On Aug. 17, President Donald Trump, in the wake of the Barcelona terrorist attack, tweeted that we all should "Study what General Pershing of the United States did to terrorists when caught. There was no more Radical Islamic Terror for 35 years!" On Aug. 21, the president laid out his new Afghanistan policy, reversing campaign rhetoric by backing an open-ended increase of around 4,000 U.S. troops.
The two statements, separated by four days (or four months in Trump News-Cycle Time) were understandably treated as wholly separate events. But they are not. Trump's allusion to one of his favorite historical fables—an alleged Pershing mass killing which historians unanimously agree there is zero evidence of having ever taken place—advertises a core belief that has always been at tension with the president's expressed skepticism about military intervention. Namely, that a key tactical error separating America from victory against Islamic terrorists is the self-restricting embrace of "political correctness."
This formulation, long embraced by the likes of Ralph Peters, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Ben Carson, and Rick Santorum, can mean everything from the refusal to utter the phrase radical Islamic terrorism ("She won't even mention the words," Trump clucked at Hillary Clinton during one of their debates), to the broader and vaguer sense that America lacks the "will to win"…to straight-up violations of the Geneva Conventions.
"We're fighting a very politically correct war," candidate Trump lamented to Fox & Friends in December 2015. "When you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families."
In domestic fights against suspected bad guys, there is no equivalent to the countervailing Trumpian foreign policy tendency to eschew nation-building and avoid disastrous wars. This means that taking the proverbial gloves off America's internal law enforcement cops will likely be a one-way ratchet. President Trump, through his campaigning as the "law and order" candidate, to his appointment of Jeff Sessions as attorney general, issuance of succeeding travel bans, attempts to punish "sanctuary cities," fondness for draconian drug prohibition, pardoning of Joe Arpaio, mutual affection for recently resigned Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke, re-starting of the controversial 1033 program of transferring military surplus gear to local law enforcement, and much more, has sent the unmistakable message that he will aggressively move around any perceived impediment—including the judiciary branch and the United States Constitution—to give cops and prosecutors more power. He has never exhibited a drop of anxiety about potentially punishing the innocent or otherwise producing unintended consequences.
But overseas, there had been reason to hope that Trump's internal conflicts would at least produce some kind of draw. "Afghanistan is, is not going well. Nothing's going well—I guess we've been in Afghanistan almost 17 years," the president-elect said in a joint interview with Bild and The Times of London back in January, sounding not unlike Ron Paul, at least until his very next words: "But you look at all of the places, now in all fairness, we haven't let our people do what they're supposed to do….We haven't let our military win."
Why did the bellicose version of the 45th president win out over the intervention-skeptic? Some anti-war voices assert that with the exit of strategist Steve Bannon, the president's foreign policy has been captured by his generals. That may well have merit.
But Trump, and the people who supported and voted for him, and even man of his #NeverTrump antagonists, have long indulged in the dangerous delusion that military victory is achievable through the removal of proverbial handcuffs. This was true during primary season, through the general election, in the first seven months of his presidency, and after the Afghanistan re-surge announcement. And nowhere has that mindset been made more clear than in Trump's persistent claims, in the teeth of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that Gen. John J. "Blackjack" Pershing defeated radical Islamic terrorism for at least a generation by committing a hideous war crime.
On Aug. 15, during an intensely controversial press conference defending his zig-zaggy responses to the Charlottesville protests and aftermath, the president repeatedly stressed that, "I want to make sure, when I make a statement, that the statement is correct….I wanted to see the facts." Trump got into hot water, and deservedly so, for including among his facts that there were "very fine people" among the original tiki-torch demonstrators, but the gesture toward empirical humility was otherwise appropriate in a street-fighting world gone mad with wildly inaccurate characterizations of basic details. (For an exposition on which, I highly recommend this Matt Labash account in The Weekly Standard of an Antifa beat-down of a non-Nazi in Berkeley.)
