Sorry Trump, Pershing’s Actual Solution Was So Much Better

By David Malcolm

The recent terror attack in Barcelona is a great shock to the world and once again, those seeking to divide humanity and put people’s lives at risk in order to fulfil a sick agenda have struck out in hatred and anger. Much like the far-right in Charlottesville, terrorist groups see no reason why innocent people should not suffer.

And Trump’s response is sadly typical of the man. Rather than offer a sombre mood or send out reassurance (which he briefly did at first), he’d rather use the terrible incident for his own gain. Spin the story to reflect on his prevailing narrative of fearmongering, of a nation on edge and at war with dark forces.

It is sadly ironic that Trump and his far-right supporters are no better than ISIS.

The tweet in question refers to a story that General John J. Pershing, the famous WWI general, was deployed to the Philippines to help deal with radical Islamic terrorism. His solution was to shoot 49 Muslim prisoners with bullets dipped in pig’s blood before releasing the last prisoner to tell the tale.

This story is patently false as five minutes searching on Google confirms. The story derived from one letter written in 1960 by one soldier and is mostly anecdotal. It has been thoroughly debunked by many historians and experts which, as you’d expect, means that Trump has decided to take on the story as gospel truth. Why let a little thing like the truth get in the way of a good story?

This is wrong and dangerous. It is an outright lie whose sole purpose, in this case, is to cast Trump’s ideology with the cloak of legitimacy. In fact, it is fake news in itself. It reduces a widespread, diverse religion with many complex ideas and codes on morality (not unlike Christianity or Judaism) to the level of a horror film or comic strip. It sets up the very idea that ISIS wants the West to take on: the idea of Muslims being the ‘other’, the outsider, the threat to civilisation.

It is truly ironic that, with a little more digging and investigation, John J. Pershing’s response to terrorism in the Philippines was actually fairly bloodless. Perhaps if Trump had paid attention in history class, he might have learnt that Pershing’s main goal was not to overreact to acts of terror or to cause actions that would fuel fanaticism. Rather than face the fanatics head-on, he restrained his troops and cut the supply lines of his enemy, depriving them of their will to fight. That was the real reason that there was no ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ for 25 years after Pershing.

In fact, Pershing’s solution understates what must have been a trying time for the man. Attacks against civilians that aim to spread fear and terror are nothing new, but neither are the solutions.

The first solution is the most obvious: fight fire with fire. This calls for the other side to disregard their moral code and exterminate their enemy. Sometimes it works, but mostly it fails. When it does succeed, it only serves to drive a deeper wedge into the population. Its failures are clear to see from the Spanish guerrillas who resisted Napoleon’s invasion of Spain to the Irish Republican Army,  and even to the Taliban.

The second solution is the most difficult to accomplish: to rise above the atrocities and work to deprive the enemy of their will to fight through efficient military force, winning the hearts of the people and dividing the extremist elements amongst themselves. It is very difficult to follow such tactics. It is so easy for soldiers to exact vengeance, to see the people they try to protect as the enemy but it does achieve results if done correctly.

Pershing went for option two and he got results. His restraint, despite what the anecdotal evidence suggests, was the real reason for the reason why there was no ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ in the Philippines.

Trump would probably prefer option one out of the common belief that we need simple solutions to the problem, but terrorism is not simple. It is much more complex and much more difficult than it might seem. Sadly, like the KKK, ISIS uses religion as a weapon to advance their own agenda which is, ironically, in direct odds with the religion and the vast majority as a whole. Saying that ISIS represents Islam as a whole is like saying the far-right protesters in Charlottesville represent Christian America or even Americans as a whole.

Donald Trump is playing their game. His fake Pershing story enforces his narrative of Muslims as the secret enemy along with the LGBTQ community, the media, the Democrats, the Republicans etc. His anti-Muslim stance gives the terrorists plenty of evidence to point to wavering supporters: see how they treat you as outsiders. See how the most powerful man in the free world despises you.

It’s the same sort of argument that persuaded Irish Catholics to blow up innocent children or neo-Nazis to run over civil rights activists: the ‘us vs them’ narrative combined with perceived injustice and a chance of glory.

It took Trump three days to condemn the far-right movement and the man who killed Heather Heyer using a car. It took over two hours for Trump to come up with this Tweet after a man in a car killed 13 people. It is sad to know that such hypocrisy is almost expected from Donald Trump at this point.

General John J. Pershing is the best example of how we should respond to cowardly terror tactics. Let us learn from him rather than the current President.

I'm a historian based in the UK who likes jumping from one thought to next. I love to learn new things and explore other ideas.

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