After a surprise attack on Balangiga, Philippines, in 1901 that killed Forty-eight Americans, the occupying American forces, under the command of General Jacob “Hell Roaring Jake” Smith opted to cordon, embargo, and otherwise lay siege to the island of Samar:
The resulting onslaught killed upwards of 50,000 Filipinos. General Smith was eventually court martialed and forced to retire. The punishment, especially in today's world, seems disproportionately light, in large part due to the belief in the Total War concept. The simple fact was that senior leaders believed that “short, severe wars are the most humane in the end. No civilized war…can be carried on on a humanitarian basis.”
This tale, from the 1899-1913 Philippine-American War, is one of many that led America to its current geopolitical quagmire, but in order to understand its importance we must first understand its history. The short answer is: The South China Sea, through which nearly half the world's economic goods travel every single day, and while that's certainly important today, it was even more important at the time when a growing America was attempting to emerge as a global economic power.
After colonizing the Philippines, the U.S. Navy gained the ability to project power in both the Atlantic and the Pacific, giving the U.S. merchant vessels the protection they needed to trade with Japan and China. As with every other time in history, an economy that's exporting is typically an economy that is growing, and with it the political and military power of its host nation. However, a global export reach is not without its downsides; this increased economic reliance on exports to China and Japan drove American Imperialism between 1880 and 1920 and with it the aforementioned war and its atrocities.
At this time in human history, we still subscribed to the Total War doctrine, in which not only did the ends justified the means, but where countries amassed millions of troops and bombs in an effort to overwhelm their opponents. The prevailing doctrine at the time, captured by Stanley Baldwin, was to win a war you had to "kill more women and children than the enemy."
In hindsight, the adoption of this doctrine had disastrous consequences in terms of human suffering in both of the World Wars, and its utilization led to much of America's inability to perform in Vietnam through its failed Operation Rolling Thunder. Tragically, however, little thought is given to how this poisonous military doctrine afflicted the lesser-known conflicts like that of the Philippine-American War; lesser still is thought given to how this historic grievance can inflame descendants of those affected, to the detriment of everyone involved, nearly a century later.
Last month, Filipino President, Rodrigo Duterte calls for strengthening ties with China and cooling relations with the United States. While this rhetoric has not yet been mirrored by any official change in policy with the United States, Duterte has a long history of anti-American rhetoric and action. Prior to his election as president, he served as mayor to the town of Davao, where he clamped down on crime and violence with ruthless efficiency through summary executions by police and the use of plain clothes assassins.
Once reaching the national stage, Duterte has been quick to condemn the United States using the Philippine-American War and the Cold War conflict in the Middle East to gain political points with his constituents implying that, because of the situation in the Middle East today, and the atrocities committed during the Philippine-American War, many of the terrorist organizations in the Philippines were driven to exist out of necessity. In effect, it was the U.S. and Great Britain that created these terrorist organizations, and countries like The Philippines should strike a balance between maintaining law and order, and developing an understanding of these individuals.
Terrorist organizations like those in the Philippines have some ties back to Afghanistan, where they received training and expertise fighting against the Soviet invasion along side Al Qaeda. Eventually, much like Al Qaeda, they would find their way to resent U.S. imperialism as much as they did Soviet expansionism. While U.S. involvement in arming and training Al Qaeda happened well after the military doctrine shifted from "Total War" to "Unconventional Warfare," the motives remained the same as they had in the Philippines a century earlier: Economic Security. The primary difference between the two conflicts was in deciding whether U.S. soldiers, or U.S. armed rebels, would be doing the fighting to secure the sea, or land-based, trade routes.
During the fall-out of either war, the methods used to combat this terrorism also differed; in Afghanistan the local government was unable and unwilling to combat their extremists within the country, so Operation Enduring Freedom was launched as a defacto invasion of the country. In the Philippines, with the local government being more-or-less functional against extremists, a subtler approach could be used: primarily through use of the U.S. special forces, JSOTF-P, team. This team, with the help of the Philippine government has been able to thwart numerous 9/11 style attacks before they would have occurred, including the prolific Bojinka Plot.
Unfortunately, due to Duterte's cooling relations with Washington, America's ability to combat these extremists can potentially lessen significantly, and we will - instead - be forced to rely more heavily on the Philippine government to combat these extremists on their own. However, while President Duterte is extremely vocal about requesting U.S. withdraw from his country, this rhetoric has not yet been propagated to the U.S. in any sort of official request; which means that, as of this article, there's no significant change to Philippine-American relations. What's significant isn't the potential for decreased security collaboration between the U.S. and the Philippines, but the main rhetorical device that Duterte is using. Durterte is capitalizing on U.S. apathy in the area and utilizing historic references, like the US funding of Al Qaeda, and the US led massacre of Muslims at Bud Dajo, in order to do so.
Ultimately, the lesson behind this dive into history is simple: Action has consequences. With the lesson being so simple, why would the U.S. and her allies seek to be involved in these potentially dangerous entanglements in the first place?
I briefly mentioned earlier that the U.S. response in both the Afghanistan-USSR and Philippine-American wars: Economic Security. At this point in our history, it would be disingenuous to state that our involvement with Afghanistan started as an existential threat to the U.S. from communism; as with most of the Cold War involvements, it was about containing the USSR. The control of the Hindu Kush, along with other entanglements that limited the Soviet Union's access to warm water ports, limited not only the Soviet Union's military options, but crippled their economy which led to the eventual toppling of the super power.
