The First Iraq
Although history never quite repeats itself, current events often resemble earlier occasions so closely there is a temptation to draw lessons from them. Imagine a time when America found itself in a war against a foreign foe whose strategy was to inflict a constant rate of loss on the army; invited US and British reporters to feed antiwar elements with atrocity stories; when US commanders who expected a quick war against a corrupt and oligarchic native elite found they had roused the countryside against them. Imagine a time when the issue of this war was central to an American Presidential election, caused a split in one of the major parties and planted the seeds for a world war. Not Iraq. The war was Philippine-American War and the election that of 1912.
According to the McKinley administration the enemy was not the Filipino population. It was the Spanish oppressor and later, the perfidious and parasitical indigenous landed elite. At the opposite end, "the goal, or end-state, sought by the Filipino Republic was a sovereign, independent, socially stable Philippines led by the illustrado oligarchy. ... The peasants, who provided the bulk of guerilla manpower, had interests different from their illustrado leaders." What flung the oligarchy and the peasants together momentarily was common opposition to the invading US Army. Far from being unsophisticated yokels, the strategic goal of Philippine Republic generals was to send home enough body bags to persuade the mainstream media of the day to electorally repudiate the Republican administration in Washington.
The Filipino general Francisco Makabulos described the Filipinos' war aim as, "not to vanquish the US Army but to inflict on them constant losses." They sought to initially use conventional (later guerilla) tactics and an increasing toll of US casualties to contribute to McKinley's defeat in the 1900 presidential election. Their hope was that as President the avowedly anti-imperialist William Jennings Bryan would withdraw from the Philippines.
Unfortunately for the insurrectos, the electorate of 1900 elected to "stay the course". McKinley's victory in 1900 convinced the Filipinos that the US would not soon embark upon a "responsible redeployment". Washington's stated aim was to remove the obscurantist and bloodthirsty Spanish regime from the backs of the downtrodden Islanders and give them a government better than could be provided by the landed illustrado elite. For a long time, however, the War Department publicly pursued this aim. But as armed resistance refused to end, newspapers charged the Department was in denial about the existence and scale of the insurgency against US forces, rejecting the belief that Philippine President Aguinaldo simply represented an elite faction which could never command the loyalty of the downtrodden peasantry. While General Otis maintained the problem consisted of remnants of the old regime, the mainstream media soon began to publish criticisms uttered by none other than Otis' own field commanders. General Arthur McArthur (Douglas' father) told a reporter:
When I first started in against these rebels, I believed that Aguinaldo’s troops represented only a faction. I did not like to believe that the whole population of Luzon—the native population that is—was opposed to us and our offers of aid and good government. But after having come this far, after having occupied several towns and cities in succession, and having been brought much into contact with both insurrectos and amigos, I have been reluctantly compelled to believe that the Filipino masses are loyal to Aguinaldo and the government which he heads.
Faced with a deepening quagmire in an archipelago larger than the State of California Washington agonized over which strategy to use against "a widening insurgency". Arthur McArthur believed in meeting force with ineluctable force. US forces began to take no prisoners, relocate whole towns into controllable areas and recruit indigenous troops. This met with some success and persistent efforts were crowned by a masterful operation in which the US Army captured the leader of the insurrectos in the "spider hole" of his day.
General Frederick Funston was able to use Aguinaldo's poor security against him, when Funston on March 23, 1901 in northern Luzon, faked capture with the help of some Macabebe Filipinos who had joined the Americans' side. Once Funston and his "captors" entered Aguinaldo's camp, they immediately fell upon the guards and quickly overwhelmed them and the weary Aguinaldo. On April 1, 1901, at the Malacañang palace in Manila Aguinaldo swore an oath accepting the authority of the United States over the Philippines and pledging his allegiance to the American government. Three weeks later he publicly called on his followers to lay down arms.
This slowed, but did not end the fighting, which spread south to involve Muslim fanatics whose ultimate weapon was the suicide kris charge. Worse, the insurgents had cleverly learned how to use the mainstream media to undermine McKinley's policy. Prior to his capture Emilio Aguinaldo had
managed to smuggle in four reporters—two English, one Canadian, and a Japanese into the Philippines. The correspondents returned to Manila to report that American captives were “treated more like guests than prisoners,” were “fed the best that the country affords, and everything is done to gain their favor.” The story went on to say that American prisoners were offered commissions in the Filipino army and that three had accepted. The four reporters were expelled from the Philippines as soon as their stories were printed.
