U.S. soldiers battling the Moro rebels in the Philippines.
Wikimedia

On February 19, 2016, while boasting about his unrivaled toughness at a campaign rally in North Charleston, South Carolina, Donald Trump suggested that he had a simple way to eradicate terrorism. “You know, I read a story, it’s a terrible story, but I’ll tell you,” he said to a crowd of supporters, before raising his voice and teasing, “Should I tell you, or should I not?” The audience cheered. Trump proceeded. In the last century, he said, U.S. General John J. Pershing—a “rough guy, rough guy”—had a “terrorism problem.” Trump didn’t mention where the story took place or say outright who the terrorists were, but he managed to make their identity clear. He referenced “swine and animals and pigs,” and said, “You know the story, OK? They don’t like that.”     

What Pershing did, he explained, was have his men line up 50 captured terrorists who had done “tremendous damage and killed many people” and shoot 49 of them with bullets dipped in pigs’ blood. To the sole survivor, Pershing then said, “You go back to your people and you tell them what happened.” The crowd roared. Trump drove home his point. “For 25 years, there wasn’t a problem, OK?" he said. "So we better start getting tough, and we better start getting vigilant, and we better start using our heads, or we’re not going to have a country, folks.”

Trump retold the legend many times afterward, always with the same message: the enemy obeys no law, so the United States must be ruthless, stretching or disregarding the rules, or be defeated and humiliated. As he took the story on the road, Trump began mentioning that it took place in the Philippines. But the tale’s other details shifted a bit in transit. Sometimes Pershing’s men dumped rather than dipped the bullets into sliced-open pigs; sometimes they splashed blood around. Usually, Pershing would hand the fiftieth bullet to the spared terrorist, as a token of his provisional mercy. Sometimes Pershing’s cure for terrorism lasted 28 years instead of 25 and, on one occasion, 42.

It was in Orlando that Trump made a revealing slip. He explained that Pershing had “a huge problem with”—and the word “Islam” snuck out. He tried to correct himself by following up with, “terrorism.” But then, he decided to charge ahead, putting it all together as “radical Islamic terrorism.” From Dayton onward, this was the name for what Pershing was fighting, right from the start. “Some things never change, folks,” he said, wearily. “Some things never change.” 

Journalists, historians, and fact-checking websites instantly debunked the tale. A writer for the National Review condemned Trump for falsifying history, endorsing war crimes, and libeling an American hero. Scholars who had studied Pershing said there was absolutely no evidence to support Trump’s account, and that the killing of prisoners of war in this way was inconsistent with his style of command.

What these commentators tended to underplay or overlook was that Pershing, although he did not order the shooting of prisoners as far as we know, did participate in forms of warfare that used pigs and the threat of pigs to spread terror among Muslims in the Philippines, who are known as Moros. As early as April 1911, he had heard of the use of such tactics in the war against the Moros from his commanding officer, Major General J. Franklin Bell. Pershing had written to Bell about the recent killing of a sergeant, and Bell replied, “I understand it has long been a custom to bury juramentados”—Moro suicide attackers—“with pigs when they kill Americans.” Bell thought this was “a good plan,” as it was “the only possible thing we can do to discourage crazy fanatics.” 

The Pershing legend is about the radical, intractable lines that separate “us” from “them.”
   

It’s not clear whether Pershing initiated such burials himself, received orders from his superiors, or whether soldiers under his command had engaged in the practice on their own. But he later endorsed these actions, somewhat defensively, in his autobiography. Writing in the 1920s and 1930s, in a memoir published only in 2013, he recalled that juramentado attacks had been “materially reduced in number” by burying rebels’ bodies with dead pigs, “a practice that the Mohamedans held in abhorrence.” It was “not pleasant to have to take such measures,” he wrote, “but the prospect of going to hell instead of heaven sometimes deterred the would-be assassins.”

So Pershing may not have ordered pig-bullet massacres—of which no record has so far surfaced—but he knew of the burial of Muslim assailants with pigs and later reflected that he thought this technique was effective and necessary.

Over the decades that followed, this gruesome terror tactic made its way into Americans’ popular understanding of the war that the United States had fought in the Southern Philippines. As with the slippery evolution of a folktale, one can see elements combined and recombined, found and lost, whispered down across the decades, and overheard by half-listening listeners with their own agendas. In 1927, a Captain Herman Archer wrote of Pershing’s career in a Chicago Tribune feature awash in colonialist derring-do. To stop the juramentados, Pershing had used their belief that “if they ever were sprinkled with pig’s blood they were doomed forever to their own particular hell.” According to Archer, Pershing had “sprinkled some with pig’s blood and let them go,” and told them, with “much ceremony,” that other attackers would be treated the same way. “And those drops of porcine gore,” Archer wrote, “proved more powerful than bullets.” 

