The Empire Strikes Back

The Tribal Rites of America's Military Leaders. No Wonder They're Bullish on War.

This Saturday, more than a thousand of America's top military and government leaders and their guests are scheduled to gather at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C., for a secretive tribal rite called the 103rd Annual Wallow of the Military Order of the Carabao. And they won't be singing "Kumbaya."

In fact, on what these days feels like the eve of war, nothing says "imperialism" better than the annual Wallow, which celebrates the bloody conquest of the nascent Philippine Republic a century ago in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War.

The exclusive Military Order of the Carabao (named after the mud-loving water buffalo) was founded in 1900 by American officers fighting in the Philippines, so naturally there will be a lot of singing and cigar smoking by the 99.9 percent male crowd. Recent guests have included Colin Powell and General Richard B. Myers, current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and many of the country's top military leaders are listed as members. (You have to be an officer to even be considered for membership.)

(With apologies to Maurice Sendak)
illustration: Jeff Crosby
(With apologies to Maurice Sendak)

Acting like a cluster of Klingons, the guys will toss around revered imperial slogans, such as "Civilize 'em with a Krag!" referring to the rifles used by Americans to kill thousands of Filipinos, who had fought Spain for their freedom and didn't want to be handed over to another colonial power.

And there will be rousing speeches, like last year's address by top honoree James Schlesinger, the Nixon-era CIA director and defense secretary, who decades later is still an influential hawk urging a new war with Iraq.

A place was reserved at the head table for President George W. Bush, who was a no-show, but Schlesinger, who received the Carabaos' Distinguished Service Award, delivered an appropriately bellicose speech, telling the crowd, "Someone once said that war is hell, and peace is heaven. But we know that the opposite is true: War is heaven, and peace is hell."

An aide to Schlesinger told the Voice late last week that Schlesinger said he recalls saying, "You know, General Sherman had it all wrong. It's not war that's hell, it's peace that's hell." The aide added that Schlesinger didn't have time to talk further about the Wallow but that what he told the crowd was a "humorous remark made in reference to the defense budgetary situation."

The conclusion is the same in both versions: "Peace is hell." As more than a thousand Carabaos and their guests roared approval of that notion, it wasn't difficult for an observer to conclude that an imperial renaissance is upon us.

The Carabaos rarely rear their heads in public, even though war correspondents can be chosen as "associates" and a few mainstream reporters attend their events. But a guest who had been attending the Wallow for several years was fully debriefed right after the 2002 bash last February and furnished the evening's seating chart, song lyrics, and other documents.

As our mole reported, the mood of the Wallow varies from year to year, depending on how much military spending is going on. The February 2002 crowd, basking in the second year of Bush's rule, was enthusiastic. "This year was totally different," one attendee said at the time. "With the current White House and all the overseas activity, military confidence is way up. I can't tell you how many excited comments there were about the new budgetary reality."

This Saturday, after another year of even more frenzied military spending, the Carabaos ought to be friskier than the bulls in Pamplona. "This year is extremely packed," Rear Admiral Ralph Ghormley, a Carabao official, told the Voice last week. "In fact, we had to turn away over 100 people who wanted to attend."

One thing that fires up the bulls never changes: the bellowing of the Carabao anthem, "The Soldier's Song." At the 2002 Wallow, the room was already thick with smoke—every place setting had been adorned with (forget that embargo) an authentic Cuban cigar—when a voice said, "Gentlemen, please turn to your songbooks," and the U.S. Marine Band, seated to the side, struck up a tune. The Carabaos, most of whom seemed to know the words by heart, lustily sang the first stanza's story of the dreaded "bolo" (the Filipino revolutionaries' machete—they had few guns) and deceitful "ladrones" ("thieves"):

In the days of dopey dreams—happy, peaceful Philippines,
When the bolomen were busy all night long.
When ladrones would steal and lie, and Americanos die,
Then you heard the soldiers sing this evening song:

And then the bulls and their guests rhythmically banged their fists on the tables during each rendition of the chorus:

Damn, damn, damn the insurrectos!
Cross-eyed kakiac ladrones!
Underneath the starry flag, civilize 'em with a Krag,
And return us to our own beloved homes.

The chorus originally began: Damn, damn, damn the Filipinos! The U.S. soldiers chanted the second line's surviving racial slur about Filipinos as "khaki-colored thieves" while marching through the jungle. Some accounts say that, as the Americans marched and sang, some of them carried ears they had lopped off the Filipinos' heads and kept as souvenirs.

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