the leader operate with limited interference. This is enhanced if there is risk involved to the organization, where the leader is held responsible for success or especially failure, with limited liability to the higher organization. Further the leader is facilitated in gaining authority by the distance from his organization, and interest in his situation shown by his superiors. The farther an individual is physically away from the organization’s base of power, the more authority is placed into the hands of the leader on the ground. Further if an area or situation is deemed less than important, the organization will let the leader operate with limited interference, given the lack of interest from the organization in the leader’s situation.

Moral and Physical Courage:   Though again it would seem obvious that a leader should possess both physical and moral courage if he is going to succeed in a complex environment, in reality these are very rare attributes attained by few leaders. When solving complex problems in a foreign society, the leader must go out from his secure environment, get on the ground, and actually deal with the individuals who have influence on the situation.  Often times this means the leader will have to put himself at risk to achieve his objective. Most leaders believe that they do this on a habitual basis, we doctrinally call this battlefield circulation, key leader meetings etc, however usually these leaders venture out of their secure bases with large security entourages, which ultimately sends the message of weakness or fear to the key  individuals who have influence on the situation. In the historical example portrayed in this article, the leader showed physical courage by putting himself at great physical risk, with no surrounding security, to send specific messages to key stakeholders.

Moral courage is also a rare commodity when dealing in complex operational situations. Often the leader is isolated from his higher authority, and that higher authority has little understanding of the facts “on the ground”. The higher authority will issue orders or instructions which are often detrimental to solving the complex problem. The leader is faced with a choice of following instructions of higher, who believe they have a better understanding i.e. “the big picture” or doing the “right” thing and executing the proper solution. The leader with moral courage will do the right thing and accept the consequences of his action, even if it detrimental to his career. Distance from authority does help the leader, but it is the rare leader who puts his future at risk to achieve the objective. 

Historical Study

The paper will now deal with the above named attributes in a historical setting. John Pershing used these attributes to achieve success in a very different and complex environment. Though Pershing was successful in a unique decentralized Islamic society which existed approximately one hundred years ago, I believe that his experiences have relevancy for today’s leaders.

John Pershing in Mindanao

On the surface it would seem strange to include John Pershing in the list of open minded, culturally adept leaders, who thrived in complex environments. He has a reputation in history as a “strait laced”, hard driving martinet who formed a modern two million man army out of almost nothing, and then drove it forward into the jaws of the German Army at the ST. Michel and Meuse-Argonne battles.(4)  Though in history he will always be General Black Jack Pershing, victor of World War I, Pershing was also an extremely successful leader of a counterinsurgency campaign conducted around the shores of Lake Lanao in Mindanao at the turn of the 20th Century.

Pershing’s background was typical of his day. He grew up in the post-Civil War time period in Laclede, Missouri. Pershing came from a middle class family who provided opportunities for him in education and employment. After a short period teaching school, he decided to attend the United States Military Academy and at least initially pursue a military career.(5) He was commissioned as a 2LT in the cavalry in 1886, and assigned to the Fort Bayard, New Mexico. His initial duties were his first taste of dealing in complex operational problems. He participated in the conclusion of the Geronimo Apache Campaign, patrolling the long Mexican-American border and rounding up renegade Apaches, herding them back on to reservations. Pershing also had to handle potential violent situations between white settlers and reservation Apaches.  These were standard problems faced by junior officers in the “Frontier Army”. These complex problems forced Army officers to be opened minded about situations, since the Army did not provide any standard training for these types of situations, and was traditionally tasked to be even handed between the surging white settlers and the receding Native Americans. To be effective the officers had to be culturally attuned to the Indians and their problems. Crisis and violence could be avoided if handled by an officer willing to work within the Native American culture.  Pershing inculcated these views while serving on the frontier.  