Similarly, the U.S. presence in the Philippines can be traced back to World War I, when the U.S. sought to expand its naval projection into both hemispheres in the event of another World War. The colony would prove even more valuable after a decades-long conflict between Great Britain and China, known as The Opium Wars, which eventually led to the opening of a self-sufficient China to foreign trade shifting the trade imbalance that would have jettisoned China into a super-power status in the mid 1800s. This increased global trade access, along with the emerging blue water U.S. Navy would prove the Philippines to be an invaluable asset to the new U.S. super power. Unfortunately, this would lead to not only the Philippine-American war, but also play a significant role in the South China Sea conflict that would debut nearly 150 years later.
Both of these actions, along with the numerous subsequent actions by nearly every major power involved, would lead to the Global War on Terror. The resulting animosity from the Filipino Government under Duterte, the intermittent popular support enjoyed by extremist organizations and their propaganda campaigns in not only the Philippines but also the Middle East can all be traced back to this era in U.S. and European History. Unfortunately for us, the story continues to unfold, and we continue to make similar mistakes as those that led us to this part of history.
Take, for instance, the attacks on Paris in November of 2015 and the western response to these attacks. With the civil war in Syria raging on, countless thousands of refugees have begun fleeing into western countries seeking the safety of more stable and secure governments. The combined effect of fear for repeat attacks on cities like Paris, and the uncertainty that these western economies can handle caring for these refugees has led to the erection of walls, arguably in violation of international law.
Barriers in the name of security, and defiance through bureaucratic incompetence, for the sake of an all too common theme: Economic Security. Currently, a nation has stepped up to handle the migrant crisis (though, not for any altruistic motivations), and unfortunately that nation is Turkey whose failed July coup attempt has led to a swath of human rights violations that threaten to tear the deal apart. With no suitable replacement deal available, and the new President-Elect Donald Trump vowing to enforce "extreme vetting" of Syrian refugees, to include an ideological test, it's unlikely that the U.S. would be able to ease the burden should the Turkish Bulwark break.
The resulting apathy of the European Bloc and the U.S. would only increase human suffering, cause increased inflammatory commentary from world leaders like Duterte, and further legitimize the intermittent popular support that violent extremists enjoy in various parts of the world; all in pursuit of the elusive goal of Economic Security. It's clear that President-Elect Donald Trump was elected with just this goal in mind, and with the Recession of 2008 not having been far removed from the election, we can't exactly blame the American population for its vote.
We must, however, be careful that we are not repeating the mistakes of our past. This pursuit of Economic Security cannot, nor should it, usurp the pursuit of minimizing human suffering or promoting the American ideals of equality, democracy, and freedom. Furthermore, as the ongoing War on Terror has all-but definitively proven, combating terror on the scale that we've forced ourselves to runs contrary to this elusive goal. In order to achieve this elusive goal, to "Make America Great Again," if you will, we have to understand what American Economic Security actually entails.
For many, it means nothing more than enjoying a dinner out with your loved ones without worrying about your checking account; for others, it means having a dependable and healthy retirement to enjoy your twilight years with. For nearly everyone though, it amounts to the desire to live a life of dignity. These motivations were no less prevalent during the Philippine-American War, when a country off the wake of World War I was intent to maintain not only its Economic Security, but its rightful place as a world power.
Like us, they sought to recover from a decade of war, and recover from a great panic. In the 1800s, we did not call economic downturns “recessions” or “depressions”; we called them “panics,” and the Panic of 1893 has many parallels with the Recession of 2008; not least of which, the theme of outrage and dissent among the American populace. Like 2008, the Panic of 1893 occurred during the peak of wealth disparity in the country, and like 2016 the 1896 presidential election was heavily influenced between those who prioritized social progress (like education) against those who sought to chase the elusive goal of Economic Security, with Republican William McKinley running on the slogan"Four more years of a full dinner pail."
Like 1896, the appeal of Economic Security would prove to be greater than the appeal of social progress during the 2016 election, and unfortunately this choice may prove to have long-term disastrous effects on the global stage. To be clear: These long term effects will likely have little to do with the presidential election itself, and more to do with the priorities of the American people. In much the same way as criminalizing the Latinos in Los Angeles led to increased crime and violence, and the War on Drugs created a new for-profit slavery system in America, decisions inspired by presidential campaigns are seldom made by presidents themselves.
There were many problems with this election cycle that could have inspired actions that have not yet manifested; actions carried out by actors that may not have the support of the American people or her leaders, but feel they're operating within the fold. Radicals emboldened by commentaries that inflame the imagination have led to protests in Chicago, calls for a Calexit, and numerous accounts of violence against Muslim women and LGBT members within the first two days of the conclusion of this election cycle.
Contrary to what many pundits on the left are saying, these actions have little to do with the inflammatory comments made by Donald Trump during his campaign; they can be traced to him, but they are not directly attributable. Donald Trump ran on a campaign of political insensitivity, but with a focus on Economic Security. However, as history shows us, if he truly wants to "Make America Great Again," then he'll need more than talk of walls and vetting; he'll need more than just the allure of Economic Security. President-Elect Trump will need to manage the current political sensitivities of the growing humanitarian crisis in Syria/Turkey, and the cooling relationships with partners like the Philippines, against the historical backdrop that created them. He'll need to understand the need for social progress in order to manage its cost; and better understand the difficult history of America's pursuit for Economic Security in order to temper expectations.