In the aftermath of writing about Manny Pacquio’s Extraordinary Character two weeks ago, I’ve been writing posts that tend to be a bit inspirational, and I’ve enjoyed looking at some very positive things in the process. Full disclosure: this isn’t one of those posts. If you’re looking exclusively for inspiration I suggest you jump from here to the BBC Documentary About Manny Pacquiao as that will be more inspirational for sure. If you’re still interested to hear more about the War They Don’t Teach in American Schools — then read on.
I decided to write about the Philippine American War because earlier today Rena and I were working on a new chapter of “Daughter of Lawaan” and in that chapter had to deal with the Balangiga Massacre (which Rena’s ancestors participated in — Lawaan was part of the Balangiga poblacion) –and while we were doing that, I found myself thinking once again about Balangiga, which in turn led me to start thinking about the Philippine American War which is one of the topics that most intrigues me (and disturbs me) about the Philippine-American relationship. I began to get that old feeling I always get when I think about that war — that this is an important topic which has never really been adequately resolved either as an item for discussion between Filipinos and Americans, or as an internal American political and historical issue. The undeniable fact is this: it was a violent and tragic war that cost hundreds of thousands of Filipino lives, and ended up costing more American lives than the current Iraq War–this at a time when the American population was 25% of what it is today and when America was a far cry from the “global policeman” that is has evolved into today. It became a hard to cure, open festering sore that created a huge rift in American political discourse and public opinion and damaged America’s sense of who it was. Once you know the story of this war, you can’t contemplate Vietnam or Iraz or Afghanistan without recognizing the Fil-Am war as the relevant antecedent. It’s a story that matters, and isn’t written about often enough. And so I will make a little noise about it — a little bit today, introducing it and scratching the surface, and more in the future because I feel like this is a piece of history that needs more examination, particularly in America, than it has been given to date. And because I’m endlessly fascinated by it.
Why Don’t They Teach it in American Schools?
The following is a little painful and embarrassing to admit, but it is what it is: Growing up in America during the Vietnam era, I never learned anything whatsoever in school about the Philippine American War even though it was in many ways a prequel to Vietnam (and more recently, Iraq and Afghanistan) — a war that should have been a “teachable moment”, and thus should have been studied widely so as to become embedded in our consciousness as a nation as America’s first foreign “adventure” as a world power, and as a lesson from which to learn certain truths. Yet it just wasn’t there as part of the general curriculum — the story was completely absent from the general American history curriculum that all students were exposed to. I’m sure if I’d been a history major I would have learned about it — but this is not something that should be absent from what every student learns. I am not a conspiracy theorist but the glaring lack of educational emphasis in general American history courses about this conflict always struck me as something approaching a conspiracy, a chapter in American history that official America wants to forget, and is encouraging each new generation of Americans to forget by simply not including it in the curriculum. Why? Isn’t there value to be gained from considering the war?
What were American leaders thinking? Why did we do this? What did we learn from it? The rationale given at the time for taking the Philippines as a colony was that the Filipinos “were not ready for self-governance”, and needed to be “educated” by America to prepare them for independence. It ended up being an embarrassing episode in America’s history–one that ran counter to the overall “freedom” narrative that is taught in American schools, and perhaps not coincidentally it vanished from the general curriculum and instead it became a forgotten part of American history that, for whatever reasons, is only studied by diplomats, academicians, journalists, and people who have a connection the Philippines. As the ultimate evidence in support of this, I once saw a Jeopardy show (and they pre-screen the contestants) where not one of three students could get this right: “This former American colony was granted independence in 1947 after 50 years of American rule.” Correct response: “What is the Philippines?” Nobody got it.
In the Philippines It’s Not Forgotten — But Perhaps Misunderstood
Having said that — I’ve also been surprised over the years at how relatively little many of my non-academician Pinoy friends know about the war, and how those non-academics who do know a bit about the Fil-Am War seem to generally focus on a) “Dewey lied to Aguinaldo”, b) the Americans used a sneaky ruse to capture Aguinaldo, c) the Americans got their comeuppance at Balangiga. There doesn’t seem to be widespread understanding in the Philippines about how the war divided America and was the subject of a huge amount of debate in the US — with many great Americans (Mark Twain, Andrew Carnegie,e tc) joining the Anti-Imperialist movement that was utterly opposed to the war and to America taking the Philippines as a colony. It is a gross oversimplification to believe that the actions of the US government during the immediate aftermath of the Spanish-American War, including its actions against Philippine insurgents–(actions that included what was then called the ‘water cure’, and is now called ‘water boarding’) during the Philippine American War, represented any kind of consensual “will of the people” of America. It was more complicated than that, and many voices were raised against the taking of the Philippines as colony and the conduct of the war.
Against that background — I want to say that now that I’m writing more about the Philippines and Philippine/American issues, this is one that I’m going to come back to now and then and try to explore a bit. In the meantime, as an introduction for those who aren’t so well versed in this, I want to share these excerpts from a Philippine American War documentary that is reasonably balanced, including commentary from experts on both sides, and represents a solid, easy to digest summary that is at least a good starting point for beginning to understand what happened. I will be writing more about the Philippine American War in the future — and this documentary provides a good starting point.