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James G. Starron Articles
Intelligence in the Philippine Insurrection

Recommended Reading

Benevolent Assimilation: The American Conquest of the Philippines, 1899-1903

The Philippine War, 1899-1902

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Intelligence in the Philippine Insurrection
Intelligence in the Philippine Insurrection
by James G. Starron


The Philippine-American War, also referred to as the Philippine Insurrection, is one of America’s forgotten wars (Ablett, 2004). It is also, according to Linn (2000) one of America’s most successful counterinsurgency campaigns. By 1902, when President Theodore Roosevelt declared an end to the insurrection on July 4, 1902, more than 125,000 troops had served in the Philippines. The financial cost was estimated at 400 million dollars. The human cost was estimated at 4,200 American service members dead and another 2,900 wounded (Plante, 2000). Estimates on the number of Filipinos dead range from 200,000 to 600,000. These numbers are indicative of the intensity of both the insurgency and the counterinsurgency. Given the success of US forces in the campaign, however, it would behoove us to identify successful practices in counterinsurgency operations and the role intelligence may have played in this process so that we can continue these practices in future COIN missions.

In order to analyze the use of intelligence in the US campaign during the Philippine Insurrection, it is first to understand the campaign itself as a whole in order to evaluate the effectiveness of intelligence within the overall picture. Only a thorough knowledge of American and Filipino strategies and objectives will provide the necessary framework within which to evaluate intelligence collection, analysis and dissemination in support of the American mission. This in turn, requires a presentation and analysis of the factors that lead to the US presence in the archipelago within the historical context of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This paper thus begins with an overview of the Spanish-American War since the Philippine insurgency developed in response to the US decision to annex the island. An analysis of the rationale behind this decision is a necessary prerequisite to examining the insurgencies goals, strategies and desired end-state. From there, this paper examines US COIN strategy employed during the campaign in order to reach conclusions on lessons learned for modern-day counterinsurgency efforts.

Intelligence in the Philippine Insurrection

The Philippine Insurrection was largely a series of local insurgencies and counterinsurgencies (Donnelly & Serchuk, 2003). US policy was successful precisely because it did not attempt to impose a uniform solution but remained highly adapted to local conditions. The majority of the campaign was limited to the island of Luzon. Most of the 7,000 islands that comprise the Philippine archipelago saw no fighting whatsoever. A combination of insurgent errors and successful American policies and practices led to US victory. The US Army balanced conciliation and repression in its pacification campaigns. Continued resistance or support for the insurgency was illegal and punishable but US strategy also included mass civic improvements as a reward for cooperation with US forces. A declaration issued in English. Spanish and Tagalog to the population ensured that the population was aware of the criminal nature of supporting the insurgency.

Initial intelligence preparation of the battlefield and planning for operations were both obvious weaknesses at the onset of the campaign. This was because military planners had no clear idea of the desired end state relative to the Philippines by which to begin the intelligence and planning cycles. Ostensibly, the United States engaged in hostilities with Spain after an investigative report determined that a mine in Havana Harbor had caused the explosion that sank the USS Maine.

The United States had avowed its war objectives on 21 April, 1898. These were to free Cuba from Spain in the wake of brutal Spanish repression of a Cuban rebellion against crown rule. (LaFeber, 1963) It was a sound military strategy to begin the war in the Philippines by destroying the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay on May 1st of 1897. Doing so forced Spain to fight a war on multiple fronts instead of being able to concentrate its land or maritime forces in the Caribbean. Having benefitted from a decade of naval advancements and warship construction, the modern US Navy quickly dispatched with the antiquated Spanish wooden fleet in the Philippines (Lynn, 2000). However, ambiguity surrounding the Philippines on McKinley’s part subsequently led to mmisunderstanding between the American mission and Filipino expectations. The essence of the problem, so to speak, was straightforwardly that the American mission was itself not well defined.

Before lapping too much criticism on McKinley or his administration we would do well to remember that the Spanish-American war is significant in American history because it marks the dawn of a new era -- the overseas expansion of the United States. The need for coaling stations was a strategic military factor that had led Washington to attempt to purchase Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and several pacific islands in the 1880’s. Distant markets that were increasingly necessary for the US economy required military protection. Naval warships, however, relied on coal for power. The amount of coal storable in a ship’s hold being limited, strategically stationed coaling stations were a critical component of market protection (Musicant, 1998). None of these attempted purchases proved successful, however, with the result that the United States’ only previous experience in colonial administration was the very sparsely populated Alaska region purchased from Russia.

