Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, February 5, 2024

Pershing and the Moros


[Editor's Note: The successful career experience that set John J. Pershing apart from his peers as a man capable of taking the largest responsibilities of high command was his service in the Philippines. In a 1963 speech at the Air Force Academy, his biographer Professor Frank E. Vandiver discussed that period in Pershing's life.]

After fighting ended in Cuba, Pershing received orders to report for duty in the office of the Assistant Secretary of War. Victory in Cuba and the acquisition of the Philippines brought problems unexpected by the government. The toughest questions centered around administering new colonial possessions. Since resistance continued in the Philippines, where rebels led by Emiho Aguinaldo fought for independence, the army had to devise a system of military government. Within the War Department a Bureau of Customs and Insular Affairs appeared in March 1899, with Major (temporary) Pershing as Chief. His description of the task facing him has a curiously modern ring:

The problems that arose involved readjustments in government and the determination of policies to be followed in the complicated business of ruling peoples as distant from each other geographically as Porto [sic] Rico and Mindanao and as different in character as West Indian Negroes [sic] are from Mohammedan Asiatics. Over the original code of laws of these peoples Spanish laws and customs had been superimposed. Our application of the rules of military occupation to the different alien groups frequently brought up questions which only the War Department could decide.

Captain Pershing Early in His First Tour

Though he could act like one on occasion, Pershing was no bureaucrat. Doing his desk jobs efficiently became a good soldier, but it also became a good soldier to get away from the desk and back to the field. Over loud protests from friend Meiklejohn, Pershing wormed an assignment to the Philippines in September 1899.

Desk duty served him well, though, for few officers had comparable legal and administrative understanding of insular problems. True, initial tasks as adjutant general of the District of Zamboanga and later of the District of Mindanao hardly gave him a chance to display his knowledge. But when he could he offered careful advice, showed interest in the Moro natives, and slowly impressed the brass. A man of his obvious talents could be useful in command capacity and in October 1901 Capt. Pershing (he finally made it in February 1901) took charge of Camp Vicars, an important Mindanao outpost.

For the first time he had a chance to practice some of his ideas of leadership and military government. The main task of Camp Vicars' commander focused on the Moro population. Few American soldiers either knew or cared much about these strange Mohammedan folk who decked themselves in turbans, wildly colorful clothes, practiced polygamy, took slaves, and brandished razor-edged krises, campilans, and barongs.

About all known of them was their warlike nature, their unending desire to kill Christians, and their resistance to all forms of law and order. Many Americans felt about Moros as they did about Indians: the good ones were dead. Standard operating procedure seemed to be shoot first and chat later. Obviously this sort of treatment bred equal enmity, and by the time Pershing took command at Camp Vicars relations between Americans and Moros were about as bad as they had been between Spaniards and Moros—which is to say impossible.

The new Yankee leader acted like none before him. Instead of sending out patrols to round up hostiles, he sent out letters written in Arabic, letters which talked of friendship and mutual assistance. A few Moro dattos and sultans tried the novel ways of peace and grew to trust Pershing. Working with this small nucleus, he tried to win over all the barrios of Mindanao. But this attempt failed. Fierce, proud people, the Moros tended to see weakness in peace talk and most could not forget the Mohammedan duty to rid the world of infidels.

Lake Lanao, landlocked deep in the interior of the Island of Mindanao, served several barrios as fishery, avenue of commerce, route of retreat. Two especially fearless bands of Moros hugged the shores of the lake and made it their own sea—the Lake Lanao and Maciu Moros. Their dattos treated every friendly overture with contempt, and Pershing finally knew he must fight them or lose the respect of the Moros who had accepted him.

1902 Captain John Pershing (third from left, standing)
with the Sultan of Oatu (rightmost chair), the sultan’s son
(one chair over), and Datu Kurang (in front of Pershing)

By the time he led his first expedition into Mindanao's interior he knew much Moro lore. Hard fighting, he understood, conferred religious virtue; those Moros who died well, especially when warring against Christians, went immediately to Mohammedan paradise–noble death, then, formed the threshold of bliss. To an old Indian fighter this warrior philosophy had chilling similarity to the Ghost Dance frenzy which drove the red men to their desperate last stands. [Note: Pershing had been present at the Wounded Knee episode.]

Pershing understood a soldier's desire to die well–this ambition was not, after all, the exclusive property of Moros or Indians. And he respected those who achieved this goal. But he knew that somehow he must soil death for the Moros, somehow rob it of its hallow. This achieved, and discretion might have a chance over valor. Knowledge of the Koran and its teachings offered a simple, if repelling solution: bury dead Moros with dead pigs. This practice, which guaranteed perdition to Mohammedans, reduced the power of the war dattos and fighting slowly subsided. [Note: This anecdote has been disputed, but this what Professor Vandiver spoke at the time.]

But Pershing knew that he must give something valuable in return for such shabby guile: what he gave was mettle for mettle. He treated the Moro soldier as a worthy foreman whose strength demanded both strength and artifice in response. When he fought Moros he stormed their cottas with fury and when he carried their forts he spared the survivors the weakness of mercy.

Slowly but inexorably the Lake Lanao and Maciu Moros, then the fearsome Job and Sulu bands, yielded to this strange Yankee–this noble warrior who talked so softly.  When at last they came to know he meant to help rather than humiliate them they, too, trusted. And when they did, they gave him their hearts. He became the first American soldier admitted to the exalted station of Moro datto in a mystic ceremony reminiscent of the Arabian Nights. Other Americans less sensitive to humanity, less understanding, less learned, might have spurned the strange rites and ridiculed the honor. Not Pershing. And the important thing is that none of the Moros expected he would. . .  

[In 1903 Pershing was recalled to Washington for service with the new general staff. He met and married the daughter of  Wyoming Senator Francis War, served as an observer to the Russo-Japanense War, and earned a promotion to Brigadier General. In 1906,] the new brigadier at last received the assignment he most wanted: back to the Philippines as Commander of the Department of Mindanao and Governor of the Moro Province. This dual military and civil role had all kinds of possibilities. As military commander of the Department of Mindanao, he had charge of U.S. forces in the area and responsibility for operations–this meant, of course, he had power to enforce his decisions as civil governor of the province.

Governor General Pershing with Moro Leaders, 1910

Had he been less experienced, less sympathetic with the Moros, power might have corrupted his administration into the petty tyranny known in other parts of the Philippines. But power he used to dignify his friends and chastise his foes; so justly did he use it that the Moro Province became a model of American military government. Civic advances could be glimpsed from Zamboanga to Iligan, from Tawi Tawi throughout the Sulu Archipelago. And at last leave-taking in 1914 both Pershings and Moros mourned the parting.

[Note: Before his final departure, Pershing faced a crisis that could have led to one of the most brutal battles in the American experience in the Philippines. Eight hundred Moro warriors, who refused to disarm, turned an extinct volcano, Bud Dajo, into a fort. A bloody, one-sided battle that resulted in hundreds of Moro deaths had been fought there in 1906. Pershing assembled an overwhelming force to deal with the challenge. However, through negotiations, he succeeded in persuading the majority of the assembled Moros to return home.]

Source:  Excerpted from Professor Vandiver's 1963 Harmon Lecture at the United States Air Force Academy, "John J. Pershing and the Anatomy of Leadership."

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating background for this key WWI figure.

    Setting aside some out of date language - apt for 1963.