Monday, January 31, 2005

The “Rover” Incident in Taiwan and the Making of US Marine Corps Small Wars Doctrine

In the 1800’s, the US Navy patrolled the sea-lanes of the world, essentially as the “little brother” of the much more powerful British Navy. The US Navy was a small force, barely one hundred vessels worldwide. After the US Civil War, American priorities had shifted from military pursuits to domestic priorities: building the transcontinental railroad, reconstructing the South, settling the West, and assimilating massive amounts of immigrants from Europe. As a consequence, the number of ships in the US fleet shrunk from a high of around 700 at the end of the War towards 60 by 1890. The period immediately after the War, during which the “Rover Incident” occurred was the start of this long decline. This period was also the high point of independence for the Admirals at the far ends of the world who represented US interests. Given the great distances from the US and the need for a quick response to challenges to US authority and power, US Navy Admirals were given great latitude to respond to slights of the American flag. During this period, even given the neglect suffered at hands of the US Government, the US Navy, and its Naval Infantry, the US Marine Corps, landed no less than 80 times around the world to conduct operations of various sizes. In 1867, immediately after the US Civil War, the Marines conducted one of these landings.

A large part of the responsibility of the US ships stationed in the Orient at Shimonoseki was to provide what protection they could to the US and British flagged merchants in the region. The support, however, was mostly punitive and after the fact. Given the distances and the scarcity of communications, often the best that could be done would be for the Navy to arrive on scene after a confrontation and extract retribution. Sometimes, this retribution would be in the form of demands issued from the decks of the ship, or perhaps include shelling or even a landing by the Marines.

The Marines had three roles during this period in American Naval History. The Marines were originally constituted by act of the Continental Congress in 1775 to serve “during the present war in the colonies.” However, their gallant performance in numerous battles during that conflict encouraged the Congress to continue funding of the force. Over time, the role of the Marines evolved.

Onboard ship, Marines enforced the captain’s discipline to ensure smooth operation of the ship and to prevent mutinies; served as the ship’s self defense force to repel boarders; and acted as infantry for operations ashore. During the “Rover Incident”, Marines fulfilled this last function.

As will be evident later in the paper, punishing the natives, though perhaps satisfying on a visceral level, ultimately proved counterproductive. Fortunately for the US Marine Corps, many of the officers involved in these various operations paid close attention and wrote extensively of their experiences. From these accounts, later Marines drafted a doctrine that came to be known as the Small Wars Doctrine, enshrined in the “Small Wars Manual.” One of these incidents that contributed to the drafting of this Marine Corps doctrine occurred on the Taiwan coast in 1867.

Following the shipwreck of the US merchant ship “Rover” on 13 March 1867, the survivors came ashore on the southeast coast of Taiwan, where they were set upon, murdered, and eaten by the local aborigines. The “Rover” had set sail from the Chinese port of Swatow for Newchang in the north of the country. Blown off course, the ship went aground in southern Taiwan. The badly damaged ship soon sank but not before Captain Hunt, his wife and the crew managed to row away from the wreck in small boats. The small party managed to make it ashore. However, members of the Koalut tribe, a group of Aboriginals, observed the progress of the sailors. A band of warriors swept down on the shipwrecked party and murdered all hands with the exception of one Chinese sailor. This sailor escaped to Takow (Kaoshiung) where he told his story to the local British consul. The consul then passed this information up the coast to the British consul in Taiwanfu (Taichung), who passed word to the British Ambassador in Peking, who told the American Ambassador, Mr. Anson Burlingame. There is an interesting note about Ambassador Burlingame. Once his tour of duty in China was complete in 1868, the government of China asked Burlingame to represent their interests in the West. Burlingame died in Russia in 1870 as the Chinese ambassador there.

Meanwhile, the British Navy, stationed at Taiwanfu (Taichung) in the person of Captain Broad, put to sea in the gunboat Comorant. Captain Broad intended to investigate the report, which had been obtained from the Chinese sailor, of the atrocity, and to rescue any Westerners should any still survive. The British Captain reached the scene of the slaughter on 26 March 1867. The Captain commenced his explorations in the area with the sailors he had onboard Cormorant. The Koaluts descended upon the exploration party and quickly drove the unprepared, and lightly armed sailors back to their ship. Unprepared for combat on land, and with no other options, Captain Broad shelled the natives, then withdrew to Takow.