The United States had, of course, expanded westward whereby millions of Americans moved into lands opened by the Homestead Act for railroad expansion, mining, ranching, and commercial agriculture. Many even considered Alaska part of perceived right of natural expansion to the Pacific Ocean. However, expansion outside of Manifest Destiny gave the nation’s social, political, economic leaders and the public cause for concern because the myth of national extension described a process of landed expansion into sparsely populated areas culminating in Statehood when a requisite number of settlers, the majority of which were white Protestant English speakers, organized and voluntarily requested membership in the Union (Love, 1996). As such, the idea behind the US attack on the Philippines was merely a means to an end and not necessarily an indication that the United States intended to remain in the islands. This explains the apparent lack of intelligence preparation and planning on the part of the US military for any sort of long-term occupation of the islands. There was no initial intent to do so made known.

By the same token, however, once US forces were on the islands it appears that McKinley never seriously entertained the question of whether the Philippines might want to govern themselves. Senate debates on the Philippines and the formation of the Anti-Imperialist League clearly reflected the mixed opinions in Washington as to American expansion overseas (Albett, 2004). The inaccurate information McKinley’s commanders in the Philippines were feeding him might have contributed to his decision. Otis, for example, relied heavily on upper-class Filipinos for his assessment of Filipino opinion toward US rule, and this segment of Filipino society was uncharacteristically in favor of some form of incorporation into the US (Lynn, 2005). This ambiguity surrounding the desired end state for the Philippines contributed to miscommunication between the US and Filipino forces. In the absence of clear instructions from Washington, it was Commodore Dewey himself who arranged for Aguinaldo, leader of the Filipino revolt against the Spanish and future leader of the Filipino Insurrection, to return to the Philippines from Hong Kong on board an American gunship. It was also Commodore Dewey once again who voiced no US opposition to Aguinaldo’s declaration of Philippine Independence or establishment of a revolutionary government with Aguinaldo as President.

Researchers such as Niskanen (2004) have cited facts such as these in claiming that the US had made no plans to contend with Filipino demands for independence. It is probably more accurate to state, however, that there were no clearly formulated long-term plans for the Philippines at all at the start of the Spanish-American War. Against the backdrop of a successful Filipino revolt taking place against the Spanish from 1896 onward that had resulted in Filipino control of islands everywhere except Manila, the absence of contingency plans to interact with the Filipino forces, whether in soliciting their support to defeat the Spanish or anticipating resistance from them for a US takeover of the Philippines, does appear astounding. Lynn (1989), is assuredly correct in saying that McKinley’s ambiguity was purposeful so as to US options open. The result in terms of the military’s inability to plan for contingency operations in the Philippines was, nonetheless, the same: there was none. Indeed, the initial strategy behind taking Manila was most likely nothing more than an added bargaining chip to use against the Spanish in the ultimate peace treaty, and so no long occupation plans were drafted. It is equally likely that French, German, British and Japanese dispatching of fleets to the Philippines to shadow Dewey forced McKinley’s hand in that the US did not want to weaken one imperialist power – Spain – by strengthening another (Donnelly & Serchuk, 2003). It is also somewhat plausible that McKinley was motivated by good, although misguided, intentions. Regardless, by the time McKinley made his “benevolent assimilation” intentions clear and instructed his peace commissioners in Paris to acquire the Philippines, Filipino forces had begun a second siege of Manila and the Philippine Insurrection began.

US forces lacked almost any knowledge of disposition, composition and intentions of the insurgent forces let alone terrain, weather and cultural information concerning the 7,000 islands that comprise the Philippine archipelago. This situation, as incredible as it may seem, was made possible because of the ambiguity surrounding American intentions towards the Philippines during the Spanish-American War. The McKinley administration had engaged in war planning long before the opening of hostilities with Spain but these plans were primarily for maritime purposes and not for land operations in the Philippines.

