September 2, 2011

The Moro War: How America Battled A Muslim Insurgency in the Philippine Jungle, 1902-1913

In The Moro War, James R. Arnold, author of Jungle of Snakes: A Century of Counterinsurgency Warfare from the Philippines to Iraq, tells of a little-known war that the U.S. fought for more than a decade. The Moro province of the Philippines was a group of southern islands nominally under Spanish rule for 300 years, but de facto power was wielded by tribal Muslim datus.

The Spanish never understood the internecine warfare being waged by the tribes, and so the Americans didn't realize how complex the situation was when they acquired the Philippines after the Spanish-American War. Their initial attempts at diplomacy failed miserably when they mistakenly used a datu hated by other tribes as their emissary, creating distrust against the Christian intruders. So the Americans went to war, fighting several brutal battles against the fierce Lake Moros of the interior. Stark b&W photographs of these battles, amazing for the era, are included in the book.

Initially the Americans seemed to be winning, and in May 1903, Captain John J. "Jack" Pershing was sent home after "conquering" Moroland. The Moros began to rebel again, however, and the Americans disagreed among themselves about the best way to handle the province, creating further confusion. Thus began nearly a decade of insurgency.

Arnold repeatedly mentions the Muslim beliefs of the Moros, rather heavy-handedly reinforcing the similarities between U.S. military action now and then, but in fact the story of this relatively unknown epoch in American history has long echoes.

I have to admit that I had never heard of the Moros, or much detail about U.S. involvement in the Philippines before I read this book. Have you read any other good books on the Philippines? Let me know in the comments!

(This review originally appeared in the August 2, 2011 Reader's Issue from Shelf Awareness)
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