Mark Twain, Daniel De Leon and the war in Iraq

“We can have just our usual flag with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and cross-bones.” (Mark Twain). “With the ramrod as instrument, ‘Freedom’ is to be jammed down the throats of the insurgent patriots whom our expansionist capitalists insult with the name of ‘insurgents’.” (Daniel De Leon).

At the beginning of December, the Pentagon’s Defence Science Board issued a statement that President Bush would not want to be widely publicised. The statement was frank and to the point. “Coalition” forces were not only losing the battle for Iraqi “hearts and minds” but “may also have achieved the opposite of what they intended”.

Occasionally, reality gets a look-in among US Pentagon analysts! But Bush carries on regardless. He continues to spout lies and distortions. He may even be so limited in his understanding of what is going on that he believes his own propaganda. He is helped in this by the corporate media, especially the major US TV channels who try to convince everyone that everything is going according to plan; the elections being a further step in transforming Iraq into a “normal” country.

In this world turned on its head, what is real becomes unreal and what is unreal becomes real! Experts in the Pentagon can see what is happening but the media present the exact opposite.

We are presented with a view that so-called Iraqi “insurgents” are the criminals, while the invaders, the imperialists, are the legitimate force of law. This is like a police officer arriving at the scene of a burglary and declaring the thief the rightful owner of the house and the owner the criminal.

This is not the first time in history that we have seen this kind of reporting. It is always the method of imperialism to present itself as “helping”, even “civilising” the people they are oppressing. They want to convince people at home, and their own troops on the ground, that what they are doing is right.

If we go back 100 years to the beginning of the 20th century, we had a similar scenario in the war of the USA against Spain which led to the Spanish being thrown out of the Philippines and the US replacing them as imperialist masters. The US government, of course, presented the whole things as “liberating” the Philippines, as they say they are doing for the Iraqis today. In the same period the British were “liberating” South Africa from the Boers. In reality they were rounding up the Boers, women and children included, and herding them into concentration camps where they suffered terribly and thousands died. Meanwhile, the blacks, the huge majority that inhabited the land, were not even considered as human beings!

America was then beginning to emerge as a world power. In the Spanish-American War of 1898 it seized Spain’s colonies in the Caribbean and the Pacific. A national liberation struggle had been going on in the Philippines (as also in Cuba) against Spanish colonial rule. The US government skilfully exploited this to its own ends.

The Americans destroyed the Spanish fleet at Manila, but to take the interior they used the Filipino rebels. They brought the exiled Filipino revolutionary leader Emilio Aguinaldo from Hong Kong to the Philippines. Aguinaldo had the advantage over the Americans that his supporters were the Filipino people themselves, and thus he could muster an army on the ground. The bulk of US troops were still to arrive.

As in all wars of independence the local people fought bravely and overwhelmed the Spanish forces. In just under two months they had practically defeated the Spanish on the main island of Luzon. What remained of the Spanish troops was bottled up in Manila. In June of the same year, the Filipino rebel leaders issued a Declaration of Independence based on the US model.

Typically, the 15, 000 remaining Spanish troops only surrendered to US forces in August. The United States and Spanish imperialists reached an agreement whereby the Filipino independence fighters were not allowed to have anything to do with the surrender.

The US administration then refused to recognise the newly independent Filipino Republic. In October of the same year it declared its plans to annex the Philippines. To justify this position President McKinley apparently said that “God Almighty” had ordered him to transform the Philippines into a US colony. No doubt today’s Bush has similar delusions. However, it had not been a war of liberation, but one step in the building of the US Empire! In 1899, to back up this decision to annex the Philippines, US troops moved against the Filipino fighters and went on to crush them in blood.

The US was expanding its domination in the Caribbean and in the Pacific. The Philippines were seen as a gate into the Chinese market. (In fact, later, in 1900 the United States used the Philippines as a base from which to send troops into China to help put down the Boxer Rebellion.)

Tragically, the Filipino fighters were no match for the military might of the USA, but they fought bravely and gave the Americans a lot to think about. More than 126,000 US soldiers were sent to the Philippines. At least 250,000 Filipinos, in large part civilians, were killed. The number of US soldiers killed was 4,200. And as General Arthur MacArthur confided to a reporter in 1899:

“When I first started in against these rebels, I believed that Aguinaldo’s troops represented only a faction. I did not like to believe that the whole population of Luzon – the native population that is – was opposed to us and our offers of aid and good government. But after having come this far, after having occupied several towns and cities in succession... I have been reluctantly compelled to believe that the Filipino masses are loyal to Aguinaldo and the government which he heads.”

The Filipino guerrilla struggle was supported by the overwhelming majority of the population. The U.S. military responded brutally. They resettled whole populations in concentration camps. They burnt down their villages, carried out mass hangings. They combined all this with systematic raping of women and girls, and used torture. One of the US Generals, Jacob Smith, ordered his soldiers to “kill and burn,” to target “everything over ten,” and to transform the island of Samar into “a howling wilderness.” Another US General, William Shafter, went as far as to say that it might even be necessary to kill half the Filipino population before “perfect justice” could be granted to the other half!

Although eventually the US forces defeated the Filipino fighters, fighting continued for years, especially in the south. Then as now, the US government declared the rebels as “bandits”.

However, not all Americans were blind to what was going on. Among these stands none other than the famous Mark Twain, who made a name for himself as author of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. What is less known – or less highlighted at least – about Mark Twain is that he was one of the founders of the New England Anti-Imperialist League which was set up in Boston. In George W Bush’ America he would no doubt be classed as an unpatriotic traitor. He was in fact a progressive and a defender of basic democratic rights.