Furthermore, the Military Information Division in Washington failed to provide intelligence support to Army operations in the Philippines. The Army had no reliable maps of the area, no knowledge of the terrain, climate, culture, or lines of communication or transportation. As Brandt (2004) states, this new environment posed several distinct challenges to US forces. The result was that Luzon’s terrain and climate proved as great an obstacle to US forces as the Filipino resistance (Lynn, 1989). Terrain described on the old Spanish maps soldiers did have was often out-dated with the result that open country often proved to be thick grassland or bogs and operational plans seldom met timelines given the decreased rates of movement. Furthermore, the woolen uniforms the Army had issued only exacerbated the impact of climate and terrain on the troops. In addition to the wool uniforms the US War Department to soldiers, it also issues them outdated Springfield rifles (Lynn, 1989). This improper outfitting of soldiers further degraded mission accomplishment by exacerbating the effects of the heat and rain on the soldiers. Not only did the heavier uniforms significantly reduce the speed of American troop movements on the battlefield, making them an even more vulnerable target for the enemy force, but the woolen uniforms also contributed to the spreading of disease, specifically yellow fever. Desperate reliance on local nationals at the onset of the hostilities to translate documents and serve as guides only served to increase the number of Filipino double agents within the American ranks.

In terms of troop numbers and training for the war, since the US Army strength only numbered 28,183 men in 1897 a large-scale call for volunteers was needed to match the estimated 80,000 to 150,000 Spanish troops in Cuba (Dierks, 1970) let alone the Philippines. In fairness to the Army, Congress had limited the size of the army to correspond to a peace-time Army only with National Guard call ups and volunteer enlistments constituting American’s wartime strength. The net result of this, however, was that most of the troops in the Spanish-American War had only received 5 months of training prior to debarking. This lack of unit mission training rendered most units at best combat inexperienced and at worst combat ineffective. Apart from soldiers who had conducted significant operations in the Indian Wars, the US Army had few combat experienced soldiers (Lindahl, 2005). This meant that the vast majority of American soldiers were not proficient in the land maneuvers they would need to execute in high intensity conflict let alone in basic soldiering tasks. To make matters worse, the Army had to recall soldiers from the original Manila expedition and replace them with new soldiers once it became clear that there would be war with Aguinaldo’s forces.

Donnelly & Serchuk (2003) highlight the critical nature of this US troop shortage in enabling the Filipinos to prepare for protracted guerilla warfare. With the American Army mostly in Manila, the insurgents spread out into the countryside, where they attacked infrastructure, most notable telegraph wires, and took advantage of the lack of government in most towns and cities to establish their own shadow governments. The basic dilemma was that while the US was announcing military rule throughout the islands, the reality on the ground was that US troop strength was insufficient to accomplish this mission. According to Lynn’s (2000) numbers, there were only 11,000 troops in the Philippines at the capture of Manila although the Philippines cover a geographical area of 500,000 square miles. On the flipside, Congress did authorize 35,000 additional volunteer troops for exclusive service in the Philippines in March of 1899 once President’s McKinley’s intentions were clear. These soldiers received excellent training prior to debarkation and with their arrival in November of 1899 a combination of superior American firepower and errors on the Filipino side destroyed Filipino hopes of fighting a regular war. However, the Filipinos had already taken advantage of American troop shortages to prepare for the protracted struggle. When Aguinaldo turned instead to guerrilla tactics, his soldiers hid amongst the populace and struck at US patrols (Albett, 2004).

US military strategy in 1899 had consisted of eliminating Filipino regular forces and establishing a military government over the archipelago. Aguinaldo’s new strategy was to influence public opinion within the United States sufficiently to affect the presidential elections of 1900. This proved a strategic error the insurgency since McKinley’s victory in the polls essentially dried up a substantive amount of insurgent support. Given that the revolutionaries’ military apparatus was only very loosely organized and to a large extent only truly united for the short-term objective of influencing the presidential election results, many decided it was in their best interest to side with the Americans instead of fight against them with the polling results came out. This failure on the part of Aguinaldo to create an effective military establishment was key to the long-term American victory. His soldiers were poorly armed, poorly equipped and poorly integrated. Social cohesion broke down as units and ethnicities merged. The result was a rather brief conventional war once sufficient US forces arrived in the islands and an insurgent campaign that failed to maintain internal cohesion or external support from the population.