The newspapers were full of allegations of the mistreatment of prisoners; of waterboarding -- the so-called water-cure -- and the cry was taken up by groups like the Anti-Imperialist League, which included politicians, media celebrities and billionaires like William Jennings Bryan, Mark Twain and Andrew Carnegie. But unexpectedly, the tide turned. The real breakthrough came when William Howard Taft, who had been appointed by McKinley to take charge of the situation on the ground, persuaded Washington to return to the spirit of the original mission: to never forget that America had gone into to the Philippines to spread democracy. Taft, who later became Chief Justice after his Presidency engineered Arthur McArthur's removal. He argued that America could not treat the Filipinos so harshly because they were "our little brown brothers". Dean Bocobo at the Philippine Commentary blog has argued that no phrase in history has been so twisted from its original context. Taft's "little brown brother" phrase is portrayed as synonymous with condescending colonialism; what is never remembered is that it was uttered in opposition to Arthur McArthur's mailed-fist approach. Taft eased McArthur from command and replaced him with a powerful weapon in the shape of an Army troopship carrying American teachers: the USS Thomas.
The Thomasites are a group of about five hundred pioneer American teachers sent by the American government to the Philippines in August 1901 to establish a public school system, to teach basic education and to train Filipino teachers, with English as the medium of instruction. The name Thomasite was derived from the transport vessel, the USS Thomas (formerly Minnewaska), that brought them to the shores of Manila Bay. Although two groups of new American graduates arrived in the Philippines before the USS Thomas, the name Thomasite became the designation of all pioneer American teachers simply because the USS Thomas had the largest contingent. Later batches of American teachers were also dubbed as the Thomasites.
It proved the decisive weapon. How decisive was illustrated 40 years later, when Filipinos would fight side by side with the US Army against the Japanese. Taft could little have imagined in 1901 that another Chief Justice, Philippine Chief Justice Jose Abad Santos, would choose in 1941 to be executed by the Japanese rather than renounce his allegiance to the American flag.
Abad Santos was captured by the Japanese near Carcar, Cebu. He was subjected to gruelling investigations for three weeks and was asked to contact General Manuel Roxas and to renounce his allegiance to the United States of America. He replied with dignity and courage: I cannot accede to the things you ask of me. To obey your commands is tantamount to being a traitor to the United States and my country. I would prefer to die rather than live in shame."
He was brought to Parang, Cotabato, and finally to Malabang, Lanao del Sur, where he was told of his impending execution. When his son learned of the verdict, he bust into tears, but Chief Justice Abad Santos confronted him, saying with sincere tenderness: "Do not cry Pepito. Show these people that you are brave. It is a rare opportunity far me to die for our country. Not everybody is given that chance."
Though Taft had won no one had realized it as yet. The attitudes engendered by the Philippine American War lingered in Washington. In 1912 Woodrow Wilson would win the Presidency with the minority of the vote against a divided Republican Party -- sundered by the schism between Taft and Theodore Roosevelt and decide to "cut and run" in a phased transition that would eventually deposit the Philippines in the hands of the illustrado elite.
Nationalist circles in the Philippines were elated over the election of Woodrow Wilson as President ... in 1912 ... Since 1900 the Democrats had voiced anti-imperialist sentiments ... To friends of insular independence, the Democratic victory raised great expectations for the success of their cause. ...
Wilson's views on the Philippine had undergone change over the years since 1898. First reportedly opposing annexation of the Islands, he later advocated a policy of American tutelage to prepare ... The 1912 Baltimore platform, although favoring retention of naval bases, had called for "an immediate declaration ... to recognize the independence of the Islands as soon as a stable government can be established."
But the downside of Wilson's policies, though well intentioned, were too subtle to be understood at the time. The effect of his Fourteen Points in raising, then dashing expectations in Germany is well known and laid the seeds for the rise of Fascism in the 1930s. Wilson's role in ending the Great War inadvertently concluded it in a way that set the stage for World War 2. Less well known are the effects of Wilson's policies in the Pacific. The effect of the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty was to destabilize the Pacific and put the Philippines behind a ring of Japanese-held islands. But its long term effect on Filipinos was to belatedly grant Aguinaldo's war aims. The illustrado elite inherited the colonial government structure while the mass of the inhabitants remained in economic, cultural and political subordination. And so it remained until the early part of the 21st century.
