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Remembering the Philippine War

Andrew Bacevich calls for reckoning with the consequences of American colonial empire in the Philippines:

Yet the Philippines represented an altogether different case. By no stretch of the imagination did the archipelago fall within “our backyard.” Furthermore, the Filipinos had no desire to trade Spanish rule for American rule and violently resisted occupation by U.S. forces. The notably dirty Philippine-American War that followed from 1899 to 1902—a conflict almost entirely expunged from American memory today—resulted in something like 200,000 Filipino deaths and ended in a U.S. victory not yet memorialized on the National Mall in Washington.

Bacevich is right when he says that the Philippine War has been “almost entirely expunged from American memory today.” It is significant that one of the only times in recent years that the Philippine War was remembered was so that it could provide fodder for the counterinsurgency fad among pro-war pundits. Max Boot was one of the chief advocates for counterinsurgency warfare, and he has cited the brutal occupation campaign in the Philippines as an example of how to win such wars. Greg Bankoff counted the costs of the “small war” in the Philippines that Boot praised in his book The Savage Wars of Peace, and he described them in this response to a positive review of the book back in 2002:

Start with the description of the war itself as “small.” Granted, the United States suffered only some 7,000 casualties, dead and wounded. But estimates of Filipino mortality range from 200,000 persons upward. This is hardly small, especially considering that the total Filipino population at the time was around seven million. Nor is it accurate to say the war ended in 1902, unless one accepts the terms of President Theodore Roosevelt’s November 1902 Brigandage Act, which redefined any band of more than three men as bandits and subjected them to 20 years imprisonment or the death penalty. In fact, guerrilla warfare continued until 1907, waged by popular revolutionary leaders who refused to accept the colonial yoke anew — men such as Luciano San Miguel (who died on the battlefield of Corral-na-Bato in March 1903), Macario Sakay (who was hanged on September 13, 1907) and Julian Montalan (who was sentenced to life imprisonment and exiled to Palawan until 1921). No, the war did not actually end in 1902, but the U.S. colonial authorities conveniently branded everything subsequent to that as ladronism, simple thievery.

Bankoff warned later in the same piece that “a distorted reconstruction of that past is likely to preview an equally distorted future.” Looking back seventeen years later at our multiple protracted wars, all of them enthusiastically supported by Boot and fellow neo-imperialists, we have to conclude that the future was horribly distorted in part by this willingness to lionize and whitewash the Philippine War as a model for U.S. foreign policy. Like that war, our ongoing wars have inflicted horrific losses on the local populations, they are completely divorced from the security of the United States, and the people we are fighting are fighting us because our forces are in their country.

If Boot’s distorted history has contributed to the distortion of our foreign policy, we could do worse than to begin by finding better reconstructions of the past. Daniel Immerwahr has done some important work in studying the consequences of our colonial empire on the people in the territories that our government took over in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His book How to Hide an Empire recounts the history of how the U.S. obtained its overseas territories, how it abused them, and how it has created a very different kind of empire over the last seventy years.

Immerwahr recounts some of the opposition to the Philippine War from members of the Anti-Imperialist League:

As Aguinaldo hoped, the Philippine War tapped a rich vein of anti-imperialism. Even the Democratic Party–hardly a radical organization in the age of Jim Crow–could go a little spittle-flecked on this issue. The war was “criminal aggression,” the Democratic platform charged in 1900, born of “greedy commercialism” and sure to ruin the country. “No nation can long endure half republic and half empire,” it warned. “Imperialism abroad will lead quickly and inevitably to despotism at home.” (p. 95)

He also describes the tactics that U.S. forces used in the war:

Now, with that spotlight switched off, MacArthur just wanted it over. He issued a new set of orders. Captured insurgents could be killed. Towns supporting them could be destroyed. The preferred method was burning, and since nearly every town in the north of the Philippines was aiding the rebels in some way, every one was potentially kindling.

The men needed little encouragement to carry out these orders. As MacArthur well knew, his soldiers regarded Filipinos not at fellow Americans, but as irksome “natives.” (p. 96)

If we hope to change U.S. foreign policy and repudiate empire, we have to remember first how we acquired it and the Americans that organized to oppose it.

P.S. Another similarity between the Philippine War and the wars of the last two decades is the length of the actual fighting. Immerwahr writes:

Stretching from the outbreak of hostilities in 1899 to the end of military rule in Moroland in 1913, it is, after the war in Afghanistan, the longest war the United States has ever fought. (p. 107)

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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