Skip to comments.Fighting Islam's Fierce Moro Warriors - America s first war with suicidal Islamic warriors
Posted on 03/27/2002 10:27:09 AM PST by mutchdutch
Americas first jungle war remains largely unknown, except in the Philippines where it began in 1900. Even those rare Americans who have heard of the U.S. jungle war against the Moros often connect it erroneously with the Philippine Insurrection. But with world attention now riveted upon Islamic jihad, we can expect to learn more about the volatile Islamic Moros, especially since they openly supported Afghanistans Taliban government and are an ongoing problem for the Philippine government.
Mutual revulsion between the Islamic Moros of the southern Philippines and the Western world goes back a long way. For more than two centuries before their defeat by U.S. forces at the end of the 1800s, Spain attempted unsuccessfully to subjugate the diminutive but fanatical Muslim Moros, who average slightly over 5 feet in height. Spanish soldiers had been captured by the Moros, dragged into the jungle and tortured for hours on end, finally dying in utter agony over a slow fire after being emasculated. Add to that the Moro practices of polygamy, slavery and rape of infidels, and it is easy to see why the American forces in 1898 saw Moros as horror and depravity incarnate.
Called Moros by the Spanish because they reminded Europeans of Muslim, Moroccan Moors, the Moro tribes occupiedand still occupyMindanao, the second largest Philippine island, which is about the size of Indiana. An irregularly shaped, bay-indented splotch of land, Mindanao is a tropical mix of jungle, small mountains and valleys, with Lake Lanao located in the north central area.
The Moros grew rice, corn, pineapples and coffee, engaged in logging and also mined coal, iron, gold and zinc in small quantities. They were likewise accomplished seafarers, to whom piracy and slavery seemed natural rights, and their small, speedy ships were remarkably elusive. Ruled by local datus whose arbitrary decisions were law, Moro tribes were rivals who often engaged in internecine warfare. The Spaniards had never been able to pacify, much less govern, those keen warriors, not even on the much smaller islands of the Sulu Archipelago that stretches from Zamboanga in a southwesterly direction to Borneo, and includes the major islets of Basilan, Jolo and Tawitawi.
At the end of the 19th century, the Moros numbered about 265,000 while their Christian neighbors on Mindanao counted only 65,000. Each group had a very low opinion of the other. Spaniards and Filipino Christians saw the Moros as cruel, cunning and treacherous raiders and slavers, whereas the Moros viewed the Christians primarily as land-thieves, bullies and cowards, who were changing their way of life, one they had held for centuries before the arrival of the Spaniards. Right or wrong, and knowing the Spaniards somewhat better than they knew the Moros, the Americans adopted the Spaniards point of view. The Moros believed that the newcomers merely supplanted one group of enemies with another. The sultan of Sulu asked: Why did you come here? For land? You have plenty at home. For money? You are rich; I am poor. Why are you here?
The Moros were proving to be reluctant new Americans indeed. President William McKinley thought he had explained the American position in the Philippines to the whole world when he declared, The Philippines are not ours to exploit, but to develop, civilize, educate and train for self-government. And to that cause the Americans in Mindanao, meaning to preserve the Moro way of life, intended to suppress piracy, eliminate the slave trade, prevent intertribal war and bring the natives into the modern world. But piracy, slavery and fighting were as much a part of the Moro way of life as was Islam. Thus, when the Americans began to blaze trails, take a census, impose a head tax and customs duties, and set up schools and the like, the Moros saw those well-meant but abrupt changes as threatening to their religion and their social fabric. The invaders never interfered with Islamic customs. Yet as they installed telegraph lines and introduced health programs and medicine, the Moros reacted with increased fear that their children would learn English and subtly become Christianized.
The Americans first encountered the Moros when 800 U.S. Marines landed on the small island of Jolo in May 1899. Another force quietly moved into Zamboanga in November, and by April 1900, Americans occupied the coastal towns of Cotabato and Davao in the south, Cagayan, Iligan and Misamis in the north, and Dapitan in the northwest. Those intrusions, though bloodless, nevertheless alarmed and irritated the Moros, if only because the Americans appeared to be stronger and far better organized than their Spanish predecessors. And so separate bands from the Maranaos tribe of Moros suddenly pounced on three different American camps in the north, only to be sharply repelled by the alert Americans. At Cagayan, the Moros loss was 50 killed compared to only four Americans; at Agusan it was 38 to none and at Misamis 57 to seven. The sultan of Sulu warned against further attacks on the newcomers. Americans, he said, were like a match box. If you strike one they all go off!
