A distant country mostly unknown to Americans. The United States is at war. The military takes the capital city and captures the foreign leader. The president announces “mission accomplished.” Rebels raid American strongholds and supply lines. The indigenous Muslim population, hardly loyal to the fallen leader, resents American occupation. Despite inferior firepower, the insurgents don’t surrender. A guerrilla war sets in.

Meanwhile, anti-imperialists chastise the American press for keeping quiet on the war’s immorality. They accuse the government of stealing natural resources. Soldiers torture captives. Locals want Americans out. Terrorism grips the region. The world watches America on the hot seat.

Sound familiar? Nope, it’s not Iraq; not even the Middle East. All this happened a century ago in the Philippines.

Tim Marr, assistant professor of American studies, was conducting research for his forthcoming book when he came across century-old accounts of American encounters with the Moros, a diverse group of indigenous Muslims in the southern Philippine Islands. The Moros fought Spanish colonizers for three hundred years before the Americans took the Philippines at the turn of the twentieth century. Quarreling with the Moros, it turns out, was like stepping on a beehive. The United States, with little colonizing experience, didn’t know how to react. The resulting ten-year occupation, according to Marr, is eerily similar to current events in Iraq.

“This was really the first time Muslims were absorbed into American national territory,” Marr says. “All of a sudden there were these Muslims who were difficult for Americans to understand.”

So the United States created a military bureaucracy with little regard for Moro political aspirations, culture, religion, or history. But the government could not fully control the Moros. Thousands died, and American involvement had political consequences still evident one hundred years later.

Marr says he wants to peel away the reasons why the Moro situation, like the one in Iraq, got so messy. The Moro wars were more than military conflicts, Marr says. They were cultural conflicts with implications few people have addressed. More than anything, Marr wants to hear from the Moros themselves, which very few Americans have done.

Click to read photo caption. Image courtesy of george@arco-iris.com.

“I’d love to get access to Moro culture but I can’t right now,” Marr says. “It’s basically a war zone where I’d like to go.”

Still a war zone after four hundred years. And still, the United States is in the thick of it.

It all started in 1898 when the United States won the Spanish-American War and claimed the Philippines. Filipino leader Emilio Aguinaldo, who was supported by many Filipinos, declared independence in 1899. The United States declared war—the Philippine-American War. Aguinaldo chose guerrilla warfare due to superior American firepower. After he was captured in March of 1901, the Americans quickly pacified the northern islands and organized a Filipino civilian government more in tune with American definitions of democratic principles.

According to historical accounts, American soldiers killed at least 250,000 Filipinos in three years, most of them civilians. Soldiers tortured and either hanged or bayoneted to death civilians under suspicion of supporting the rebellion. According to historians of this era, soldiers commonly raped Filipino women and girls. The military burned down entire villages and sent thousands of Filipinos to concentration camps. Of the 120,000 American soldiers sent to the Philippines between 1899 and 1902, over 4,200 died—ten times the Spanish-American War death toll.

Mission accomplished

Incredibly, Marr says, most historical accounts of the Philippine-American War end with Aguinaldo’s capture. President Theodore Roosevelt declared the official end to the insurrection on July 4, 1902. True, the insurrection was quelled in the north. The Moros, though, live in the south.

At first, Americans and Moros were not at odds. The Moros remained neutral during the Philippine-American War, after which they did not attack Americans. U.S. military advisors and Moros posed together for photographs, and the U.S. government initially agreed to steer clear of Moro business as stipulated in the Bates Treaty of 1899.

The treaty, though, was set aside in 1904. Instead, the United States created the Moro Province and used the military to control it.

The Moros resisted American occupation for ten more years, which saw some of the most brutal U.S. military victories of that era. Two such encounters are now better known by historians as massacres or slaughters. The first came in 1906 when American soldiers killed nine hundred Moro men, women, and children trapped in the crater of an extinct volcano called Bud Dajo. The second happened in 1913 when Moros opposing General John Pershing’s disarmament order took refuge in another volcanic crater called Bud Bagsak. Americans killed over five hundred Moro men, women, and children. Fourteen Americans died.

President Roosevelt wrote to commanding officer General Leonard Wood after Bud Dajo: “I congratulate you and the officers and men of your command upon the brilliant feat of arms, wherein you and they so well upheld the honor of the American flag.”

Marr says these encounters weren’t really battles. He found that the craters were actually traditional gathering places where Moro men, women, and children would assemble when threatened. “This assembling was perceived by the Americans as a challenge,” Marr says. American policy was to kill or capture anyone who opposed U.S. control. “But in these massacres, the killing predominated over the capturing.”

Mark Twain and other anti-imperialists lambasted not only Roosevelt but silent editorial writers and men in the field. In his personal journals, Twain called American soldiers “Christian butchers” and “uniformed assassins,” two descriptions most anti-imperialists refused to use. Throughout the decade, American soldiers killed over fifteen thousand Moros armed mostly with knives and swords, if at all.

Few Americans learned about the Moros in school, but Marr believes it’s time for some homework.

“There are two lessons,” he says. “There needed to be clear understandings of the implications of bringing these people, who had never accepted Spanish rule, under U.S. control. And second, if you are going to get deeply involved in other people’s territories, you’d better understand their cultures.”

American amnesia

Ironically, the Philippine-American War was called “the forgotten war” until the Korean War usurped the title. The Moro-American War, meanwhile, is buried even deeper in what Marr calls “American historical amnesia.”

Marr doubts the Moros have forgotten. Military records show that Moro women and children sometimes watched conflicts from a distance. In 2002, Filipino filmmakers Sari Lluch Dalena and Camilla Benolirao Griggers codirected a documentary on the Moros called Memories of a Forgotten War.

