Mindanao Island, Philippines
After one week of close access to some key players in this conflict, I can make one certain statement: This is a complex war. As for the complexity of the human terrain, the Philippines is the “Afghanistan of the Sea.” There are great differences, of course. The Republic of the Philippines is a functioning democracy with a professional military and it’s not bordering Pakistan and Iran, yet the human terrain here is far more complex than that of Iraq or even Afghanistan. Physical terrain shapes human terrain. Afghanistan has deserts, mountains and valleys, while this place has the sea, thousands of islands, and mountains and valleys. Physical barriers create separate languages and cultures.
So far, I’ve been to three islands and met with dozens of Filipino and U.S. commanders and troops. We’ve visited villages and gone deep into enemy territory on two islands. Though I’ve seen no combat here – or even any signs of combat other than one IED hole and a blown-up bridge – pitched battles are unfolding on a regular basis. Some writers have come for short embeds and made large-picture summaries of the situation, but the reality is that it would take many months of hard study and travel just to get a reasonable feel for the war.
Serious battles involving artillery and aerial bombings continue to rumble on some islands, such as Mindanao, but Civil Military operations are gaining successes that cannons and jets have failed to deliver. For instance, on 20 April 2009, 34 members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) surrendered to the Armed Forces Philippines (AFP), not because they were beaten in battle, but because Civil Affairs teams and others lured them out of the jungles with offers of peaceful and more prosperous lives. The story of this war is probably more about Civil Affairs and deal-making than combat. With that in mind, a series of short dispatches with photos and initial impressions will follow. It would be most helpful to see veterans of this war, and the Philippines in general, weigh in with their own impressions.
The following are just a handful of photos from one mission. These images were made in what had been deep enemy territory just a few months ago. The kids never begged for candy, never were brats in any way -- which happens in Iraq (especially when our troops act like Santa Claus and pass out candy, making perfectly sweet kids into incredible brats). Despite the fact that their fathers had been enemies, the village kids grinned whenever our folks looked their way. The guerrilla leader actually seemed to like the Americans and it showed in the kids. Their fathers and mothers were all around.
One Green Beret named (… actually I am not allowed to give his name, despite the fact that it was okay with the soldier to publish his name and photo, and the rules allow publishing the photo and he was wearing a nametag… His name for this dispatch will be “X7”) played marbles while I talked with the former guerrilla leader of this small group. Luckily, I had handed over a camera to Navy Lieutenant Lara Bollinger and she was out there shooting many hundreds of photos. If not for LT Bollinger we would have missed the moment. Turns out that LT Bollinger has a great eye for photos, and some of the images that will later be published were actually shot by her.
Soldier X7, like most American soldiers, was very good with the kids. This characteristic of our combat troops is sort of an accidental secret weapon that money can’t buy. The British have it too, but many militaries do not treat kids well. I’m not sure that soldiers can be trained to be like this. There were many Iraqi kids who loved American soldiers and Marines but the children were sometimes fearful of Iraqi soldiers. Some Iraqis were great with the kids, but it only takes one bad apple -- and they have plenty of bad apples.
Most American and British soldiers just naturally like children. During World War II, the Japanese had reputations of being brutal toward kids, which of course angers every mother in the world, and then you are in for a serious fight.
So these are the faces of the enemy. The girls were precious. Not one single kid asked for candy. Thankfully, this war is mostly being fought with Civil Affairs and not rockets. General Petraeus has told me several times in regard to Iraq: “Money is ammunition in this war.” Send more money and more Civil Affairs teams, please!
Private citizens, such as “Books for the Barrios” are making a demonstrable difference. The respected Philippine Major General Juancho Sabban praises the group, as do American soldiers. I’ve seen their handiwork and am told that “Books for the Barrios” will soon deliver their 13 millionth book! The tiny citizen groups at home, usually with little or no recognition, are helping to save the lives of children and our troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now I can confirm the Philippines. But their generosity comes at a cost. I contacted Nancy and Dan Harrington who run Books for the Barrios, and Nancy wrote back immediately, “our dear neighbors wonder why our lawn does not get mowed on a regular basis….we are two very tired people just trying to keep things afloat around here….” Nancy and Dan Harrington are heroes to these children.
After maybe a dozen races, Green Beret Captain X6 challenged the overall winner. The stones were jagged and may have been volcanic, but X6 ripped off his boots and challenged the boy, who lined up and GO! Off to the races! X6 ran hard but had to throttle back a couple times when he accidentally pulled too far ahead. The boy won by a nose. All the kids swirled around X6 and there were high-fives and then we drove home.