Of all the myriad military interventions we’ve been involved in – and there’s quite a lot of them – our conflict in the Phillipines is perhaps one of the bloodiest and most complex. It’s also one of the least known, given brief mention in history textbooks and little to no acknowledgement in popular culture. In fact, very few films, books, or television series have been made about the war, and any knowledge of it’s existence seems limited only to historians and academics. I can attest by personal experience how few people, especially in our generation, realize the depth of our involvement in Phillipines.
Thankfully, a film has finally been made that gives this dark and mysterious chapter of our history some well-needed cinematic attention. Amigo, set in the early years of the war, provides an even-handed account of all the factions involved: American troops, Filipino rebels, collaborators, sympathizers, and all those stuck in the middle of it. Unfortunately, I’ve only seen some excerpts of it, as small films like this don’t make it to very many theaters (it’s an Independent film, go figure). But from what I’ve seen, as well as heard from other accounts, it captures the bleakness, ambiguity, and convolution of a conflict we should have never been involved in (sound familiar?). NPR had a pretty good episode about it, including an interview with the director, on Talk of the Nation.
Comparisons to Vietnam – the same type of warfare, the jungle setting, the moral ambiguity, the lack of popular support – certainly abound, and with the benefit of hindsight, the war seems to be an ominous foreshadowing of the same sort of conflicts we’d later find ourselves in after World War II. The famous struggle between isolationists and so-called internationalists – themselves split from within along numerous philosophies – would start to form, as our Phillipines war would be the turning point marking heavier involvement in global affairs (though some would argue that the Spanish-American War that precipitated it, or even the Monroe Doctrine of decades before, would really be the watershed).
If there is any consolation about this imperialist venture, it’s the push-back and criticism that the war met at home. Though nothing on the scale of what we saw in response to the Vietnam War, and similar conflicts since, the Phillipines intervention saw the beginnings of outspoken pacifistic advocacy, foreign policy scrutiny by citizens, and journalistic criticism that would soon become definitive in later conflicts. Perhaps the most well-known reaction was Mark Twain’s famous founding of the Anti-Imperialist League, uniting a politically and ideologically diverse number of figures devoted to keeping the US out of such conflicts. He summed up the sentiments of his fellow anti-imperialists rather well in this public declaration:
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. I thought we should act as their protector—not try to get them under our heel. We were to relieve them from Spanish tyranny to enable them to set up a government of their own, and we were to stand by and see that it got a fair trial. It was not to be a government according to our ideas, but a government that represented the feeling of the majority of the Filipinos, a government according to Filipino ideas. That would have been a worthy mission for the United States. But now—why, we have got into a mess, a quagmire from which each fresh step renders the difficulty of extrication immensely greater. I’m sure I wish I could see what we were getting out of it, and all it means to us as a nation.
Dishearteningly, the League and other opponents to the conflict were never as influential as they aimed to be. Public opinion was either indifferent or supportive of the conflict, and the men that were coming to power in government were increasingly in favor this and other foreign escapades. Twain and his colleagues came from an older generation rooted in more traditional and romantic notions of American liberty and freedom, the kind that should be defended and allowed to flourish outside the country, not suppressed due to geostrategic and economic interests.
What’s most tragic is that many Americans had no intention of colonizing the country or being mired in some sort of conflict – it was something that escalated quickly, often with the connivance of less-well-intentioned elements, as well as by circumstance, misunderstanding, and confusion. Some saw this as a chance to “enlighten” the Filipino people and provide humanitarian assistance, while others believed it to fulfill America’s rightful Manifest Destiny as a global power. Still others saw riches and an opportunity for prosperity. There were so many overlapping and conflicting goals, interests, and actors. Once again, I see many parallels with contemporary history.
I’d love to get into greater detail about the timeline and nature of the conflict, as well as important events and figures, but as always I remain pressed for time. I’ll leave you all to check out some great source material if you care to do some research about it on your own. As long as people are at least aware that this war happened in the first place, I’ll feel satisfied. Otherwise, here is where you can get more information: