Small Wars Journal

Book Review: American Datu: John J. Pershing and Counterinsurgency Warfare in the Muslim Philippines, 1899-1913.

Fri, 04/22/2022 - 8:48am

Book Review: American Datu: John J. Pershing and Counterinsurgency Warfare in the Muslim Philippines, 1899-1913. By Ronald K. Edgerton

Reviewed by Martin Comack

American Datu: John J. Pershing and Counterinsurgency Warfare in the Muslim Philippines, 1899-1913. By Ronald K. Edgerton. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2020. IBSN 978-0-8131-7893-6. Photographs. Maps. Notes. Glossary. Bibliography. Index. Pp.vii, 376. $60.

    Considerations of early counterinsurgency efforts by the American military usually   focus upon the many interventions of the U.S. Marines in Central America and the Caribbean through the 1920s.  Somewhat less attention has been given to the U.S. Army’s mission of suppression of the insurgency that followed acquisition of the Philippine Islands after the Spanish American War.

   When the United States refused to grant immediate independence following Spain’s defeat, Filipinos who had rebelled against Spanish rule continued their nationalist struggle against the American occupation of their country.  This conflict took the form of a guerrilla/ counterguerrilla campaign marked by atrocities on both sides, eventually leading to the court martial of an American general. Increasingly unpopular with the American public as the struggle went on, the Army’s efforts in the Philippines did not end with the surrender of the nationalist commander Emilio Aguinaldo. There remained the Muslim rebels - the Moros - who had long defied governance by Spaniard and Filipino alike. A minority in an overwhelmingly Catholic country, the Moros considered their Islamic religion and their autonomy to be under constant threat by Christian infidels.

   Pershing arrived in the Philippines a veteran of the last days of the Indian Wars and of the Cuban campaign in the War with Spain. He had commanded the Oglala Sioux Scouts on the Western frontier and the African-American Tenth Cavalry, the “Buffalo Soldiers”, at Las Guasimas and San Juan Hill. Pershing prided himself on treating all his troops with “fairness and due consideration” including those “other than my own race and color” (13).

   He also had definite ideas concerning reform of the Army - both in administration, military education, and tactics - particularly following the incompetence and inefficiency of the War Department that he observed during the conflict with Spain. His ideas coincided with those of President Theodore Roosevelt, and in his two tours of duty between 1899 and 1913 he practiced what the author terms “Progressive counterinsurgency” (5). This was in distinction to the cruder tactics employed by previous American commanders.

   Inhabiting the island of Mindanao, the Moros governed themselves through local sultans and subchieftains (datus). Resistant to outside authority, they nevertheless often engaged in clan warfare - such rivalries useful for a divide and rule policy. Though he suppressed open rebellion and banditry with appropriate military force, Pershing believed in indirect rule so far as it was possible. As both a military and civil authority he cultivated various sultans and datus who, he said, would be permitted to “govern their people in their own way” but with these chiefs “held personally responsible for any infringements of the rights of others” (23).

   This non-interference in and respect for local social mores included a reluctant toleration of slavery and polygamy on the part of the American occupiers. But progressive pacification also allowed for the establishment of schools, infrastructural development, health care and the encouragement of commerce and trade. Local civil and criminal courts were set up aligned with customary Moro law.  As the military, and de facto civil authority, Pershing’s even-handed policies won a general acceptance of American rule, and even personal affection from some of the Moro leadership.

   Edgerton makes an interesting comparison between Pershing’s early efforts at pacification in the Philippines and the principles outlined in the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual (COIN), that first appeared in 2006. Both Pershing’s pacification policies and the COIN document regard the establishment of physical security for the civilian population as the necessary prerequisite for the success of any counterinsurgency effort, with military operations giving way to the preservation of law and order by indigenous forces and the creation of legitimate and effective institutions of local governance. Such development then allows for the creation/ revival of a functioning civil society in all its aspects, social and economic.

    Where Pershing’s “progressive counterinsurgency” differs from the principles later outlined in COIN was his reluctance to involve the Army directly in any “nation-building” initiatives. He rejected any political role for the military and considered his primary mission to have been one of ensuring security and stability for the local populace. Anything beyond that had to be the task of a civil authority.

   Citing Pershing’s example, and considering America’s recent experience in the Middle East, the author argues that “perhaps the time has come for the military to acknowledge its limitations in terms of social action” (265). Pershing’s efforts in the Philippines, Edgerton insists, stands as “arguably the most successful example of American counterinsurgency warfare in history” (258).


About the Author(s)

Martin Comack, PhD was born in New York and now resides in the Boston area. He has been employed in a variety of jobs since high school: blue collar, white collar and academic. Served in Army reserve unit 16th Special Forces Group (NYNG) and in the U.S. Merchant Marine. Degrees from CUNY, Harvard, UMass Amherst and Northeastern, in history, social psychology, labor studies and political science respectively.  He has attended seminars on labor studies in Moscow and Mexico. He as authored two books on international labor. He is an adjunct lecturer on political science, government and history in various local universities and colleges. He has written on these topics for several publications.


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