Blackjack Pershing and the Moros:

Or, How to Fight Islamic Insurgents

The Myth

We've all seen it. Its been circulating the internet and emails for the last several years - since September 11, or possibly earlier. I've received it at least three times. The story is that General John J. "Blackjack" Pershing captured 19 (or 11) Moro warriors and, before putting all but one to death by firing squad, he showed them the pit dug for their mass grave, filled with stinking pig carcasses, and the bullets with which they were to be shot, dipped in pig entrails and fat. The last man he released to carry back the tale, and never after had trouble from the Moros - or so the story goes...

We'd love for it to be this simple, wouldn't we? There is some undeniable relish in the thought of inflicting psychic agony on these barbarous Islamic jihadists, as well as the hope of instilling such irrational, superstitious fear that they dare not risk being unclean in death.

Unfortunately, there are problems with this tale. For one, there is no documentation to substantiate it, and I don't think that the reason for that is any measure of propriety that caused the Army historians (and Pershing himself) to forebear its record, because in those days we weren't quite as politically correct as today. Additionally, it is extremely improbable that anyone would be able to capture any group of Moro juramentados (i.e., jihadists). Once committed to that cause, they fought to the death in almost all instances. Surrender was very uncommon and US military forces did not routinely execute surrendered prisoners, let alone in such garish manner. Finally, there is absolutely no evidence to indicate that there is any muslim superstition to the effect that porcine contamination in death can endanger one's eternal destiny - especially if one dies as a jihadi martyr.

Basically, this tale is hooey, its a myth.

The genesis of the myth is that apparently Pershing did threaten to bury any juramentados his men killed in such a desecrating manner. However, there is no indication this was more than a threat and we know, with certainty, what did eventually quell the Moro uprisings.

The Truth

Trouble with the Moros is an old story. The Spanish conquerors couldn't master them, but even prior to that, the other inhabitants of the Philippines were menaced by the Moro proclivity for warfare, rape, piracy and slave raids. They were (and still are) a savage people and that savagery was, if anything, only sharpened by their conversion to Islam. Now, instead of being mere savages, who could be civilized, they were and remain self-righteous savages who have their religion as a justification for any brand of violence against christians and other infidels, and which doesn't forbid internecine warfare against other tribes of Moros.

The expression "run amok" comes from the Moro experience, and it means a Moro who, for whatever reason, goes on a suicidal killing rampage. Sound familiar? Juramentado is the local name for a band of jihadists. The juramentados operated in pretty much the same manner as the individual running amok, but did so in the name of Allah. This sort of behavior did not arise because of Spanish or American conquest. It was indigenous. To this day, the tendency has not been eradicated, and in truth, it is in resurgence in the Sulu province of the Philippine Islands, along with piracy in the Sulu Sea and surrounding waters.

Blackjack Pershing was in the Philippines for two periods of duty, first as a captain of infantry beginning in May of 1902 and years later as the commanding general of US forces operating in the Sulu district.

US forces came under attack by the Moros almost from the moment the two parties met. The Moros resisted Christian influences (as they saw it), including communications, electricity, hospitals and schools, simply because they were the tools of infidels and threatened to subvert Moro culture and Islamic authority. That is not to say that America's efforts were unremittingly benignant and the Moros utterly villainous. I have no doubt but that the same arrogance that has characterized colonial efforts the world over were in evidence in the Philippines and that the US troops were not universally respectful of local sensitivities and taboos. Still it was bewildering to the Americans that these clearly beneficial efforts were viewed with such hostility. Does any of this sound vaguely familiar?

The Moros tended to harass US forces with sniper fire and sabotage (e.g., cutting telegraph wires). When confronted, they would withdraw into their fortifications, from which they would sometimes venture forth in rushes of suicidal killing frenzy, but never in a coordinated fashion. The Americans would simply surround these forts, bombard them with artillery and then move in and finish the defenders. The result was consistently devastating to the Moros with extremely slight losses on the American side. Usually the loss exchange ratio was at least 10 to 1.