In the 1890s Pershing continued to expand his cultural understanding and vision by first commanding a detachment of Sioux Indian Scouts during the final days of the “Ghost Dance’ campaign of 1890, and later in the decade commanding African-American soldiers of the 10th Cavalry(6). Both of these experiences helped Pershing not only understood another culture, but he was also to use that culture to achieve his objectives. Pershing learned to respect the individuals who came from a vastly different culture, which facilitated his understanding of their capabilities.  He was an excellent commander of troops, no matter the culture. (7)

Pershing was also extremely ambitious. Between troop assignments be gained a law degree at the University of Nebraska, where he was fulfilling the function of Professor of Military Science. This degree would be especially beneficial in the future when adjudicating between Moro leaders around Lake Lanao. Pershing participated in the Spanish-American War as regimental quartermaster for the 10th Cavalry. He fought at the Battle of San Juan Hill, and participated in the occupation of Santiago. Upon his return to the United States after the Spanish-American War, Pershing was placed as Chief of the Division of Customs and Insular Affairs, the initial organization within the Department of War to organize and operate the new U.S. possessions of Cuba and the Philippines. His duties at the Division of Customs provided another opportunity for him to deal with major issues pertaining to other cultures at a strategic level(8). Pershing moved from the strategic level at the Division of Customs dealing with global issues, to the operational level where he was initially a staff officer at the General Headquarters of U.S. forces in the Philippines at Manila, then moving down to be Adjutant General of the Department of Mindanao (the Adjutant General was the primary staff officer for the commander within the U.S. Army’s staff system of early 20th century).  Being on the staff first in Manila, and then at HQ of the Department of Mindanao, provided Pershing an opportunity to study the situation and different cultures of the Philippines, first in a national setting then more locally before he actually had to operate within that cultural milieu of Mindanao (9).

CPT Pershing’s chance came in the spring of 1901 when he was assigned to the military camp at Iligan.  Iligan was situated along the northern coast of Mindanao. It was a trail and road junction for routes that led to the interior of the island and Lake Lanao. Governmental presence (both Spanish and American) had never really penetrated to the interior of Mindanao. The inhabitants of the interior, the Moros (Muslim Malays who inhabit the southern portion of the Philippines archipelago) had never been controlled by an outside authority. Their society was decentralized and ethnically based, with power being held by local strong men known as Datus.  Each datu constantly fought to control his specific geographical area against his neighbors/competitors. Passionately Moslem (though knowing little of the actual tenets of Islam), the datus strove to protect their freedom, property, and religion against all they viewed as threats to their traditional existence. The Spanish had tried to subjugate Moros, to little avail. With the arrival of the Americans in 1899, this struggle to pacify the southern islands of the Philippines, inhabited by a fierce warrior race, was recommenced (10).

The commander of Iligan was responsible for the pacification of the Moros who lived along the northern shore of Lake Lanao. Pershing’s predecessors had accomplished little, as the Moros had been found to be just as recalcitrant to U.S. control as they had been to Spanish intrusions. The major problem with the previous approaches (both U.S. and Spanish) was that force was used as the primary motivator to pacify the Lake Lanao Moros. Given the terrain (thick jungles and mountains), and the decentralization of Moro society, armed columns trying to punish rebellious datus was a totally ineffective approach to facilitate the pacification of the area.

Pershing decided to try a different method. Though he had been in the Philippines for over a year, he still did not fully understand the Moro culture, given he was semi-isolated in higher HQs in both Manila and Zamboanga.  He plunged into the culture, trying to understand what would motivate the Moros into accepting American control.  Pershing began to develop contacts with key leaders of the Northern Lake Lanao area through the weekly market at Iligan. His key contact was Ahmai-Manibilang, the primary power broker around the northern portion of Lake Lanao. Pershing cultivated Manibilang through his son, who visited the weekly open market. Pershing began to understand that the key issues for the successful and peaceful pacification of the Moros would center around continued religious freedom (protecting Islam against aggressive missionary activity), continuance of local cultural institutions (to include slavery), and the maintenance of  power and authority of the local datus by the American authorities. (11)  Pershing discussed these issues with Manibilang during a formal visit by the powerful datu, hosted by Pershing, at his HQ at Iligan.  Pershing’s objective was to try to establish his authority over the northern Moro’s by gaining the trust of the local leaders, and using the local datus to further the U.S. influence around of Lake Lanao. This indirect rule approach had proven to be an extremely successful technique used by leaders in similar complex pacification situations.

By developing a good relationship with the most powerful stakeholders in the area, Pershing now had two courses of action available to him if he wanted to further the pacification process in the northern Lake Lanao area. He could be aggressive and push his forces into the interior around Lake Lanao, establish smaller forts to gain a greater foothold on the ground, and by having forces on the ground, send a message to the local datus that the U.S. was truly the governing power with final authority to rule, meanwhile professing the sanctity of Islam and local culture. On the positive side this would finally establish the U.S. as the overwhelming power in the area, but it would rekindle Moro fears that their traditional freedoms were going to be taken away and their society and culture forever changed.

The other course of action open to Pershing was to wait and see the effect his cultivation of Manibilang would have on the other key power brokers around Lake Lanao. By showing that the U.S. was not going to use overt force on the Moro datus, and allowing the datus to govern their people in the traditional fashion, Pershing hoped to rule the area indirectly through the datus with minimal violence.

Most officers of the U.S. Army of the early 20th century would have chosen the first course of action, using force to coerce the Moros. This was the choice of Pershing’s colleagues in other parts of Mindanao, which ultimately culminated in very high levels of violence.(12) Pershing chose the indirect approach. He waited for an invitation from Manbilang to visit his residence to continue the previous discussions on future U.S. policy in the area, and to deepen the relationship between Pershing and Manbilang. Pershing did have the advantage that his superior, Brigadier General George Davis, military governor of the Mindanao Province, had complete confidence in Pershing’s ability to further U.S. interests in area, was distant from Pershing’s area of authority, and had more pressing issues.               

Pershing’s breakthrough came in January 1902 when he received an invitation to visit Manbilang at his residence. Pershing boldly decided, against advice of local leaders and other military officers, to accept the invitation and to go Manbilang’s residence unarmed with no military escort. This was considered foolhardy by all the “Moro experts” who expected Pershing to be ambushed enroute and killed, without ever arriving at his destination. No “white man’ had ever entered the interior around Lake Lanao and survived. The Spanish had tried for three hundred years to penetrate the area with absolutely no success. Early U.S efforts had also been met with extreme violence. Outsiders looked on the Moros as totally untrustworthy who would kill an “infidel’ on sight to protect their traditional culture and authority. Pershing however realized that by going unarmed he would show that he was for a peaceful solution to the pacification process, was trusting of Manbilang and his ability to protect an invited guest, and that, most powerfully, he was not afraid to accept the risk of possible Moro violence against his party (he took only an interpreter and an enlisted soldier, both unarmed) to further his objectives. Pershing showed great courage, both physical and moral, to follow the indirect approach, trust in Moro cultural attributes to protect him against harm and provide an environment to further U.S.-Moro relations.

Pershing’s bold action in using the local culture and trusting key local leaders, helped to further stimulate better relations between the U.S. Government and the northern Lake Lanao datus, ultimately facilitating a furtherance of U.S. control in the area. It also enhanced economic activity around Lake Lanao, which was also in the interest of both Pershing and the local stakeholders.  However on the south side of Lake Lanao a very different approach was tried with tragic consequences.

Violence between Moros and the U.S. military was on the rise along the southern shore of Lake Lanao. This area was outside the jurisdiction of CPT Pershing. The governor of the Mindanao Department, General Davis, decided that the level of violence in the south had gotten beyond acceptable levels, and that a military expedition would have to be mounted to try to contain the violence and convince the Datus in the area to drop their opposition to U.S. pacification efforts. Davis’s senior subordinate, Col Frank Baldwin, was placed in charge of the conducting the campaign in the south. Col Baldwin was an old hard charging infantryman, who believed that violence was the only means available to persuade the Moro datus to cease the violence around Lake Lanao.  Baldwin’s column, 1200 men strong, the largest expedition to take the field in Mindanao to that time, was tasked to move along the southern rim of Lake Lanao and intimidate or subdue the recalcitrant datus into submission to U.S. authority.(13) To facilitate Baldwin’s column progress, General Chaffee, commander of U.S. forces in the Philippines, issued a proclamation to all reigning datus, explaining the purpose of Baldwin’s expedition, and stressing that the Moros would have to submit to U.S. control or suffer the consequences. (14)

While these momentous events were taking place in the south, Pershing was tasked by General Davis to keep the northern portion of the lake quiet, while Baldwin completed his campaign in the south.  So again Pershing went back into the interior, unarmed with no escort, to explain to the datus why their cousins in the south were being forcibly subjugated by Baldwin’s troops. Pershing met the leading datus at the cotta (fort) at Marahui. He needed all his persuasive powers to dissuade the northern datus from joining their brethren in the south in warring on the Americans. The meeting almost lead to a violent attack on Pershing by a number of angry datus, but the situation was saved by an intervention of Manibilang, who spoke in Pershing’s favor.  Pershing’s efforts in using the indirect rule approach to gain the trust and confidence of Manibiling and other key northern datus bore fruit in diffusing a possible violent situation. Pershing was able to keep the peace in the north while Baldwin fought in the south.

