THE FIL-AM WAR: A PRIMER

[*note: this is a quick historical overview and thus not meant to be the full story.  There is alot more of the story to tell and if you know some of it, please comment and share it with us.  I originally posted this on my own site as a teaser for a history class I was helping teach at the KPC (a class which will be beginning again in April).  I am reposting it here as much of what we have been doing on this exchange deals with Philippine history, and the Fil-Am War is a critical part of it.  Archival images courtesy of Wikipedia, and the University of Wisconsin]

Women begging for food from Americans during the Phil-Am War.

Women begging for food from Americans during the Phil-Am War.

Today’s North American news has daily reports of the debacle in Iraq. It’s just the latest in a string of US invasions into sovereign lands, but the grand-daddy of it all was in the Philippines.

The Phils marked the USA’s first major foray beyond the Americas as a world power, and it foreshadowed all that would follow from Russia, to China, to Latin America, to Vietnam, and now to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Interestingly enough, the Philippine example been cited as a model for Iraq’s occupation by respected US journalists like Pulitzer-prize winning reporter for the Washington Post, Thomas E. Ricks.

US troops on their way to the Philippines (1899).

US troops on their way to the Philippines (1899).

“I think the closest parallel to the war in Iraq may be the U.S. war in the Philippines around 1900,” says Ricks in a Washington Post interview.

The argument is that while both wars started off badly for the US, an extended occupation resulted in the creation of a stable, democratic nation.

Another US writer, Max Boot an op-ed writer for the Los Angeles Times, elaborates:

US President William McKinley (1899)

“[America’s] greatest success (outside those territories that remain under the Stars and Stripes to this day) was in the Philippines–which, uncoincidentally, was also the site of one of its longest occupations. Among the institutions that Americans bequeathed to the Filipinos were public schools, a free press, an independent judiciary, a modern bureaucracy, democratic government, and separation of church and state. Unlike the Dutch in the East Indies, the British in Malaya, or the French in Indochina, the Americans left virtually no legacy of economic exploitation; Congress was so concerned about protecting the Filipinos that it barred large landholdings by American individuals or corporations. The US legacy was also lasting: the Philippines have been for the most part free and democratic save for the priod from 1972 to 1986, when Ferdinand Marcos ruled by fiat, which is more than most other Asian countries can say.” [italics mine]

Well, I don’t think any of us have to be Philippine historians to smell something off about the argument. Any of us who have been to the mother country will have questions about the state of freedom, democracy, and the rule of law. And any of us that have seen popular Filipino entertainment, or gone shopping for anything in the Phils, can see right through any claims of the US leaving “no legacy of economic exploitation.”

So what happened during the Phil-Am War?

Filipino insurgents.

Filipino "insurgents."

The Filipinos had fought to eject Spain from the islands when the Americans came in under the guise of friendship. This betrayal led to the outbreak of war against a nation Philippine President Emilio Aguinaldo first thought were allies.  Unfortunately, Aguinaldo was the only one under that illusion.

During this crisis English poet Rudyard Kipling wrote White Man’s Burden, where Empire is presented in a noble and just enterprise.  This nobility (with an added dash of ‘God’s Will’) was also on the mind of the US President.

President McKinley bathing the reluctant Filipino in the waters of civilization.

President McKinley bathing the reluctant Filipino in the waters of civilization.

The truth is I didn’t want the Philippines, and when they came to us as a gift from the gods, I did not know what to do with them… I sought counsel from all sides – Democrats as well as Republicans – but got little help. I thought first we would take only Manila; then Luzon; then other islands, perhaps, also. I walked the floor of the White House night after night until midnight; and I am not ashamed to tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night.

And one night late it came to me this way – I don’t know how it was, but it came:

(1) That we could not give them back to Spain – that would be cowardly and dishonorable;

(2) that we could not turn them over to France or Germany – our commercial rivals in the Orient – that would be bad business and discreditable;

(3) that we could not leave them to themselves – they were unfit for self-government – and they would soon have anarchy and misrule over there worse than Spain’s was; and

(4) that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and “Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow men for whom Christ also died.”

And then I went to bed and went to sleep and slept soundly.” [William McKinley Jr., 25th President of the United States]

Interestingly “God” is still the source of modern day US invasions.  The following is a quote from the BBC:“President Bush said to all of us: ‘I’m driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, “George, go and fight those terrorists in Afghanistan.” And I did, and then God would tell me, “George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq …” And I did.’” [Nabil Shaath, Palestinian Foreign Minister]

America had won a quick and easy victory in its war with Spain. With the giddy triumph came control of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. And also came a ferocious debate about America’s changing status. Would it be wise, profitable, righteous, or even constitutional for the U.S. to become an imperialist power? The peace treaty of Paris transferred ownership of the islands from Spain to the U.S. for a token 20 million dollars. Or, as one dubious commentator wrote: ‘We bought ten millions of niggers at two dollars a head.’ [Th. Metzger]

US soldiers posing for a photo by dead Filipinos.

US soldiers posing for a photo by dead Filipinos.

The conflict (like Iraq it was never called a ‘war’ by the Americans) involved 200,000 American troops and cost the taxpayer about $600 million. According to contemporary American approximations 16,000 Filipino ‘insurgents’ were killed, and upwards of 1,000,000 civilians were killed (this in a country of approx 10 million at the time).

