Book Review

D'Asia Vu


Vestiges of War: The Philippine-American War and the Aftermath of an Imperial Dream 1899-1999

In this vast, truly magnificent anthology, editors Angel Velasco Shaw and Luis H. Francia have enabled several dozen academics, writers, painters, poets, and video/filmmakers to document the gobbling up of the Philippines by U.S. imperialism. Dedicated “to all the innocent casualties, living or dead, of a war that never should have happened,” the anthology is devoted to a war of which most Americans have never even heard and a history of which many Filipinos are only vaguely aware. Appropriately enough, Velasco Shaw, a filmmaker who teaches at New York University’s Asian/Pacific Studies Program and Institute, begins her introductory essay with a poignant reminder from Czech novelist Milan Kundera:

Forgetting is a form of death ever present within life…. But forgetting is also the great problem of politics. When a big power wants to deprive a small county of its national consciousness it uses the method of organized forgetting…. A nation which loses awareness of its past gradually loses its self.

The anthology, which includes a wonderful selection of contemporary and archival photography, grew out of a four-week commemoration of the Philippine-American War that took place in February 1999 at New York’s Guggenheim Museum. Just as they did with the multi-media art exhibit, Velasco Shaw and co-editor Luis Francia, a poet, essayist, and author of the memoir Eye of the Fish (Kaya Press, 2001), ask us to reexamine not only the war itself, but also its aftermath. This includes the Philippine diaspora, contemporary pop culture, and the larger scope of U.S. foreign policy in Southeast Asia and elsewhere. Vestiges is partisan, writes Francia, “in the way survivors are partisan, thankful they are alive, taking steps to assure not only that they continue, but that their stories blossom into vigilant insight and mercy.”

We certainly could use a little of that vigilant insight and mercy right now; this is a work that couldn’t be timelier. At the turn of the 19th century, William McKinley claimed to have a direct pipeline to God. After the three-month Spanish-American War, God kept egging him on, urging him into what would turn into nearly a decade-long war in the former Spanish colony that God and McKinley had helped to liberate. Bypassing the revolutionary Philippine government, the United States forcibly claimed the Philippines for itself, granting it independence in 1946 and maintaining military bases for decades.

Now once again, God is apparently in direct communication with a U.S. president, telling him which countries to invade. And once again, there are U.S. soldiers deployed in the Philippines. In 1991, the Philippine Senate rejected the bases treaty with the United States, but in 1998 the two governments signed the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which gives U.S. troops and warships access to Philippine ports. In the aftermath of September 11, President Gloria Arroyo invoked the VFA and the Mutual Defense Treaty and invited U.S. troops to help fight Abu Sayyaf, which Francia describes as a “kidnap-for-ransom outfit” that may have had ties to Al Qaeda in the past. “The Philippine government and the Bush administration are using the so-called ‘global war on terrorism’ as a Trojan horse,” Francia writes, “pushing their own agendas. [The Philippine government] has offered another front in exchange for U.S. aid, which all but dried up…. Washington sees the gang as an easy target, a possible opening for the Pentagon to regain control of the bases. D’Asia vu.”

Among the contributors to Vestiges are Philippine-born author and playwright Jessica Hagedorn; photographer Emilio Ganot, who creates haunting portraits of fellow expatriates in Vienna; and America’s all-time greatest political satirist, Mark Twain, the most prominent opponent of the Philippine war. Several contributors recall bitterly how Filipinos initially welcomed “fraternal” U.S. aid in their War of Independence against Spain. Except in Boston, headquarters of the Anti-Imperialist League, the mainstream U.S. media gave maximum publicity to Commodore George Dewey’s sinking of the Spanish Armada in Manila Bay, while infinitesimal attention was paid to the far greater Filipino contribution. It was they who fought the crucial mano a mano land battles, reducing the Spanish forces to 10,000 starving men holed up in a crumbling garrison. It was they who manned the essential food and medicine supply lines to the Americans, nursed their wounded, hung out with them, befriended them. Then in one brief year from 1898 to 1899, the Filipinos found themselves converted from beloved “little brown brothers” (a sentimental Teddy Roosevelt quote) to “niggers” and “tailless monkeys who lived in trees.” Suddenly, “the Hikers,” a popular Boy Scoutish euphemism for American grunts who fought in the island war, were slogging through the jungle bellowing the “Soldiers’ Song,” bayoneting every “monkey” in sight and slicing off trophy ears.