The American consul for Amoy, General Charles W. LeGendre, attempted to contact the chief of the Kaoluts to obtain promises of good behavior in the future. The Kaoluts did not respond to his repeated requests. LeGendre then took his complaints to the local Chinese officials who argued they had no jurisdiction over the aborigines. (Davidson, p. 119)

In the words of the Qing Dynasty’s top official in Taiwan:

“The uncivilized aborigines are beyond the imperial domain and the realm of our civilization. The foreigners are advised to obey the boundary policy and not to venture into the forbidden aboriginal territory.”

Li Futai, the Governor of Fujian province echoed this sentiment in his report about the incident:
“The Koaluts tribe located in the aboriginal territory and the murderers are the uncivilized aborigines. They are not Chinese people. The territory is beyond the imperial domain and the capacity of our military authority. It is really difficult to meet the (American) request.” (Chang, p.25)

This is another interesting footnote to this period. Several in the contemporary Taiwan independence movement have seized upon these statements to argue that China recognized all along that Taiwan is not a part of that country. Whether these statements represent binding evidence under international law is a topic for another paper. However, the replies and the sentiments of the Chinese officials made it clear that China could not and would not be of assistance to the United States in this instance.

It is also interesting to note LeGendre’s involvement in the Japanese colonization of Taiwan. While serving as Foreign Affairs Advisor to the Japanese Government in 1874, General LeGendre wrote:

"Unless Japan takes possession of the series of islands from Karafuto (Sakhalin) Island in the north to Taiwan in the south, encircling China mainland in a crescent shape, and maintain foothold points in both Korea and Manchu, otherwise it is inadequate to ensure the safety of Empire and control East Asia.” (China Institute, p48)

LeGendre’s arguments made a deep impression on the Japanese, and gave impetus to their push to include Taiwan as a colonial possession. So, although LeGendre is tangential to the intellectual basis for the Taiwan independence movement, he is pivotal to Taiwan’s painful period of colonization.

Washington, although outraged by the massacre and by China’s tepid responses, nonetheless dithered as to the response. After three months’ delay, the War Department finally issued the order to the Far Eastern Fleet to respond. Admiral Bell of the Far Eastern Fleet assembled two ships of war, the Hartford and the Wyoming, and 181 Marines. Admiral Bell put this expedition under the command of Flag-Captain Belknap. The ships finally landed on 19 June.

Captain Belknap landed the Marines under the command of Lieutenant Commander McKenzie with the intent of punishing the aborigines. The attack was a dismal failure. The Marines blindly pursued the aborigines through thick jungle in withering heat. Many of the Americans succumbed to heat injuries. Additionally, the Aborigines adopted effective tactics of firing from cover and quickly moving their positions. In the lone decisive engagement with the Aborigines, the natives killed Lieutenant Commander McKenzie and forced the Marine to withdraw. The Marines did manage to kill some of the offending tribe members and probably killed a large number of innocent civilians, but were nonetheless ultimately forced to withdraw from the field when faced with the loss of their commanding officer. (Davidson, p. 115)

Later, the American Consul General LeGendre led an expedition of Chinese mercenaries into the interior of Taiwan with the intent of negotiating with the tribes. This is not so foolish an errand as it might sound. General LeGendre had been an accomplished General in the American Civil War, and had only retired to the diplomatic corps because of a debilitating injury that resulted in the loss of an eye. He was well acquainted with leading men into harm’s way, and had experience negotiating treaties. There probably was not better man in Asia available for the task General LeGendre undertook. (Stephenson) The diplomat had a couple of advantages when he finally located the Kaoluts to negotiate the treaty. The large mercenary force impressed the aborigines with the threat of uncontrolled violence. Secondly, General LeGendre was willing “to sacrifice a vain revenge (which might be hereafter used as a pretext for retaliation) to the incomparable advantage we would gain in securing ourselves against the recurrence of crimes we had come to punish.” (LeGendre) This last point is particularly salient. The reason the Kaoluts had murdered the crew of the Rover is because years before, without provocation, a group of foreigners had massacred a portion of the tribe. (Lin) So, the first time the tribe had a chance for revenge against foreigners, they had seized it.