In the south Baldwin’s campaign, which began on April 11 1902, did not go well. Baldwin tried to overawe the southern Moros by displaying overwhelming numbers; however this just enraged the southern datus, who contested Baldwin’s expedition for every foot of ground. The American column was forced to fight a pitched battle at Bayan. This battle centered on the capture of two reinforced cottas (forts), defended by approximately 600 Moro warriors. Baldwin’s force captured the cottas, but suffered 7 killed and 44 wounded, an extremely high casualty rate for operations in the Philippines. Moro casualties were approximated at 400 killed, with an unknown number wounded. This high casualty count on both sides further exacerbated the tension between the Moros in the south of Lake Lanao and the U.S. forces. (15)

Generals Chaffee and Davis were now placed in a quandary. If they continued the current aggressive policy in the southern portion of Mindanao, with Baldwin’s forces pushing further into the interior of around Lake Lanao, U.S. forces would continue to pile up casualties while slowly gaining direct control of the area, and further alienating the southern Moro datus. Chaffee was also under pressure from the Roosevelt Administration to limit the violence in the Mindanao Department, given that the Administration had just declared the insurgency in the Philippines Archipelago over. Also the Administration of the Philippines Dependency had been assumed by a civilian authority (William Howard Taft as the Governor General).  General Chaffee in consultation with General Davis also saw that most of the Army leadership in the Philippines, to include the senior tactical commander on Mindanao, Col Baldwin, would prefer to continue with the aggressive, violent policy of pacification of the Moros. (16) Chaffee realized that another approach would have to be taken.

Chaffee and Davis came up with a unique solution to the problem of pacification around Lake Lanao. The two generals assigned CPT Pershing to the newly established base at Camp Vicars, in the vicinity of the southern shores of Lake Lanao.  There Pershing was placed in charge of all pacification efforts around Lake Lanao. Officers who were senior to Pershing, and who had troops in area, were assigned to other duties, but their troops remained and were placed under the operational control of Pershing. This left Pershing in charge of the total pacification campaign around Lake Lanao, with minimum interference from more senior officers. Further it allowed Pershing to change the direction of the campaign from one of violent pacification to a low key indirect rule approach, which he had found successful in the north of Mindanao.      Pershing immediately reached out to the datus in the south to reassure them that a new leader was in place, and that his policy would be different from his predecessor. This new policy would consist of Pershing ruling through the local datus, and having the datus be responsible for law and order in their own areas. Pershing maintained the authority to punish violators of the law, using either his assigned forces, or more preferably having the datus capture the criminal themselves, and turning the criminal over to Pershing for adjudication.  Pershing would also start a program to further economic activity in area, which would both facilitate the datus’ power base, and help to entrench U.S. reach around the Lake.  

However the American’s political/military situation in the south had deteriorated due to the presumptuous nature of the Baldwin campaign. Whereas a certain amount of preliminary negotiation might have precipitated violent reaction by a large number of datus, Pershing was now faced by a horde of southern datus who were openly hostile to the U.S.  To further exacerbate the problem the southern area around Lake Lanao lacked a central strongman (unlike the north in Manibilang) who could exert a modicum of control over his fellow datus. Pershing now had to start from scratch and begin to build trust and confidence with the southern leaders.

Pershing began his campaign by sending peace feelers out to the hostile datus in the south. Initial reaction, for the most part, was negative. But Pershing was not discouraged; he knew that patience and positive action would be successful in the long run. Any sort of military action was also delayed by a series of natural disasters that befell the Island of Mindanao. First an earthquake hit the island, followed by a plaque of locust, which ate the Moro farmer’s crops, and finally an outbreak of cholera which struck down both friend and foe alike. Pershing sent out instructions to all the datus on combating the disease. He also started to meet with the friendly datus in the vicinity of Camp Vicars. Pershing’s initial actions started slowly to chip away at the climate of distrust that inhabited the southern portion of Mindanao.

