Donald Trump Admires a (Fake) War Crime; or, Why the Philippine-American War is a Cautionary Tale for Nation Builders

Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Surprising nobody, Donald Trump is making headlines yet again for an outrageous statement. On the Friday before the South Carolina Republican primary, he told the story of US Army General John Pershing who, faced by recalcitrant Muslim insurgents during the US occupation of the Philippines, ordered the execution of 49 prisoners. To add quite literal insult to injury, Pershing ordered the executioners to use bullets dipped in pig’s blood, a violation of Islamic halal dietary restrictions. The goal was to strike fear into the hearts of Muslim Filipinos who may have been thinking of joining the resistance. The only way I can imagine making that story more appealing to neo-conservatives is to have Pershing, holding machine guns in both hands, howl, “Eat lead, pigs!”

New York Public Library, DIgital Image ID: 814469

Now, this is the point where I’m supposed to note that the story is false and, indeed, it is. It’s a variation on a long-running, chain letter hoax. Some versions have Pershing burying pig corpses with the bodies of slain insurgents and others have him dipping bullets in pig fat rather than pig blood. I suspect that the author of the story may have conflated an incident from the 19th century British occupation of India with the Philippine-American War. In 1857 a group of British-Indian soldiers, or sepoys, mutinied in part because of rumors regarding the use of pig fat in the ammunition for the newly-issued Enfield Rifles. That revolt was put down viciously by the British, who employed an execution tactic called “blowing from a gun,” which involved tying prisoners to the mouth of a cannon, which, when discharged, turned the victim into a collection of miscellaneous body parts. These public executions were designed to cow the locals; in other words, it was an act of terrorism.  In any case, you have here all the essential components of the Pershing hoax albeit jumbled up: Muslims, executions, pig residue, terrorism.

But I’m less interested in disproving the hoax than I am in highlighting that this hoax actually isn’t all that unbelievable in the context of the Philippine-American War, which was fraught with very real atrocities committed by US soldiers (although official accounts of the time valorized the conflict). The low end of estimates for people killed during the conflict is just under a quarter of a million, most of whom were civilians. Bald statistics are less compelling than individual stories, but we also have a multitude of accounts of massacres and torture inflicted on Filipinos from US soldiers writing home at a time before military censors were a commonplace. They describe US soldiers looting houses, killing “dagos”/”Injuns”/”niggers” indiscriminately, and executing wounded prisoners. Soldiers with some remaining shred of personal honor wondered why the US was in the Philippines at all or called for a general withdrawal from an unjust war. Soldiers without consciences described the slaughter either with glee or without passion, as something akin to hunting animals. It’s worth clicking through to the link above and reading some of these accounts. If your natural response afterwards is still applause, well, then I suppose I know who you’re voting for in the Republican primary.

A pro-McKinley political cartoon which presents a false choice.

A pro-McKinley political cartoon which presents a false choice.

And yet this was a war waged ostensibly for the betterment of the Philippine people. After the US took the islands from the Spanish during the Spanish-American War, President William McKinley was faced with a choice, either give the Philippines–who had fought alongside the US against the Spanish–their independence or turn them into the largest colony in the United States’ growing empire. Empire won, of course, or we wouldn’t be telling this story. But McKinley justified that decision through a religious appeal, telling a group of Methodist clergymen that God had gifted the Philippines to the United States so that we could “educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them.” A quarter of a million dead Filipinos give the lie to that reasoning, but it’s a logic that undergirds many instances of American foreign adventurism, from Woodrow Wilson’s war to make the world “safe for democracy” through George Bush’s and Barack Obama’s “War on Terror.” And yet such high-minded rhetoric routinely masks unnecessary deaths, insurgent blowback, and even outright war crimes committed by the US or its allies.

Which makes it rather bizarre that Trump would approve of the Pershing massacre story. After all, he is the only remaining Republican candidate to publicly condemn the US invasion of Iraq, blaming the US for the destabilization of the region and the subsequent rise of ISIS. Insurgents feed off of accounts of oppression and atrocities, the realer the better. ISIS was born in the bowels of Abu Ghraib prison and the US mistreatment of prisoners there is commonly cited by Sunnis fighting against the US-backed Shiite government of Iraq. The lesson of the US invasion of Iraq is the same as that of our occupation of the Philippines. Just stop doing it. Oppression begets resistance. Hatred breeds hatred. And every time we forget that lesson, we end up with blood on our hands.

If you are interested in scholarly work on the Spanish-American and/or Philippine-American War that highlights the role of religion, I’d recommend the following:
Matthew McCullough, The Cross of War: Christian Nationalism and U.S. Expansion in the Spanish-American War (Wisconsin, 2014).
Susan Harris, God’s Arbiters: Americans and the Philippines, 1898-1902 (Oxford, 2011).
Anna Su, Exporting Freedom: Religious Liberty and American Power (Harvard, 2016).

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