Critically, improvements in the intelligence services bolstered the American effort and paralleled changes in tactics and strategy the US Army adapted in the Philippine Insurrection. First, DMI established a map section to correct the dearth of reliable map data troops contended with early in the campaign. Second, General McArthur increased the number of American garrisons throughout the archipelago. From only 53 garrisons in May of 1900, US forces spread out to 639 by September of 1901. This not only had the effect of effectively transforming every soldier into a sensor but it also enabled US forces to fight the insurrection at the regional level. Closer proximity to communities translated into improved cultural and situational awareness and enabled US troops to provide for the security of the population as well as address their needs. Soldiers also became more familiar with local terrain and, most important, how to navigate through it. The parallel tactical change was a move toward small unit operations in lieu of large-scale operations. Civil War tactics involving linear formations, en masse maneuvers and fortification were not well suited to counterinsurgency in the Philippines (Brandt, 2004). This was the result not only of US forces being spread out over the islands but also the reality of the terrain, which tended to limit effective maneuvering of large forces.

Garrisons became tangibles of nation building as the Army became increasingly embedded with the towns. Wherever US forces were stationed, soldiers built schools, roads and health clinics (Lynn, 2005). This had the critical effect of providing US personnel with greater placement and access to Filipinos on a daily basis for purposes of intelligence collection but also instilling a sense of trust toward US forces among Filipinos. The US Army transformed Manila, for example, into a model city almost overnight. Between civic improvements and vaccinations, the US cut the death rate in Manila in half from 1899 to 1900 while simultaneously establishing nothing short of an intelligence network in Manila as well as in all towns where garrisons were stationed (Lynn, 2005). Critically, soldiers remained in garrisons for long durations with military commanders doubling as civil administrators. Regimental commanders doubled as provincial governors while garrison commanders doubled as town mayors. This enabled them to develop extensive local contacts, comprehend the local physical, cultural and human terrain, and communicate with and understand the needs of population and react to those needs.

It was the US Army’s experience during Reconstruction and along the Western frontier that provided the administrative structure under the department-division model for organizing the Philippines, but it was US Army’s willingness to accept civil responsibilities as part of their duties that helped secure US victory (Lynn,2005).  Civic improvements were quintessential in driving a wedge between the insurgents and the population. Aguinaldo’s revolution was political, not social. His intention was to restore power to the ilustrados and principales, or the primarily ethnically Tagalog upper class of Philippine society well educated under Spanish colonial rule. Aguinaldo had no intention of sharing power with the peasantry let alone improving their living conditions. In this sense, US infrastructure improvements represented tangible standard of living increases that the insurgents were not prepared to offer the general population (Lynn, 2000).

However, as US forces occupied more towns, insurgents began to increase attacks on collaborators and stepped up efforts to establish a shadow government. Burnings, kidnappings, tortures and murders eventually numbered in the thousands. Many insurgent commanders issued proclamations that they would raze towns that accepted US rule. However, as American garrisons spread throughout the islands, the insurgents were decreasingly able to carry out such threats and in the long-term these strong arm tactics only served American interests (Lynn, 2005). As towns turned away from insurgents, the guerillas lost their most effective tactics: their ability to hide themselves, their supplies and their weapons among the population.

Finally, the use of native scouts greatly enhanced operational capabilities. By June of 1901, when Manila finally authorized recruitment of native scouts, 5.500 natives began serving not only as guides but also as armed militia. As Brandt (2004) points out, this use of locals in Constabulary forces, as well as in civil administration of the towns and villages, strengthened the Army’s position. Already in 1899, the US had been employing over 100,000 Filipinos in a variety of roles (Lynn, 2005). Notwithstanding, concerns regarding the loyalties of Filipinos prevented full-scale recruitment into the military structure. Ironically, the best trained equipped local national police forces were in regions that ignored Manila’s regulations prior to 1900. It was not until May of this year that General McArthur finally authorized arming of municipal police and not until that December, when the immanent departure of many US volunteers forced his hand, when he transferred the bulk of the pacification mission to them.