Until the spring of 1902, the Americans were not seriously involved except by the sudden, frightening attacks of individual amoks and juramentado. An amok was a Moro who, for a variety of personal reasons, went berserk and tried to kill as many of the enemy as possible before meeting his own, expected death. Juramentados were perhaps even deadlier, since they were religiously motivated, swore a formal oath before the proper Muslim authority to attack anybody considered to be a foe of Islam, and always struck when and where least expected. Although certain of their own extinction, those fanatics were secure in their belief that they would be whisked to the Muslim paradise for their valorous self-sacrifice, where, among other glories, they would be serviced by 16 virgins. Both amoks and juramentados attacked with the Malay kris, a wavy-edged sword, in length halfway between a long dagger and a saber and easily disguised under their clothes. In addition, they were deadly with a blowgun and poison darts, and were quite good with their muzzleloading rifles. Thus the Americans never knew when or wherefrom a jungle ambush, a quiet street, in a marketplacethose zealots would strike. When they did, however, such were their frenzied charges that they usually scored devastatingly, since nearly all of them found at least one target on their way to glorious death. A juramentado at Zamboango, though hit in seven different places by revolver shots, nevertheless reached an American officer and sliced off one of his legs.
Into that slowly boiling pot, in the spring of 1902, the U.S. military command sent 40-year-old Captain John Pershing, a West Point veteran of Indian fighting in the United States. He believed that the Moros were savages who respected nothing but force. At the beginning of May his troopers built a base on elevated land that contained an excellent spring less than a mile from the village of Bayan at the southern end of Lake LanaoCamp Vicars. But the Maranaos took to sniping and cutting telegraph wires, so Pershing attacked Bayan on May 3. Every Moro settlement of any size was defended by a cota, a fort made of bamboo and mud 75 to 100 feet square, with walls 12 to 21 inches thick. Cotas were usually surrounded by trenches 5 to 30 feet deep, in front of which the Moros often planted loosely covered sharpened stakes to further inhibit attackers. Cotas were also defended by lantakas, small, artistically made brass cannons.
At Bayan, the Americans set the pattern for all ensuing clashes with the Morosa light artillery bombardment, which was typically both deadly and decisive, followed by a charge through what was left of the enemies defenses. The results were predictable: The Americans won overwhelmingly on every occasion. They were armed with breechloading, bolt-action Krag-Jorgensen rifles, and the troopers joked coarsely that the way to handle the Moros was to civilize em with the Krag. In the fighting at Bayan, Pershings men overran three strong cotas, killing more than two-thirds of their 600 defenders while losing a mere 10 soldiers killed and 41 wounded.
The Americans never ceased to wonder why the Moros did not take to the dense jungle where, with their amoks and juramentados, they could strike far more effectively from ambush. For their part, the Moros could not understand why the Americans did not destroy every cota in the area. On the contrary, Pershing ordered his men to mix with the locals in a sincere attempt to establish friendly relations. He played chess with Moro leaders and invited 700 Maranaos to the Fourth of July festivities at Camp Vicars. But even before that, the captain realized he was up against a largely intransigent population.
On what was meant to be a friendly exploratory expedition up the west side of Lake Lanao in April 1903, the Americans were harassed near Bacolod. They had no recourse but to attack the cota there, with the usual one-sided results120 Maranaos killed for the loss of only one American. The same thing happened the next month, when Pershing probed the jungle on the eastern side of the lake. The Americans bombed 50 small cotas, killing more than 200 Moros while suffering but two casualties.
At that point, then-President Theodore Roosevelt was so impressed with Pershing that, to the dismay of more than 800 senior officers, he promoted him to the rank of brigadier general and brought him home.
Pershings successor was Maj. Gen. Leonard Wood, a Harvard graduate and a surgeon who had distinguished himself as one of Roosevelts famed Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War, and had afterward served as governor general of Cuba. In August 1903, as the commanding officer of the Philippines Mindanao Department, Wood at once proved himself to be as aggressive as Pershing. Wood thought the Moros were an excessively brave but depraved race of pirates, bandits and outlaws. They were stupid fighters, utterly unable to stand up in the open....Their strong point was attempted ambush though brave, they die foolishly....They should attack at night en masse where their dexterity with swords and spears would count most. The only way to handle Moros was to be just and firm: Every concession to them is a mistake.
Wood was immediately wildly popular with his men because he fought alongside them in more than 100 engagements. He endured tropical heat, debilitating humidity, tangled jungle and attacks by millions of mosquitoes, day and night, which many Americans found more maddening and harder to endure than the Moros.
The most obdurate of the latter were still the Maranaos. Although Pershing had punished them severely, it took Wood two major expeditions into the Taraca Valley in the Lake Lanao region in the autumn of 1903 and the spring of 1904 to subdue them in a series of firefights. Next, he had to combat an uprising led by one Panglima Hassan down on Jolo island. It took him six months before he could track down and kill that Moro and the remnants of his band in the crater of Bud (Mount) Bagsak, near Jolo City. Another enemy was Dato Ali, a Maguindanao chief from a Moro tribe in the south of Mindanao, who had the largest cota ever built, accommodating 5,000 Moros. Again, there were no big battles. A series of little clashes took place from March 1904 until October 1905, when the Americans finally cornered and killed the chief.
One of the bloodiest battles of the whole Moro experience occurred near Jolo City in March 1906, when the Moros there made a determined stand in the crater of another extinct volcano, Bud Dajo. In what came to be known as the Battle of the Clouds because it was fought largely at an elevation of 2,000 feet, the Americans launched a heavy bombardment followed by an assault over fallen trees and around huge boulders. Their casualties21 killed and 73 woundedwere slight against the more than 600 Moros, some of them women dressed as men. The terrible fight aroused widespread criticism when word of it reached the United States. Many Americans thought matters could have been handled peacefully, and that in any case the Armys onslaught was unnecessarily murderous.
