Before he won the South Carolina primary this weekend, Republican front-runner Donald Trump made some more incendiary remarks.
In a speech where he championed a harsh approach to counterterrorism -- including methods that are deemed to violate the Geneva Convention -- Trump trotted out a supposed history lesson from the early 20th century. He recounted an oft-told urban legend about U.S. Gen. John J. Pershing, who helped wage a counterinsurgency in the southern Philippines.
My colleagues Jenna Johnson and Jose DelReal detailed what Trump said:
As the crowd cheered him on, Trump told them about Pershing — “rough guy, rough guy” — who was fighting terrorism in the early 1900s. Trump didn't say where this happened, but variations of this story online usually state that it happened in the Philippines during the Philippine-American War — part of the island nation's protracted battle for independence — early in Pershing’s career.
“They were having terrorism problems, just like we do,” Trump said. “And he caught 50 terrorists who did tremendous damage and killed many people. And he took the 50 terrorists, and he took 50 men and he dipped 50 bullets in pigs’ blood — you heard that, right? He took 50 bullets, and he dipped them in pigs’ blood. And he had his men load his rifles, and he lined up the 50 people, and they shot 49 of those people. And the 50th person, he said: You go back to your people, and you tell them what happened. And for 25 years, there wasn’t a problem. Okay? Twenty-five years, there wasn’t a problem.”
The implication here, as shocked critics immediately pointed out, is that such brutal, gratuitous, religiously offensive measures should be embraced in the current fight against jihadist groups such as the Islamic State. (Pigs and their associated pork products are deemed impure in Islam.)
Incidents in recent memory where U.S. soldiers allegedly desecrated the corpses of Islamist militants and set fire to copies of the Koran did little to dissuade would-be jihadists and quite a lot to embarrass officials in Washington.
Moreover, the story is most likely not true.
After distinguishing himself in command of a regiment of black soldiers during decisive engagements of the Spanish-American War in Cuba, Pershing was sent thousands of miles away to the Philippines, an archipelago territory ceded by Madrid to Washington. In the southern island of Mindanao, Pershing defeated a local Moro rebellion by 1913.
Trump is right that Pershing was a "tough guy." Gen. Douglas MacArthur, another famous American commander who waged war in the Philippines, described how Pershing's "ramrod bearing, steely gaze and confidence-inspiring jaw created almost a caricature of nature's soldier."
But that doesn't mean he adopted the methods Trump says he did against the Moros, who belonged to Mindanao's Muslim population. As the myth-busting website Snopes documents, Pershing actually took steps to avoid "any action that would encourage religious fanaticism." At best, anecdotal evidence suggests he may have once threatened a handful of village mullahs with a vow to bury militants in "pig skins."
That was a method, according to another account, employed by a different American colonel who would inter the bodies of Moro fighters with the corpses of pig carcasses to deter other religiously minded insurgents.
American troops occupied the Philippines for almost half a century, squashing a range of rebellions in that time with varying degrees of both brutality and success. And the Philippines was hardly alone. U.S. troops in the early 20th century took part in myriad invasions and occupations, primarily in the Caribbean and Central America. Governments were toppled, banana republics installed.
Trump's invocation of this ugly, likely apocryphal legend is perhaps less useful as justification for the practice of waterboarding or other forms torture, but for his own admission that this represents a history not often discussed in the United States.
Indeed, some of the first documented instances of Americans practicing waterboarding took place in the Philippines, where republican "insurrectionists" were administered the "water cure" shortly after control of the islands passed from Spain to the U.S.
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