The fight against the Americans was hard fought, and though US military might meant that more were lost on the Filipino side, the fact that they were fighting for their own country and against a new imperial power meant that they naturally fought harder and with more passion than the Americans.

The Americans responded with a fear campaign that included killing civilians, including women and children. It also brought about further innovations like the use of the “water cure” on captured Filipino fighters, orders to kill everyone over 10 years of age on Samar, and the creation of concentration camps.

A soldier writes home.

A soldier writes home.

The boys go for the enemy as if they were chasing jackrabbits……..I, for one, hope that Uncle Sam will apply the chastening rod, good, hard, and plenty, and lay it on until they come into the reservation and promise to be good “Injuns.” [Colonel Funston, Twentieth Kansas Volunteer]

One other American soldier, a Utah private, described killing Filipinos as ‘goo-goo hunting.’ This is the term that eventually became ‘gook.’ He wrote this in a letter home: “No cruelty is too severe for these brainless monkeys, who can appreciate no honor, kindness, or justice… With an enemy like this to fight, it is not surprising that the boys should adapt ‘no quarter’ as a motto and fill the blacks with lead.”

The present war is no bloodless, fake, opera bouffé engagement. Our men have been relentless; have killed to exterminate men, women, children, prisoners and captives, active insurgents and suspected people, from lads of ten and up, an idea prevailing that the Filipino, as such, was little better than a dog, a noisome reptile in some instances, whose best disposition was to the rubbish heap. Our soldiers have pumped salt water into men to ‘make them talk,’ have taken prisoner people who held up their hands and peacefully surrendered, and an hour later, without an atom of evidence to show they were even insurrectos, stood them up on a bridge and shot them down one by one, to drop them into the water below and float down as an example to those who found their bullet-riddled corpses. [A reporter for the Philadelphia Ledger]

Waterboarding a Filipino (Life Magazine 22 May 1902)

[The “water cure”] is a “treatment” that consisted of spread-eagling a prisoner on his back, forcing his mouth open with a bamboo stick and pouring gallons of water down his throat. Helpless, the insurrecto was pumped with water until his stomach was near the bursting point. Then he was questioned. If he refused to answer — which happened surprisingly often — an American soldier stood or kneeled on is belly, forcing the water out. One report by a U.S. soldier told how “a good heavy man” jumped on a prisoner’s belly “sending a gush of water from his mouth into the air as high as six feet.” This cure was repeated until the prisoner talked or died. Roughly half the insurrectos given the cure survived. How many Filipinos were killed by torture is not known, but the extent of the practice is well documented by a letter sent home by a soldier who bragged of inflicting the water cure on 160 Filipinos, 134 of whom died. [Th. Metzger]

General Smith

General Smith

On Samar, the Filipino population staged a famous guerilla attack in the town of Balangiga. Weary of American human rights violations, the townsfolk attacked with nothing but bolos and bamboo spears killing forty US soldiers timed to the ringing of the church bells. In response US General “Howling” Jake Smith, ordered out the extermination of the islands inhabitants:

“I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn, the more you kill and burn the better it will please me. I want all persons killed who are capable of bearing arms in actual hostilities against the United States.” General Jacob H. Smith said.

Major Littleton “Tony” Waller asked “I would like to know the limit of age to respect, sir?.”

“Ten years,” Smith said. [from Wikipedia]

The bone pit in Santa Cruz Cemetery, 1902

The bone pit in Santa Cruz Cemetery, 1902

Western researchers claim that 2,500 Filipinos were killed in Samar, Filipinos put that number at 50,000. The bells of that church were taken as war trophies. Today one is in the possession of the American 9th Infantry Regiment stationed in Korea, the other two are at Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming.

Prisoners in Batangas.

Prisoners in Batangas.

On Batangas, General J. Franklin Bell ordered the creation of concentration camps. People were kept in cells measuring 15-by-30-by-6 feet, into which up to fifty prisoners were crammed for months. A report in the Army and Navy Journal told of six hundred Filipinos penned in a building 70-by-20 feet, suffocating, starving, dying of dysentery and thirst in the brutal tropical sun.

On the island of Batangas, everyone other than the inhabitants of a few major cities was forced into a concentration camp. Frustrations that the war was dragging on may have made the U.S. military more eager to lash out, even at Filipinos who’d not lifted a finger against them… to exterminate an entire population. Though General Bell, who’d created the camps on Batangas, insisted that they were built to “protect friendly natives from the insurgents, assure them an adequate food supply” while teaching them “proper sanitary standards,” the commandant of one of the camps was slightly more realistic, referring to them as the “suburbs of Hell.” [Th. Metzger]

The Phil-Am War began in June 1899 and officially ended on 4 July 1902. Unofficially the guerilla war continued throughout the American colonial period, and arguably, it continues today in the many rebel forces across the islands that continue to fight, in name if not in reality, for true freedom and democracy in the Philippines.

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2 responses to “THE FIL-AM WAR: A PRIMER

  1. Virgilio I. Gonzales

    The Philippine History that was taught Filipinos in high schools did not include the atrocities committed by th US soldiers. It was a white-washed history, showing only the nobility of the Americans. It was a total crap. The cruelty and injustice of it all. America should be ashamed.

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