Democratic Presidential nominee Barack Obama was touring the Middle East when a well-known columnist for a major US newspaper tried to point the way out of the mess in Iraq by citing lessons from another American military misadventure more than a century ago – in the Philippines.
Unfortunately, conservative commentator Michael Medved's piece for USA Today, "Filipino war's lesson for Iraq," draws distorted, even dangerous, lessons from the tragedy in our homeland.
He begins by drawing parallels between the current presidential race and the 1900 contest between William Jennings Bryan and William McKinley. Medved describes Bryan as the "handsome young Democratic nominee" known as "the most spellbinding orator of his generation" who promised "dramatic change to correct economic injustice" and an end to the American occupation of the Philippines. He was up against the older McKinley, a Civil War veteran and avid supporter of the occupation whom Medved portrayed as the "tough, fight-it-out Republican" and "a hero in his youth (three decades earlier) in the Civil War."
Echoes of Obama versus McCain indeed.
But McCain probably would not appreciate being too closely compared to McKinley, given that US president's bizarre, even creepy, account of how he came to realize that America must occupy the Philippines. In one of the oddest anecdotes in the history of the US presidency, McKinley recalled how he "went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance," which made him see that "there was nothing left for us to do but … to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them."
(Apparently, McKinley did not get a memo telling him that the Philippines was then a staunchly Catholic nation -- another reason for McCain to balk at any close identification with the former president, given his own foreign affairs faux pas like mixing up Sunnis and Shiites and referring to a non-existent Iraq-Pakistan border.)
Still, it's not surprising that Medved and other conservatives are hoping for a repeat of that chapter in US history: After all, the older, more hawkish Republican McKinley won that election against the "inexperienced but charismatic anti-imperialist Democrat."
But Filipinos and Filipino Americans should find Medved's version of the Philippine-American War troubling. "This nearly forgotten conflict deserves renewed attention today since the parallels with our present predicament count as both eerie and illuminating," he writes.
But then Medved recasts the bloody conflict as a war that the United States "stumbled into" but from which emerged a free and happy nation ever so grateful for American generosity and compassion. He cites former President Manuel L. Quezon's famous quote, "Damn the Americans! Why don't they tyrannize us more?"
Medved essentially is asking: Now why in the world can't we do that again in Iraq?
"Our failure to 'tyrannize' our Iraqi allies could similarly destroy the chances of the Islamist terrorists who oppose us," he writes. "The outcome in today's Middle East remains uncertain, but our painful Philippine experience a century ago suggests that a positive result is still possible through a combination of public patience, battlefield brilliance and compassionate determination to provide better lives and freedom to the far-away people who became the war's chief victims."
I nearly choked when I read this for while Medved made a passing reference to water cure, the notorious torture technique the US military used against Filipino independence forces (and used in Iraq under the name "water boarding"), and while he noted that at least 200,000 Filipinos died in the conflict (other historians cite a higher figure), he downplayed the more sordid chapters of the Philippine-American War: the massacres, the brutal military campaigns, the suppression of basic Filipino civil and human rights.
Medved writes that "for the most part, America's volunteer troops maintained high morale, resenting anti-war activists back home because they understood this agitation encouraged the enemy." I suspect "high morale" had nothing to do with what happened in the town of Balangiga, Samar when General Jake Smith told his men to turn the island into a "howling wilderness" so that "even birds could not live there."
"Kill and burn! The more you kill and burn, the better you will please me,"' he ordered. Asked to clarify who the troops' targets were among the population, the general replied: "Everything over 10."
Medved also ignores the blatant racism of US political leaders led by President William Howard Taft, who served as governor-general of the islands, and who called Filipinos "our little brown brothers.''
Then there was the former U.S. superintendent who helped set up an American-style public school system in the Philippines who argued that the Filipinos "are children, and childlike, do not know what is best for them. . . By the very fact of our superiority of civilization and our greater capacity for industrial activity, we are bound to exercise over them a profound social influence.''
Medved's piece reminded me of the now despicable concept of the “white man's burden,” that famous exhortation to Western domination. The phrase was actually coined by British poet Rudyard Kipling during this period in support of the American colonization of the Philippines and other former Spanish colonies. Reading just a part of the poem today would make one cringe.
"Take up the White Man's burden
Send forth the best ye breed
Go, bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait, in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild
Your new-caught sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child..."
The great American writer Mark Twain was so horrified by US atrocities in our homeland that he called the $20 million the United States paid for the Philippines an "entrance fee into society -- the Society of Sceptered Thieves."
"The White Man's Burden has been sung,"' Twain wrote. "Who will sing the Brown Man's?"
Twain also once said, "History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme." In his bid to justify an unpopular war in Iraq, Medved came up with a mangled account of a dark chapter in our history that has neither rhyme nor reason.
Copyright 2008 by Benjamin Pimentel
Bay Area journalist Benjamin Pimentel can be reached at www.bpimentel.blogspot.com