Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Book Review of "The Moro War"

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

AUTHOR: James R. Arnold

PUBLISHER: Bloomsbury Press

320 pages


The preceding state of affairs in the US-Philippine historical narrative prior to the Philippine Commonwealth’s incarnation and the Japanese invasion in World War Two contradicts the popularized view of an amiable, bilateral, and mutually-respectful landscape of relations shared by both sides. But James R. Arnold does a big favor for those of us who want to set the historical record right. Arnold’s book, “The Moro War: How America Battled a Muslim Insurgency in the Philippine Jungle, 1902-1913,” turns our attention to a historically-nullified war, nullified that is by relentlessly one-dimensional historical studies.

That war was the Philippine-American War of colonization (1899-1902). Out of the aftermath of that war arose a more localized but intense conflict between the American colonizers and the Muslim or “Moro” rebels in the southern Philippines. The so-called Moro War persevered for 11 years from 1902 to 1913. It would be the first time that the United States fought against Muslim combatants.

The Moro War against the US in the Philippines has its share of analogies to the American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Aside from being an acerbic struggle, the Moro war, like the two wars of attrition in Iraq and Afghanistan that have unhinged American resolve, drew the attention of both opponents and proponents in the United States. In the US at the turn of the century, there was a concentrated stream of anti-imperialist disapprobation of the use of force to suppress the Moros. That was counterbalanced by those Americans who favored an approach that was underpinned by a more barbed demonstration of power.

Sometimes postcolonial historians are too busy pushing for critical arguments about what foreign rule meant to the colonized peoples. This can be patently unfair for this side can be intolerant of the benefits that are provided by the colonizers. This is not to say that the Spanish and American colonizers were not yoked to gross presumptions of racial superiority and credibility. But it occurs to Arnold that the Americans were more benign colonizers as compared to the abusive and ideologically-driven Spanish.

A point in fact is that the Americans had no intentions of forcing the Moros to turn into Islamic apostates and become Christians. The United States, as Arnold and other colonial apologists in their glass-half-full perspective of foreign rule like to interpret, was not out to conquer the Morolands (which comprised the large island of Mindanao, the Sulu Archipelago, and other nearby territories) so much as it was to construct in them. Construct in full effect a civilization that was vividly drawn as one that would correspond to the larger Christian society in the Philippines.

However, by attempting to append the Moros to the wider Christian society, the Americans would leap from the frying pan of Moro suspicion and enmity into the fire of a Muslim insurgency. When it came to introducing a Western style of government and society to the Moros, the Americans failed to reconcile these goals with Islamic holy scripture. This helped to convince the Moros that the colonizers were out to snooker them out of their religion and thus, out of their traditional way of life. Pushed outside of their socio-religious and cultural comfort zones, the Moros responded with aggression.

Thinking that they could deal a quick, crushing blow to the Moro fighters, the US military learned an object lesson in battling a technologically-weaker but self-reflexively determined adversary that could not be dissuaded or intimidated from defending its land and traditions against a foreign incursion. Hence, the Americans, as well as the Moros themselves, suffered severe casualties during their conflict.

James R. Arnold deserves congratulations for recounting the story of America’s war with the Moros, for it is a war that barely registers in the American and even Filipino historical consciousnesses. Yet, it is an obscure war that bears in more than one way a cautionary resemblance to America’s military struggles in Iraq and in Afghanistan.


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