Book review: ‘A War of Frontier and Empire’

First published: Sunday, October 7, 2007, in the Albany Times Union

sibleyAs President Bush tries to shape his legacy in regards to the Iraq war, he should pick up David Silbey’s engaging history “A War of Frontier and Empire: The Philippine-American War, 1899-1902” (Hill and Wang; 272 pages; $26).

Though both were wars of choice, the details are quite different. Still, the generalizations that can be gleaned from Silbey’s account are eerily familiar: a quick and stunning conventional military victory turns into longer-than-expected guerrilla warfare; a failure by the United States to understand its enemy; a sense of racial superiority that enflames troops and politicians in Washington; and a native population whose loyalties seemed to change depending on the time of day.

The Philippine-American War was an offshoot of the Spanish-American War, which started in 1898 in Cuba. Like the war in Iraq, it was drummed up under dubious pretexts. Back then, though, it was newspapers (including ones owned by Times Union’s parent company Hearst Corp.) and not the government calling for war. When the U.S. Navy arrived in the Philippines under Commodore George Dewey, the island nation had been a sleepy, backwater colony of Spain’s for more than 350 years. The U.S. victory gave America its first colony, much to the chagrin of anti-imperialists like Mark Twain, who, like today’s doves, thought America should live up to its ideals of liberty.

Iraq’s future is uncertain, but what Bush could see in America’s victory in the Philippines is a cautionary tale that elucidates Colin Powell’s “you break it, you own it” warning. After victory, America’s troops didn’t come home. For roughly 90 years, America maintained a presence in the Philippines.

Silbey argues that the Philippine-American War must be understood as occurring in three distinct periods:

* U.S. and Filipino forces joining together to fight Spain (in 1898).

* A conventional war between U.S. and Filipino forces (in 1899).

* A guerrilla war between U.S. and Filipino forces (from 1900 to 1902).

In the first period, when Dewey entered Manila Bay, Filipinos in the Army of Liberation had already been fighting and winning against the Spanish since the year before under the leadership of Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo.

After Dewey’s naval victory, he even provided Aguinaldo’s forces with rifles to help defeat the Spanish holdouts barricaded in Manila. And though Dewey denied saying it, Aquinaldo said the admiral had promised Philippines independence.

U.S. forces, though, were the first to enter the capital city, and they kept out the Filipino troops.

In December 1898, the Treaty of Paris was signed between the United States and Spain. It gave Cuba independence (but not the Philippines) and made Puerto Rico and Guam U.S. territories. The treaty also let the United States buy the Philippines from Spain for $20 million. America was now a colonial power, though it promised to be one of “benevolent assimilation.”

Meanwhile, the second period of the Philippine-American War was brewing as U.S. troops in Manila fortified their positions, and Filipino troops outside did the same.

Fighting began in February 1899, and Filipino troops lost battle after battle. Silbey credits the better-trained and better-equipped modern American regiments, but he discredits assessments that called the Filipinos cowards. Instead, he says Filipino soldiers fired their rifles at the enemy (often overhead) to fulfill a social dynamic called the “client-patron relationship” that is akin to a feudal relationship between vassal and lord.

Whereas American soldiers felt nationalism and patriotism, Filipino soldiers from disparate ethnic, tribal, linguistic and religious groups would only be loyal to their patron, or lord. This stark contrast is similar to the difference between American soldiers in Iraq and Iraqis, who may not have a sense of national unity, but loyalties to ethnic groups and powerful militant leaders.

The third period of the war had Filipino troops scattered and engaging in guerrilla campaigns. The Americans were surprised by what they perceived to be a sudden new boldness.

In retaliation, atrocities occurred. The most infamous occurred in 1901, when U.S. Gen. Jacob Smith ordered his troops to turn the island of Samar into a “howling wilderness” and to execute all males older than 10.

In addition to the history of combat, with passages from front-line soldiers, the book includes major historical figures like William Howard Taft, the first civilian administrator of the Philippines (and later U.S. president) and Gen. Arthur MacArthur, who approved the capture of Aguinaldo and was the father of Douglas MacArthur, who famously returned to the Philippines in 1944.

The book delves into complex issues of race within the Spanish colonial system; within the U.S. military (as black troops fought alongside white troops); between Americans and Filipinos; and among the Filipinos themselves.

Silbey’s well-researched account adds shrewd observations and is highly readable and concise.

And though the book doesn’t explore the full ramifications of the Philippine-American War after 1902, it is powerful today as Americans debate the meaning of “victory” in Iraq and when troops will come home.

Unlike Vietnam, the United States won in the Philippines. President Theodore Roosevelt declared the war over on July 4, 1902, though sporadic fighting lingered until 1913. The victory, though, cost the U.S. military nearly 5,000 lives, and the Philippines nearly 16,000 soldiers and estimates put the civilian death toll between 30,000 and 1 million (including deaths from disease and starvation).

The United States held power in the Philippines until the Japanese occupation in 1942. In 1945, the United States retook the islands and granted the Philippines independence on July 4, 1946, but American troops remained until Dec. 31, 1992.

Ironically, it was Dick Cheney one of the chief architects of the Iraq war who, as secretary of defense in 1992, said the loss of U.S. bases would be “a real tragedy for the Philippines.”

So perhaps today’s Americans should be prepared for the long haul in Iraq.


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