In his 1938 book Jungle Patrol, the author Vic Hurley, a colonial adventurer, former plantation owner and honorary Third Lieutenant in the Philippine Constabulary, credited the pig burials to Colonel Alexander Rodgers of the Sixth Cavalry. Rodgers, he wrote, “inaugurated a system of burying all dead juramentados in a common grave with the carcasses of slaughtered pigs.” Other U.S. military officers had added “refinements.” Some had beheaded assassins after death and had their heads sewn inside pig carcasses. Rodgers and these others had, “by taking advantage of religious prejudice,” achieved “what the bayonets and Krags”—rifles used in the Philippines—“had been unable to accomplish.”

The weaponizing of pigs also features prominently in the 1939 adventure film, The Real Glory. William Canavan, played by Gary Cooper, is an American doctor who arrives in the Southern Philippines just as the U.S. military is handing over control to American civilian authorities and Filipino troops. They are being preyed upon by a sinister Moro chieftain, Alipang, who deploys fierce, seemingly unstoppable suicide warriors. Commander after commander is killed, and Filipino troops—depicted as obedient, child-like, and cowardly—refuse to fight back. That is, until Canavan marches onto the parade ground with a captured juramentado, lambasts the Filipino soldiers for their fear, and forces the man to kneel on a pig skin. The prisoner wails and pleads; the Filipinos are stunned, then emboldened. “How can you be afraid of that worm crawling on the ground, howling for mercy, begging for help?” Canavan hollers. “Scared out of his skin by the skin of a dead pig!” The Filipinos are transformed. They walk past a straw dummy of Alipang and, for the first time, they jeer. One of them jabs it with his bayonet.

Trump’s version of the tale is the child of 9/11. Just weeks after the Twin Towers fell, the legend emerged full-blown from their ashes, crafted to turn Americans’ rage, shame, and fear into vengeful Islamophobia. As early as September 21, 2001, emails carrying pigs’ blood stories began ricocheting across the Internet. One was entitled, “HOW TO STOP ISLAMIC TERRORISTS… it worked once in our History…” It noted that the incident had taken place in the Southern Philippines in “about 1911.” (Pershing served as governor of Moro Province from 1909–13. Was it mere coincidence that the date the authors chose happened to have “911” in it?) Then the e-mail recounted how Pershing’s men shot captured terrorists with pig-dipped bullets and buried them with pig guts. “Thus, the terrorists were terrorized,” it concluded.

Within weeks, versions of this narrative were in play at high levels of policy-making. In an interview that October, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator Bob Graham, mentioned conversations he’d had at a recent dinner with members of the intelligence community about how far U.S. tactics could go in the newly declared “war on terror.” The dialogue, he said, had “ranged in part” on “how U.S. military commander ‘Black Jack’ Pershing used Islam’s prohibition on pork to help crush an insurgency on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao.” Graham explained that U.S. soldiers had captured twelve Muslims, killed six with “bullets dipped into the fat of pigs,” wrapped them in pigskin and “buried them face down so they could not see Mecca.” They had also “poured the entrails of the pigs over them.” The other six had been forced to watch. “And that was the end of the insurrection in Mindanao,” Graham said.

General John J. Pershing (center) and his staff, 1917/1918.
U.S. Army

The story kept spreading. In December the following year, the National Review (apparently not yet aware of the tale’s falsity), applauded Pershing’s strategic use of pigs against Muslim enemies. At some point, a poster illustrating the fable was placed on a wall inside the California National Guard’s Civil Support Division, an agency set up to carry out anti-terrorism operations in the state. “Maybe it is time for this segment of history to repeat itself, maybe in Iraq?” it read. “The question is, where do we find another Black Jack Pershing?”

A scandal over the poster erupted in the summer of 2005, two years into the Iraq War, when it was spotted by Muslim leaders, a state senator, and peace activists during a visit to review the Division’s surveillance practices. The Council on American–Islamic Relations issued a statement of protest. “It is troubling to see a governmental organization that is dedicated to security, promoting religiously insensitive ideas,” said William Youmans, its media relations spokesman. “It’s very possible to combat terrorism without offending the cultural values of a major world religion.” A guard spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Doug Hart, defended the poster as “historically accurate,” but it was quickly removed.

By this point, as the administration of George W. Bush and its allies defended the invasion of Iraq as part of an expansive, boundless war on terror, the often-forgotten U.S. colonial experience in the Philippines had been resurrected. The military historian Max Boot wrote in 2002 that the United States’ war in the Philippines represented “one of the most successful counter-insurgencies waged by a Western army in modern times.” In a summer 2003 article in The Atlantic, “Supremacy by Stealth: Ten Rules for Managing the World,” Robert D. Kaplan made rule number seven, “Remember the Philippines.” Like Boot, he attempted to recuperate the Philippine–American War, praising the U.S. military’s reliance on decentralized, locally adaptive commands, its interrogation of prisoners, and its exploitation of local ethnic divisions. Given the challenges the United States faced in the war on terror, he wrote, “our experience a century ago in the anarchic Philippines” was newly relevant.