By March 1903 the cholera epidemic had subsided and Pershing was given the go ahead to start to push out U.S. control beyond the confines of the vicinity of Camp Vicars. (17) Pershing  developed a campaign plan built on a three pronged approach to the pacification of southern area around Lake Lanao. First he would continue to negotiate and deepen relationships with datus who were friendly to the U.S. Secondly he would conduct expeditions around the Lake, showing the flag and demonstrating the ability of U.S. forces to traverse freely any area around Lake Lanao. This show of force was intended to overawe wavering Moro leaders, and force them to side with the Americans and come under Pershing’s indirect rule. Lastly hostile datus would be punished by the use of force, but violence was to be kept to a minimum, with hostile leaders given an opportunity to negotiate or flee from their fortified cottas. All actions were to be proceeded by advance warnings and active negotiations. This three prong approach to the campaign was radically different than Baldwin’s previous attempt at forceful subjugation of the southern Moro datus.        

Pershing decided that the campaign had to consist of something memorable and flamboyant, and should make an indelible imprint on the minds of the Moros around the Lake. He planned to take a large mixed task force of approximately 500 men, and march completely around Lake Lanao. This would also fire the imagination of his men and the American public, and send the required message to all the key Moro datus.  Pershing laid the ground work for the “March around the Lake” by sending a letter explaining his intent to all the southern and northern datus. He gathered his forces and on April 5, 1903 Pershing began his march.(18)

Pershing moved his column on the western side of the Lake with the initial objective of Bacolod. The Panandugan (datu) of Bacolod swore eternal enmity against the American presence in Mindanao. Pershing had tried to negotiate with the Panandugan, but with no effect. Though Pershing would have preferred to avoid violence, in this case he had no choice but to defeat Panandugan and destroy his formidable cotta at Bacolod.  Pershing moved his task force through the swampy jungle around Bacolod, and positioned his forces to lay siege to the fortress. Previously American commanders, when faced with a similar situation, had aggressively attacked the cottas off the march, thereby leaving little chance for the Moros to reconsider their resistance, and ultimately causing high casualties on both sides. Pershing chose to be patient. He positioned his forces in such a way as to gain obvious military advantage over the Moros in the fortress, but leaving an escape route available, so the Moros warrior’s wives and children could escape without injury. He further gave time for a negotiated surrender before he was forced to assault the fortress. The Moros defending Bacolod chose to fight, so after two days of fruitless negotiation, Bacolod was assaulted and taken by U.S. forces. Casualties had been minimized, with seven wounded on the American side, and approximately sixty Moros killed, but with many more escaping. Pershing had achieved his objective of destroying the Panandugan of Bacolod and his fortress, with a minimal amount of violence. The message was clearly sent to all leaders around Lake Lanao, that Pershing would prefer to work peacefully with them, however resistance would be met with overwhelming force. (19)

After totally destroying the fortress at Bacolod, the Pershing’s task force continued moving along the western edges of Lake Lanao, with the next objective being the northern most village of Marahui. The column met with no resistance and all the cottas they passed were waving flags signaling their friendship. Pershing met with key leaders along the route, and continued to spread his message of peaceful cooperation and indirect rule. On April 12, the task force reached Marahui with no further incidents. Being short of supplies Pershing decided to move the force back to Camp Vicars along the western side of the Lake. The total circumvention of the Lake would be accomplished on the next expedition.(20)

On May 2 1903 Pershing took his task force back on the trail, moving east this time, with the initial objective being Maciu. Pershing had now followed his standard practice by preparing the way by sending out letters to all the key datus on the eastern side of Lake Lanao, explaining his rationale for moving a large military column in their area, and professing peaceful intentions and future friendship. Though most of the datus on the eastern shore were friendly or at least neutral, Pershing encountered hostility at a number of belligerent fortified cottas. Again Pershing followed his proven method of investing the cottas closely, negotiating for surrender, but always leaving an escape route open for individuals who did not want to fight. The fights were normally short with few casualties. Pershing’s column moved around the eastern side of the Lake, and reached Marahui (the northern tip of the Lake) on May 8. The column then turned south and moved quickly along the western side of Lake Lanao, greeted by friendly datus throughout the march. Pershing had traveled completely around Lake Lanao with a large task force, a feat never accomplished previously. U.S control had been extended into an area, where no previous power had ever held sway. Further this tour de force had been accomplished with minimum amount of violence. (21)

Upon completion of the “March around the Lake” Pershing proceeded to hand over his command to his successor. Pershing’s tour of duty at Camp Vicars was completed by the end of May 1903. He had accomplished in a short period of time more than anyone individual had done in the Lake Lanao region for four hundred years. The area was now under at least nominal control of the United States, and a complete pacification could fully commence.

