Shadowland: Beware Long Occupations

The down-home massacre in Winfield, Kans., took me by surprise when I came across it the other night while reading up on the history of this small town near the Oklahoma border.

I'm in the middle of researching a novel about terror in the American heartland, but the story of Gilbert Twigg got me thinking about the cost of being an occupying nation.

Here's the tale. One fine summer evening just 100 years ago, Gilbert Twigg "deliberately fired into the crowd of promenading people, at Ninth Avenue and Main Street, as Camon's Band was in the midst of its regular weekly concert." Six people died that night, and four more in the following days. Many more were injured. Described in earnest detail by correspondents of The Winfield Courier, the scene of Twigg emptying his shotgun and rifle at the bustle-and boater-clad crowd unfolds like a production of "The Music Man" interrupted by a rampaging Rambo. "At the first shot fired, Clyde Wagoner's horn was shattered in his hand and at the next, Rev. Oliver fell from his chair on the band stand. It would beggar fancy to attempt to describe the suffering of the injured, and the sight of prominent young businessmen dying in pools of their own blood made strong men turn aside their heads. A handful of brains on the pavement in front of the Craig book store, with young Dawson [Biliter] laying within a few feet in a pool of his own blood, is a representative picture of the vengeance meted out to an innocent public by the demented man.

"After firing his first two shots, Twigg arose and each time he fired he took a step backward, until he was in the alleyway back of Craig's where he came face-to-face with night watchman George Nichols and Cal Ferguson, who out of the crowd of several thousand people, were the only men who displayed any disposition to follow the veritable human canon [sic], and then still believing himself innocent and the victim of plotting enemies, Twigg took his own life, rather than be taken alive."

Twigg, we can infer, was a paranoid. He was also an Army veteran of the American military occupation of Cuba and the Philippines that began four years before. "His military training came in good play," wrote the Courier. "He chose the one evening of each week when most people congregate in a central place, he chose the spot from which to fire with the skill of a general; he commenced firing at a range of about 125 feet from the band stand; he dropped on one knee at each fire, then retreated backward, while reloading, then dropped on his knee again and fired. These are the skirmish line tactics of the army...."

Of course, nobody remembers the Winfield massacre today. Just as most people don't remember the savage wars--what Rudyard Kipling called "the savage wars of peace"--in which Gilbert Twigg enlisted. The people of the Philippines, it turned out, did not welcome American occupation after the Spanish-American War, and "the deteriorating situation provoked an ugly reaction among some American soldiers, who committed atrocities such as torturing prisoners," according to "For the Common Defense," a scholarly history of the U.S. military by Alan R. Millett and Peter Maslowski. "The final pacification campaigns on Samar and in Batangas were brutal. The ghastly massacre of a U.S. infantry company in Balangiga, Samar, in September 1901 whipped Americans into a vengeful fury." How could these people be so ungrateful? Some hawks, who were known more forthrightly as "imperialists" in those days, blamed "false humanitarianism" for the debacle, and a general known as "Hell Roarin' Jake" Smith was dispatched to carry out a scorched-earth campaign. What were called "concentration camps" became a vital part of the strategy in those days, just as "strategic hamlets" would be important in Vietnam.

Such is the nature of occupation and its almost inevitable concomitant, counterinsurgency. The experience changes the people who implement such strategies, and ultimately the nations that pursue them. Whatever lofty ideals are espoused at the beginning, and whatever good may, conceivably, come at the end, sordid brutality has to be employed for years in order to sustain the venture in lands where, as Kipling warned the Americans so baldly in "The White Man's Burden" (written in 1899), "the silent, sullen peoples will judge your God and you."

The Israelis, who have occupied the West Bank and Gaza since 1967, understand this dilemma, though they haven't been able to resolve it. And historian Martin van Creveld's account of the experience just after the Six Day War in his book "The Sword and the Olive" is especially unsettling in light of what we hear about Iraq these days: "During the early weeks it had been a question of setting up a military government and helping civilian life back on its feet by restoring such services as electricity and water, ensuring food was available, reopening schools, and the like." But there was no long-term plan for occupation, and no exit strategy, either. "As weeks lengthened into months and years ... Israel's involvement in policing and governing the population deepened."

On many levels, the lives of the Palestinians improved. There were more jobs, better education and health care under Israeli occupation than under the earlier Egyptian and Jordanian regimes. Many Palestinians were active collaborators, many more were passive. "They were, literally, paralyzed by shock," writes Van Creveld.

Yet resistance continued. When the Israeli military commander charged with pacifying Gaza, Maj. Gen. Ariel Sharon, moved to stamp out resistance he razed as many as 2,000 houses in refugee camps. Thirty-six years later, peace has yet to come to the occupied territories.

It's hard for democratic peoples like the Americans, like the Israelis, like the British or, for that matter like the French in Algeria, to carry out such policies without, essentially, lying to themselves about what they're doing. But let's just say it: occupation at its best is paternalistic, and, at its worst, it's just plan colonial. Folks at home may want to embrace the notion that the occupied are basically better off, even happy. But the soldiers on the ground more often come to believe that everyone they encounter hates them. And not without cause. Eventually some of those soldiers, inevitably, bring their fears, their anger and their violence home. Yes, even to the American heartland, even to Main Street U.S.A.