Perhaps because of Bud Dajo, Wood was recalled in December 1909, but not before he had disposed of a troublesome bandit named Jikiri on an islet near Jolo. Pershing returned to take command. Within days of his return, as many as 1,000 Moros again took to Bud Dajo, daring the Americans to come and get them. They did, but more cautiously. In less than week, Moro supplies ran out. Many of the Moros slipped away into the jungle while the rest quietly surrendered. After that, there were only sporadic amok and juramentado attacks until June 1913, when the Moros challenged their enemies at Bud Bagsak in what would be the ultimate battle of the American experience in Moro territory. Although the 6,000 to 10,000 Moros engaged were the greatest concentration the Americans ever faced in the Philippines, the results were as one-sided as ever. Only 14 Americans were killed and 11 wounded, while the Moros lost as least 500 killed, and nobody ever knew how many were otherwise hurt. The Americans were never again challenged militarily in Mindanao or the archipelago.
While some Moros came to believe the Americans were interested in their problems, others felt betrayed. Although they now had greatly improved health, education, transportation and other services, they had lost their hold on the Philippines and come under the rule of the Christian Filipinos, whom the Muslims hated. The Moros never accepted rule from Manila, and fight it furiously today. And they are better equipped to fight for a homeland of their own in Mindanao and Sulu than ever. Powerfully armed and trained by wealthier Muslim brothers, they clamorously demand self-rule.
At the opening of the 21st century, 300 years after the Spanish assaults and 100 years after the American efforts, the Moros are as resistant as ever, in the form of the Mindanao-based Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), formed in 1977. The MILF fields about 2,900 troops in its fight for a fundamentalist Islamic state. Its leader, Sheik Salamat Hashim, in an interview in Nidaul Islam (Call of Islam magazine) states his now too-familiar objectives: To make supreme the Word of Allah and implement Shariah [Islamic law]. His promise to those who would support him in ridding the world of Christian, Jewish and other infidel oppressors echoes down from that chain of conflicts that began with the Crusades: Allah will surely compensate and reward you here in this world and in the Hereafter.
One can only marvel today at the staying power of the Moros ferocious dedication. Then, too, perhaps it is no great wondergiven that it had 300 years to take deep root even before Ferdinand Magellan forced Christianity upon the Philippines. Whatever the case, many Moros remain reluctant citizens of this swiftly changing world.
This article was written by David S. Woolman and originally published in Military History Magazine in April 2002. David S. Woolman is a Manila-based writer in the Philippines.
Generally good article, with this exception.
The Crusades, by any standard, were a belated reaction to Muslim jihad. They were a counter-attack and did not start anything.
Ummmm...if you are a male between the ages of 15 and 55, you ARE a militia type, according to U.S. Code. Chicks of course are excluded, as well they should be.
I went to Mindanao -- Zamboanga, Davao City, some offshore island -- on a press trip in '79. The Filipino newspeople we met at a reception in Manila were amazed that they were taking us down to that area, as they wree refused access by the government. Too dangerous.
Our "tour guides" provided by the government were the biggest Filipinos I've ever seen, obvioulsy body guards. Nice guys, hunks, but people in the streets backed up when they saw them coming. We went into a Moro settlement outside Zamboanga where houses were built on stilts over the water and some people lived on boats. Naturally, I dashed away from our group to get some photos. A bodyguard dashed after me and stayed so close that his shoulder touched mine as walked around. Those little Moros crowded around me pointing and laughing and babbling. Translation: "She's a funny color." They'd never seen a sunburned blond before! And I'd never seen people who were actually tinged blue either.
You could feel the tension all over Zamboanga, see the Moros and Philippinos glaring at one another in the streets, and all the people were surprised to see Americans there. Of course, back in '79 most were very happy to see us. Big smiles, friendly people, hugs, "Do you know my aunt in DesMoines?", all that jazz. But at night, instead of wining and dining us at a restaurant, which was customary of press trips, they drove us out to the Navy base where they had a nice banquet set up for us. I sat between the head of the Army and head of the Navy (Philippine, not US) at dinner and heard all kinds of horror stories...i.e., we were at the base because if the officers came into town after dark, their throats would be cut. Very comforting! NOT! Of course, we had bodyguards all over our hotel...good thing, as my room was on first floor overlooking the water. Not such a romantic setting when you consider that there were people out there with guns and knives who'd love to slit my pink throat.
I loved the Philippines and went back on my own to Manila a couple of years later. So sad that relations between USA and Phillipines are strained now. Due to what? Rotten commies in Manila?
I think this was before safety matches. I wonder if something similar is being said today.
What is it about Muslim men that they conceive heaven as a whorehouse?
It is interesting that Smith was later court-martialed and convicted, although his sentence was a slap on the wrist. Also, the fighting on Samar was with Christian Filipinos, not with Moros. The Americans had originally put a garrison on the island at the request of the inhabitants, who wanted protection from the Moros.