The administration of President Donald J. Trump has recently declared its intention to hide a 2014 report describing the CIA’s harsh detention and interrogation programs. By returning the document to Congress, this shields the report from ever being accessible to the American public through the Freedom of Information Act. Throwing this 6700-page report down the memory hole has more of a precedent than we would like to think. We’ve forgotten before.
The Water Cure
In 1902, almost seventy years before Vietnam and one hundred years before Iraq, there was a national conversation about how America should exercise its authority abroad, including how we should treat prisoners of war. It all began in America’s first overseas colony, the Philippines. At the conclusion of the Spanish-American War, the US purchased these islands from Spain for twenty million dollars, but America would spend twenty times that fighting the Filipinos, who did not want to simply exchange one colonial power for another. Occupation is ugly. The Senate Committee on the Philippines launched a detailed investigation into actions that “covered with a foul blot the flag which we all love and honor.” What were these actions?
It was called the “water cure.” Soldiers laid a prisoner on his back, stood a man on each hand and foot, and forced a hollow tube into the victim’s throat. Through the tube they poured an entire pail of saltwater, dished up with a little sand to inflict a more severe punishment. When the prisoner did not give up, they poured in another pailful. Once the unlucky victim’s belly was “distended to the point of bursting,” a soldier would “tap” it with the butt of his gun. If the water did not spout high enough, they would jump up and down on his stomach. In the words of A. F. Miller of the 32nd Volunteer Infantry Regiment: “They swell[ed] up like toads. I’ll tell you it [was] a terrible torture.”
The Ends against the Means
Americans had not come to the Philippines to teach its soldiers enhanced interrogation techniques. Far from it. Americans claimed to have seized the islands to bring “the blessings of good and stable government,” in the words of President William McKinley:
…we come not as invaders or conquerors, but as friends, to protect the natives in their homes, in their employments, and in their personal and religious rights….[The American military must] win the confidence, respect and affection of the inhabitants of the Philippines…by proving to them that the mission of the United States is one of benevolent assimilation, substituting the mild sway of justice and right for arbitrary rule.
Novelist and prominent anti-imperialist Mark Twain pointed out the hypocrisy of Americans fighting a war to “civilize” another country and then succumbing to the very barbarism they sought to expunge. His essay “To the Person Sitting in Darkness” is one of his best and most biting pieces of satire:
The Person Sitting in Darkness is almost sure to say: “There is something curious about this — curious and unaccountable. There must be two Americas: one that sets the captive free, and one that takes a once-captive’s new freedom away from him, and picks a quarrel with him with nothing to found it on; then kills him to get his land.” …And as for a flag for the Philippine Province, it is easily managed. We can have a special one — our States do it: we can have just our usual flag, with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and cross-bones.
The End of a Conversation
The Senate hearings and national conversation did not come to any hard conclusions about what had happened in the Philippines, and who—if anyone—was to blame. (The Supreme Court did determine that Filipinos did not have all the legal rights of Americans because the Constitution did not quite follow the flag.)
Controversy was quelled by a conveniently timed declaration of “peace” in the Philippine islands on July 4, 1902. (It was not peace, though: fighting would continue until 1913, including other, bigger atrocities, like the hundreds of civilian dead at Bud Dajo.) But the American public was thrilled that the US military handed power over to a civil government under Governor William Howard Taft. Americans at home believed their problems were solved. However, because America did not finish the conversation, the public was forced to have it all over again in 1969 (when the My Lai massacre story broke) and in 2004 (when the Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse scandal broke). Now, with the threat to hide the 2014 torture report, we should be asking these questions all over again.
Does the end justify the means?
Do the means even work? (Does torture provide actionable information?)
What happens when the use of torture is exposed, giving ammunition to our enemies and undermining the end goal of peace?
Unfortunately, Americans may be tiring of these questions before they can come to a consensus about the answers.
My upcoming book, Sugar Moon, will be firmly rooted in history that I believe every American should know: the ambush of a company of American soldiers on September 28, 1901, in Balangiga, Philippines. Most people have never heard of it. What happened that day in Balangiga—and in the months of American counterattacks afterward—has been overshadowed by other towns that Americans do know, ones with names like My Lai and Fallujah. Had we learned the lesson of Balangiga, though, these two towns in Vietnam and Iraq might never have hit the headlines. In fact, they might not be noteworthy at all.
