From the Philippines Conquest to Afghanistan, the U.S. Trains Local Police in Brutality

News Abroad

Jeremy Kuzmarov is an assistant professor of history at the University of Tulsa and author of The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs. He wrote this article for The Asia-Pacific Journal.

As the U.S. expands the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Obama administration has placed a premium on police training programs.  The stated aim is to provide security to the population so as to enable local forces to gradually take over from the military in completing the pacification process.  A similar strategy has been pursued by the United States in Iraq.  In both, American-backed forces have been implicated in sectarian violence, death squad activity and torture.  At the same time, the weaponry and equipment that the U.S. provided has frequently found its way into the hands of insurgents, many of whom have infiltrated the state security apparatus, contributing to the long-drawn out nature of both conflicts.

Ignored in mainstream media commentary and “think tank” analyses is the fact that the destructive consequences of American strategy in the Middle-East and Central Asia today are consistent with practices honed over more than a century in the poor nations of the periphery.  Police training has been central to American attempts to expand its reach from the conquest of the Philippines at the dawn of the twentieth century through the Cold War era to today.  Presented to the public in both the target country and the United States as humanitarian initiatives designed to strengthen democratic development and public security, these programs achieved neither, but were critical to securing the power base of local elites amenable to U.S. economic and political interests and contributed to massive human rights violations.  They helped to facilitate the rise of powerful anti-democratic forces, which operated above the law, contributing to endemic violence, state terrorism and corruption…. (1)

In 1898, seeking access to the vast “China market” and building the foundation of its seizure of Hawaii, the United States entered the great “imperial game” through its colonization of the Philippines.  From 1899-1902, the U.S. military waged a relentless campaign to suppress the nationalist movement for independence, resulting in the death of perhaps two million Filipinos and the destruction of the societal fabric.  As the fighting waned, the Philippines Commission under future president William H. Taft focused on building an indigenous police force, officered by Americans, which was capable of finishing off the insurgents and establishing order.  The constabulary engaged in patrols for over a decade to suppress nationalist and messianic peasant revolts in the countryside.  It frequently employed scorched earth tactics and presided over numerous massacres, including killing hundreds of civilians at Bud Dajo in the Moro province of Mindanao, where Muslims refused to acquiesce to American power and rule.

As Alfred W. McCoy documents in his outstanding new book, Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines and the Rise of the Surveillance State, the constabulary’s success in serving U.S. imperial interests owed largely to the role of military intelligence officers in imparting pioneering methods of data management and covert techniques of surveillance, which were appropriated by domestic policing agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), during the first Red Scare.  Under the command of Harry H. Bandholtz, the constabulary’s secret service became especially effective in adopting psychological warfare techniques, such as the wearing of disguises, fabricating disinformation and recruiting paid informants and saboteurs in their efforts to “break up bands of political plotters.”  They monitored the press, carried out periodic assassinations and compiled dossiers on thousands of individuals as well as information on the corruption of America’s Filipino proxies as means to keep them tied to the occupation.

One of the major technical achievements was an alarm system, which ended dependence on the public telephone.  American advisors further imparted new administrative and fingerprinting techniques, which allowed for an expansion of the police’s social control capabilities.  The declaration of martial law ensured minimal governmental oversight and facilitated surveillance and arrests without due process. Torture, including the notorious water cure, was widely employed.

After the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus in Cavite and Batangas due to heavy guerrilla activity, William Cameron Forbes, a grandson of philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson who served as Commissioner of Commerce and Police from 1904 to 1908 and Governor General from 1909-1913, noted in his journal that “the constabulary was now free to run in the suspects.  A lot of innocent people will be put in jail for a while, but it will also mean that some guilty ones will be caught and the cancer will be cut.”  These comments exemplify the ends justifies the means philosophy underpinning the abuse of human rights, which was characteristic of later interventions as well.  Racism was another prominent factor.  Henry T. Allen, the first chief of the constabulary, characteristically referred to Filipinos resisting the United States as suffering from “intense ignorance” and the “fanatical” characteristics of “semi-savagery.”  He added, in a letter to Taft, that “education and roads will effect what is desired, but while awaiting these, drastic measures are obligatory…The only remedy is killing and for the same reason that a rabid dog must be disposed of.”

In his memoir, Bullets and Bolos, constabulary officer John R. White, who went on to serve with the U.S. military in World War I, recounts how his men razed houses, “plundered all that they could carry away” and destroyed sugar and other foodstuffs in the attempt to isolate and starve the Moro enemy in Mindanao.  In the end, they left the pretty plateau a “burned and scarred sore.”  This was hard,” he wrote, “but necessary for we did not want the job of taking Mindanao again.”  The tactics pioneered in the Philippines paved the way for later American action under the Strategic Hamlet program in South Vietnam.

The constabulary ultimately succeeded in infiltrating and sowing dissension within radical organizations, including an incipient labor movement, contributing to their implosion.  It even played a role in apostolic succession by undermining the influence of Bishop Gregorio Aglipay through the spread of disinformation.  He was a nationalist with socialist sympathies whose services were attended by thousands of the urban poor.  The legacy of political repression and corruption survived long after the Philippines was granted independence in the mid-1930s.  The constabulary and police have maintained their notoriety for brutality, right up to the present, as new waves of repression and violence are being launched under the guise of the “War on Terror.”