Sadly, though not surprisingly, the president's adherence to rhetorically restrained crisis management did not last even two full days. On Aug. 17, just hours after a van plowed through the crowded streets of Las Ramblas, killing 13, Trump blurted this:
Study what General Pershing of the United States did to terrorists when caught. There was no more Radical Islamic Terror for 35 years!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 17, 2017
The word "study" here is almost exquisitely inapt. Trump was referencing one of his favorite shaggy-dog stories from the campaign trail, one that he kept on telling, even embellishing, despite widespread, well-documented pushback from academics, news organizations, and political competitors. In calling back to the tale as president, he demonstrated not only a cheerful disregard for the concept of learning, but a preference for military ruthlessness as strategy. As David French headlined it over at National Review, "In One Tweet, Donald Trump Just Spread Fake History, Libeled a Hero, and Admired an Alleged War Crime."
Candidate Trump first started telling this story in the military-heavy state of South Carolina, where in February of last year he was waging an eventually successful attempt to drive Jeb Bush out of the race by (rightly!) blaming the Bush family for the "big, fat mistake" of the Iraq War. Like Ted Cruz's vow to find out whether Middle Eastern sand "can glow in the dark," Trump's anecdote about Pershing putting down the Moro Rebellion in the Philippines a century ago served as a way to make a critique of neoconservatism go down with a bloody shot of Jacksonianism.
"They were having terrorism problems, just like we do," Trump said at the time, botching the analogy from the outset (the Moros were hardly anybody's threat to bring a nail bomb to Times Square). "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 fact-checking was immediate, and everywhere. Snopes traced the rumor in part to a Gary Cooper movie. The Associated Press, in a piece printed from coast to coast, described the story as "widely discredited." Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) called it "bizarre." Even unironic #MAGA hash-taggers like Lou Dobbs called the tale "apocryphal."
There are, as far as I can tell, only three historical scraps that remotely resemble Trump's yarn, and none of them come close to supporting his claim that Pershing (or anyone else) ordered the execution of Moro rebels with blood-soaked bullets. These sources are: 1) a Pershing memoir in which he describes a different man, Col. Frank West, publicly burying killed insurgents "in the same grave with a dead pig," in order to deter Muslims with fears of going to hell. 2) a letter discovered a half-century after, in which a serviceman (according to one paraphrase) recalls witnessing Pershing "hang a Moro chieftain by the heels over an open grave, kill a pig, and then drop the Moro into the grave with the bloody animal." That letter was been widely deemed by historians as at best 100 percent uncorroborated, and at worst a "fabrication." And 3) a 1927 article in the Chicago Tribune, in which:
Capt. Herman Archer relays the "well-known" tale of Gen. Pershing sprinkling captives with pig's blood and letting them go.
"Then [Pershing] announced that any Juramentado thereafter would be sprinkled with pig's blood," Archer wrote. "And those drops of porcine gore proved more powerful than bullets."
The correspondent does not seem to have personally witnessed this incident, but seems rather to be relaying a war story shared with him by others. No mass executions were reported by the Tribune, and the copy is peppered with characterizations of Muslim Filipinos as "savage sultans" and "devilish brown men"
So: No executions, no pig-bullets, and the only two sources that posit Pershing as a protagonist in any porcine strategy are deeply suspect. Meanwhile, as PolitiFact and others discovered when interviewing relevant academics, the general's actual approach on the ground was closer to the opposite of Trump's portrayal. "He did a lot of what we would call 'winning hearts and minds' and embraced reforms which helped end their resistance," Cameron University military historian Lance Janda told PolitiFact. The fact-checkers' conclusion? "Historians noted that Pershing pursued a less brutal approach to 'pacifying' the rebels in the southern Philippines than Leonard Wood, one of his predecessors."
There are many options available to someone who makes a gross historical error in public: You can quickly correct it and apologize, perhaps examine whether your mischaracterization of the facts calls into question the conclusions you derived from it, or at minimum drop it from your rhetorical rotation. Trump, again not surprisingly, chose none of the above.
Two months after the pig's blood anecdote had been thoroughly vetted, New York Times Magazine published a long account of Trump's unique campaign stylings. "The mainstays of his rallies," correspondent Jeff Sharlet wrote, "are parables, in which he channels such [empathetic-to-the-audience] sentiments into full-fledged, multivoiced dramatic scenes. Trump plays every role. There are three scenes in current rotation; if Trump worked off a set list, they might be labeled 'The Call,' 'The Snake' and 'The Bullet.'"
