Friday, July 25, 2008

Distorted lessons from the Philippine-American War

Published July 25, 2008

Democratic Presidential nominee Barack Obama was touring the Middle East when a well-known columnist for a major US newspaper tried to point the way out of the mess in Iraq by citing lessons from another American military misadventure more than a century ago – in the Philippines.

Unfortunately, conservative commentator Michael Medved's piece for USA Today, "Filipino war's lesson for Iraq," draws distorted, even dangerous, lessons from the tragedy in our homeland.

He begins by drawing parallels between the current presidential race and the 1900 contest between William Jennings Bryan and William McKinley. Medved describes Bryan as the "handsome young Democratic nominee" known as "the most spellbinding orator of his generation" who promised "dramatic change to correct economic injustice" and an end to the American occupation of the Philippines. He was up against the older McKinley, a Civil War veteran and avid supporter of the occupation whom Medved portrayed as the "tough, fight-it-out Republican" and "a hero in his youth (three decades earlier) in the Civil War."

Echoes of Obama versus McCain indeed.

But McCain probably would not appreciate being too closely compared to McKinley, given that US president's bizarre, even creepy, account of how he came to realize that America must occupy the Philippines. In one of the oddest anecdotes in the history of the US presidency, McKinley recalled how he "went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance," which made him see that "there was nothing left for us to do but … to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them."

(Apparently, McKinley did not get a memo telling him that the Philippines was then a staunchly Catholic nation -- another reason for McCain to balk at any close identification with the former president, given his own foreign affairs faux pas like mixing up Sunnis and Shiites and referring to a non-existent Iraq-Pakistan border.)

Still, it's not surprising that Medved and other conservatives are hoping for a repeat of that chapter in US history: After all, the older, more hawkish Republican McKinley won that election against the "inexperienced but charismatic anti-imperialist Democrat."

But Filipinos and Filipino Americans should find Medved's version of the Philippine-American War troubling. "This nearly forgotten conflict deserves renewed attention today since the parallels with our present predicament count as both eerie and illuminating," he writes.

True enough.

But then Medved recasts the bloody conflict as a war that the United States "stumbled into" but from which emerged a free and happy nation ever so grateful for American generosity and compassion. He cites former President Manuel L. Quezon's famous quote, "Damn the Americans! Why don't they tyrannize us more?"

Medved essentially is asking: Now why in the world can't we do that again in Iraq?

"Our failure to 'tyrannize' our Iraqi allies could similarly destroy the chances of the Islamist terrorists who oppose us," he writes. "The outcome in today's Middle East remains uncertain, but our painful Philippine experience a century ago suggests that a positive result is still possible through a combination of public patience, battlefield brilliance and compassionate determination to provide better lives and freedom to the far-away people who became the war's chief victims."

I nearly choked when I read this for while Medved made a passing reference to water cure, the notorious torture technique the US military used against Filipino independence forces (and used in Iraq under the name "water boarding"), and while he noted that at least 200,000 Filipinos died in the conflict (other historians cite a higher figure), he downplayed the more sordid chapters of the Philippine-American War: the massacres, the brutal military campaigns, the suppression of basic Filipino civil and human rights.

Medved writes that "for the most part, America's volunteer troops maintained high morale, resenting anti-war activists back home because they understood this agitation encouraged the enemy." I suspect "high morale" had nothing to do with what happened in the town of Balangiga, Samar when General Jake Smith told his men to turn the island into a "howling wilderness" so that "even birds could not live there."

"Kill and burn! The more you kill and burn, the better you will please me,"' he ordered. Asked to clarify who the troops' targets were among the population, the general replied: "Everything over 10."

Medved also ignores the blatant racism of US political leaders led by President William Howard Taft, who served as governor-general of the islands, and who called Filipinos "our little brown brothers.''

Then there was the former U.S. superintendent who helped set up an American-style public school system in the Philippines who argued that the Filipinos "are children, and childlike, do not know what is best for them. . . By the very fact of our superiority of civilization and our greater capacity for industrial activity, we are bound to exercise over them a profound social influence.''

Medved's piece reminded me of the now despicable concept of the “white man's burden,” that famous exhortation to Western domination. The phrase was actually coined by British poet Rudyard Kipling during this period in support of the American colonization of the Philippines and other former Spanish colonies. Reading just a part of the poem today would make one cringe.