How did I stumble upon Balangiga? When I started plotting my story about an American schoolteacher and a Filipino sugar baron—the story that became Under the Sugar Sun—I did a lot of research at Ateneo de Manila University, where I read through old issues of the Manila Times on microfiche. (By the way, if you want to entertain me, give me two rolls of that microfiche and leave me there all day. It’s like giving a child an iPad. History is my babysitter.) One of the articles I stumbled across was entitled: “Sister Hunting for Brother: His Name is E.L. Evans and He is Supposed to Be in the Philippines.” From there, I conjured up the idea of a missing brother to bring Georgina Potter to the Philippines. Yes, she was hired by the American colonial government to start a school in the Visayas, but her real motive in coming—and for letting herself get entangled with a jerk named Archie—was finding her brother, Ben Potter.
Why was Ben missing? Maybe because he was in a significant battle? Or, at least, a very confusing one? In Under the Sugar Sun, Georgina goes to Army Headquarters in Fort Santiago in Manila to find out, and she lays out all the news articles from a battle in Balangiga. A clerk tries to help her, to no avail:
“Your brother should be in here one way or another.” The clerk put his finger on the article with the list. “Name and rank?”
If it were that easy, she thought, she would not have bothered crossing the Pacific. “Sergeant Benjamin Potter.”
“I see a Ben Cutter,” the clerk said. “That’s probably him.” He sounded sure, as if the Army made such mistakes all the time. Maybe they did. He would know.
Georgie pulled another article to compare side by side. “Half the names are spelled differently from one day to another,” she explained. “Cutter one day, then Carter, then Palmer. And here all of the Boston soldiers are described as dead. All of them! My mother and I bought every paper, every edition, for a month, trying to find a new official list that made any sense. And you know what the Army told us? Nothing! No telegram, no letter, nothing.” She was not normally one to create a scene, but she had come a long way for the truth, and she was going to get it.
The confusion of names and numbers really did happen, which is one of the reasons why I chose this setting for my character. It makes sense that if he survived, he still might not want to be found. Several survivors stayed in the Philippines afterward, much to the chagrin of their families.
So, it was decided: Ben served in Company C, Ninth Infantry, which saw action in China during the Boxer War, and then returned to the Philippines to be stationed in Balangiga. Poor Ben. Poor Balangiga.
Company C occupied this town, and occupation is ugly. It doesn’t matter how you justify it—in this case, blockading the southern coast of Samar so that the guerrillas in the mountains could not be resupplied, a legitimate military purpose. It also doesn’t matter if the occupation starts off peacefully, which it did in Balangiga. It is not going to stay that way. The lesson of occupation throughout world history—no matter whether we are talking about ancient Greek occupation of Jerusalem, Israeli occupation of Lebanon, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, or the American occupation of the Philippines—things will go downhill.
The Americans called the Filipino guerrillas insurrectionists, and they labeled what happened in Balangiga a massacre, implying that the perpetrators had no just cause. On the other side, Filipinos call their soldiers revolutionaries, and they see the event itself as a just uprising. If you want to avoid all judgment, it was an incident, or more specifically an ambush. I am greatly indebted to Philippine historian Rolando O. Borrinaga and British writer Bob Couttie for their first-hand research and outstanding work on Balangiga. In my version of the story, I have taken some liberties—merging characters to simplify things for the reader, renaming a few people—but I hope that my unwitting mentors will find that I got the big brush strokes right. All errors are my own, of course.
As we will see in Sugar Moon, at first things went okay. Uneasily, but okay. An American officer played chess with the parish priest. The man Sergeant Benjamin Potter is based on studied martial arts with the police chief. Individuals got along. But here’s the rub: if the townspeople became too friendly with the Americans, they would face retribution from the revolutionaries up in the mountains. So the town tried to play it cool, stay neutral.
But the Americans noticed some strange things happening—like sweet potatoes planted in the jungle for the guerrilla soldiers, or townspeople not cutting down banana trees that could provide the guerrillas cover—and the Yanks thought they had been betrayed. They ordered the town to cut down essential food sources, to “clean up” the town. If the town complied, not only would they need to destroy their own property, they would also endanger the understanding they had with guerrillas. I think you probably see where this is going. The reality of a town like this during occupation is that it will be caught in between two armies, and if neither army can truly protect the civilians against the other, the people must try to play one off the other. That is a dangerous game.