Because of the advantages General LeGendre possessed, the aborigine tribe and their chief Taketok decided that it was in their best interest to conclude a peace treaty with the American. Eventually, General LeGendre persuaded the chief to give assistance to shipwrecked or foundering ships provided the mariners waved a red flag, signifying peaceful intention.

The “Rover” incident is a microcosm of the lessons learned by the Marine Corps in 100 years of fighting small wars. The Marine Corps defines small wars as:
“operations undertaken under executive authority, wherein military force is combined with diplomatic pressure in the internal or external affairs of another state whose government is unstable, inadequate, or unsatisfactory for the preservation of life and of such interests as are determined by the foreign policy of our nation.”

The “Rover Incident” fits into this definition, but as we will see later, everything that could go wrong in the initial encounter, did go wrong. Later, the American diplomat LeGendre did everything correctly.

The “Rover Incident” contains many lessons that Marines would later incorporate into the “Small Wars Manual.” The first of these lessons is that reprisals never work. The original attack by the aborigines on the survivors of the “Rover” was because of an earlier attack on the natives by foreigners. The attacks by the crew of the “Cormorant” and by the Marines only hardened the position of the Kaolut tribe and made it more difficult to negotiate with them. Using coercive force first only tends to backfire as noted in the “Small Wars Manual.” From the Psychology Chapter:
“Drastic punitive measures to induce surrender or action in the nature of reprisals may awaken sympathy [against the Marines]. Reprisals and punitive measures may result in the destruction of lives and property of innocent people and have an adverse effect on the [Marines who must carry out the measures]. (Small Wars Manual, p.18)

The primary “adverse effect” in this case was the death of poor unfortunate Lieutenant Commander McKenzie. However, because the British and American instinct in 1867 was to shoot first then collect the bodies, there could have been no other outcome. Violence in this case simply begat more violence.

To the credit of the Americans, General LeGendre had an instinctive grasp of the psychology of combatants, probably from his long experience in the Orient and from his days as a General in the American Civil War. He realized that the force the Americans could muster was inadequate to the task. 181 Marines were not enough in rough, mountainous terrain and freakishly hot, humid weather to engage or much less, intimidate the Kaoluts. So, realizing this fact, General LeGendre recruited and financed a force of approximately 1800 Chinese regulars and militia, and marched into Kaolut territory. The Kaolut were impressed by this show of force, and quickly agreed to negotiation. (Davidson, p 119) This show of force is an excellent example of going into an unknown situation armed and ready, but always seeking to negotiate.

“The aim is not to develop a belligerent spirit in our men, but one of caution and steadiness. Instead of employing force one strives to accomplish the purpose by diplomacy…[all the while] preventing, as far as possible any casualties among our own troops.” (Small Wars Manual, p.18)

The best way to prevent casualties and to accomplish the mission is to so impress your potential adversary that he does not bother to fight but is instead quite willing to negotiate. With the Kaolut, General LeGendre accomplished this most worthy of goals. This lesson and hundred of similar ones learned by the Marines in engagements from Latin America to Mainland China to Africa to the Philippines throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were ultimately distilled into the “Small Wars Manual.”

The Marine Corps took these lessons learned from the “Rover Incident” as well as those from numerous other engagements, and in the mid-1930’s, wrote a manual called the “Small Wars Manual.” This manual tells those who would study it how to fight and win small wars. And while it does include information on how to physically fight the battles necessary to win against an armed opponent, of far more interest are the chapters on Psychology and on Diplomacy.

