Fire when ready

Editorial Notebook

October 25, 2003

WATCH OUT for historical analogies, because history has a way of never exactly coming to a conclusion. President Bush took a flier on one last week; he compared American intentions in Iraq to the long American experience in the Philippines, which began 105 years ago with victory in the Spanish-American War.

It was a provocative thought, because up to now only critics of the Iraq war were making this comparison. The long-ago conflict with Spain, they point out, was launched on a dubious pretext, gave rise to chest-thumping patriotism, and was widely seen as an imperial adventure - by its many critics, but also by its supporters.

After the brilliant and quick victory at Manila Bay in 1898, the Filipinos welcomed the Americans as liberators from Spanish tyranny, and then politely asked them to leave (sound familiar?). They didn't, and the result was an especially nasty guerrilla war that killed 4,000 U.S. soldiers and up to 250,000 Filipinos.

Mr. Bush, not always a fan of history books, dwelt understandably on the longer-term consequences: In 1946, the Philippines achieved independence. American democracy-building had worked (sort of).

End of story? The point is, in real life there is no end of story. Everything's in the middle of something else, and when it comes to history every little thing leads to some other little thing. And once you start peeling the layers back, it's hard to know where to stop. For instance:

The American arrival in Asia made an eventual Pacific conflict with Japan nearly inevitable. So you might argue that the Spanish-American War paved the way for Pearl Harbor. And for the national parks system as we know it, and maybe the Food and Drug Administration, by making possible Teddy Roosevelt's rise to the White House. America today might not bear the marks of his presidency if not for his exploits in Cuba during the war.

The war in 1898 was a staggering blow to Spain. Without it, who can say if Francisco Franco would have climbed to power in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s? That was a conflict that heartened fascists throughout Europe. But it also gave us George Orwell.

If it hadn't been for the Spanish-American War, Jose Contreras, a Cuban, probably wouldn't be playing for the Yankees in the World Series tonight. For that matter, neither would Hideki Matsui, because the Japanese learned to play baseball from the Americans who came to Asia.

Another thought on Japan: The U.S. presence in the Philippines stirred Japanese insecurity, and that found an outlet in 1904 when Japan inflicted a crushing defeat on Russia. If it hadn't been for that humiliation, the Russians might not have been so eager to reassert their military honor in 1914, and maybe World War I wouldn't have happened. And in that case, there'd still be a czar on his throne in St. Petersburg, a kaiser in Berlin, an emperor in Vienna, and a sultan in Istanbul. But wait - if the Ottoman empire was still intact, and Baghdad a mere province within it, there'd be no Saddam Hussein to worry about today!

OK, we're stringing together one if after another. But life's like that. For all we know, without the war in 1898 the 20th century might have been an era of unparalleled serenity, or unprecedented horror. Or it could have been about the same - just different. You never know; consequences of the most amazing variety flow out of every event.

Mr. Bush might do well to reflect that 100 years from now, people will be marveling that if it hadn't been for the war in Iraq, A,B,C and D never would have happened. And just imagine how differently the world would have turned out.

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