America’s First Quagmire

With the United States descending into a deepening morass of fundamentalist Christianity, tolerance of other people’s beliefs is nowhere more in danger than in Washington, DC, where the current occupant of the White House, George W Bush, believes that he has a pipeline straight to god, and that it is a Christian god specifically.

From the day the United States was founded, according to him and his right-wing followers, it has been guided by a certain muscular religiosity that enabled the country to become more powerful and richer than any on the planet. But the fact is that the divine fire in American politicians’ bowels has got them into about as much trouble as it has ever got them out of.

There is no better case than the Philippines in 1898, when, as far as can be determined, the last president before Mr. Bush to seek divine guidance as a prelude to invading a country not at war with the United States was William F. McKinley, shortly after the Americans drove the Spanish out of their colony. As Bush did prior to the Iraqi invasion in 2003, McKinley got on the floor and consulted with his maker:

"I walked the floor of the White House until midnight, and I am not ashamed to tell you gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed God Almighty for light and guidance for more than one night,” McKinley told a group of ministers after his decision. And one night late it came to me this way, I don't know how it was, but it came.”

That the Philippines was already 90 per cent Christian after more than 300 years of colonization by Spanish Catholics was glossed over because God told McKinley there was nothing left to do "but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God's grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow men for whom Christ died.”

Before the uplifting, civilizing, educating and Christianizing of what the Americans called "our little brown brothers" could begin in earnest, though, they first had to be subdued. In 1899 the shooting started and ultimately 126,000 US army soldiers were required to occupy and dismantle the fledgling republic that the Filipinos established themselves after the islands were liberated. Their tactics and actions would ultimately scandalize the American public and set the stage for what would happen at My Lai and the sites of other atrocities in Vietnam and equally disheartening incidents today in Iraq.

Indeed, if Americans are shocked today at “waterboarding,” the practice of torturing prisoners by making them think they are drowning, they would be a good deal more shocked at the invention by US troops in the Philippine of what was called the "water cure" as a method of extracting information. Here is how it was described at the time by one Sergeant Charles S Riley of the 26th Infantry:

"The prisoner was tied and placed on his back under a water tank holding probably 100 gallons. The faucet was opened and a stream of water was forced down or allowed to run down his throat." When the prisoner was about as full as a water balloon, Riley wrote, "it was forced out of him by pressing a foot on his stomach" while a native interpreter stood over him "saying some word which I should judge meant `confess' or `answer'."

It would get worse as the war wore on. On September 28, 1901, American troops in Balangiga on the southern coast of Samar Island were set upon by hundreds of machete-armed native fighters, many disguised as women, who inflicted what was described by historians as the army’s "worst single defeat" in the Philippines.

That led to one of the most shameful episodes in US military history. Brigadier General Jacob H Smith ordered troops to "reduce Samar to a howling wilderness," as he called it. What Smith wrought makes the slaying of 24 Iraqi civilians by US Marines in the western town of Haditha in 2005 look like peaceful pacification. In Haditha, marines were charged with shooting men, women and children in retaliation after a roadside bomb killed a lance corporal. But in Balanginga, Smith issued orders to kill anybody capable of bearing arms. By some estimates, as many as 50,000 Filipinos are believed to have died. The US Army burnt houses, destroyed boats, slaughtered water buffalo and confiscated food stocks from starving people.

Ultimately, Smith was court-martialed and cashiered from the army but Samar was only one of dozens of bloody encounters. In a statement symbolic of the bitter divide back home over America's imperial adventure, the antiwar steelmaker Andrew Carnegie would write to one leading Philippine hawk: "You seem to have about finished your work of civilizing the Filipinos. It is thought that about 8,000 of them have been completely civilized and sent to heaven. I hope you like it."

Then as now, war critics were derided and ridiculed; a succession of presidents branded Carnegie a “peace crank.”

Nonetheless, a kind of peace was declared in the Philippines in 1903, much as Bush declared "Mission Accomplished" weeks after the invasion of Iraq. And, as in Iraq, the insurgency dragged on. Ultimately, upwards of 200,000 Filipino insurgents and noncombatants alike are estimated to have died. A total of 4,234 American servicemen died with perhaps 5,000 wounded.

Fighting continued sporadically until 1913, by which time American missionaries had arrived in vast numbers, something like the “institution-builders” of the Green Zone in Iraq, and Filipinos were taught to speak English and imitate the American political institutions that function so imperfectly in the Philippines to this day. On July 4, 1946, after US forces drove the Japanese out in World War II, the Philippines was given independence by Washington, a date with so little significance for Filipinos that they eventually adopted June 12, 1898, the date their ill-fated republic was declared, as Independence Day.

McKinley, a devout Methodist, is said to be the role model for Bush and his administration, certainly from a governing standpoint. Under the Bush blueprint, individual states are being given greater authority, private property is paramount and government oversight and regulation are returning to 1900 levels, with corruption and environmental degradation rising to levels not seen in generations.

Given the looming electoral results for Republicans this week, Karl Rove, the president's political adviser, is rapidly being disabused of the notion that, as McKinley's evangelical governance prepared the US for a generation of Republican dominance, the Bush administration will similarly lead to decades of GOP government.

But it is Bush's eerie religiosity more than his governing style that attracts comparisons to McKinley. It is a religious devotion that is causing the Bush administration to reverse 215 years of strict Constitutional separation of church and state as federal money rains down on “faith-based” non-governmental organizations and Christian prayer dominates cabinet meetings, facts that would stun atheist firebrands like the patriot Patrick Henry and deists like Thomas Jefferson, who played such a role in writing the Declaration of Independence and forming the American republic.

Bush these days appears to be growing less convinced that the US is cruising comfortably to victory in Iraq. If he now has conveniently forgotten he ever used the words “stay the course” in Iraq, he appears grimly determined nonetheless to hang on as the country increasingly descends into chaos.

But he should remember the .45 caliber model M1911 automatic pistol. John Moses Browning of the Colt firearms company designed the .45, with a slug almost half an inch in diameter, because the army needed a pistol with massive firepower at close range. The army's .38 caliber revolver would not stop the suicide bombers of the day, the Filipino Muslim fighters of Mindanao, also known more familiarly in the Philippines as Juramentado because they took a Muslim oath to slay Christians until they die.

That ought to have a familiar ring.