The Bush Wars: Ellis on America Fighting in the Philippines

March 25, 2015

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of three adapted excerpts from 21st Century Ellis: Operational Art and Strategic Prophecy for the Modern Era, published by Naval Institute Press. It features the first part of Ellis’ article, “Bush Brigades,” which first appeared in Volume VI, Number 1 of the Marine Corps Gazette in March of 1921.


Earl H. “Pete” Ellis is not well known outside the United States Marine Corps. Even in the Marine Corps, he is known only for predicting war with Japan and its highly amphibious nature decades before World War II. His name is trumpeted at the recruit depots and at Quantico as an example of Marine intellectualism at its best. But he was more than just a prophet. His ideas on amphibious warfare are the bedrock on which the modern Marine Corps is built. Pete Ellis’ legacy is grounded in the document Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia, written as the Marine Corps’ contribution to War Plan Orange. But Ellis had written much before that. Between his time as a junior captain at the Naval War College in 1911 and his death as a lieutenant colonel in 1923, Ellis wrote a number of works, most of them forgotten, many of them prescient. The concepts described in “Bush Brigades” will be familiar to any serious student of counterinsurgency, but it was written when the men we consider to be the giants of counterinsurgency theory – David Galula and Robert Thompson perhaps foremost among them – were small children.

Ellis’ interest in the Marine Corps began as a young adolescent when he devoured newspaper accounts of the Spanish-American War, particularly the descriptions of fighting in the Philippines. The fighting inspired him to enlist and subsequently seek a chance to take the officers examination test. After passing the test, Ellis was commissioned as a second lieutenant and, in April 1902, was sent to the Philippines, where U.S. forces in the final months of suppressing an insurgency.

The American experience in the Philippines would have felt familiar to most veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Major battles occurred very early in the intervention as part of the Spanish-American War, but by the time Ellis arrived, the U.S. military was fighting and winning a low-intensity counterinsurgency campaign. The Navy ran the civil government of Cavite Bay, where Ellis was initially stationed, and Marines ran many of the surrounding civil governments as well as a detainment facility for captured insurgents. These duties were in addition to frequent security patrols.

Although Ellis kept a journal, he did not write about his experiences in a public forum for nearly two decades, by which point his thinking had been sharpened by his education at the Naval War College, his service with the American Expeditionary Force in Europe during World War I, and a full career as a staff officer.

This article describes the important tactics and methods necessary for the United States to conduct counterinsurgency operations from the point of intervention through occupation—what today is called “Phase IV” or “stability” operations. But first, Ellis made important points regarding strategy and the importance a clear strategy has for the troops who must execute it. This excerpt also includes Ellis’ thoughts on the initial insertion of American troops. The three sections generally cover strategy, tactics, and the unique exigencies of counterinsurgency.


“Bush Brigades”

Among the progressive and altruistic member of the Community of Nations Uncle Sam undoubtedly stands preeminent in every “New Movement”; whether it be national or international, he is always to be found distinctly at the front. “Clean Up” weeks are his specialty and he will “clean up” anything or any place—a disease or a nation.

Now this work of creating order out of chaos and showing small nations the way they should go is justly considered to be accomplished to the satisfaction of everybody if it were not for the peculiar attitude of the American people themselves. As it is, just about the time that all is going well—when the ex-generals are busily engaged in weaving wonderful straw hats in the local fortalezas, and the farmers are planting the largest crop acreage in the history of the country and the kids are all going to school, and the national lottery is being run on the square, and the anxious expression has faded from the faces of everybody in general, somebody rises up and yells in print: Marines are down in Jungleland!—and killed a man in a war!—and we didn’t know anything about it! Presto! and the people mill around like liaison officers in a World War and inaugurate such a campaign of investigation, castigation and restoration that the “Hired Hessians” are forced to do the job over again—or yet.

In so far as the Marines in general are concerned, they believe that in every case where the United States has taken charge of a small state it has been actuated by purely altruistic motives. The layman doubtless thinks that the troops themselves give little thought to this phase, but then he does not realize that upon this very thing the fighting morale of the individual is founded and that it forms the basis for the conduct of all military operations. It must be remember also that the Marine is on the spot and sees from day to day the good that is actually being accomplished. That alone is amply sufficient to decide the ethics of the question so far as he is concerned.

The particular motives for the interference in another nation’s affairs are many and varied. The action may be taken for the protection of lives and property of our own or foreign citizens, the establishment of a stable government in order that international obligations may be respected, the general disciplining and education of a state for its debut into the society of nations, or for any other ethical reason with the Monroe Doctrine as a background. And in this connection it may be noted that, in the eyes of many people, this background is so subordinated to figure interest that it is entirely obscured.

