Just minutes ago the president of the United States – the man who just yesterday said, “When I make a statement, I like to be correct. I want the facts” – fired out a tweet apparently in response to the dreadful terror attack in Barcelona, Spain. Here it is:
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
Trump is almost certainly referring to a story he told during the campaign. He claimed that General John J. Pershing crushed an Islamic insurgency in the Philippines by committing a heinous war crime. Here’s Trump at a South Carolina rally:
They were having terrorism problems, just like we do,” Trump said. “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
There are multiple problems with this story. First, it’s false. There’s no evidence Pershing did such a thing. In fact, he got the history exactly backwards. Pershing worked hard to avoid inflaming religious fanaticism and worked hard to avoid unnecessary loss of life. For example, read this excerpt from a letter Pershing wrote to the insurgents. The language comes from his own memoir:
I write you this letter because I am sorry to know that you and your people refuse to do what the government has ordered. You do not give up your arms. Soldiers were sent to Taglibi so that you could come into camp and turn in your guns. When the soldiers went to camp a Taglibi, your Moros fired into camp and tried to kill the soldiers. Then the soldiers had to shoot all Moros who fired upon them. When the soldiers marched through the country, the Moros again shot at them, so the soldiers had to kill several others. I am sorry the soldiers had to kill any Moros. All Moros are the same to me as my children and no father wants to kill his own children.
Those are not the words of a man who commits a religious war crime. A comprehensive report over at Snopes contains a number of other, similar reports in Pershing’s own words. Simply put, Trump libeled an American hero, the man who led American troops through the crucible of the First World War. The president who relentlessly attacks “fake news” keeps advancing “fake history.”
Trump isn’t just spreading falsehoods, he’s doing so in a context that puts a presidential stamp of approval on war crimes. Even worse, he’s doing it in direct defiance of the warrior ethos of the American military. There is no possible way that any of Trump’s generals would approve of this sentiment. I’ve never met an American officer who would carry out an order to commit an atrocity like this.
Trump is careening out of control. He says what he wants, when he wants, and neither truth nor consistency nor wisdom nor prudence dictates a single syllable that comes out of his mouth. By many accounts he’s taken to directly defying his advisers simply for the sake of declaring that he’s in charge. This isn’t leadership. It’s a collection of temper tantrums. Unfortunately, those tantrums have consequences.
One final note – if Trump thinks this tweet is the least bit intimidating to actual jihadists, he’s fundamentally wrong. In fact, it illustrates that he flat-out doesn’t understand our enemy. They respond to actions not words, and words like this serve only to facilitate the radicalization of angry jihadist minds.
In one tweet Trump spread fake history, libeled an American hero, and signaled a willingness – even eagerness – to commit war crimes. That’s conduct unbecoming the lowliest officer in the military. Coming from the commander-in-chief, it’s a complete disgrace.