Company C doubled down. They imprisoned the town’s men in conical tents that looked like Native American teepees. These Sibley tents were supposed to sleep 16, but were each jammed full with over 70 men and boys, who had to sit on their haunches all night. They were not fed dinner, and in the morning they were forced to cut down the food their families depended on. This went on for several days.
The Americans did not see the town turning against them. They only saw their own frustration: they felt alone, vulnerable, on the edge of a hostile island, a day’s travel away from the nearest garrison. Yet they did not expect the ambush. My character Ben will narrate the whole debacle through his flashbacks, which starts with him trying to court a local woman. He’s a proper gentleman, don’t worry, but he’s smitten. This, by the way, is based on a real possible romance between an American sergeant and the local prayer leader of the town.
On Sunday, September 28, 1901, the morning after the town fiesta, a church bell rang. Nothing unusual about that—until men dressed as women streamed out of the church with machetes. The American soldiers were eating breakfast. Dozens would die immediately and gruesomely. A little more than half would manage to escape, but several of them would die along the way of their wounds or from other attacks. In total, 48 of 77 Americans would die.
Americans blamed the Filipino revolutionaries for streaming out of the jungle to attack the town, but the truth Borrinaga and Couttie uncovered is that the town actually planned the attack themselves. They may have borrowed some men from villages outside Balangiga proper, and they may have coordinated with the revolutionaries, but this was a town fighting back against the soldiers who had imprisoned them.
After that, all hell broke loose. If there is something more violent than the rising up of an occupied people, it is the revenge exacted by a conventional military force armed to the teeth. The American commander in Samar ordered his men to turn the entire island into “a howling wilderness” by striking down all men and boys capable of carrying arms, which he defined as all those over ten years old. (That’s not legal, by the way.) His men made a special trip back to Balangiga to burn down the town and kill anyone in sight. Months of revenge resulted in the deaths of thousands on Samar, maybe as many as 15,000, according to Borrinaga.
This was the My Lai moment of the Philippine-American War, and it was just as explosive to the American public as that incident in Vietnam was. For the first time, with the advent of the trans-Pacific telegraph cable, the American public could follow events with an immediacy that had been previously impossible. The excesses of the Army now blanketed newspapers and magazines Stateside. Though military authorities tried to censor the press by controlling the telegraph lines out of Manila, reporters got around this by traveling to Hong Kong to wire their stories. The courts-martial of several American officers made daily headlines, and Senate hearings began on the issue of American atrocities in the Philippines.
But how do you criticize the methods of occupation without questioning the whole endeavor to begin with? You can blame a few “bad apples” to satisfy the public, but is it enough? The general in Samar received a slap on the wrist from the court-martial that followed, and though popular outcry in the US later forced President Roosevelt to demand the general’s retirement, the punishment still didn’t fit the crime. The general retired with a full pension. The American lieutenant in command at My Lai, convicted of murdering 22 Vietnamese civilians, served only seven months of house arrest and then was pardoned.
My character Ben tried hard to be better than the rest, but what happened in Balangiga tortures him. You are not supposed to have liked him in Under the Sugar Sun, and he does not like himself much, either. He suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, something that two of my very best friends share with him. Soldiers with PTSD struggle with guilt, depression, substance abuse, anger management, insomnia, and other health problems. I am greatly indebted to these friends for letting me put some of their worst fears on the page. I hope they will also appreciate the redemptive journey Ben goes through and the healing power of love that he finds. They would tell me this is far too simplistic a cure, but I think they want Ben to have a happily-ever-after, so it’s okay.
George Santayana wrote in 1905: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It is fitting he said so at the outset of what was later called the American Century. The vigorous debate about the use of military force abroad—and it’s aftereffects like PTSD—are familiar to people today. But they were not really a part of American discourse until the Philippine-American War. America’s professional army was born out of this war. Before 1898, the entire US Army was smaller than today’s New York City Police Department. Most of the Spanish-American War had to be fought with state volunteers whose enlistments lasted only a year. When hostilities broke out in Philippines, Congress promptly doubled the size of the regular army once, and then doubled it again. For the first time in its history, America had a significant standing army stationed far from its borders. And yet no one learned from Balangiga.