One can ask what made Pershing successful when all his predecessors (to include the Spanish) had failed to make even a dent in the pacification of the Moros around Lake Lanao. It seems that Pershing’s success was due to a number of leadership attributes he personified in conduct of operations around Lake Lanao. First Pershing had gained experience previously to his arrival in Mindanao in working with different cultures. He was willing to place his natural ethnocentrism aside and work within and through the Moro culture. He truly respected the Moro datus and treated them with the dignity that they thought was appropriate to their status within their society. Further through his previous experiences in dealing with Native Americans in the American southwest, he had a rudimentary theory on how a complex pacification problem could be resolved. 

Secondly he was not in a rush to achieve the pacification immediately. Pershing’s patience in dealing with the situations first at Iligan and later at Camp Vicars bore fruit when his actions achieved the U.S. pacification objectives with minimum violence and disruption of Moro society.  The attribute of patience along with the willingness to use the indirect rule approach to gain authority by ruling through the Moro datus, was crucial in winning over the Moro society as a whole and limiting the violence of pacification. Pershing was placed in a unique authority situation, which at the time was considered unprecedented in the annals of U.S. Army history, at Camp Vicars.(22) Generals Davis and Chaffee’s absolute confidence and trust in Pershing, and the belief that Pershing was the only officer who could resolve the situation in the southern area around Lake Lanao, produced the unique situation where Pershing was placed in command of all troops in the area, and all other senior officers were ordered away so no one senior individual could interfere with Pershing’s operations. The senior leadership in the Philippines then let Pershing execute his campaign with minimal guidance and instruction. Being given this total authority was crucial in Pershing’s success. Lastly Pershing’s courage was crucial to his success, especially during his time at Iligan. His unarmed and unescorted visit to negotiate with Ahmai-Manibilang had a profound effect on the minds of the northern Moro datus. This calculated fearlessness especially resonated within the Moro’s culture. This act of physical courage facilitated Pershing’s effort to ingratiate himself with the Moro cultural milieu. Being able to work within the culture of a society often means living the values of the society. In the case of physical courage Pershing had no peer in the Philippines at that time.

Though not considered a major counterinsurgency campaign in its time, Pershing had accomplished more in a short three year time frame than had been by all previous occupying powers over a five hundred year period. Pershing was a unique leader who was attuned to and worked through the Moro culture. He clearly displayed the leadership attributes needed to achieve success in a complex operational environment.   


  1. FM 6-22, Army Leadership, Headquarters Department of the Army, Washington D.C. 2006, pp 1-1.
  2. Ibid, pp A-10,11
  3. FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency, Headquarters Department of the Army, Washington D.C. 2006, pp7-1- 7-9
  4. James R. Arnold, The Moro War, New York, Bloomsbury Press, 2011, p2
  5. Donald Smythe, Guerrilla Warrior, New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973, Chapter 1
  6. Frank E. Vandiver, Black Jack: The Life and Times of John J. Pershing, College Station, Texas A&M University Press, 1977, p139
  7. Ibid, pp140-141
  8. Ibid,p224
  9. Ibid, p240
  10. Arnold, The Moro War, p4
  11. Smythe, Guerrilla Warrior, pp66-69
  12. Andrew J. Birtle, U.S. Army Counterinsurgency and Contingency Operations Doctrine 1860-1941,Washington D.C., Center of Military History United States Army, 1998, p162
  13. Smythe, Guerrilla Warrior, p79
  14. Arnold, The Moro War, pp27-29
  15. Ibid, pp27-29
  16. Ibid, pp27-29
  17. Ibid, pp27-29
  18. Smythe, Guerrilla Warrior, pp94-110

About the Author(s)

LTC  William L. Greenberg (Ret) is a U.S. Infantry and Special Forces officer who served in and observed a number of insurgencies and counterinsurgencies around the world. He has taught COIN theory and practice within the US Army’s  educational system for a number of years.         



Wed, 11/14/2012 - 2:34pm

An excellent article! While Gen Pershing was able to understand motivations and culture he also had something else: Iron will. While he could and did understand tribal politics, when the time came to show that the US would do what it needed to be done, he did it. No political correctness, worrying about his next job etc.


