The Teaching of US Military Exceptionalism Must Stop

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The opinions expressed in the opinion columns are those of the author.

In my American History class in high school, I learned that the Philippine-American War was a Philippine insurgency in which Filipinos rebelled against the United States. It was only during this semester that I discovered the forgotten and unrecognized Filipino narrative in one of my classes.

The Philippine-American War was a fight for Philippine independence from the United States and cost 50 times more in civilian lives than the Spanish-American War. Yet if you asked me in high school what I knew about the Philippine-American War, I could only tell you what the limited two pages of my textbook — written by white authors — had to say.

The unreliable American narrative is unfortunately not new. The United States has had the experience of presenting itself as the heroes of other peoples – indigenous peoples, Filipinos and now Afghan civilians. Although there may be circumstances where the United States has aided another nation, it is always necessary for us to be cautious and critical when reporting on and learning of United States involvement in conflicts.

In his Remarks at the end of the nearly 20-year war in Afghanistan, President Joe Biden said, “The extraordinary success of this mission was due to the incredible skill, bravery and selfless courage of the military American and our diplomats and intelligence professionals”.

This statement sounds ridiculous. What extraordinary success includes years of bombings, forced displacements and war trauma for Afghan civilians? If the United States’ intervention in Afghanistan was to win a war on terror, then how ironic is it that the intense war environment encouraged some Afghan civilians to join the taliban because they mourned the loss of their loved ones who died in the conflict.

Then President Barack Obama also said “with [American] Support, Afghanistan is a better place than it once was. Millions of Afghan children, boys and girls, go to school. However, this heroic claim of succeeding in educating young girls by providing them with textbooks and opening schools does not match other accounts. According to an article by New York Times Magazine contributing writer Azmat Khan, there are 1,100 ghost schools with money still coming in.

Moreover, the rhetoric of politicians has a major impact on public opinion. For example, Rep. Tom Tiffany (R-Wis.) tweeted, “Disturbing reports indicate that 5,000 Afghans a day are heading to the United States, including Fort McCoy in Wisconsin. Afghanistan is a dangerous country that is home to many dangerous people. By describing Afghanistan and its people as “dangerous” and “disturbing”, Rep. Tiffany opens space for anti-Afghan refugee sentiment and dialogue. For example, stickers saying “Hunting license for Afghan refugees” were found on the University of Michigan campus.

When the war in Afghanistan is written in American high school history textbooks, will it be framed by the rhetoric of those politicians who present the United States as a saving grace?

We cannot allow this collective amnesia to repeat itself with past, present, and future US involvement. As George Orwell said, “Who controls the past controls the future. And whoever controls the present controls the past. As active students and consumers of media, we must be prepared to ask ourselves who is sharing the narrative.

How does the narrator benefit from the story? US involvement helped in many ways, but hurt in many others. An active American citizen is ready to respond, react and criticize the nation’s power or abuse of power.

No one person, group or event can tell the whole story. The more stories, the greater the truth extracted. It is necessary to remember the truth of historical events as it can affect how society treats the next generation in politics, media and daily behavior. As a Filipino American, I am unlearning and relearning how my Filipino identity exists today on American soil.

In 20 years, how will Afghan Americans be treated or remember their ancestors who may have died in war? Will they reward the United States for providing the American dream – or see it as essential to the pain it has caused their people? These questions with endless answers are necessary to ask, but are only possible if we are critical and careful about the narratives we teach about US involvement in conflict.

Lei Danielle Escobal is a second year majoring in American Studies and Sociology. She can be contacted at leidanie@terpmail.umd.edu.

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