“If I could write my own passport, I would be standing on the lip of that volcano on the one hundredth anniversary,” Marr says. “Because my deepest desire is to understand what effect this massacre had on the people themselves.”

Twain and other anti-imperialists believed that the United States could have avoided war, just as today’s antiwar protesters believe the Iraq War was avoidable. According to Marr, three of five American peace-treaty negotiators did not want to acquire the southern islands after the Spanish-American War. Marr says, “This was one moment when something could’ve been done differently: asking, ‘Was this territory really something we should incorporate? Was the south really part of the Philippine national body politic?’ Because that’s still the Moro problem today.”

The government did not heed the recommendation. The United States had its eye on the plantations of Mindanao, the second-largest and best agricultural setting of the seven thousand Philippine islands. “Economic development was not a motivating factor for taking Mindanao,” Marr says. “But there were visions of what could happen there if that island became a tropical American space where people could relocate and make money.”

Such hopes were dashed due to Moro warriors, who gained a legendary reputation among soldiers for bravery.

According to Marr, “Moros struck terror in the American military partly because of sabil, a practice in which the Muslim would take an oath, shave his body hair, bind his body tightly to staunch bleeding, and then attack American soldiers with swords before giving up his life. It is from this—the contemporary form of suicide bombings—that the idiom ‘to run amok’ entered the English language.” Amok is a Malay word meaning “out of control.”

Marr added that Moro jihadis killed soldiers even after soldiers had shot them several times. This led the U.S. Army to adopt the more powerful .45 caliber revolver as standard issue. Despite Moro resistance, swords were no match for artillery. The United States was winning, and soldiers summed up American foreign policy with the punchy mantra, “Underneath a starry flag, civilize ’em with a Krag.” The reference was to the Krag-Jorgensen rapid-fire rifle, the likes of which the Moros had never seen until the war.

Due to this military difference and the Moros’ darker skin color, soldiers lumped in their enemy with Native Americans. Soldiers called Moros “the Apaches of the Philippines” and said, “The only good Moro is a dead Moro.”

“The easiest thing to do was to fit the Moros into existing racial categories of how Americans understood race,” Marr says. “But that was inadequate.”

Popular culture was infiltrated with caricatures of Moros. George Ade’s popular 1903 operetta, The Sultan of Sulu, featured a Moro leader in what Marr calls “opulent orientalist clownface.”

The operetta features soldiers singing verses:

We want to assimilate if we can
the brother who is brown
We love our dusky fellow man
and we hate to hunt him down
So when we perforate his frame
we want him to be good
We shoot at him to make him tame if he but understood.

Marr says that many Moros resented being controlled by “a small population of transient Christian Americans.”

The United States implemented taxes and a civil court system, both of which bypassed Moro traditions. Soldiers raided Moro forts. Many Moros, feeling threatened, attacked. This further agitated the conflict, which eventually led to General John Pershing’s disarmament campaign. Some Moros resisted that, too, which led to the second massacre.

The Americans handed over the Moro province to Filipino civilian control in 1914, but the Moros continued striving for autonomy and independence throughout the twentieth century. Catholic Filipinos from the north, though, migrated to the south, claiming land. They gained political control, and this still adds fuel to the fire today, Marr says.

Marr adds, “It’s fascinating to consider how to create a nation that federates ethnic differences in a way that the nation can hold together.”

The same problem exists in Iraq, Marr says. British and American troops are trying to maintain order in traditionally distinct regions with various political, cultural, and religious desires.

“The Philippines have been able to hold on to the southern territory and resist the separatist movement by giving them more autonomous control,” Marr says.

The United States returns

American foreign-policy makers, according to Marr, currently think that the southern Philippine Islands are the new post-Afghanistan training grounds for Islamist terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah. After 9/11, the United States deployed one thousand military officers to advise and train Filipino armed forces to help defeat another threat, Abu Sayyaf, labeled a terrorist organization after it kidnapped tourists and Christian missionaries. The United States also considered sending three thousand troops, but did not because the Philippine constitution does not allow foreign troops to engage in combat there. The United States was also busy in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, the Philippine government is still dealing with the Moros. Marr says the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is the latest group trying to unite Muslim areas into a homeland called Bangsamoro.

According to Marr, the MILF signed a cease-fire with the Philippine government in 2004 and is presently negotiating a new political agreement. This includes a renewed push against Abu Sayyaf and its leader Khaddafy Janjalani, who has a five-million-dollar bounty on his head thanks to the United States. The MILF is supporting the Filipino Army in a new offensive against terrorists that began in the summer of 2005. Meanwhile, the United States is providing intelligence and communication support and has sent military advisors and former soldiers under contract with the Pentagon to support Filipino efforts. The MILF, though, opposes any U.S. military involvement.

Of course, not all Moros are in the MILF. Moros, like Muslims in general, don’t toe a company line. And many of them are interested in working together, Marr says.

History might not repeat itself in the Philippines. Moros might not be massacred in volcanic craters in 2006. But Southeast Asia, not the Middle East, is home to most of the world’s Muslims. This, along with collective forgetfulness, creates a recipe for renewed conflicts.

“The fact that Moro history is not known is the real Moro problem—the amnesia that we have about the United States dealing with the Islamic world,” Marr says. “This knowledge is crucial if we want to engage with Muslims in a mutually beneficial way.”

Timothy Marr researched the Moro problem this past summer with assistance from a Spray-Randleigh Fellowship. He has presented his research on the subject at American studies conferences in Ottawa, Canada; Auckland, New Zealand; and Hartford, Connecticut. He plans to continue his investigation this spring with a trip to the Army War College archives in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and hopes to travel to the Philippines as soon as the southern islands are removed from the U.S. State Department’s restricted-travel list. His book, The Cultural Roots of American Islamicism, is due in July 2006 from Cambridge University Press.