April 15, 2006

Rhyming History

I've discussed the great significance of the Spanish-American War and the ensuing war and occupation in the Philippines before: in an essay detailing our view of our role in "civilizing" the world (even if it involved killing a quarter of a million civilians), including some truly shocking excerpts from Albert Beveridge's speech to the Senate; and this entry about why Thomas B. Reed retired from the House of Representatives, because he could not accept our country's decision to follow the course of empire. Reed knew that, in time, if that decision were not altered, it would ultimately destroy the American republic. Honest observers today must acknowledge that he was correct.

It is certainly true, as a friend recently reminded me, that the United States had always followed an expansionist ideology -- an ideology that relied on brutal and even genocidal means. That program was justified on the same grounds: that the United States represented an "ideal" form of government, which entitled it to move into territory as it determined in its sole judgment -- and to eradicate the people who were already there, if that was considered "necessary." I will leave you to ponder the monstrous contradiction inherent in the idea of an alleged "ideal" government that utilizes genocide to actualize its aims. I should also add that the related demonization of other races was part of the fundamental fabric of the United States since its founding and in the earlier colonial period, with its critical reliance on slavery.

People who cling to the notion of the United States as representing the highest point of human development (thus far, at any rate) usually argue that the abstract political principles embedded in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution (that "all men are created equal" in particular) outweigh these "defects." And they usually go on to add that the Civil War was the terrible price the U.S. paid for this grievous error -- as if that settled the question and tipped the scales fully in favor of the "ideal" conception of our country.

This kind of argument is singularly unpersuasive, and it ignores the persistence and importance of cultural realities. We all know that virulent racism persisted long after the Civil War, and that it was embodied in governmental action itself (the Jim Crow laws and the Japanese internment of World War II, among other examples). But racism as a cultural force has been equally if not more important. We see it in the fact that an obviously racist screed such as Charles Murray's The Bell Curve is viewed as "serious" and "respectable," and you can find many other current examples. Most recently, we saw the persistence of an especially vicious racism in the aftermath of Katrina.

The inescapable truth is that announcing the correct abstract principles -- or having the "right" ideas -- does very little to guarantee that culture will adjust itself accordingly. If you have any doubt about this point, consider the personal parallel, which I consider to be close to exact: we all know that, when we are trying to alter a certain aspect of our behavior (whether thought or action, or a combination of both), we can arrive at what we consider to be the "right" idea or conclusion. But it still may be months or years before our behavior conforms itself to the new idea and, in some instances, such conformance forever escapes our grasp. These issues are very complex, and I will address them in more detail in a new series that I hope to begin in the next several days. That series will be titled, "Systems of Obedience: The State and Ideology."

Let me return to the Philippines episode. Even though the U.S. embraced an expansionist ideology from its inception, the Spanish-American War and its aftermath nonetheless represented a critical historic shift: what had been confined within the continental borders of our country now expanded overseas, and in time took in the entire world. I offer the following excerpt from an article about a forthcoming book because I don't think this history can be repeated often enough. Americans suffer from a genuinely deplorable historical amnesia. Most of us -- including most disastrously most of our political leaders -- act as if history began only five or ten years ago. We remember nothing, and we learn nothing. This self-made blindness has terrible consequences, as we are seeing again in the Middle East today. I've often pointed out that the Western powers have been seriously interfering and meddling with the Middle East since World War I, and the United States has been the primary interloper since World War II. We remember none of this -- but the peoples of the Middle East do.

That this history is alive to those in the Middle East is the primary reason for their resentment and hatred of the U.S. But since we render ourselves entirely ignorant of our own behavior, we can delude ourselves into believing that "they" hate us because of our "freedom," as our especially ignorant president likes to say repeatedly. For the great majority of people (excluding intellectual zealots, religious or secular in nature, foreign or domestic), deep resentment and hatred does not spring from philosophical, abstract disagreement. It is almost always rooted in how particular people have acted towards us, and how those people have directly affected our lives. When others have invaded our countries, toppled our governments, and interfered in our affairs in innumerable ways over a period of many decades, resentment and hatred are normal, entirely predictable reactions. But we refuse to see any of this.

As I've noted before, many of the central elements of our conduct as a nation in foreign policy matters were established in the Philippines. If you weren't convinced of that before, consider this:
It was Mark Twain who said, "History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme." Few today remember that the celebrated author was also a vocal critic of a U.S. war of empire a century ago: the invasion of the Philippines.

Historian Paul Kramer, in his new book "The Blood of Government: Race, Empire, the United States and the Philippines" (University of North Carolina Press), details the long-forgotten history of the Philippine-American war and the 40-year occupation that followed. He argues that the Philippine adventure in many ways "rhymes" with the current U.S. occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Among the "eerier similarities," said Kramer, professor of history at The Johns Hopkins University:

- A conventional invasion and speedy victory followed by an unexpected, protracted non-conventional insurgency.

- Violations of human rights norms by the occupying Americans.

- Repeated claims that the war was justified by and fought on behalf of higher principles of "civilization" or "freedom."

- Declarations that the war was over in hopes of ending domestic controversy about it.

- The sense that it was America's right, duty and obligation to engage in nation building and installing "democracy," of which the United States was considered an unblemished example.

"I'm not surprised at these parallels," Kramer said. "Indeed, what's remarkable is our persistence in suppressing the memory of this earlier war, a persistence that I think is all that makes debacles like the present one 'surprising.'"

The U.S. experience in Vietnam is another example of the nation's inability to focus on the lessons of the Philippine-American War, he said.

"In all three conflicts," Kramer said, "U.S. officials predicted easy victories, underestimated guerrilla forces and, arrogantly assuming their objectives were universally shared, were shocked when U.S. troops were not greeted as 'liberators.'"
The article contains many more details of the Philippine war, including this: "It involved 126,000 U.S. troops and resulted in nearly 5,000 U.S. casualties, an estimated 12,000 Filipino military casualties, and the death by violence, dislocation and disease of an estimated 250,000 Filipino civilians." And there is this:
Increasingly, U.S. soldiers would see the entire population as the enemy, expressing their hatred using racial terminology like "goo-goo" (which later evolved into the Vietnam-era "gook"). They would also use increasingly harsh tactics, including the burning of whole villages and the torture of prisoners using what was called the "water cure" (the antecedent to today's "water-boarding").
Today, we see all this again in Iraq -- and in our unforgivable ignorance, we are "surprised."

What is so astonishing and horrifying about our self-imposed ignorance are the costs that it exacts -- from us, and from those we victimize by our actions. And all of it is entirely unnecessary: if people would simply pick up a few books, read them, and think about their content, we could avoid all these costs, and we would not be in Iraq today (and possibly Iran tomorrow).

It doesn't seem to be asking all that much. And yet, it is beyond the grasp of most Americans, and most of our leaders resolutely refuse to engage in such an exercise. So the tragedies and the deaths go on, and on, and on...

(At the moment, my only income is from donations for my writing here and at The Sacred Moment. If you find this post and my other writing of some value, I would be very grateful if you considered making a contribution. I'm trying to get some money together for some badly needed medical attention, so donations in any amount would be especially appreciated right now. Many, many thanks.)