Richard Reeves

The Uses and Abuses of History

WASHINGTON -- "America is proud of its part in the great story of the Filipino people," said President Bush to a joint session of the Congress of the Philippines last week. "Together our soldiers liberated the Philippines from colonial rule."

Unfortunately, we then killed more than 200,000 Filipinos. Almost all of the dead were civilians, killed in the two years after we liberated them from the Spanish in 1898. One of our generals there, a cranky Civil War veteran named Jacob Smith, told his men: "I wish you to kill and burn ... I want all persons killed who are capable of bearing arms in actual hostilities against the United States."

"How young?" asked Maj. Waller Tazewell Waller (cq) of the U.S. Marines. "Ten years and up," said Gen. Smith.

None of this was secret at the time. American soldiers -- we sent 70,000 there after the Spanish colonial authority surrendered when Commodore George Dewey's fleet sailed into Manila Harbor -- wrote of the details in letters to hometown newspapers. Here are samples quoted in a new book, "Flyboys," by James Bradley:

"We bombarded a place called Malabon, and then went in and killed every native we met, men, women and children" ... "This shooting human beings is a 'hot game' and beats rabbit hunting all to pieces" ... "Picking off niggers in the water is more fun than a turkey shoot" ... "I am probably growing hard-hearted, for I am in my glory when I can sight my gun on some dark skin and pull the trigger. Tell all my inquiring friends that I am doing everything I can for Old Glory and for America I love so well."

Back in Washington, President Theodore Roosevelt was calling that "the most glorious war in our nation's history." The Filipino victims he dismissed as "a syndicate of Chinese half-breeds."

George W. Bush knows all this. At Yale, he got a B in History 35, a study of that era, taught by John Morton Blum, a biographer of Theodore Roosevelt. And if he has forgotten, he could look up some of it in Bradley's book. This president's father, Lt. George H.W. Bush, U.S. Navy, is a hero of "Flyboys" (and of a CNN documentary with the same title), which includes a frightening section on American anti-Asian attitudes and Japanese anti-American and anti-Christian attitudes that fed slaughter, massacre and even cannibalism in World War II.

We are, more often than not, relatively decent people in war and occupation. The Spanish rulers of the 7,000 islands of the Philippines were worse than the Americans, and there was a significant anti-war movement at home between 1899 and 1902. On July Fourth of that year, Roosevelt declared victory, after 4,234 Americans were killed in guerrilla attacks during the first three years of occupation. Mark Twain proposed that the stripes of Old Glory should be black and red. Gen. Smith was court-martialed and Maj. Waller tried (and acquitted) on murder charges. During Smith's court-martial, one of his aides said, "If people know what a thieving, treacherous, worthless bunch of scoundrels these Filipinos are, they would think differently."

That quote, in Stanley Karnow's 1989 book, "In Our Image: America's Empire in the Philippines," illustrates one of the more important historical lessons of occupation: Not only do the occupied inevitably come to hate the occupiers, the occupiers come to hate the occupied. Last Wednesday, a New York Times story by John Tierney -- the headline began "Baffled Occupiers ..." -- quoted a GI watching over a Baghdad market as saying: "If you really want to know, I'm sick of being in a country where lying is the national pastime."

A second important lesson is this: The occupied always prevail in the end, because they are there forever and the occupier one day will go home. It may take 50 years, which is how long we stayed in the Philippines, but that is not much time in history.

History can be revised or downplayed for a time -- in Manila last week, everyone talked about new public schools and the 550 teachers sent from San Francisco in 1901 rather than the 70,000 occupiers -- but reality emerges at embarrassing times because history is forever. As another American president, Harry S. Truman, once said: "The only thing new in this world is the history you don't know."

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