So why did the Pershing parable’s disparate elements converge and take off when they did, after 9/11? The particular kind of conflict the United States has engaged in since the attacks—lacking geographic or temporal limits, often without ethical or legal stricture, and conducted in the name of freedom and civilization as embodied in, safeguarded by, and outwardly imposed by one particular nation—badly needed a story like this one. Indeed, one might say that if this specific tale of mastery and violence had not existed, the advocates of a global war on terror would have had to invent it. It didn’t, and so they did.

First and foremost, it’s a story about how Islam and terrorism connect. It holds that they are more or less identical. The religious, theological, or ritual connections are not always specified; indeed, that they don’t require explanation is partly the point. This linkage renders any Muslim-identified community—or country—suspect until, or after, being proven “innocent,” and is used to justify preemptive surveillance. Making terrorism the essence of Islam, and Islam the essence of terrorism, makes it difficult or even impossible to conceive of terrorists as belonging to any other persuasion. In this way, Trump’s slip of the tongue—did he mean to say Islam or terrorism?—spoke volumes.

The Pershing legend is also about the radical, intractable lines that separate “us” from “them.” “They” have bizarre, silly, superstitious ideas about death that we don’t. Our approach to fighting, tactics, and strategy—and life—is scientific and rational, while “theirs” is mystical and stupid. And the gap in the civilizational planes separating us from “them” prevents us from communicating with “the savages” except through violence. This means that peaceful co-existence beyond relationships of hierarchy and domination is impossible.

In the largest sense, the fable reveals the ways in which propaganda that smells sufficiently like history can preempt a serious reckoning with the past, by seizing the place in our collective memory that should be dedicated to events that actually happened.

What’s more, we have superior cultural know-how—keen, anthropological insights into what makes “them” tick—while “they” are mired in irrational fear. In reality, both 9/11 and the guerrilla tactics that American forces faced on the front lines of the war on terror were about unfamiliar enemies who knew the United States’ vulnerabilities and sometimes exploited them to deadly effect. Trump’s story represents a satisfying reversal: we can defeat you because we know you. It’s also a classic, colonialist fantasy: the white man who scares the natives by posing as one of their gods, brandishing one of their sacred relics, or claiming to summon an eclipse he knows will terrify.

The story homogenizes the world of Islam. The Southern Philippines might as well be Iraq. This is a convenient way to approach cultural geography if your goal is a war without borders. Muslims are seen as completely defined by their religion: every motive, action, and institution is saturated by dangerous fervor. When the “correct” religions envelop their believers, it is called devotion; when the “wrong” ones do this, it is called fanaticism.

The myth conveys that Islam never changes over time. When figuring out how to deal with contemporary adversaries who are Muslim, one doesn’t need to think about the era in which they are living: you can go back in time (and, presumably, forward too), and the beliefs and actions of those under Islam’s sway will be the same. Such time travel can help peel away the confusing layers of modernity—what to make of the Islamic State’s use of cell phones and Twitter?—revealing an unchanging core beneath.     

In that regard, the story is about returning to the days before the Geneva Conventions of 1949 or, even further, to a time before the United States adopted a code of military regulation. There’s a problem with this fantasy: during the years of Pershing’s service, the U.S. military in the Philippines was actually operating under what was known as the Lieber Code, which barred the intentional abuse of prisoners of war. But Trump’s Pershing doesn’t consult U.S. or international rulebooks about prisoner treatment. Such laws are for losers. 

In the largest sense, the fable reveals the ways in which propaganda that smells sufficiently like history can preempt a serious reckoning with the past, by seizing the place in our collective memory that should be dedicated to events that actually happened.

Pershing did not tell his men to kill 49 prisoners with pig bullets. What he and his forces did do—and what we aren’t discussing when we talk about this myth—was carry out a brutal campaign of colonial conquest and pacification in the Southern Philippines. As the commander of the U.S. military government there, Pershing’s task was to disarm Moro fighters, compel local communities to pay taxes, and create conditions safe for U.S. colonial rule, trade, and investment. In June 1913, several thousand Moros who refused to submit to U.S. military rule withdrew to fortifications inside the extinct volcanic crater of Bud Bagsak. Pershing hoped to starve them out. Concerned about a possible mass killing of non-combatants, however, as had happened in 1906 when U.S. forces massacred hundreds of Moros at the crater of Bud Dajo, Pershing made arrangements so that those who desired to leave could do so. Then, on June 11, his forces attacked. In the end, five days of hard fighting left several hundred Moros, including non-combatants, and 14 U.S. soldiers dead. The resistance was broken. “Submission to law and authority is complete,” Pershing reported that January.

But this is not the kind of history we usually pay attention to. Instead, we tell ourselves stories like the ones that Trump tells us: parables about a resolute military commander, a savage enemy, a cunning tactic, and a winnable war. Such fictions assuage our guilt—authorizing, forgiving, and marginalizing the massacres of the past in order to do the same for those currently underway and those yet to come. At their most ambitious, these tales can even help us forget that such violence ever took place. More than a decade and a half after 9/11, the fact that history’s lessons prove so elusive may be the most meaningful lesson of all.