“Popping Off Cacos”:  The U.S. Gendarmerie and Racial Slaughter in Haiti

American policies in the Philippines were replicated in the Caribbean during the colonial occupations of the 1910s and 1920s, where they contributed to the spread of considerable violence and repression.  In Haiti, the Gendarmerie was the brainchild of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who, influenced by his cousin, Teddy, viewed the creation of a local police force as a cost-effective means of advancing U.S. reach.  The Gendarmerie was mobilized primarily to fight against nationalist rebels, known as the Cacos, and to oversee brutal forced labor regiments imposed by the United States.  As in the Philippines, the United States provided modern police technologies, including communications equipment and fingerprinting techniques, and worked to improve administration and records collection to aid in the monitoring of dissident activity.  In a prelude to the Cold War, riot control training was also provided to facilitate the crack down on urban demonstrations and strikes.  American officers taunted people using racial epithets and did not usually object when rioters were badly beaten and clubbed, sometimes to death.

Journalist Samuel G. Inman observed that the Gendarmerie enjoyed practically “unlimited power” in the districts where they served, creating opportunities for extortion and kickbacks.  “He is the judge of practically all civil and criminal cases, the paymaster for all funds from the central government and ex-officio director of the schools inasmuch as he pays the teachers.  He controls the mayor and city council since they cannot spend funds without his ok.  As collector of taxes, he exercises a strong influence on all individuals in the community.”  These comments exemplify the consequences of U.S. policy in giving too much power to police units, resulting in systematic abuse.

The Gendarmerie was especially valued for obtaining intelligence and adopted, as a precursor to the CIA, psychological warfare tactics, including the spread of disinformation, the playing on native superstitions, and use of disguises to induce defections and infiltrate enemy camps.  One of the Gendarmerie’s chief psy-war experts, Captain Herman H. Hanneken blackened his skin, disguised himself as a Caco and bribed a bodyguard to gain access to the camp of leader Charlemagne Peralte, who became known as the “black Christ” after images of his decapitated body strung up on a cross were disseminated for intimidation purposes.  Political terrorism would remain a feature of American counter-insurgency strategy through the Vietnam War-era and continuing today in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The violence that was endemic to the American occupation of Haiti was in large part racial.  On search and destroy missions, “popping off” Cacos was likened to a sport, much like with the “pulajanes,” “ladrones” and “gu-gus” in the Philippines, and later the “gooks” in Vietnam.  Colonel Robert Denig noted in his diary that “life to Haitians is cheap, murder is nothing.”  Lieutenant Faustin Wirkus added that killing Haitian rebels was like playing “hit the nigger and get a cigar games” at amusement parks back home.  After the Caco movement was destroyed and the Marines were withdrawn, the United States continued to arm and train the Gendarmerie which it recognized as a pivotal instrument of power.  Following a period of military rule in the 1940s, François “Papa Doc” Duvalier used the police to suppress political dissent, orchestrating what internal reports referred to as “an active campaign of harassment and terrorism all over the country.”  This fit in with a broader regional pattern, as the U.S.-created National Guard evolved into the political instrument of dictators Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua and Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, both having emerged from police ranks.  The police programs thus contributed not only to the spread of political violence in suppressing anti-occupational resistance, but also paved the way for an era of strong-armed rule and state terrorism after American colonial occupations formally ended….

Many of the worst features of American police training programs have been evident in the contemporary occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, which sought to incorporate methods that were honed in previous interventions.  That these methods bred horrific consequences was of little importance to policy-makers for whom the ends seemingly justify the means.  While differing political contexts have ensured different results historically, there are some patterns that emerge as universal, namely the role of the United States in imparting sophisticated policing equipment and trying to professionalize the internal security apparatus of client regimes as a means of fortifying their power and repressing the political opposition.  New technologies have been developed to try and hasten the efficiency of this latter task, though the overriding goal has remained the same, from the Philippines occupation forward.  American society is at a cross-roads:  it can continue to pursue the destructive path of empire, leading to endless cycles of violence and warfare as well as environmental degradation and economic hardship and political repression at home, or it can adopt a more humble, non-violent approach to foreign policy and thus serve as a beacon for world peace while redirecting the country’s resources towards constructive ends.  There is still time to embrace this latter option, although the Obama administration is moving in the wrong direction, and time is getting short if our civilization is to survive with its moral integrity intact.

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dabu d quinn - 5/23/2010

Often when I read about violence run a muck my mind creates images of unorganized infrastructures and very like as way of professional police security, which is ever present in a true civilization

Something as simple as visual conditioning to amber warning lights and emergency police lights can make a complete stake in the masses learning and understanding the reality of civil order.

dabu d quinn - 5/23/2010

emergency lighting, lightbar, sirens, warning lights, emergency equipment, LED lights, police lighting, emergency warning lighting, beacon, emergency vehicle lighting