The Tribal Rites of America's Military Leaders
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.)
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.
Bloody ears aren't part of the rites of a modern-day Wallow, but most of the Carabaos' other traditions have survived intact. And if this year's mud-fest holds true to form, the revelry will be even more enthusiastic than usual, and it will no longer simply feel like nostalgia. The drumbeats of war against Iraq will sound to this crowd like the rebirth of an American Empire.
A typical Wallow features parody songs by members of the Herd that satirize politicos and often smack liberals who try to slash the Pentagon's budget. "It's the military-industrial complex's answer to the Gridiron," as one regular described it, referring to the annual dinner put on by D.C. journalists and politicians.
The Wallows' guest lists often include not only the most powerful money people in the nation's vast military industry, but also the top political figures. An aide to Secretary of State Powell said the general didn't make last year's Wallow but confirmed his presence at the 2000 bash and told the Voice that he has often attended them.
Ancient Strom Thurmond was plunked down at the 2002 Wallow's head table, where he was assigned a cigar alongside those reserved for Schlesinger, General Myers, Pete Aldridge (the Pentagon's chief of acquisition, technology, and logistics), Dov Zakheim (the Pentagon's comptroller), Gordon England (top deputy to Homeland Security czar Tom Ridge), Sean O'Keefe (the NASA director), and other bigwigs. Marine General Peter Pace, the vice chair of the Joint Chiefs, and Air Force Secretary James Roche, both Carabaos, were assigned the roles of hosting tables of their own.
Among the assigned greeters was last year's Grand Paramount Carabao, General P.X. Kelley, a retired commandant of the marine corps, whose last real tour of duty was the 1992 GOP presidential primaries, when his pro-war TV pitches helped deliver the South for George Bush the Elder against isolationist Pat Buchanan. Joining Kelley on the Reception Committee were General Alfred M. Gray Jr., the marine commandant during the previous war with Iraq; Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, a chairman of the Joint Chiefs during Vietnam; and an assortment of other admirals and generals.
Last year's Grand Paramount Carabao-Elect, presumably the bull who will lead the charge this Saturday, is Admiral James M. Loy, a former coast guard commandant who heads the Transportation Security Administration, the agency now responsible for U.S. airport security. His experience in making fun of Filipinos may come in handy when his security personnel run into dark-skinned travelers: Last August, Loy told The Boston Globe that the controversial practice of profiling "has the capacity to serve as one of the growth elements" of his brand-new agency.
Carabaos pop up in other situations involving minorities or others fighting discrimination. The last all-male Advisory Council at the Citadel, the South Carolina school that was the scene of serious gender discrimination battles in the '90s, was chaired by retired army general Jack Merritt, a Carabao, and included at least three other bulls: Moorer, retired marine commandant General Carl Mundy, and retired Atlantic Fleet chief Admiral Wesley McDonald. Under Merritt's watch, the Citadel's Advisory Council was finally prodded into adding its first women members.
All four of those Carabaos were listed as members of the 2002 Wallow's Reception Committee. When it comes to gays, however, Merritt, for one, has not been so welcoming. In 1993, during the furor over the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, Merritt, in his role as president of the Association of the U.S. Army, spoke out against "avowed homosexuals." In July 1993, during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on whether to lift the formal ban on gays in the military, Merritt testified, "The dynamic of the marine and a squad leader, the soldier and his lieutenant, is one of trust. The first time the lieutenant helps a suspected homosexual, he is in trouble."
Merritt and the other Carabaos also have the ear of that committee during more relaxed times. One of the guests assigned a cigar at the head table at the 2002 Wallow was Missouri's Ike Skelton, the ranking Democrat on House Armed Services.
Sometimes it's difficult to tell who's working for the government and who's working for the defense contractors. Pentagon official Aldridge, who decides which defense contractors get the boodle, used to head a big defense contractor, the Aerospace Corporation. Schlesinger not only has ties to Wall Street, but is also chairman of the board of trustees of the Mitre Corporation, a huge quasi-public operation, registered as a nonprofit organization, which runs an array of research facilities working with both the government and defense contractors and which has received billions of dollars in government contracts.
The Carabao gatherings remain a good place for all these people to meet because, even though the Philippine war's combatants may have died out, the organization has relaxed its admission rules so it can always find high-flying hawks it can turn into bulls. In 1993, any officer who served in any overseas war, specifically Desert Storm, was deemed eligible to at least submit an application to join the exclusive group and wallow around every February in black tie, military dress uniforms, or even kilts.
Saddam Hussein, of course, is likely to dominate this Saturday's sketches, skits, and songs. Last year's villain was an obvious choice, sparking such ditties as "Big Bad Bin Laden" and "An Afghan Lullaby." The Carabaos, founded by officers who thought of themselves as fun-loving, poked fun at their own obsessions with the "Contractor's Ode to Joy." (Ernie Sult, a featured voice in that one and a member of the evening's "Taliban Boys Choir," reportedly brought down the house at a 2001 Gridiron Club gathering with a Joe Lieberman shtick.) The Carabaos' Star Wars medley featured songs by "Rummy Skywalker," "Darth Biden," "Mediadroids," "Industrydroids," and even "Princess Condoleia"-though her ode to unilateralism was sung by a white guy.
The most fiery musical manifesto, however, remains the original one, "The Soldier's Song." In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson, hardly noted for a progressive stance on race, publicly flogged the Carabaos for their insults to Filipinos. The song already had been softened by the substitution of "insurrectos" for "Filipinos."
Despite such songs, the Carabaos have their defenders. "The historic songs do reflect a racism prevalent in the military and in society at large at the beginning of the 20th century," one person heavily involved in the Philippine Scouts Heritage Society acknowledged to the Voice. (The society honors those Filipinos whom the U.S. convinced to fight against their revolutionary brethren.) That person said he has attended a Wallow "and saw absolutely no evidence that such attitudes toward Filipinos exist."
The general public isn't able to see a Wallow, or even read stories about one so that it can make up its own mind about that. For the most part, the Herd thunders only in closely guarded seclusion.
"Look, we have never given out press passes," Ghormley, the group's official historian, told the Voice. "We have never been fond of having press there. Now, some journalists have come -- in fact some are even members -- but we do not give out passes to any of the press."
Apart from brief mentions in obituaries, just about the last time a Carabao reared his horned head publicly was in 1985, when General Dynamics Corporation was caught billing the government a little more than $1000 so that its employees could wallow with the Herd. But with so many government officials openly donning desert gear and strapping on six-shooters these days, the Carabaos may not need to be so circumspect on Saturday night when the U.S. Marine Band strikes up the tune to "It's a Long Way to Tipperary," a popular World War I anthem for solders who were pining for the gals back home. The Carabaos' version is "It's a Long Way to Old Manila," in which they pine for "the happy Empire Day."
Ian Urbina is a journalist based at the Middle East Research and Information Project in Washington, D.C.