American history has been dominated by war; so, too, may the American future be.
By David Silbey
February 09, 2010 -- The war in Afghanistan feels foreign to Americans: a far distant land, a confusing and alien culture, and combat against a shadowy enemy. That feeling is mistaken. America has spent much of its history fighting wars like the one in Afghanistan. So much so, in fact, that Afghanistan would be familiar to an American in 1900, and conventional wars such as World War II would seem strange.
In fact, in many ways the United States was defined by wars like Afghanistan. America created itself in the 18th and 19th centuries in a series of small wars, waged by and against irregular forces in unconventional ways that pushed America's boundaries westward. These were mostly against Indian tribes, but were also against European powers like Spain and France and Britain. Some of the big wars we remember--the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War--were less important to shaping the America we know than the small wars that we have forgotten.
Andrew Jackson might be most famous for his victory at New Orleans in 1815, but at least as important (though much more controversial) was his success in the First Seminole War later that decade, which won Florida for the U.S. and ended the Spanish presence on the eastern seaboard. The American Civil War, of course, was the most important war in American history, but it was the Indian Wars of the last part of the 19th century that created the western half of the United States and formed the nation we recognize today.
Just as small wars shaped the United States, so too did they shape America's place in the world. This is nowhere more evident than at the end of the 19th century. The big and remembered war then was the Spanish-American War. The people, events, and ideas of that war are a common currency in the telling of American history: Remember the Maine! Yellow journalism. The Rough Riders at San Juan Hill. Teddy Roosevelt.
PEACE, AND WAR
Yet while that struggle is remembered, it was a war that occurred as a result that had longer-lasting repercussions. As part of the peace treaty with Spain, America bought the Philippine Islands in the Pacific for $20 million. We found ourselves embroiled in a war there against the Filipinos themselves, who resented being bought and sold.
That war would be familiar to veterans of Afghanistan. The Filipino revolutionaries, after a brief and unsuccessful conventional phase, resorted to the kind of insurgent tactics that the Taliban now uses. As in Afghanistan, the fractured and ferocious geography and climate in the Philippines were often as much of a challenge as was the combat. Mountains and jungles coexisted in equal profusion and were used by the insurgents for cover and refuge.
While the American forces in the Philippines did not have the helicopters and air support of the modern military, an American brown-water naval force offered much of the same mobility and firepower in the intricate maze of Philippine islands. It was, as is Afghanistan, a war of small units operating at long distances from each other. John J. Pershing, later commander of American forces in World War I, accompanied an Army unit that, for two weeks, chased an insurgent band through the jungles and over mountains, and they spent as much time interacting with the local Filipinos as they did fighting their enemy. Such a patrol was in no way unusual.
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
The American forces fighting in the Philippines were experienced at the kind of war that they faced. The American Army had spent much of the last part of the 19th century fighting a series of small wars against the Native Americans in the continental west. Those small wars demanded the same kind of counterinsurgency skills that the Philippines did, and so American officers and soldiers found themselves in a familiar situation in the western Pacific. So too for Afghanistan: American forces there have a wealth of knowledge garnered in Iraq.
News of the Philippine War reached home almost as rapidly as does news from Afghanistan. It was an age of the telegraph and the mass-market newspaper. Both ensured that Americans were quickly informed of news from the islands. When Company C of the Ninth U.S. Infantry was ambushed and massacred at Balangiga on the island of Samar on Sept. 28, 1901, the news made the New York Times two days later, hardly slower than our same-day reporting on Afghanistan.
Both Afghanistan and the Philippines committed America to a new part of the world. Taking the Philippines made the United States a power in Asia for the first time, and shifted the focus of the western United States from the east to the Pacific waters. In Afghanistan's case, it has been a growing and probably long-term presence in Central Asia, mixed in with young nations like Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan and Georgia, created in the aftermath of the Soviet Union's collapse, and jostling for position with such traditional regional powers as Pakistan and India.
Fifteen years ago, the Russian invasion of Chechnya brought nothing more from the United States than a ritual expression of concern. Two years ago, the Russian invasion of Georgia brought the arrival of a warship with supplies and a visit from Sen. John McCain.
A DUTY TO REMEMBER
If the wars are similar, are there lessons from the Philippines that might help us in Afghanistan? American commitment to the Philippines, and by extension the western Pacific, also brought the U.S. into potential conflict with another rising power: Japan. In the Philippines, America sat astride Japanese communication lines to the raw materials of Indonesia (then the Dutch East Indies). That potential conflict with Japan became an actual one on Dec. 7, 1941, pitching the United States into World War II.
Our position in Afghanistan could bring us to a similar conflict with India, a country with growing ambitions. India's goal is to own the Indian Ocean region; our presence there prevents them from achieving that aim.
The next message is one of remembrance. After the Philippine War ended, America quickly forgot about it and its hard-earned lessons. As a result, Vietnam and then Iraq would come as a nasty shock to the nation. The United States must be careful that the knowledge gained in Afghanistan is not lost in the same way. The tuition for those lessons is in blood and death, a heavy price to pay, especially if we rapidly throw that comprehension overboard.
Finally, the similarities between the Philippine-American War and the current conflict in Afghanistan should remind us of a time when the U.S. was more or less constantly at war in conflicts that never drew the all-encompassing attention of World War II. We may have returned to that era, one in which American forces are always involved in small wars around the globe.
The trickle of daily deaths--an IED here, a sniper there--will probably not grow to a roaring flood, but also may not really stop, a leaky faucet never quite repaired. American history has been dominated by war; so, too, may the American future be.
David Silbey is the author of "A War of Frontier and Empire: The Philippine-American War, 1899-1902" and associate professor of history at Alvernia University in Reading, Pa.
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