I wanted to talk briefly here about something I found today on CNN. It is a blog written by a man named John Blake on a discussion that has been taking place between modern military historians for a number of years now (http://afghanistan.blogs.cnn.com/2010/01/07/past-war-offers-afghanistan-lessons-and-its-not-vietnam/). You know how ever since the war in Afghanistan began, people have always tossed around the notion that the entire endeavor was reminiscent of Vietnam? Well apparently, while that may be true, the prevailing traits of that war (i.e. guerilla warfare, long-term presence and extensive casualties, etc.) are actually grounded in a war much older than Vietnam. The Philippine-American War (1899-1902) is what many historians have pointed to as the first conflict to which the contemporary action in Afghanistan can draw its parallels.
Here’s a little background for those of you unfamiliar with how this war came to be: The war in the Philippines was a direct result of the Spanish-American War, which the U.S. had won the year before. As part of the agreement reached between the two countries, Spain ceded the island nation to America. However, this came with one tiny problem: the Filipinos had previously begun fighting for their independence from Spain and were not willing to simply become a possession of the United States. And in the true imperialist fashion of the late nineteenth century, the American government illustrated how it felt about the Philippines’ independence ambitions by sending roughly 30,000 troops to their shores.
What ensued was a bloody conflict that spanned the next three years, officially, and ultimately led to a forty-six year occupation of the country. Here’s the curious thing about this whole argument: the United States is believed to have won the Philippine war, and to have done so inside of five years. Now this statement is debatable given that a troop presence was necessary far the following four and a half decades to maintain order, but nevertheless, it is cited as a victory. Why was it so? The historians quoted in Blake’s blog simply state that it came down to brutality. The Filipino rebels, like their Vietcong and Taliban counterparts, utilized guerilla tactics such as run-and-gun attacks and then blending in with the local populations to attempt to discourage the Americans. However, the U.S. military, fresh from a similar offensive against Native American Indians, simplified their troubles by merely killing everyone, civilians and combatants alike. Obviously, this could not occur, nor should it, in the modern day, but it’s interesting that the debate over “doing what is necessary” had reared its head in this war over a century ago as it has in the last decade in Afghanistan. Another interesting parallel was in the unpopularity of the Philippine war, as Blake cites that contemporary voices like those of Mark Twain and Andrew Carnegie spoke out against the blatant imperialism of the conflict. Not that this chapter in American History offers much of value for finding a way to bring the War in Afghanistan to a positive conclusion, and I wouldn’t even begin to try to use this example for such an end. But I personally find it interesting when the past mirrors the present so clearly. At the very least, the comparison between the two wars wasn’t something I had considered before.