The Case of the Philippines

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There is the case of the Philippines. I have tried hard, and yet I cannot for the life of me comprehend how we got into that mess. Perhaps we could not have avoided it — perhaps it was inevitable that we should come to be fighting the natives of those islands — but I cannot understand it, and have never been able to get at the bottom of the origin of our antagonism to the natives.
Mark Twain, 1900

When Twain wrote these words, the United States was engaged in a brutal struggle with nationalist Filipino rebels. The Philippine Insurrection, as it is commonly called, lasted from 1899 to 1902 and cost countless lives on both sides.

Now, a century later, U.S. troops have returned to this Asian island nation as part of a global effort to eradicate terrorism.

Some 700 American soldiers began landing in the southern Philippines in the middle of January. They are supposed to help that country’s army fight Muslim insurgents from the Abu Sayyaf organization, which is allegedly tied to Osama bin Laden’s al- Qaeda terror network. Abu Sayyaf has been locked in a vicious civil war with Filipino authorities since the early 1990s.

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has been criticized for allowing foreign troops to take up arms in her homeland. Back in the United States, there is fear that President George W. Bush might be spreading himself too thin in the “war on terrorism.”

Overlooked in the media coverage of this expedition is the United States’ long history of military intervention in the Philippines. In 1942, the Americans bravely defended the island against an invading army from Japan. At the turn of the last century, however, the U.S. was involved in a far less heroic campaign here.

Following its victory in the Spanish–American War of 1898–1899, the U.S. took possession of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines, which had been colonies of Spain.

At first, this development was cheered by Filipinos, who were chafing under Spanish rule. The Philippine people thought the United States was going to grant them independence. After it became clear that the U.S. wanted to colonize the Philippines for itself, nationalist forces launched a guerrilla campaign.

The end result was a brutal jungle war marked by atrocities and heavy casualties. By the time it ended, roughly 4,000 U.S. troops and anywhere from 40,000–200,000 Filipinos were dead.

While it has largely been forgotten, the Philippine Insurrection foreshadowed American involvement in another Asian country.

In Vietnam, the Americans initially saw themselves as liberators, protecting a small Third World country against the communist menace. As the war dragged on, U.S. troops lost this sense of mission and engaged in civilian massacres.

Likewise, the Philippine war was originally viewed as a great way to spread American values of capitalism and democracy to a “primitive” nation. Once the battle deaths started mounting, however, that idealism was tossed aside, as American forces began killing Filipino rebels and non-combatants alike.

Just as Vietnam sparked huge divisions among the American public, the Philippine Insurrection triggered intense debate between pro-imperialists; (who wanted the United States to become a colonial power) and anti-imperialists (who thought the U.S. should maintain an isolationist worldview).

Famous imperialists included President Teddy Roosevelt, while the anti- side counted industrialist Andrew Carnegie and writer Mark Twain in its ranks. The latter was particularly scathing in his criticism of American actions in the Philippines.“We have got into a mess, a quagmire from which each fresh step renders the difficulty of extrication immensely greater,” Twain stated in 1900. “I wish I could see what we were getting out of it, and all it means to us as a nation.”

Words to consider, as the U.S. finds itself fighting once more in the Philippines.

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