American Imperialism, 1902

by zunguzungu

I’m still rolling the discussion from the previous post over in my head, but I can’t not post this piece I just came across from turn of the last century journalist Poultney Bigelow, who’s writing about the American occupation of the Philippines. It sort of speaks for itself, not only in how little the American military’s mode of operation has changed but in the rhetorical frames through which patriotic journalists write about and explain atrocities. You can read “How to Convert a White Man Into a Savage” right here, but I’ve more or less quoted most of it:

HE was a blue-eyed, fair-haired youngster, maybe twenty-five years old—tall, deep chested, a head carried high on a muscular and shapely neck. He won me by his frank, direct smile—an infallible index of temperament…We were chatting in a group after dinner at the West Point mess. The talk ran into the Philippines. I was curious to know whether our troops had ever practiced torture upon the natives…I should like to reproduce the simplicity and directness of what I heard that night—the refreshing absence of bombast, the flash of the eye, the quality of vocal vibration that accompanies truth.

Ah, the American soldier! This fellow will be played by Alexander Skarsgård.

” Can I tell you anything about the Filipino? Very little. I have been several thousands of miles through those islands, but I cannot say that I have seen fifty of the enemy. They are expert scouts; they have complete machinery for carrying news of our movements and the moment our little column starts the news is at once flashed along ahead and on both sides by means of the telegraph, heliograph, flags, smoke columns or runners. The people who entertain us, who wait on us, who proclaim themselves our amigos—our friends—they are, and of necessity must be, our secret enemies. If they did not give proof of their loyalty to the insurrectos, not only would they themselves be assassinated, but all their family would suffer the same fate, and probably be tortured into the bargain. The reason why this treachery is universal is that the peace-loving Filipinos do not trust the United States—are not sure that Uncle Sam intends to keep the Stars and Stripes floating there. None of our officers are yet clear as to the exact policy of our Government, and it is not strange therefore that the average native should adopt a course which is, after all, the least of two evils.

(Catch that? The insurgency is because they aren’t sure we’ll stay)

“One evening the village gave us a grand fiesta or reception; it was in honor of the American Commissioner, who had come to establish civil government and to listen to the native protestation of love for the American Constitution. All passed off delightfully. The notable men among the native officials rose in succession and spread themselves in oratory loyal to the United States. We were assured that all the towns of the district felt as they felt, that we would have a pleasant journey from one point to another, receiving the loyal welcome of every community. Our Civil Commissioners were delighted, and the fact was cabled to Washington as evidence that all that was needed was gentle government. Next day I started out with a small escort to occupy the next town and had not gone far when an old woman met us with the advice to turn back, for there were insurrectos in our path…We were about fifty men and we soon ran up against some five hundred of them, who only stood a short time and then disappeared, leaving a dozen or so of dead and wounded. Of the dead Filipinos, two were identified as orators who had entertained us on the previous evening with professions of undying love and loyalty!

(It’s so hard to find good natives these days)

“What in other countries would be called marching, in the Philippines is creeping along like a tiger. There are no roads to speak of; we have to follow trails through a jungle so thick that one can move but in single file—can see but a few feet in any direction. The natives are masters of the art of making traps for wild beasts, and they hunt United States soldiers after the same fashion. They dig in our path pits skillfully masked, so that our men fall into them and are impaled on poisoned stakes. And then at unexpected intervals a thread is stretched in the grass at their feet, and when that is snapped a bent sapling springs into position with several poisoned spears attached. You cannot enter a deserted cabin without running the risk of letting loose a spring of this sort with some poisoned spearheads attached; usually the mere stepping on the sill or front doorstep is the signal.

(IED’s. Why won’t they stand and fight?)

“One of these traps nearly finished me. Fortunately the spears passed me— one in front, one behind—half an inch of variation would have done the business. I cannot tell exactly what the poison is, but it is supposed to be animal decomposition. At any rate, it is effective. One of my men was struck by such a spear trap in the left side. He was treated immediately, but without effect. His extremities turned black—his nose, his feet, his fingers—and he soon died in great agony. It was hard to sit by the poor fellow and watch his torments without being able to do anything for him. After his death our surgeon cut the part open where the spear had gone in and drew off several tablespoonfuls of a blackish matter, which he pronounced as something wholly strange to his experience—certainly a deadly and a swift poison.

(I love that he literalizes his titular metaphor; the white man is literally being turned black.)

“We creep through the jungle with little worry regarding bullets, but at every step watching for trace of a trap or a poisoned spear—an enemy more dangerous than a snake, equally difficult to see. After a few horrible deaths by these hidden weapons, we hit upon the device of taking a prisoner and letting him show us the way. We held him by a rope so that he could not suddenly disappear in the brush, and now and then even a native was killed by the poison of his fellows—possibly by the very spear he had himself placed in position! Yes, it’s brutal, it’s revolting to a white man; yet we’re ordered to do it; if we don’t we are guilty of military insubordination ; if we do we are branded as cruel!

(A certain fascinating vascillation between “we hit upon” and being “ordered to do it” that we still see; is the source of atrocities the orders from above or the occasional bad apple? And, of course, the real victim is the American soldier.)

“War in the Philippines consists mainly in creeping up and down the country in search of an enemy, who retires as we advance, who advances as we retire. He never attacks save when our men are in a hopeless minority; his tactics are those of the red Indian. So long as we confine ourselves to marching up and down after him he has no objection to the war lasting forever; for our occupation brings a great deal of money into the country, and this money is spent mainly among the natives who pretend to be friendly, but are in truth supporting the popular cause. From a strictly military point of view, therefore, the only thing we can do, and the only thing that has so far brought us forward in the direction of peace, is to make war upon the whole population and to conduct it with so much determination that the whole Philippine population will recognize the fact that they are dealing with a force that must be obeyed.

(Quite literally, he is making war on an entire national population in order to bring peace to that nation. “We had to destroy the village to save it.”)

“War then resolves itself into wholesale devastation. Every house that can harbor a native must be burned, every store of food must be carried away or destroyed; every animal that can assist the enemy must be shot (notably the water buffalo), and, harder still, every man, woman and child must be regarded as an enemy. It was piteous to me when I saw dead on the ground the body of a twelve year old boy. The sergeant who had shot him told me he had done it with reluctance, but he had to shoot. The youngster died with a gun in his hands! We do not to-day think of Grant, or Sherman, or Sheridan as monsters of cruelty, yet even against our Christian kinsfolk of Virginia and Georgia they issued orders under which whole sections of fertile country were converted into a wilderness, women and children turned out as beggars into the roads, every male treated as a prisoner of war!

(We often forget that the American civil war was one of the first examples of total war, long before bombing of civilian cities came to be commonplace, but Americans in the late 19th understood quite well what the price of union victory had been.)

Not one of the officers I met who had campaigned in the Philippines had seen torture by the water cure or heard of its being used by authority. But all united in declaring that the natives practiced torture freely upon one another, and that if a white man ever practiced it upon a native it was in a case where he knew that said native was concealing arms and required but small pressure to induce him to reveal his secret.

(No white man would ever do such a thing, except maybe if they did it was totally necessary. The child I tortured was a terrorist!)

I venture to think that my friends of the Peace Congress could do no greater service to humanity than to revise our school histories so that these might teach not merely the gaudy and glorious side of warfare, but at the same time the dark and monotonous murder which is sometimes an ally in imperial progress.