The Moro Rebellion and Trump’s Colonial Delusion

Donald Trump’s comments last night about the American suppression of Muslim Filipinos and Black Jack Pershing‘s alleged torture and slaughter of Moro prisoners has earned him his latest round of condemnation. In a campaign season full of horrific language, this still manages to take my breath away.

Most of the most vocal outrage is against the careless repetition of an old rumor which has no factual basis. To his credit, his GOP opponent Marco Rubio raises the more fundamental point that the message of the story is terrible. It is not just that the rumor is probably untrue. Why would anyone want it to be true?

Still, there is much more to this story, things that have escaped notice. Notice first that Trump managed to deliver this anecdote without ever referring to the place or the context. Not once. “They had a terrorism problem” is all he says. But who is “they”? The American colonial authorities in the occupied southern Philippines. Who are the “terrorists”? The Moro insurgents. That Muslims might reasonably favor not being a colonial possession does not even occur to the audience, because like most Americans, I suspect, they have no idea that the United States ever actually held overseas colonies (it still does, but that’s a story for another time and place, like here).

Even more frustrating is that the very premise of the false anecdote is false. Even if soldiers actually did dip bullets in pigs blood and slaughter prisoners of war, such a move to frighten the Moro insurgents did not actually work. What did work to quell the insurgency, instead, was (1) the promise of eventual independence, and (2) significant development efforts and legal reforms. Of course, this makes less of a story, that you defeat insurgents by acceding to most of their demands.

Fortunately, all of this comes just a couple days before we cover the American colonial regime in the Philippines in my Southeast Asian Politics course. We will have lots to cover.