In Luzon and in Batangas, US forces used a reconcentration strategy by which the population was herded into zones within the purview of US garrisons. While this strategy denied insurgent forces safe-haven within segments of the population while simultaneously enabling US forces to better protect the population from insurgent coercion, it is estimated the one-sixth of the population of Luzon perished either in the camps due to illness or in the countryside as a result of pacification (Ablett, 2004). US forces burned crops of suspected insurgent supporters. This further encouraged large-scale population movement and, according to Smallman-Raynor and Cliff (2000) contributed to disease epidemics in the Filipino population both during and after the war. Segments of the US public reacted very negatively to news of these camps, which smacked of the reconcentrando camps the Spanish had used in Cuba.

Concerns such as these as well as accusations or racism and the treatment of insurgent prisoners overshadowed much of the Philippine Insurrection. Authors such as Kramer (2006) go so far as to label the Philippine-American War as a race war. In this view, race was essential to the politics and conduct of the war. There is no doubt that, as Anderson (1991) states, racism has been a major element in the conception of Empire. Objectively speaking, there is no doubt that racism played a part in the American colonial enterprise in the Philippines. Moreover, even a modest historical scholar of is forced to conclude that racism has been an unfortunate fixture in American history. Schildkraut (2000) highlights the tendency of white Americans to hold ascriptive beliefs about American identity and argues that Ethnoculturalism, the belief that only white male Protestants of northern European ancestry can be considered American is one the principal themes in immigration policy. Native American languages and culture were threatened with extinction (Spack, 1998). The plight of African-Americans hardly needs mentioning. However, in examining the conduct of American troops in the Philippines, Lynn (2000) found that with some notable exceptions, especially in the last few campaigns of the war, for the standard of the time US forces refrained from the atrocities history accuses them of having committed. The misconduct that did occur, such as the water cure, was the result of small groups of men under junior or non-commissioned officer leadership looking for weapons or information.

What is certain is that the isolated nature of many of the garrisons meant that controlling the behavior of subordinates let alone knowing what that behavior was proved difficult. The truth is that we will never know the extent of American troop misconduct or the amount of questionable intelligence that might have come from such interrogation techniques. What we do know is that what conduct there presumably might have been did not have the effect of alienating the population as a whole into supporting the insurgency. Whether this was on account of the ethnic divisions within Filipino society or because the atrocities that the insurgents committed were by far greater in terms of numbers of severity remains lost to history. Perhaps the greatest testimony came from the Filipino insurgents themselves. Quezon, cited by Deady (2005) summarized Filipino frustration at American benevolence: “Damn the Americans? Why don’t they tyrannize us more?”


Several lessons for conducting a successful counterinsurgency campaign derive from the American experience in the Philippines. First, the American policy of rewarding support and punishing opposition proved extremely beneficial in the Philippine Insurrection (Deady, 2005). “Attraction and chastisement,” as it was called then, or the carrot and stick approach is it might be more popularly referred to today proved very successful in separating the insurgents from the population. Civil action alone was not sufficient. Only fines, arrests, deportation, relocation and crop destruction as deterrents to supporting the insurgency coupled with rewards for supporting the Americans proved successful. Second, the United States effectively waged a series of counterinsurgency campaigns that corresponded to ethnic and geographical divisions within Filipino society instead of a one-size-fits-all approach. This enabled local commanders to react culturally appropriately within their zones of influence. Third, the US recruited and trained host nation forces. This solved the manpower shortage issue the US military faced as well as legitimized the US presence. The scouts in particular proved extraordinarily useful in aiding American forces in maneuvering through terrain. Fourth, the United States improved infrastructure, especially in terms of transportation, standard of living and education. This supported claims of benevolent assimilation and provide locals with tangible results of cooperating with American forces. Fifth, the US Army took the fight to the people by establishing garrisons throughout the islands. Not only did this provide for the security of the population it also allowed placement and access to the population for intelligence collection purposes and enabled human terrain mapping of the areas. Sixth, the US Army officers accepted their civil-military responsibilities. In this respect, National Guard troops, with their combined military and civilian expertise often in different areas, proved quintessential and contributed in no small degree to the nation building process.

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Copyright © 2010 James G. Starron.

Written by James Starron. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact James Starron at:

Published online: 07/05/2010.

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