War Stories

From Baghdad to Manila

Another lousy analogy for the occupation of Iraq.

Bush administration failing history?

The Bush administration seems, for the moment, to have stopped making analogies between post-Gulf War II Iraq and post-World War II Germany (an argument that has been refuted at least a couple of times). Now President Bush himself has taken to likening the democratic prospects of modern Iraq to those of the early 20th-century Philippines. In a recent speech in Manila, Bush said, speaking of the critics of the Iraqi occupation:

Democracy always has skeptics. Some say the culture of the Middle East will not sustain the institutions of democracy. The same doubts were proven wrong nearly six decades ago, when the Republic of the Philippines became the first democracy in Asia.

The comparison between Iraq and the Philippines may be more accurate than the one between Iraq and West Germany, but it is hardly more comforting. In fact, it is so discomfiting—it implies such a dismal forecast for America’s occupation in Iraq over the next several years (for that matter, the next few decades)—that it’s hard to imagine Bush would have made such a remark if he’d understood its full implications.

It is true, as Bush noted, that the Filipinos endured 300 years of Spanish rule and that they achieved independence in 1946. But Spain ended its rule in 1898. What happened during the 48-year unmentioned interregnum? Nothing pleasant, if the point of the inquiry is to seek parallels with Iraq after Saddam.

The Spanish empire ceded the Philippines to U.S. control in 1898 after losing that “splendid little war” in the Caribbean. The American military then invaded the Philippines and took over the capital, Manila, in fairly short order. Then, as now, the troubles began. Here’s how Max Boot described the ensuing conflict in his bookThe Savage Wars of Peace: “[T]hough successive U.S. generals proclaimed victory at hand, American soldiers kept dying in ambushes, telegraph lines kept getting cut, and army convoys kept getting attacked.”

Over the next three and a half years, until July 1902, when the Filipino guerrillas were finally subdued, the U.S. Army lost 4,234 soldiers. Another 2,818 were wounded. (By the Army’s own estimate, 69,000 Filipino combatants were killed, along with nearly 200,000 civilians.) The American war effort was marked by much burning, pillaging, and torturing, and the commanders finally achieved victory through a strategy of isolating the guerrillas. They did this by forcing the civilian population out of towns and into “protected zones”; able-bodied men found outside the zones without a pass were arrested or shot.

Even so, sporadic uprisings continued long after 1902. The American military occupation was forced to remain for 44 years. Surely Bush is not suggesting that victory in Iraq requires a similar strategy or timetable.

There is another unfortunate aspect to the Philippines parallel. Much of the resistance was led by “Moors”—i.e., Muslims. American politicians whipped up support for the war by painting it as a Christian crusade. President William McKinley’s official proclamation ending the Spanish-American War of 1898 declared his goal in the Philippines as one of “benevolent assimilation.” (The problem was that many Filipinos didn’t want to be assimilated.) McKinley later told a group of Methodist missionaries how he formulated this goal:

I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night. And one night late it came to me this way … that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all and to educate the Filipinos and uplift them and civilize and Christianize them.

Sen. Albert Beveridge reinforced the theme, saying:

God has not been preparing the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-contemplation and self-admiration. … He has made us adepts in government that we may administer government among savages and senile people.

The notion spread through popular culture. Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem “The White Man’s Burden” was subtitled, “The United States and the Philippine Islands.”

Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush sent shudders through an otherwise still-sympathetic Europe by declaring a “crusade” against terrorism—invoking fears that the United States would pursue the coming campaign as a war of civilizations, Christian versus Muslim. Now Bush is dancing around similar pitfalls by likening the occupation of Iraq to that of the Philippines, fanning the flames already sparking from the revelation that Gen. William Boykin commander of the units hunting down Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden—sees the war on terror and the war in Iraq explicitly as a titanic struggle between God and the Devil.

This is not to say that Bush agrees with Boykin or views the ongoing war in Iraq as a Christian burden. But, as has been true for most of this war, his administration’s words, declarations, and rationales have done more harm than good. At the very least, can’t the White House hire a good historian?