Maybe it is not good enough to just remember the past. You should experience it yourself. That’s the garden where empathy grows. That’s where you get all the feels. I hope Sugar Moon helps.
The Philippine-American War (1899-1913) is one reason why the new president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, has announced his “separation from the United States” and his dependence on China. “America has one too many [misdeeds] to answer for,” Duterte said. Which misdeeds? And why have we not heard of them before?
The Philippine-American War was our first great-power conquest and our first overseas insurgency. It was first time we tried to exert American authority and values abroad. (See my previous post on New Imperialism.) And this war was not a small one. It was the Edwardian Vietnam. As a percentage of the contemporary population, three times as many American soldiers died in the Philippine-American War as did in the recent Iraq War. More than three-quarters of a million Filipinos died from war and related causes, nearly 10% of the population.
Though Duterte does not want to admit it, there were some good aspects to American rule, and some of these were the inspiration behind my own fiction writing. For example, the Americans sent 1000 schoolteachers to the islands—and not just to Manila, but to the boondocks, too. (That’s a bit of an inside joke. See, the word boondocks comes from the Filipino (Tagalog) word bundok, or mountain.) These teachers were regarded as the best American import of all, especially by the women of the islands who had been only sparingly educated by the Spanish—and that only if they were wealthy enough to afford it. In my novel Under the Sugar Sun, I reimagined one of these teachers as a Boston schoolmarm named Georgina Potter. Georgie is sent to the boondocks of Bais only to find her fiancé straying, her soldier brother missing, and the local sugar baron flirting. Adventures (and love) ensue.
There were other investments in infrastructure and human capital made by the Americans, from ports to the development of the Philippine Supreme Court. Philippine universities founded in this era have become regional attractions, particularly for their science and medical educations.
But it was not all bailes and basketball—though basketball is still wildly popular. There was also a down side to imperialism, and this appears in my books, too. The second book of the Sugar Sun series, Sugar Moon, will feature a character who survived a surprise attack at a town named Balangiga in 1901. Forty-eight Americans died there, the biggest loss for the Army since Little Big Horn. The Americans retaliated disproportionately. General Jacob “Hell Roaring Jake” Smith told his men to turn the whole island of Samar into a “howling wilderness”:
I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn, the more you kill and burn the better it will please me.
When asked the limit of age to respect, General Smith said “Ten years.” Smith declared the coasts of Samar to be “safe zones,” but anyone inland was assumed hostile to the United States and therefore a valid target. The entire island was embargoed. Cities grew crowded and diseased, and many starved. There is still a lot of debate about the number of Samareños who died in this period, with figures ranging from 2500 to 50,000. Either way, a lot.
Samar was the My Lai—or the Abu Ghraib—of the Philippine-American War. Your counterpart in 1901-1902 would have read daily reports on General Smith’s court-martial. (Yes, he was court-martialed, but only after a round-about investigation of a totally different incident.) With the advent of the trans-Pacific telegraph cable, people could follow events with an immediacy that had been previously impossible. As a result, even though General Smith received only a slap on the wrist, popular outcry in the US later forced President Roosevelt to demand the general’s retirement. Why so light still? The dirty secret was that Smith’s commanding officers wanted this “chastisement” policy because they agreed with him that “short, severe wars are the most humane in the end. No civilized war…can be carried on on a humanitarian basis.” And the leaders of the insurgency in Samar did surrender in April 1902, only seven months after the attack at Balangiga. The Americans thought the ends justified the means.
The incident that Duterte likes to talk about the most was not in Samar, though. The president is from the island of Mindanao, where the United States fought its first war against Muslim separatism. Islam was the primary Filipino religion before the arrival of the Catholic Spanish, and still today about five percent of Filipinos are Muslim. Ninety-four percent of Filipino Muslims, dubbed Moros by Spanish, still live the large southern island of Mindanao. When the Americans first arrived in the Philippines in 1898, they had enough problems on their hands with the Filipino Christians, so they made a “live and let live” agreement with the Moros. Once the rest of the islands were pacified, though, the Americans tried to extend their rule over Mindanao. They wanted to issue identity cards, collect taxes, outlaw slavery, and disarm the population.
