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March 2004 • Vol 4, No. 3 •

History ‘Lesions’

By Renato Redentor Constantino

And so here we are, at the crossroads of another day, speechless and troubled by what is before us, so anxious to engage in a conversation with what ought to be, and yet so unaware of or indifferent to a past waiting to explain itself, to be heard, to be remembered.

“You have to understand the Arab mind,” said Capt. Todd Brown, a U.S. company commander with the 4th Infantry Division in Iraq, who had led his troops in encasing Abu Hishma in a razor-wire fence to contain the resistance suspected to be coming from the village. “The only thing they understand is force.”

Over a century ago, during a period of history that few Americans today can recall, another U.S. general uttered similar words. It would take at least “ten years of bayonet treatment” to make Filipinos accept American rule, said Gen. Arthur MacArthur, even as, to deprive the “enemy” of popular support, U.S. troops herded whole Filipino villages into concentration camps—precursors of the strategic hamlets used by the United States during the Vietnam War and the razor-wire fences now employed by the troops commanded by Capt. Brown to enclose defiant Iraqi villages.

History. How much better off we would all be today if only we remembered more—beginning with the origins of the relationship between the Philippines and the United States, a chapter which in our history is called the Philippine-American War; a chapter that began on February 4, 1899 and lasted an endless decade, which largely defined not only the pathways Filipinos were forced to take over the next century but the imperial directions that have framed recent U.S. history as well.

By returning to this vast and incredibly brutal conflict, Americans (and Filipinos) today may yet find what they have lost: the key to understanding the depravities of the present and, perhaps, their collective deliverance.

The triggers for war

For an empire perennially weighed down by the necessity of justifying aggression, triggers for war are providentially everywhere, to be pulled expediently whether real or not. In the spring of 2003, it was weapons of mass destruction in Never-Never Land or al-Qaeda connections. In 1964 in Vietnam, it was an attack by North Vietnamese gunboats. In 1899, it was “savages attacking our boys.” Anything will do.

When Lyndon Johnson’s administration launched its long-planned full-scale bombing campaign in Vietnam, it did so using the authority granted by Congress under the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, named after the site where North Vietnamese torpedo boats allegedly attacked U.S. destroyers on August 2 and 4, 1964. With domestic concern growing over an escalating U.S. military intervention, the Tonkin Gulf incidents gave the Johnson government the leverage it needed to pressure Congress to authorize an open assault on Vietnam. Reports of the alleged attacks caused such a rumpus that, by August 7, 1964, within three days of the second incident, Congress had passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution by a vote of 416 to 0 in the House of Representatives and with just two dissenting votes in the Senate.

Only later was it revealed that a draft version of the resolution had been prepared prior to the alleged attacks; that the provocation on August 2 actually came from the U.S. side—an American destroyer deliberately entered North Vietnam’s territorial waters escorting South Vietnamese boats—and that the August 4 attack did not take place at all. By the time the Johnson administration’s manipulation of the incidents was exposed, however, the U.S. was already deeply “committed” to a full-scale American-led war in Vietnam.

As we cycle backwards in history, we find a similar and no less bloody tale of cold-blooded imperial calculation and script-writing.

To kill a republic

The last decade of 1890 was an invigorating time for Filipino revolutionaries. After four centuries of largely inchoate revolts, Filipinos had united in 1892 under the banner of an organization whose goal was to overthrow Spanish colonial rule and create a democratic Filipino republic. By 1896, born out of well-articulated aspirations for national economic and political independence, open revolutionary war had commenced. By the first few days of 1899, the revolutionary movement had not only defeated Spain, but assembled a government ready to administer to the needs of a victorious if war-weary populace.

Such a dream of an emergent republic was not to be, however, for an expansive America had different ideas about how the islands should be ruled. Behind the backs of the Filipinos, the government of President William McKinley ended its brief war with Spain by signing the Treaty of Paris on December 10, 1898. Under it, the Philippines was conveniently ceded to the United States. The Constitution, however, prevented the implementation of a treaty annexing Asia’s first republic without ratification by two-thirds of the Senate.

McKinley knew he lacked that required two-thirds vote, but this did little to stop him from pushing through the treaty. If the U.S. took possession of the islands, Philippine cane sugar would be allowed to enter the country with no tariffs placed on it, thus reducing costs for sugar refiners, the biggest of which was the American Sugar Refining Company, a backer of the president. This was at a time when some in Congress were arguing that Americans could enjoy all the economic opportunities the Philippines had to offer without bothering with annexation. But as Admiral George Dewey—who would soon play a major role in the occupation—put it, “Capital would not feel safe to invest in the Philippines unless the United States annexed the islands.”

Cold-blooded calculus

In the end, outright bribery—the 19th century version of present-day PACs, hordes of lobbyists, and “revolving doors”—did the trick for McKinley, delivering a large portion of the needed votes into his hands. In order to tip the balance, however, the president needed one more thing, a trigger for war that would drive the rest of the votes his way.

