Over at The New York Times, columnist Ross Douthat has stirred a blog ruckus by comparing the current US occupation of Iraq to America's 1899 invasion and subsequent 47-year occupation of the Philippines.
Before getting into the historical food fight, it should be noted that Mr. Douthat makes some basic mistakes about the current US conflicts. Comparing Iraq and Afghanistan, Douthat writes that "Afghanistan may be "the good war" to most Americans, but Iraq's size, location, history and resources mean that it's still by far the more important one."
If size of country mattered in comparing the relative value of occupations, Afghanistan would actually be the more important. Afghanistan has more people than Iraq (33 million versus 29 million) and more land (647,500 sq km versus 437,072 sq km). To be sure, Iraq has vast oil reserves.
But it was the comparison between Iraq and the Philippines that touched off controversy. From the beginning the merits of the Iraq invasion have been fought over through historical analogy to past US wars, with proponents drawing parallels to World War II and detractors seeing similarities to Vietnam. Douthat, however, reaches into more obscure conflicts past for lessons:
These twists and turns make Iraq look less like either Vietnam or World War II -- the analogies that politicians and pundits keep closest at hand -- and more like an amalgamation of the Korean War and America's McKinley-era counterinsurgency in the Philippines. Like Iraq, those were murky, bloody conflicts that generated long-term benefits but enormous short-term costs.
The United States used scorched-earth methods and torture and killed tens of thousands of civilians in the war there. In The Philippines Muslim south, folk tales circulate about the cruelty of US forces to this day. Though the US military now has warm relations with its Filipino counterpart, America's sprawling military bases in the country -- a legacy of World War II -- were shuttered by Filipino politicians in 1992, many of whom complained of US "imperialism."
In response to Douthat's piece Spencer Ackerman points out that the Philippines experience hardly conforms to current thinking on counterinsurgency as an effort to win over the local population. Ackerman writes that the Philippines war was "extremely bloody [and] accomplished with great and indiscriminate violence." Filipinos have become enduring allies of the United States, but not due to McKinley-era adventurism, argues Mr. Ackerman.
[T]he hinge point in U.S.-Philippine history -- what yielded the friendship and closeness that the two nations presently enjoy -- was the Japanese occupation of the Philippines. [In response] we drive the Japanese from the Philippines; the amount of gratitude is overwhelming; a partnership has been our inheritance ever since.
Others, including historian David Sibley, disagree that World War II marked such a turning point. He argues that Filipino-American reconciliation started before the Japanese invasion. However, Mr. Sibley and others deeply question Douthat's argument that the Philippines ultimately paid out long-term benefits for the US. "[T]he Philippines was simply not really usable militarily. Taking the Philippines essentially put the United States and Japan on a collision course out of which it was hard to steer."
The conquest and occupation didn't particularly help the US in World War II, as the archipelago was conquered in short order and at great cost to the US.... If his point is the extremely modest 'US imperialism was better than Japanese or German', then fine, but that amounts to arguing that our torturers are more gentle than their torturers, so Go American!!!