What finally weakened the Filipino elite was economic globalization. By the late 20th century the descendants of the illustrados had nearly run their patrimony into the ground. And to cover up their failures they resorted to the time-tested technique of scapegoating their enemies; first blaming the economic role of foreigners; then junking the American-era Constitution modeled largely after that of the US; finally in 1992 closing the last of the American bases that Wilson wanted retained. The one legacy they had not succeeded in completely dismantling was that of the Thomasites. English remained the official, though declining, medium of higher instruction until 2001 when it was finally replaced by Pilipino at all levels of education. The displacement was to last two whole years.
Even as the "nationalists" put the capstone on their decaying edifice the "peasants" were deserting their structure wholesale. By the early 21st century fully 11% of the entire Filipino population had fled to work abroad, though the percentage was probably higher. As a proportion of population it was a diaspora unprecedented in modern history. There are twelve million overseas Filipinos. By comparison there are only 35 million overseas Chinese. In 2003 the Philippine elite woke to the fact that overseas Filipinos were literally keeping their decaying kingdom afloat, providing 13.5% of total GDP, chiefly in sums sent to relatives. That year the Philippine Department of Education ordered English reinstated as the medium of instruction. Like some strange delayed explosion, the Thomasite weapon had detonated a hundred years into the future. But this time it was not the American teachers who crossed oceans to teach Philippine peasants. It was the Philippine peasants who went overseas to work and to learn.
Contemporary Manila is reeling under the impact of the Overseas Filipino revolution. Some of the changes are subtly cultural. Hundreds of thousands of Filipinos of lower-class origin return for holidays or furlough between contracts with more money than the old social elite. They often return with more sophisticated consumer tastes and better foreign language skills then their social betters, who have never been to anything other than local finishing schools. In particular, many Filipinos of lower-class origin speak American or British standard English learned by immersion overseas unselfconsciously, at a stroke removing the class stigma that often attended the use of fluent English. The ultimate testimony to the return of English has been the widespread rise of that bizarre product of globalization, the Korean-run English academy for Filipinos, pitched at the those desperate to learn enough English to go abroad for a job. One of these unusual academies is shown below beside the another compelling reason to learn English: the Internet Cafe. If anything symbolizes the Overseas Filipino revolution, it is these English academies cheek by jowl with Internet portals.
But if some changes are subtle, others are glaringly obvious. Almost overnight, the ability to stand in line at a ticket booth or at a taxi stand has become a mainstream Filipino value in a country formerly renowned for jumping queues. At a business district in mid-Manila, thousands of call-center workers -- another incentive to learn English and hook into the wider world -- stop for fast-food meals at restaurants open on a 24 hour basis before manning workstations serving every corner of the globe. Perhaps most importantly, many Filipinos no longer expect the government to do anything for them. They simply go out and do it for themselves. A country in which telephones were until recently a comparative rarity has become a hive of cell phones and the text-messaging capital of the world. Nor does anybody rely on government mail when a private courier can be used. Coup rumors which until recently have set the country on its ears are now greeted with indifference. It is the elites who are treated with a amused condescenscion, as a source of entertainment. Dean Jorge Bocobo of Philippine Commentary, to whom I am indebted for much of the information on this post, said "You have all these millions of people coming back who know what works. And they want it. It's funny how in all this discussion over the Middle East everyone in America has forgotten the First Iraq."
Parenthetically, it was the Wahabi religious authorities which began its own "Thomasite" program in the 1970s as it flooded the southern Philippines and many other countries of the world with teachers and textbooks. This is now acknowledged to have greatly influenced the rise of Islamic extremism. A senior Southeast Asian official with whom I recently spoke said that Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) education officials were exploring ways to influence Imam training and texbook provision for the madrassas.
Because history never exactly repeats itself, it would be foolish to copy the Thomasite tactic of Taft. However, it reinforces the argument that the War on Terrorism is largely a war of ideas. Taft understood this. Does anyone now?