October 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 5
Overrated The U.S. intervention in Somalia, which led to the death of 18 U.S. soldiers during the Battle of Mogadishu on October 3 and 4, 1993. Thanks to Mark Bowden’s brilliant book Black Hawk Down , subsequently made into a popular movie, this has become one of the best-known small wars in our history. It has also spawned a host of “lessons learned”: American forces can’t handle urban warfare, can’t deal with guerrillas, and can’t stand casualties. All these supposed lessons were shown to be false by more recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In retrospect, it is clear that the debacle in Somalia was a fluke, the kind of setback suffered by many Western militaries that got a little too cocky and careless when facing more primitive foes. For instance, the British at Isandhlwana (1879), the Italians at Adwa (1896), and the Americans previously at the Little Bighorn (1876). These battles deserve to be remembered for the heroism and skill displayed by both sides, but they are relatively minor events in a long record of Western military dominance in the Third World that continues to this day, as Saddam Hussein (who was said to be a fan of Black Hawk Down ) learned, much to his dismay.
Underrated The war fought by the United States between 1898 and 1902 (and, on a lower level of intensity, for many years after that) to assert its sovereignty over the Philippines. The Philippine War was denounced by anti-imperialists at the time and ever since as a bloody fiasco. Recent critics have tended to see it as a proto-Vietnam or, more accurately, a proto-My Lai. There were plenty of abuses committed by U.S. troops, but this should not obscure their ultimate success in pacifying the archipelago through a skillful application of carrots and sticks. U.S. forces hunted down hard-core insurrectos but generally treated the civilian population well. They ran schools, hospitals, and vaccination programs and offered the Filipino people growing selfgovernment. To one American political scientist, our “efforts in the Philippines look like a textbook example of good government.” Manuel Quezon, a former insurrecto who became the Philippines’ first president, implicitly acknowledged the point when he complained, “Damn the Americans! Why don’t they tyrannize us more?” Far from being a failure, the Philippine War offered a template for success against guerrillas that the U.S. Army ignored much to its detriment six decades later in Southeast Asia. There are still lessons there that the United States should learn as it tries to rebuild Iraq.