But whatever the particular motive may be, in any case it is generally clearly outlined in the Proclamation of Occupation, thus giving the cue for the conduct to the forces of occupation and the natives alike. It is incumbent upon them to get along together; and they always do get along quite well provided they are not interfered with by outside forces.

The economic conditions in most of the small nations with whom we are concerned have many of the same characteristics. The mass of the people gain their existence from the soil, and therefore have the usual passionate fondness of the land. But coupled with this there is always a lack of proper land registry and cadastral surveys. This situation results in great and constant friction and unrest. Then there is the question of the production areas and markets. The terrain of the normal small nation is thick and mountainous, and there is a paucity of communications. A producer in a production area may be unable to market products on account of the latter or his only available market lie within another small nation inimical to his own. Above all, he is the victim of market manipulation.


The application of military force upon people of the nature portrayed will now be considered. There have been but very few cases where the use of armed force has not been necessary to some extent at least. As a rule, the following enemy operations are met with:

(a) A somewhat disorganized attempt to prevent landings.

(b) More or less resistance in cities followed by a race to the jungle.

(c) The organization and operation of armed bands, at first risking open battle and finally waging guerilla warfare.

(d) The operation of outlaw bands (bandits, ladrones, cacos) who rob and murder members of the forces of occupation and their own people indiscriminately.

In general, enemy operations will be those of irregular forces or guerilla bands with the usual series of surprise raids, ambushes and assassinations. The enemy will have moral support from most of his own people, material support from many, and will operate in their midst.

If a force controls the fertile areas and markets (plus intercommunications) of a country it controls practically all, for within those areas are contained the mass of foreign and native population and their property.

The small nations are comparatively restricted in area and are physically very similar. The nation physically consists of a high and difficult mountain mass skirted by volcanic foothills trimmed with coral platform insertion. All is overlaid by a dense mantle of trees and jungle except the limited cultivated areas and prairies (savannas, llanos, pampas), which are usually covered with rank crops of grass. Land communications are few and poor and the sea forms the main highway. The terminal for any fertile area is generally the outlet of the valley- the nearest seaport.

We thus have the strategy:

(a) Land simultaneously and take over the important seaports to secure the doors of the country.

(b) Establish a line of fortified posts in the interior to cover production areas, steady the wavering and faint-hearted population and serve as bases for supply and rest for the operation of mobile troops.

(c) Drive with flying columns into the isolated districts and mop up.

In carrying out all or any one of the various strategic phases the action should be in the form of a surprise, and once begun should be prosecuted uninterruptedly to a final conclusion. Slowness of action will be considered as weakness and leniency as timidity, and the practice of either will only result in the prolongation of hostilities and consequent suffering to all concerned.

Landing and mopping up a seaport is not a difficult matter provided the job is treated as a military operation. But the landing of a force at a customs wharf, or similar front-door entrance, may be very difficult for the reason that the disposition of troops is such as to encourage an enemy to strike, and if he strikes the troops are poorly disposed to return the compliment. There is no known reason why this condition should ever obtain. When a Marine force lands in whatever fashion the enemy knows that it will not fight unless attacked, and also knows that if the landing force is attacked it will fight back and complete the job. Some may object to this on the grounds that the orders are to seize a limited objective—the customs house, or some other particular facility in the city—and that a “peaceful landing” is to be made. While that may be the fact, there is no known reason why the landing force should not be disposed to control the city pending the successful accomplishment of a particular mission. Experience demonstrates that there is a good chance that the particular mission will not be accomplished peaceably.

A proper procedure would be to land suddenly at one or more points in the vicinity of the port, encircle the city (seizing any commanding ground for the mopping-up force), and jump off. The encircling (or control) of the city is very important for several reasons; port facilities are secured, the hostiles that are caught in the cities will not have to be chased in the bush afterward, the mopping up force will have a choice of jumping-off positions and directions of advance. The ideal conditions would be those permitting the mopping-up force to jump off from an elevated position and advance in direction of the sea. Such conditions would ensure the widest use of the land and sea forces available, lessen the danger of interfiring among one’s own troops, and bring the most complete results. Moreover, if the occupation of a city is carried out as a real military operation the danger of bloodshed will be lessened for the reason that the rapid unfolding of the various stages of action will tend to render resistance manifestly hopeless.

