Over at Small Wars Journal, there’s a new article by Bill Putnam on the forgotten lessons of the Philippines war. It is one of the growing genre of “forgotten COIN lessons” articles, which I think will multiply once 2014 rolls around and pundits everywhere start writing final score cards on American efforts in Afghanistan. The premise is relatively simple: when writing American counter insurgency doctrine, FM 3-24, the authors paid too much attention to some conflicts, and not enough to others. To his credit, Putnam doesn’t treat the lessons that could be drawn from the conflict as a silver bullet, noting that:
The Philippines campaign demonstrated there is no magical formula for conducting a counterinsurgency. It did, however, show the need for a mixed stick/carrot approach while highlighting that military solutions cannot be relegated to secondary measures. The insurgent shadow infrastructure must be uprooted and its influence over the population diminished before carrot approaches can make a significant impact.
He does, however, reel off some in closing the article:
The key tactical lessons learned during the conflict remain as relevant in today’s fights as they were in 1902: the importance of small-unit leadership; the need for small-unit operations and mobility; the importance for local troops; the need for an effective intelligence apparatus; and the significance of degrading the insurgent shadow government infrastructure.
My problem with the article is that it, like many others, tends to focus on the lessons most amenable to use by a 21st Century military leader, while perhaps glossing over the flipside a little. Putnam notes that the reasons Miguel Malvar gave for his surrender were:
“reconcentration, the complete cleaning up of food supplies outside the towns, persecution of the insurgent soldiers by the people, the search for myself by the people, and the demoralization of my troops.”
Nothing too untowards perhaps. But let’s consider what this would mean in a contemporary context. The least worrying ‘stick’ listed is the fact that “If someone supported the rebels, that person could lose his crops, land, and ultimately be jailed.” One might think that the total obliteration of person’s livelihood, unilateral negation of their property rights and deprivation of liberty to be the harsh end of the spectrum of sanctions, but it isn’t. As Putnam notes, the ‘successful officers’ “used policies such as crop burning, food rationing, and concentration to isolate the population from the insurgents.” Here I find myself slightly bemused regarding the utility of lessons from the Philippines. If anything, a considerable body of public opinion in America at the time of the war considered that these policies resulted in war crimes, hence the 1902 Lodge Committee investigations and report. We must therefore question whether any of this is of any use at all. No military commander adhering to even extremely unilateral interpretations of the law of war could defend such practises in the contemporary world. We can see mirrors of this in the “Sri Lanka example” where people search for lessons from a COIN campaign that ‘worked’ via the widespread use of war crimes. There is, therefore, a confirmation bias at work – I’m unaware of substantial research into ‘best practise’ for the application of war crimes in COIN (which I think would actually produce some uncomfortable and unpleasant results) while there are a substantial number of articles that seek to derive positive lessons divorced from such context.
What I think is most problematic about activities such as mining past wars for “lessons learned” is that it is often a search for concepts, tactics and strategy that mirrors that which is considered legitimate by us in the present, while ignoring those which are wholly unpalatable. Wars such as the Philippines can be used to support emphasis on small unit tactics, but the flip side of the coin shouldn’t be glossed over. If successful COIN requires “degrading insurgent infrastructure” via the use of methods that would nowadays clearly constitute war crimes (the Philippines war broke rules extant at the time, but predated the second Hague convention, and the Geneva conventions) then we should question its overall utility as an example to follow, rather than trying to de-contextualise examples of practise to conform with our contemporary ideas of what is ‘okay’ in war.