The bulk of the “Small Wars Manual” is taken up with descriptions on how to fight and win battles in the rough terrain that a Marine is likely to find in what we would now call the “Third World.” The Manual contains voluminous information on preparing ambushes in various environments as well as details on numerous other tactical matters. There is also a lot of more prosaic information regarding the care and provisioning of pack animals and matters such as the best way to assist a pack mule in fording a river. But it is possible to disregard some of the outdated parts of the Manual and focus on the parts that are more or less timeless. The Manual contains an excellent discussion on three topics of great interest to warriors of today. Those topics are Strategy when dealing with insurgents, the psychology of the natives and the interrelationship between the military and civilians. Each will be examined in turn.

As an aside, also of great interest are the concluding chapters of the manual. The final two chapters of the Small Wars Manual are “Supervision of Elections” and “Withdrawal.” While the events in Taiwan in 1867 probably contributed little to the drafting of these two chapters, nor did the situation involving the negotiations Kaoluts require them, those two chapters definitely have relevance for the current situation in Iraq.

The chapter on strategy makes it clear that small wars can and often do occur in conjunction or simultaneously with the diplomatic effort. However, the key is that there must BE a diplomatic effort. “The military leader in [small wars] is limited to certain lines of action as to the strategy and even as to the tactics of the campaign. This feature has been so marked in past operations that Marines have been referred to as State Department Troops in past campaigns.” (Small Wars Manual, p 11) The military leader is part of the diplomatic effort, and not the main focus of effort. This is where small wars differ from major operations. The primary difference between “small wars” and “major operations” is that “in the latter case, war is undertaken only as a last resort after all diplomatic means of adjusting difference have failed and the military commander’s objective ordinarily becomes the armed forces. “ (Small Wars Manual, p11)

Here is where the “Rover Incident” is instructive. Both the British Captain and the American Captain charged to the scene of the murders, and without attempting any sort of mediation, began shooting. The hard lesson is that shooting first is NEVER going to work, unless the aggressive force kills ALL of the targeted people. Failing that, all that will be accomplished is to outrage the locals and make them even more recalcitrant. Small wars doctrine teaches that violence and threat of violence is only effective in the context of a larger diplomatic effort. The Kaoluts did not come around to negotiate until they realized that General LeGendre was serious not only about negotiating, but also about exacting punishment where he thwarted in his effort. The combined efforts of diplomacy with the credible threat of overwhelming force have been shown empirically to accomplish far more than just diplomacy or just violence.

The second and related topic of interest regards the psychology of the natives. The Small Wars Manual demands that Marines always act with tact when dealing with local populations. Treating potential adversaries with respect and deference has the potential of “sapping the strength of actual or potential hostile ranks by the judicious application of psychological principles [and] may be just as effective as battle casualties.” (Small Wars Manual p 19) Of particular interest to Marines regarding people they encounter are the following: Social customs, political affiliations and religious customs. Marines are cautioned that “appearance of political favoritism should be avoided, strict neutrality in such matters should be observed. [Further], indifference in the above matters can only be regarded as a lack of tact.” Small Wars Manual p19) Such an admonition to a Marine would be enough to let him know that his honor would be stained should he act less than tactfully when dealing with the local population.

Once again, the “Rover Incident” is illustrative. Without regard for the point of view of the natives, the Western forces ran around essentially trying to exterminate the Kaoluts. The Marines did not even know what tribe they were fighting. It was not until General LeGendre arrived on the scene with the sincere interest in negotiating with the Kaoluts as equals did the Americans realize their goals of preventing future atrocities at the hands of the Aboriginals and having American seamen cared for during times of distress.

The third area of interest in the Small Wars Manual is the relation between civilian and the military. There is a long tradition in the United States of having civilians control the military. There are a number of reasons for this, primarily to prevent the possibility of a military dictatorship. However, as a practical matter, experience has shown that having input from civilians regarding military matters can often de-escalate a situation whereas a “military only” solution could make matters worse. It is like the old aphorism: When your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. For the military, there is a danger that they will treat every problem as if it could be solved by the application of more firepower. The presence and input from civilians to the military can give more total tools to policy makers. There is not a direct line of control by civilians of the military except from the President, and his representative, the (then) Secretary of War. Nonetheless, Naval Regulations as quoted in the Small Wars Manual speak explicitly of the relationship between the State Department and Naval Forces (including Marines) operating in “small wars.”