The efficient and economical success of the mopping-up force properly landed, will depend, like any other operation, upon the completeness of the staff work, battle formations used, weapons available and coordination. Sectors and street objectives should be assigned, directions of advance prescribed for each sector, and plans made for coordinating progress.

The opposition to be met with will vary greatly. While the usual city will be capable of a very strong resistance on account of the prevalent type of architecture and street plan, yet it is not likely that the hostile element will be so organized or the spirit of resistance will be so widespread as to cause universal resistance throughout. The resistance will most likely be centred on those elements and native troops, such as the Red Light district and the plaza district, with its so-called palace, police and troop barracks and club buildings. On the other hand, peoples of all nations are rapidly gaining knowledge of the military art and wholesale resistance, with organized city outskirts and block-by-block fighting, may be met with and should be prepared for.

The type of battle formation best suited to normal conditions is believed to be lines of combat groups as follows:

First Line – One group for each street, composed of one or more squads of infantry (normal equipment with special supply of grenades), two or more special liaison agents with signal equipment (lanterns or flags or pyrotechnics), and two or more pioneers with demolition and scaling equipment (grapnels with line, rope ladders, axes, etc.)

Second Line – Organized, equipped and disposed in the same manner as the first line with the addition of one machine gun, one 37-mm, or one Stokes mortar (or all) to each group. It is the mission of this line to generally support the first line, and, particularly by the fire of the 37mm, Stokes mortar, machine guns and automatic rifles, advantageously placed in command of buildings, “grease” the advance of the first line. This line should be in readiness to join the first when house-to-house resistance is encountered.

Third Line – Organized, equipped and disposed in the same manner as the second line with the addition of infantry details necessary for patrolling the occupied sections. The functions of this line will be to generally support the advanced lines, be in readiness to replace the second line in case it is merged into the first line, and to provide for the security of the sections occupied.

The second and third lines should normally advance street [LINE OF TEXT MISSING] objective distance in rear of the line next in advance and be in readiness to leap frog as ordered. Tanks or armored cars, if available, should be placed in the first line. They are particularly effective in debouching on cross streets or plazas or advancing on specially organized buildings.

The use of artillery in street fighting against a small nation enemy should be carefully considered. As before stated, the resistance will not be universal, as a rule, but only that of the worst elements. Unless this resistance is confined to more or less isolated sections artillery fire should be used with extreme care on account of endangering the lives of helpless innocents. Its functions in many cases can be fulfilled by special infantry weapons and machine guns. The infantryman being on the spot sees the major part of the resistance in human form and destroys only what he sees. The artilleryman, on board ship or on shore, sees only the area of resistance and destroys that plus almost anything else in the vicinity. The foregoing is not to be construed to the effect that the infantry is not extremely thankful for all the artillery support it can get at any time- only that under certain conditions it might not be strictly humane.

It is worthy of note that a few years ago it was the custom to bombard towns with ships’ guns when mopping up and at the same time the use of grenades was forbidden to the infantry on the ground that their use was inhumane. This situation has since been half-way reversed—grenades are issued.

Immediately upon the occupation of the seaports the next important step is the projection of mobile columns into the interior to pursue and destroy any irregular forces that may be in existence, cover production areas, and establish fortified posts—advanced bases for further operations.

The strength and composition of these columns will, of course, depend upon the probable resistance to be encountered, the terrain to be traversed, and the type and condition of existing communications. Normally, besides infantry with its special weapons, the addition of mounted detachments, armored cars and aircraft is desirable. Light field guns would rarely be necessary if the infantry be provided with 37-mm guns or Stokes mortars. No weapons which would tend to decrease mobility and which are not absolutely needed should be included.

The land transportation carried on Marine transports is always limited, and most of that necessary for the supply of mobile columns must be seized at the seaports. Due provision must be made for effecting this when the seaports are occupied. Of course, the transport seized in a country is adapted to the country—whatever the type. And in some cases the roads will permit of truck transport—a limited amount of which is always carried with expeditionary forces. A truck convoy with automatic rifle and grenade defense and an armored car escort is ideal if roads permit. If bull cart or pack transport is used mounted troops should be provided as escorts.

An excellent example of the organization and operation of a mobile column of the nature herein considered was the Pendleton Column which drove from Monte Cristi to Santiago in 1916. The affair was a correctly conceived, thoroughly planned, and well carried out; and signally demonstrated the possibilities of a limited number of troops with nondescript native transport operating in difficult country.



Captain B. A. Friedman is the editor of 21st Century Ellis and a field artillery office in the U.S. Marine Corps. He has been published in numerous journals is a founding member of the Military Writers Guild.