Weeks before war broke out, the War Department began to issue announcements meant to prepare the public for the fact that “U.S. forces would have to defend themselves” if attacked by “natives”—even as American troops were deployed to Manila itself. On February 2, the Navy dismissed all Filipinos employed on its ships in Manila harbor, while Army regimental commanders were given orders to provoke a conflict with the Filipino forces. On the same day, a U.S. regiment deliberately occupied an area called Santol where Filipino republican troops were already positioned. The Filipinos protested but, not wishing to ignite hostilities, eventually withdrew.

On the evening of February 4, 1899, U.S. soldiers in Santol were instructed to venture yet further into territory held by Filipino troops, with the order “to shoot if the need arose.” The Americans soon encountered Filipino sentries whom they immediately fired upon. The private who first opened fire reportedly shouted to his companions, “Line up, fellows, the niggers are in here all through these yards.” Hours later, McKinley announced to the press “that the insurgents had attacked Manila.” The next day he dispatched instructions to crush the Filipino army.

An emissary from the Filipino side was dispatched to the American commanders to request “a cessation of hostilities” and explain that the provocation actually came from their own troops. He was rebuffed by the Army commander, who told him that the fighting “having begun, must go on to the grim end.” News of “savages” and “barbarians” who had “fired on the flag” soon filled American newspapers.

On February 6, the Senate ratified the treaty by exactly one vote more than the needed two-thirds and the Philippines formally became a colony of the United States amid soaring promises of better lives for Filipinos. Yet it would take the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of those same Filipinos in a decade-long orgy of pacification before armed resistance to U.S. rule was finally crushed.

Liberating souls

“You never hear of any disturbances,” said a U.S. congressman just back from Manila at a moment when McKinley had launched a campaign of “Benevolent Assimilation” in the Philippines, “…because there isn’t anybody left to rebel… The good Lord in Heaven only knows the number of Filipinos that were put under the ground. Our soldiers took no prisoners, they kept no records; they simply swept the country, and wherever and whenever they could get hold of a Filipino they killed him.”

Before he took command of the Army during the war, Gen. J. Franklin Bell announced: “All consideration and regard for the inhabitants of this place cease from the day I become commander. I have the force and authority to do whatever seems to me good and especially to humiliate all those…who have any pride.”

“I want no prisoners, I wish you to kill and burn: the more you kill and burn the better you will please me,” was the order Gen. Jacob Smith issued a century ago as his troops slaughtered civilians and Filipino revolutionaries alike defending the first republic in Asia and the freedom they had just wrested from Spain. Smith had ordered his troops to turn the island of Samar into a “howling wilderness” so that “even birds could not live there.”

When asked by a soldier to define the age limit for killing, Smith replied, “Everything over ten.” Foreshadowing the fate of Lt. William Calley, who was found guilty of leading U.S. soldiers in perpetrating horrors in the Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai and who served only four and a half months of his life sentence behind bars after which he was pardoned by Richard Nixon, Gen. Smith was court-martialed for issuing his barbaric orders, found guilty, and sentenced to an admonition.

Explaining the brutality meted out by American soldiers to Filipinos, a Boston Herald correspondent covering the war commented, “Our troops in the Philippines…look upon all Filipinos as of one race and condition, and being dark men, they are therefore ‘niggers,’ and entitled to all the contempt and harsh treatment administered by white overlords to the most inferior races.” As early as April 1899, a U.S. commander was already predicting, “It may be necessary to kill half the Filipinos in order that the remaining half of the population may be advanced to a higher place of life than their present semi-barbarous state affords.”

As it turned out, however, not that many died. As early as 1901, the number of Filipinos who had been killed or had died of disease as a result of America’s vile occupation was pegged by a U.S. general at a “mere” 600,000—a horrific figure considering that it took the United States another decade to literally wipe out Filipino resistance.

And America keeps asking itself, “Why do they hate us so?”

“We’re going to become guilty, in my judgment, of being the greatest threat to the peace of world,” said [Republican] Senator Wayne Morse, who voted against the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in the U.S. Senate. “It’s an ugly reality, and we Americans don’t like to face up to it. I hate to think of the chapter of American history that’s going to be written in the future in connection with our outlawry in Southeast Asia.”

When Americans are ready to ask the question, “Why have we learned so little?” they will see hands extended to them waiting to be grasped; people elsewhere eager to tell them, in Arundhati Roy’s words, “how beautiful it is to be gentle instead of brutal, safe instead of scared. Befriended instead of isolated. Loved instead of hated.” Folks waiting to whisper in their ears, “Yours is by no means a great nation, but you could be a great people.”

Renato Redentor Constantino is a writer and painter based in the Philippines.

Today (the Philippines), February 20, 2004





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