Any one of the anthology’s individual essays is worth the price of admission. Take Sarita See’s brilliant “An Open Wound: Colonial Melancholia and Contemporary Filipino/American Texts.” An English professor at the University of Michigan, See provides a riveting analysis of Nailed, Velasco Shaw’s video documentary of the annual crucifixion of a Filipino faith healer. Or take Manuel Ocampo’s painting of self-mutilation: Male figures from a Piero della Francesa painting with decorative fountains of blood sprouting from their beheaded necks. (After a solemn discussion of these works, the unflappable See asks if they cannot perhaps be read as jokes. After all, isn’t the notion of beheading oneself basically absurd?)

Somewhat more sobering is Raymond Ileto’s “The Philippine-American War: Friendship and Forgetting,” a capsule of the special Philippine-American relationship that has prevailed throughout the 20th century. “What seems to be brought on in the local history,” Ileto writes “is the Filipino experience of dealing with a superior force through various mechanisms, like feigning defeat, playing dead, shifting identities, allowing oneself to bend with the wind like the bamboo.”

Mark Twain scholar Jim Zwick contributes an essay on his idol’s passionate condemnation of the war and U.S. imposition of the “blessings of civilization.” As Zwick points out, Twain did not act out of a general pacifism. It was his opposition to this particular war that occasioned the writing of his scathing War Prayer:

O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle–be thou near them! O Lord our God help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help to cover their smiling fields with the pale forces of their patriot dead; … Help us to wring the heart of the unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children, wandering and unfriended in the wastes of their desolate land.

While the hoi polloi may have been kept in ignorance about the Philippine-American War for more than 100 years, behind the scenes and at high levels, the “splendid little war” is far from forgotten. A goodly number of our rulers celebrate its memory at an annual event called the “Wallow” of the Military Order of the Carabao, held in one or another fancy-schmansy hotel in Washington, D.C. (A carabao is a water buffalo.) The Military Order, which bills itself on its website as “one of the most unique organizations associated with our nation’s military history,” was “founded in 1900 to counter and satirize the very pompous Order of the Dragon, which was founded by those who had defeated the very short-lived Boxer uprising in China. This idea for a lampoon was conceived by several Army officers one night at the Army-Navy Club in Manila during the Philippine Insurrection.”

Notice the use of the word “insurrection.” Since Philippine War veterans have obviously long since died off, a change in the charter now allows veterans of more recent Asian wars, as well as certain war correspondents and legacy affirmative action admissions–the children of qualified veterans of Asian wars –to join in the fun. James Schlesinger, a former CIA director and former Secretary of Defense, is a regular, as are several U.S. Supreme Court justices, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, etc. In fact, the annual Wallow has been described as a kind of Friars’ Roast for the military-industrial set. In addition to Zwick, the Twain scholar, journalist and researcher Ian Urbina has also studied this tribal rite. In a January article for the Village Voice, Urbina described the kind of dinner in which each guest has a Cuban cigar beside his place setting (that would be a real Cuban cigar). After their meal, participants all belt out the verses of the aforementioned “Soldier’s Song”:

In the days of dopey dreams, happy

peaceful Philippines

When the bolomen were busy

all night long

When ladrones would steal and lie

and Americans die.

Then you heard the soldiers sing the song.

Chorus: Damn, damn, damn the insurrectos

Cross-eyed kakiack ladrones!

Underneath the starry flag

Civilize them with a krag

[quick loading forerunner of the M-16]

And return us to our own beloved homes!

As Kundera would say, “a nation which loses awareness of its past, gradually loses its self.”

Anna Mayo is not now and never has been a member of the Military Order of the Carabao.