Not all of these are bad things—I’m thinking mostly of the abolition of slavery—but to the Moros these laws struck at the heart of local autonomy. In the resulting fight, young warriors attacked anyone considered an enemy of Islam—and though they were not specifically bent on suicide, they were not afraid of death, either. They were so relentless, in fact, that the American Army had to requisition a whole new firearm, the .45-caliber—the only pistol with enough stopping power to fight Moros armed only with knives. This pistol, named the 1911 after the year it was adopted, was a standard-issue firearm until 1985, and it still remains a favorite of many in the military today.
Americans fought their largest engagements against the Moros, and this meant some of the worst massacres happened against the Moros, as well. At Bud Dajo in 1906, the Moros had retreated to the interior of an extinct volcano and were surrounded by American forces who had the high ground. Instead of a slow siege, the Americans fired down into the crater and killed 900 Moros, including women and children. Reports of the event shocked Americans at home, but it did not stop the war, which would rage on for seven more years, until 1913.
Part of the reason the Moro War stretched on so long was that it was all “chastisement” and relatively little “attraction.” In other words, there was a lot less “benevolent assimilation” here—fewer hospitals, almost no teachers, less infrastructure, and so on. Today, the Moros have the same complaint against the majority Catholic government of the Philippines—they are not getting the public works and development projects they see in the rest of the islands, but they cannot run their own affairs, either. Though part of Mindanao has been made an autonomous region, such a compromise has not brought an end to the violence. Some groups aim for legitimate political goals, some groups are professional kidnappers-for-hire, and a few are eager hangers-on of the latest Islamist terror organizations, including al Qaeda and ISIS.
Yep, those guys. Did you know the dress rehearsal for 9/11 was in the Philippines? Ramzi Yousef and Khalid Sheik Muhammad, masterminds of the 1993 and 2001 World Trade Center attacks, respectively, both operated out of the Philippines in the 1990s. The Philippine National Police thwarted an attempt of these men to fly a plane into CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. This is why, only ten years after the Philippine Congress evicted the Americans from leased naval and air force bases in the islands, the Yanks were back. Special Forces operated continuously out of Mindanao from 2001 until 2016. Now Duterte wants the US Army out. He claims this is for the Americans’ protection, but it may also be that he wants to tone down the fighting in order to put forward a federalist plan. (There is a lot of irony in the fact that a politician known for encouraging vigilante squads wants to pursue a peaceful political solution to this conflict, but Mindanao is his home, so we’ll see.)
Rest assured: Duterte has not cut off ties with the United States. According to the Agence France-Press:
A frequent pattern following Duterte’s explosive remarks against the United States, the crime war and other hot-button issues has been for his aides or cabinet ministers to try to downplay, clarify or otherwise interpret them.
And within a few hours of Duterte’s separation remarks, his finance and economic planning secretaries released a joint statement saying the Philippines would not break ties with Western nations.
Moreover, the White House insists no one has officially asked for a change in relations. The real test will be to see if the Philippines really buys weapons from China and Russia, settles its legal dispute with China over the Spratly Islands bilaterally (cutting out the United States and United Nations), and ceases joint exercises with the US military in the South China Sea. None of these things are good for the strategic interests of the United States—but to many in the Philippines, this is exactly what they like about Duterte.
None of this is happening in a vacuum. It is more like a family dispute, where discussions and disagreements today are affected by the baggage of our shared history over the last 120 years. If we approach the news only with an eye on today and ignore the way that relationships have developed over time, we miss all the important subtext.
As Lydia San Andres pointed out last week, there is a whole century—and a whole globe—of American intervention to study. I will leave the Caribbean to her talented pen (and keyboard), but if you would like to know more about how the Philippine-American War launched the American Century, you should know that I take this show on the road!
I have an illustrated talk—“America in the Philippines: Our First Empire”—that shows how our experience in Asia fundamentally changed the U.S. role in the world and launched some of our best known political and military figures, to boot. I will tell you more about the good, the bad, and the ugly of how Americans ruled—and why, despite it all, the Filipino-American friendship has been so strong for so long. I will also show how recent stump speeches on transpacific trade, immigration, and national security are actually reprises of the early 1900s. Finally, I have a few stories of my own from living in the fabulous Philippines, many of which have shaped what and how I write. Read more and find my contact information here.
Tell your local librarian, community college, high school, veterans group, historical society, book club, or other non-profit. My talk is free to these groups…as long as I can get there. I’m not traveling by carabao, though…