"The Bullet" was the fabricated Pershing anecdote. And the way Trump kept performing it throughout the 2016 campaign tells us a lot about the mindset governing his foreign policy in 2017 and beyond. This Sharlet excerpt is on the long side, but worth reading in full:
"Can you imagine what these people say about the United States? How weak we are?" […]
"There's a story I tell," he says. "This is when we were strong." The crowd cheers. Many have heard it before. He asks if they want to hear it again. "Should I tell it?" He asks three times.
It begins with a horse, and on the horse there's a general. The year is 1919; the place is the Philippines; the general is John J. Pershing, known as Black Jack. Trump does not name the war. It's not the point. "Tremendous terror problem," that's what you need to know, and that the terrorists are Muslims. The point is Pershing's solution:
"They catch 50 terrorists. … Today we read 'em their rights, take care of 'em, ba ba [the audience boos], we feed them the best food, make sure they have television, we give 'em areas to pray, it's a wonderful thing. We're wonderful people. We're wonderful, wonderful, stupid, stupid people [laughter]. So General Pershing, tough, tough guy … 50 terrorists … what happens is he lines 'em up to be shot. [A man shouts, "Yeah!"] Lines people up to be shot. … And as you know, swine, pig, all of that is a big problem for them. Big problem. He took two pigs, they chopped them open. [Trump chops his hand.] Took the bullets that were going to go and shoot these men. [Holds up an imaginary bullet pinched between thumb and finger.] Took the bullets. The 50 bullets. Dropped them in the pigs, swished them around [swishes] so there's blood all over those bullets.[Cheering.] Had his men, instructed his men [voice rising] to put the bullets into the rifles [thumps lectern]. They put the bullets into the rifles and they shot [he shouts the word; another man shouts, "Yeah!"] 49 men."
He tells it again, puts the imaginary bullets into an imaginary rifle and shoots his imagined 49 Muslims. "Boom."
He leans forward, squints and runs his words together: "a-pig-infested-bullet-in-each-one."
A woman shouts, "Yeah!"
Then, Trump says, they dumped the bodies into a mass grave—he waves his hand across the podium, sweeping the corpses in—and threw the gutted pigs on top of them. They took the final bullet—he holds it up again—and they gave it to the last man. "And they said, 'Here, take this bullet'"—he mimes handing it over – "'go back to your people'"—he jabs a finger at the last man's "people," and yet another man shouts, "Yeah!"— "'and explain what we just did!' "
Trump pauses. The crowd cheers. "This is history, folks."…We can choose to win, or we can choose to lose. For Trump, this is not a choice.
But the war-crimes strategy of foreign policy turns out to be more complicated to enact in the real world, as candidate Trump found out in March of last year when he had to walk back previous statements that service-members are "not going to refuse me, believe me." So how do you apply the anti-P.C., will-to-win, no-more-weakness bravado within the more established Beltway parameters?
You spend more money on the military. You make threatening noises to would-be adversaries. You increase droning, drop scarier bombs, double down on dirty wars. And yes, you surge. Before you know it, many of the same people who have beaten you up for bad ideas and worse manners will be standing loyally by your side.
"The gloves are off inside Afghanistan," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) enthused moments after Trump's Aug. 21 announcement. "I am proud of the fact that he listened to the generals and [showed] the will to stand up to radical Islam. I'm relieved he didn't take the advice to withdraw, which would had been disastrous….This is a war between radical Islam and the rest of us. They hate our guts and not going to stop fighting us until we kill them and stabilize Afghanistan."
Choosing Lindsey Graham's style of juvenile chest-puffery over Sebastian Gorka's may make for better media relations, but it moves America even further away from extricating itself from bloody military conflicts and expensive commitments that have no currently forseeable end point. Whether through fictitious pig-bullet or all-too-real semi-occupation of a miserable country, the fantasy that the United States can somehow will itself to victory is filling body bags, not ticker-tape parades.