(1) The Commander in Chief shall preserve, so far as possible, the most cordial relations with the diplomatic and consular representatives of the United States in foreign countries and extend to them the honors, salutes, and other official courtesies.
(2) He shall carefully and duly consider any request for service or other communication from such representatives.
(3) Although due weight should be given the opinions and advice of such representatives, a commanding officer is solely and entirely responsible to his own superior for all official acts in the administration of his command. (Small Wars Manual, p34)

While the third paragraph makes it clear that the on-scene military commander is still responsible for the actions of his command, the prudent commander will listen to the State Department representative, as admonished in the second paragraph.

The “Rover Incident” provides a useful example of this principle, although in the extreme. General LeGendre, as mentioned above, had commanded troops previously, and actually rode at the head of the column of troops that encountered the Kaoluts. Even during LeGendre’s day, such behavior was extraordinary for a diplomat, and is probably unthinkable today. Nonetheless, even though he commanded the troops, he never let that fact make him lose sight of the notion that he was a diplomat sent to negotiate, not a warrior sent to fight. By subordinating his martial impulses to his diplomatic ones, he was able to accomplish the mission that had eluded the military forces that had preceded him.

There are three additional, contemporary observations to make about the “Small Wars Manual.”

1) The date of publication is telling. It was published in 1940, immediately prior to the outbreak of hostilities in World War II. Because of the subject matter, this manual was largely put aside during World War II and Korean War because there was nothing small about either conflict. Both were large-scale wars with the goal of total victory. Military forces on both sides were engaged in total war, often with the goal of demoralizing the civilian population by destroying the civilian infrastructure. Such combat was orders of magnitude different from the scale of conflict envisioned by the Small Wars Manual.
2) As a consequence of putting the Manual aside in the 1940’s and 1950’s meant that it had been forgotten by the 1960’s when the US became involved in Vietnam. The United States forces in Vietnam made many of the same mistakes poor Captain Belknap made during his attacks in Taiwan. For example, General William Westmoreland, the Commander in Chief in Vietnam in the 1960’s, tried a conventional big-unit approach, with disastrous consequences. The relations of American soldiers with civilians were not, for the most part, characterized by "tolerance, sympathy and kindness" as required in the Pyschology chapter of the Small Wars Manual. Nor did the Americans turn over the fight to "native troops . . . as early as practicable" as required in the Civilian and Military Affairs portion.

3) The poor showing by US forces lead to a reappraisal of the Small Wars Manual, and the larger lessons were adopted in the most recent edition of the manual, which is in use by the Marines in Iraq. Security sweeps in Sunni areas of central Iraq are combined with efforts to reopen schools and hospitals. Marines are training Iraqi forces to police and safeguard themselves. Marine commanders make efforts to sit down with local leaders to listen to grievances, and come up with practicable solutions. This is not aimless humanitarianism but, as the manual reminds us, a vital step to winning hearts and minds. And it is interesting to note, that although the Army has been taking an average of a casualty a day, the Marine have not lost anyone since the end of the war.
It is easy to look at the “Rover Incident” as yet another occasion when western forces encountered a more primitive society and set out to punish those “primitives” for alleged slights. However, what this incident really shows is that the Aboriginal tribe that attacked and killed the sailors from the “Rover” were people with a grievance. They had been mistreated by foreigners in the past, and sought to take out their frustrations on the first group of vulnerable foreigners who came along. We cannot say that this fear of foreigners was unjustified nor was the response by the Aboriginal people necessarily an atrocity.

The Marines who came to mete out the reprisal were similarly acting in the way that they thought would best accomplish the mission. The Marines’ failure, as they failed in other reprisal missions around the World, forced a reassessment of the doctrine and led to the writing of the Small Wars Manual that we see is still in use today. The lessons in the Manual boil down to the simple proposition that people in countries the Marines must encounter are PEOPLE and not just targets. They are people who are subject to fear and responsive in different ways to pressure and reward. Captain Belknap’s Marines had not learned this lesson, while Consul LeGendre understood it instinctively. Fortunately for future Marines, enough of their forefathers paid attention to lessons like that of the “Rover” to save lives of Marines in our time.


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