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The trouble with military occupations: lessons from Latin America

By Alan McPherson

Recent talk of declining US influence in the Middle East has emphasized the Obama administration’s diplomatic blunders. Its poor security in Benghazi, its failure to predict events in Egypt, its difficulty in reaching a deal on withdrawal in Afghanistan, and its powerlessness before sectarian violence in Iraq, to be sure, all are symptoms of this loss of influence.

Yet all miss a crucial point about a region of the world crawling with US troops. What makes a foreign military presence most unpopular is simply that it is, well, military. It is a point almost too obvious to make, but one that is forgotten again and again as the United States and other nations keep sending troops abroad and flying drones to take out those who violently oppose them.

The warnings against military occupation are age-old. The Founding Fathers understood the harshness of an occupying force, at least a British one, and thus declared in the Third Amendment that “no soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.”

US occupations of small Latin American countries a century ago taught a similar lesson. What was most irksome for those who saw the US marines occupy Nicaragua, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic between 1912 and 1934 was not the State Department’s desire to protect US lives and property. It also wasn’t its paranoia about German gunboats during World War I. It wasn’t even the fact itself of intervention. While some of these occupations began with minimal violence and a surprising welcome by occupied peoples, as months turned into years, the behavior of US troops on the ground became so brutal, so arbitrary, and so insensitive to local cultures that they drove many to join movements to drive the marines back into the sea.

Ocupación militar del 1916 en República Dominicana by Walter. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Ocupación militar del 1916 en República Dominicana by Walter. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

It was one thing to subdue armed supporters of the regimes overthrown by the United States in all three countries. Latin Americans often met the demise of those unpopular governments with relief. Besides, armed groups recognized the overwhelming training and firepower of the marines and agreed readily to disarmament. As one Haitian palace guard recalled of the marine landing of 1915, “Everyone fled. Me too. You had only to see them, with their weaponry, their massive, menacing appearance, to understand both that they came to do harm to our country and that resistance was futile.”

It was the violence during “peace” time that turned the masses against occupation. At times marines and their native constabularies hunted small groups of insurgents and treated all locals as potential traitors. Other times they enforced new regulations, replaced local political officials, or militarized borders. And they could do it all with virtual impunity since any of their crimes would be tried by their own in US-run military provost courts.

Abuses were particularly frequent and grave either when no marines supervised constabularies or when a single marine — often a non-commissioned officer elevated to officer status in the constabulary — unleashed a reign of terror in a small town.

The residents of Borgne, in Haiti, for instance, hated a Lieutenant Kelly for approving beatings and imprisonments for trivial crimes or for no apparent reason at all. While in the Dominican Republic, around Hato Mayor, Captain Thad Taylor riled over his own fear-filled fiefdom. As one marine described it, Taylor “believed that all circumstances called for a campaign of frightfulness; he arrested indiscriminately upon suspicion; then people rotted in jail pending investigation or search for evidence.” In Nicaragua, the “M company” was widely accused of violence against children, especially throwing them into the air and spearing them with bayonets. In Haiti, a forced labor system known as the corvée saw Americans stop people, peasants, servants, or anyone else, in the street and make them work, particularly to build roads. The identification of the corvée with occupation abuse was so strong that, years later, Haitians gladly worked for foreign corporations but refused to build roads for them.

Rape added an element of gendered terror to abuses. The cases that appear in the historical record — many more likely went unreported — indicate an attitude of permissiveness, fed by the occupations’ monopoly of force, that bred widespread fear among occupied women. Assault was so dreaded that Haitian women stopped bathing in rivers.

Marines were none too careful about keeping abuses quiet and perhaps wanted them to be widely known so as to terrorize the populace. They repeatedly beat and hanged occupied peoples in town plazas, walked them down country roads with ropes around their necks, and ordered them to dig graves for others.

Brutality also marked the behavior of US troops in the cities, where there was no open rebellion. Often, marines and sailors grew bored and turned to narcotics, alcohol, and prostitution, vices that were sure to bring on trouble. A Navy captain suggested the humiliation suffered by Nicaraguan police, soldiers, and artisans, who all made less money than local prostitutes. He also noted the “racial feeling, . . . which leads to the assumption of an air of superiority on the part of the marines.” In response, the US minister requested that Nicaragua provide space for a canteen, dance hall, motion picture theatre, and other buildings to occupy the marines’ time.

Even the non-violent aspects of occupation were repressive. A French minister in Haiti noted that all Haitians resented intrusions in their daily freedoms, especially the curfew. Trigger-happy US soldiers on patrol also exhibited “an extraordinary lack of discipline and in certain cases, an incredible disdain for propriety.” Dominicans considered US citizens to be “hypocrites” because they drank so much abroad while living under prohibition at home. Reviewing such cases, a commanding officer assessed that 90 percent of his “troubles with the men” stemmed from alcohol. In a particularly terrifying incident, private Mike Brunski left his Port-au-Prince legation post at 6 a.m. and started shooting Haitians “apparently without provocation,” killing one and wounding others. He walked back to the legation “and continued his random firing from the balcony.” Medical examiners pronounced Brunski “sane but drunk.”

Abuse proved a recruiting bonanza for insurgents. Little useful information, and even less military advance, was gained from abuse and torture in Nicaragua. A Haitian group also admitted that “internal peace could not be preserved because the permanent and brutal violation of individual rights of Haitian citizens was a perpetual provocation to revolt.” Terror otherwise hardened the population against the occupation. Many in the Dominican Republic later testified with disgust to having seen lynchings with their own eyes. There and in Haiti, newspaper editors braved prison sentences to publish tales of atrocities.

By 1928, the State Department’s Sumner Welles observed that occupation “inevitably loses for the United States infinitely more, through the continental hostility which it provokes, through the fears and suspicions which it engenders, through the lasting resentment on the part of those who are personally injured by the occupying force, than it ever gains for the United States through the temporary enforcement of an artificial peace.”

Hostile, troublesome, horrifying: the US military in Latin America encountered a range of accusations as they it on believing that it brought security and prosperity to the region. Sound familiar? The lessons of Latin American resistance a century ago are especially relevant today, when counterinsurgency doctrine posits that a successful occupation, such as the one by coalition forces in Afghanistan, must win over local public opinion in order to bring lasting security. Thankfully, it appears that the lesson has sunk in to a certain extent, with diplomats increasingly reclaiming their role from the military as go-betweens with locals. Yet much of the damage has been done, and in the case of drones, no amount of diplomacy can assuage the feeling of terror felt throughout the countryside of Afghanistan and Pakistan when that ominous buzzing sound approaches overhead. It is, perhaps for better and certainly for worse, the new face of US military occupation.

Alan McPherson is a professor of international and area studies at the University of Oklahoma and the author of The Invaded: How Latin Americans and their Allies Fought and Ended US Occupations.

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