Fri, 09/28/2012 - 11:01pm

Interesting article and generally accurate. A couple of minor issues...

As a general rule I hesitate to classify the early Philippine conflict especially in Mindanao, as "counterinsurgency", because the antagonists were not "insurgents", in the sense that they were not fighting a duly constituted government. There was no duly constituted government in Mindanao at the time, at least in the sense of government recognized as a government by the governed. The issue was less one of fighting insurgents than one of conquest.

One item not mentioned in the article is that the Mindanao datus were not only in near continuous conflict with outsiders who wanted to govern them, they were also constantly fighting each other. Datus that cooperated with the US did so primarily to gain advantage against rival datus. Pershing would of course have known about this and exploited it, convincing potential allies that they could work with the US and retain their traditional prerogatives while gaining ascendancy over recalcitrant neighbors.

In general I'm wary of attempts to draw specific lessons from the conflicts of that day, as the times have changed and all too often the lessons suggested are derived less from history than from the preconceptions of those who interpret the history, but the conclusions drawn here about the role of leadership seem reasonable.

Someday I'd like to see someone with access to US archives write on the career of one Walter Hale, the first American governor of Kalinga, one of the more intractable and remote tribal areas to come under US administration. The record at this end is spotty and incomplete, but indicates a truly fascinating story.


Fri, 09/28/2012 - 6:40pm

In reply to by JasonT

There were a number of exceptional officers in that Army in addition to Pershing, Scott being one. Plus Pershing had commanders who would distort the command setup to put him in charge. It was different Army, one that I think was much more adaptable than that of today.

One of the things they had was an older officer corps also. Pershing was born in 1860 and Scott was in his 50s. That makes a difference in a man's outlook. Sometimes older does tend to make wiser.

Another thing about the forces on Mindanao at that time, they were subject to a lot of provocations and they maintained discipline fairly well in spite of them.

Something else to be learned from those days is the difference in how things go depending on if you had a hard-charger like Wood in charge or a wiser man like Scott in charge.

There may not be much new to be learned from those days, but then there isn't much that is truly new when it comes to groups of men fighting one another. There is a tremendous amount that can be learned from those campaigns in the Philippines though which is why I am so glad to see this paper.

An excellent paper and case study on counterinsurgency from an era very rarely turned to by the modern COIN academic writers.

However, what is evident is the success of this endevour came down to one man. Like Afghanistan, the approach has been a patchwork of success. A franchise of pragmatism and trial and error, requiring an unprecendented amount of patience. Yet largely depdent on the courageous and obstinate determination of the commander in the field and his team.

"Being able to work within the culture of a society often means living the values of the society." This is a crucial line for me because so many operators, particularly on the civilian side, whether in a conflict environment or in attempting to implement a stability operation for private investment, fail to understand this. The missionary approach continues and fails to generate the "demand" from the population, as opposed to the shallow support, mistaken by some, for solid and rusted on commitment.

However, it there anything new in this that can help us improve our approach for current and future conflicts?


Fri, 09/28/2012 - 6:48pm

In reply to by Rick

You are right about the big boss being far away and unable to bug the guy on the spot. That is (I think) one of the things that Linn in his books says was a big reason for the success we had in the islands. Perhaps all this super ability to commo is doing us more harm than good.

Perhaps also the willingness to adapt was partly the result of those guys knowing they were going to be there for years, not months. They knew they had to live with what they did.

“Pershing did have the advantage that his superior, Brigadier General George Davis, military governor of the Mindanao Province, had complete confidence in Pershing’s ability to further U.S. interests in area, was distant from Pershing’s area of authority, and had more pressing issues.”

Is the foregoing an inference that Captain Pershing's success in the northern region was not just his competence, patience, and cultural awareness, but that he was far away from headquarters where his boss had other distractions that permitted Pershing to pursue his own design, as opposed to command push?

Additionally, as the article related, when Pershing was sent to the southern region, he found a differant set of circumstances, and recognized he would have to address the situation a bit differantly . . . Smart man; I wonder how he would fare were he serving today?

Thank you for the enjoyable article!

Dave Maxwell

Wed, 09/26/2012 - 6:45am

We cannot study history enough (whether one agrees with it or likes it or not)! Thanks for this.