Despite the disparity of these conflicts, its apparent that Pershing did not seek to provoke the Moros to fight and made overtures to tribal leaders to attempt to win them over. President Roosevelt, famous for odd expressions of enthusiasm, was so impressed with Pershing's record against the Moros that he promoted him from captain directly to brigadier general and brought him back to the US.

After Captain Pershing left the Sulu district, Major General Leonard Wood assumed command of the forces attempting to subdue the occasional outbursts of Moro violence. He regarded the Moros as savages undeserving of his consideration or conciliation and applied a more aggressive methodology. As a consequence, Moro insurgency rose. Wood spent the next several years pursuing a succession of Moro rebel leaders.

Finally, in 1906 Maj Gen Wood beseiged a large group of Moros on the volcanic mountain called Bud Dajo. The local Moros, including their families, had removed themselves to Bud Dajo with the intention of making a last stand in the manner of Masada, except that the peculiar muslim martyr obsession was at work before they ever retreated into the crater. Notwithsatnding their determination to die for Allah, Wood's decision to shell the crater and then assualt into it, killing almost 1000 men, women and children, leaving less than 10 survivors of the massacre, was regarded with dismay by the US government and even many within the US Army. Wood remained in the Philippines for another two years,but was recalled in 1909, to be replaced by General Pershing.

Only days after Pershing's return to the Sulu district, another band of 1000 Moros again retreated into Bud Dajo. Pershing, disgusted by the slaughter of his predecessor, vowed to find a better way. Pershing wrote: "I am sorry these Moros are such fools, but . . . I shall lose as few men and kill as few Moros as possible." He beseiged the volcano and cut off all traffic in and out of the crater. Within days the food and water ran out and the Moros surrendered without much fuss - only 12 Moros were killed.

Pershing wrote of the encounter in his official report:

There was never a moment during this investment of Bud Dajo when the Moros, including women, on top of the mountain, would not have fought to the death had they been given the opportunity. They had gone there to make a last stand on this, their sacred mountain, and they were determined to die fighting . . . It was only by the greatest effort that their solid determination to fight it out could be broken. The fact is that they were completely surprised at the prompt and decisive action of the troops in cutting off supplies and preventing escape, and they were chagrined and disappointed in that they were not encouraged to die the death of Mohammedan fanatics. (Quoted from Vandiver, Frank E., Black Jack: The Life and Times of John J. Pershing, Texas A&M University Press, 1977, pp. 464-594)

For the next three or four years the Sulu region experienced peace by Moro standards, with only sporadic and small-scale outbreaks of violence (the Moros were a warlike people and had been for centuries, so true peace was too much to expect).

However, in 1913 the greatest confrontation between the Moros and US forces occurrred under Pershing's watch. This time it was undeniably grave. As many as 10,000 Moro warriors had assembled on the volcanic summit to wage war against the infidels at Bud Bagsak. Pershing saw the potential for a massacre ten times bloodier than the Battle of the Clouds on Bud Dajo had been in 1906. Since the Moros would gather all their family together for these martyr frenzies, Pershing sought to find a way to conduct the inevitable battle against only the hardened, implacable extremists and certainly without the presence of the women and children. To accomplish this, he orchestrated a plan of calculated deception and high level secrecy, intended to lull the Moros into a non-defensive state. After pretending to sail from the region, he covertly landed with a force at night and marched rapidly to the mountain, surprising the Moros in the villages below the mountain and catching all but a few hundred outside the summit fortress. As a consequence, the Moros lost only about 500 men, as the defenders of the fortress fought furiously almost to the last man. However, following this battle, American military hegemony over the Sulu district was not seriously contested ever again.

So, history bears witness that it was Pershing's limited warfare and adept exercise of cunning and restraint that succeeded in quelling the martyr warrior spirit of the Moros. It also reveals that a selective decapitation of leadership and the incorrigible hard core of a militant organization will cause the vast majority of even ardent militants to eventually lose interest.

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