"Take up the White Man's burden
Send forth the best ye breed
Go, bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait, in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild
Your new-caught sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child..."

The great American writer Mark Twain was so horrified by US atrocities in our homeland that he called the $20 million the United States paid for the Philippines an "entrance fee into society -- the Society of Sceptered Thieves."

"The White Man's Burden has been sung,"' Twain wrote. "Who will sing the Brown Man's?"

Twain also once said, "History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme." In his bid to justify an unpopular war in Iraq, Medved came up with a mangled account of a dark chapter in our history that has neither rhyme nor reason.

Copyright 2008 by Benjamin Pimentel

Bay Area journalist Benjamin Pimentel can be reached at

Friday, July 11, 2008

Two Pinoy presidents, both extras in the Obama-McCain Duel

Published June 10, 2008

While the duel between Barack Obama and John McCain features such supporting players as Hillary and Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, the contest also has led to surprising bit roles for two Philippine political figures.

The most recent one involved President Gloria Arroyo whose bid for a photo op with America's newest political superstar ended in disappointment, another sorry example of a Pinoy politico desperately seeking attention from Washington that the Inquirer editorial board aptly summed up with the word "embarrassing."

She did get an apology from the Obama camp for their aborted meeting and who knows, Arroyo may still get another chance later on if the presumptive Democratic nominee prevails in November. There was no wail of protest from the FilAm community over the cancellation of the meeting, however, a sign perhaps of how Arroyo is regarded out here. But to the credit of her handlers, they simply let go and did not raise a stink, just glad for the ‘I'm sorry’ letter.
After all, the last thing Arroyo needs now is to behave the way another former prominent Pinoy politico did four decades ago over a perceived snub from yet another Western superstar, this time a legendary rock and roll band.

Although granted, it's hard to imagine Arroyo's cohort sending goons to harass Obama in Washington DC the way Imelda Marcos's supporters did when the Beatles were a no-show for the Malacanang party she hosted in their honor in 1966. For John, Paul, George and Ringo, Beatlemania Pinoy-style meant an angry mob literally chasing them out of Manila.

Not surprisingly, the fiasco over the aborted Arroyo-Obama meeting did not even register a blip on the radar screen of the highly-active US political scene -- unlike the case of another Pinoy politico who also became an extra in the US presidential drama.
Even more striking, this politician is dead.

It's unclear if McCain ever met Ferdinand Marcos. He stopped at Clark Air Base after his release from a North Vietnamese prison sometime in 1973 as Marcos was setting up one of the most brutal dictatorships in Southeast Asia with the blessing and aid of the United States. McCain was already a Republican member of the US Congress when Marcos's longtime friend and ally, President Ronald Reagan, welcomed the dictator to Washington during a state visit in 1982, calling him a "respected voice for reason and moderation in international forums."

I found no record of McCain speaking out against the now repulsive idea of America endorsing a tyrant like Marcos, but in a speech in 2006 -- 20 years after his downfall – Senator McCain spoke of the importance of promoting human rights abroad, recalling how in 1986, "the United States condemned Ferdinand Marcos' sham reelection, we earned the abiding gratitude of the Philippine people, who promptly threw out the dictator."

That's not exactly the complete story as he conveniently left out the part about Reagan and the Washington establishment praising and bankrolling the Marcos regime even as it rigged elections, threw opponents in jail, tortured them and looted the Philippine treasury. (And how could he forget Imelda's shoes and shopping sprees?)

Nearly 20 years after Marcos died in Hawaii, however, McCain has unexpectedly had to deal with the despised dictator's ghost.

In an embarrassing twist, it turned out that Charlie Black, one of McCain's closest advisers, once ran a lobbying firm that represented brutal dictators, including Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire and – you guessed it – Ferdinand Marcos. Black resigned from the firm, BKSH & Associates, and is still with McCain (although he got him in trouble again recently by saying that another terrorist attack against the US would surely help boost his candidate’s chances in November.)

McCain's Macoy connection created a stir earlier in the race, but it probably won't be decisive in a campaign more focused on such issues as the Iraq War, rising gas prices and the US mortgage meltdown.

Still, isn't it amazing that nearly two decades after his death, one of the most infamous figures in Philippine and world history continues to rattle the nerves of the living, especially those of his former allies, sponsors and friends in Washington?Perhaps the late dictator was right after all when he declared, "I do not intend to die."