Mark Twain

Twain turned his attention – with his renowned razor sharp wit – to what was happening in the Philippines and wrote a satirical letter “to the person sitting in darkness”. By this he meant the oppressed peoples of the colonial world. He turned his attentions to what the British were doing in South Africa during the Boer War, and wrote the following:

“Mr Chamberlain manufactures a war out of materials so inadequate and so fanciful that they make the boxes grieve and the gallery laugh and he tries hard to persuade himself that it isn’t a private raid for cash but has a dim vague respectability about it somewhere, if he could only find the spot; and that by and by he can scour the flag clean again after he has finished dragging it through the mud and making it shine and flash in the vault of heaven once more.”

Replace Chamberlain for Bush or Blair and the same words could be used to describe what these imperialist bloodsuckers are doing today in Iraq! Then as now atrocities were committed, all in the name of “saving,” “liberating,” even “civilising” the colonial peoples. Surrendering Boers were bayoneted by British soldiers, as were Filipino “insurgents” by the Americans.

In the Philippines, as we have seen, the US imperialists served themselves of the help of Filipino independence fighters, who had been struggling to oust the Spanish, only to betray them later by taking over the country for themselves. The Kurds in Iraq should draw a lesson from this, as should all oppressed minority peoples today who think that an imperialist power can be trusted to defend their interests. Whole countries have been conquered throughout the ages by imperialists using local conflicts to play one group off against another in order to subdue all of them.

After they had used the local Filipino nationalists to oust the Spanish, the Americans turned on them. As Mark Twain wrote, “What we wanted was the archipelago, unencumbered by patriots struggling for independence, and war was what was needed.” They achieved this by provoking a war against the popular Filipino leader, Aguinaldo. General MacArthur (father of the famous Douglas) gave the order that all Filipino rebels should be killed, among them many who had fought on the side of the Americans against the Spanish. Mark Twain satirised the whole thing with these words:

“There have been lies; yes, but they were told in good cause. We have been treacherous; but that was only in order that real good might come out of apparent evil.

“True, we have crushed a deceived and confiding people who have trusted us... We have stabbed an ally in the back and slapped the face of a guest; we have bought a shadow from an enemy that hadn’t it to sell; we have robbed a trusting friend of his land and liberty; we have invited our clean young men to shoulder a discredited musket and do bandit’s work under a flag which bandits have been accustomed to fear, not to follow; we have debauched America’s honour and blackened her face before the world, but each detail was for the best. We know this.”

He went on to pour scorn on all the official lies and sanctimonious propaganda of the governments of “Christendom” that dominated the world:

“The head of every state and sovereignty in Christendom and 90 per cent of every legislative body in Christendom, including our Congress and our 50 legislatures are members not only of the Church but of the blessings of civilization trust. This world-girdling accumulation of trained morals, high principles, and justice, cannot do an unright thing, an unfair thing, an ungenerous thing, and unclean thing. It knows what it is about. Give yourself no uneasiness; it is all right.”

His anger at what US imperialism was doing was revealed in this line: “We can have just our usual flag with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and cross-bones.”

Mark Twain found the idea that Filipino independence fighters could be classed as rebels as an absurdity. For him how could you be a rebel in your own home? Also today the resistance in Iraq is criminalized by the mass media. Undoubtedly there is a fringe of the resistance movement that uses barbaric methods. But the numbers taking part in the resistance are estimated to be upwards of 200,000 and they have mass backing. Just as they were not criminal or bandits in the Philippines 100 years ago, the large majority of the “insurgents” in Iraq are not criminals but the people of Iraq fighting for the right to govern themselves.

Mark Twain was what we could define as a genuine bourgeois liberal of his time. But there was another American who went a lot further than Twain, namely Daniel De Leon. He was an American Socialist theoretician and political leader. He had studied the works of Marx and Engels and tried to apply them to the struggle for the defence of the rights of American workers.

We will end this article by quoting what he said in an editorial, written in response to the US Army’s repression of the Filipino struggle in 1899. The editorial had the title, “Ramrodding freedom”.

“Last week’s battle of Manila is said to have cost the lives of over 5,000 Filipinos.

“These men had a notion that the country of their birth is their own. Arms in hand, they resisted the Spanish yoke, and succeeded to the extent that Spanish sovereignty over the whole Archipelago never was more than a nominal fact. A quarrel broke out between their tyrant and a foreign nation. They looked with joy at what seemed divine interposition, and aided the United States to drive out Spain. Freed from Spain, they imagined themselves freed from all foreign yoke.

“Not so. Our capitalist Government forthwith claimed possession by ‘conquest,’ and assumed the role of a dispenser of freedom in a style quite its own. ‘These Filipinos,’ our Government claimed, ‘do not know what freedom means; we must teach them.’ The teaching is now going on; the first lesson has been given. With the ramrod as instrument, ‘Freedom’ is to be jammed down the throats of the insurgent patriots whom our expansionist capitalists insult with the name of ‘insurgents.’

“But the freedom ramrodding process is not going on in the distant Philippines only. For every Filipino slaughtered beyond the Pacific a workingman is slaughtered, or the foundation is being laid for his being slaughtered right here in the United States. Over the prostrate bodies only of the ‘insurgent’ Filipinos can our Government march to the establishment of its peculiar ‘freedom’ promoting social system in that Archipelago. The establishment of American factories in the Philippines is equivalent with a levelling process of wages here that will be given the name of ‘equalization’ but which in fact spells MURDER.” [From “The People”, Vol. III, No. 46, Sunday, February 12, 1899].

These eloquent words can equally be applied today to what US imperialism is doing in Iraq. Just as then, while the US administration wages war on the people of Iraq it also wages war at home against the American workers.