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Thursday, February 7, 2019

February 7, 2019: The Philippine American War: War or Insurrection?

[On February 4th, 1899 Filipino rebels launched an attack on American troops in Manila, the opening salvo in what would become the Philippine American War (or Philippine Insurrection—see Thursday’s post for more on that distinction). So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of contexts for that largely forgotten, brutal turn of the 20th century conflict, leading up to a weekend post on the war’s legacies for 20th and 21st century histories!]
On why what might seem to be a semantic distinction is anything but.
Between its February 1899 starting point and its July 1902 close, the military conflict between Filipino and U.S. forces would take more than 4000 American and more than 20,000 Filipino soldiers’ lives, and contributes to the deaths of another 200,000 Filipino civilians. To use the words of A Few Good Men’s Captain Jack Ross (Kevin Bacon), “Those are the facts, and they are undisputed.” In the light of such clear and horrific historical details, it can seem mighty silly to quibble over whether to call that conflict the Philippine American War or the Philippine Insurrection (or Rebellion, or whatever similar term one might employ). There’s no doubt that debates over historical frames or lenses can and too often do obscure the human experiences (and, too often, horrors) at the heart of those histories; whether we call the forced transport of African slaves to the Americas the Middle Passage or the Triangle Trade or the Transatlantic slave trade, for example, the tens of millions of Africans affected by it—and the millions of them who died aboard those ships—comprise the stories and histories on which we should most fully focus. That lesson holds true for many if not all histories, and is certainly the case when it comes to the turn of the 20th century military conflict in the Philippines.
Yet as an English Professor (I know I’m also and in this space chiefly an AmericanStudier, but Professor of English Studies is my official job title and a central part of my identity), I know that language matters a great deal, and indeed is not just a frame for reality but a principal method through which reality (or at least the human experience of it) can be constructed. Among the many such effects of calling the Philippine American War an “insurrection” instead would be a clear vision of the Philippines themselves as under United States control in the era. That is, an insurrection or rebellion is always an attempt to battle and overthrow an existing regime, the power structure in that particular place and time. Yet as I’ve noted throughout this series, the U.S. Senate didn’t approve the Treaty of Paris that ended the Spanish American War until four days after the opening shots of the Philippine American War—so even if we don’t see the two conflicts as inextricably intertwined (as I argued on Monday we should), or don’t recognize the validity of Emilio Aguinaldo’s June 1898 Philippine Declaration of Independence, it makes very little sense to consider the United States as the clear authority in the islands as of February 1899. And if the U.S. wasn’t that authority at that time, then there’s no reason not to see the conflict that began in that month as a war between two equal forces for control over the islands (or even, if you want to go further, as a continued U.S. invasion of the islands and attempt to overthrow the established First Philippine Republic).
Moreover, thinking of the conflict as a war in those ways also significantly challenges our sense of when it ended. It’s true that Aguinaldo was captured and surrendered in March 1901, and his fellow general Miguel Malvar did so in April 1902, leading to President Theodore Roosevelt’s July 4, 1902 peace amnesty. But many Filipino forces (especially Muslim Filipinos in the islands’ southern, Moro region) continued fighting for more than a decade after that; this conflict has come to be known as the Moro Rebellion, and is said to have ended with the June 1913 Battle of Bud Bagsak. But here again, calling this conflict a “rebellion” gives credence to the U.S. as an established authority in the Philippines; and if we’re able to question that authority when it comes to the first years of this war, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to do so throughout the conflict. At the very least, there’s significant value in thinking about all 14 years of the conflict as a series of battles between opposing forces seeking control of the islands, and reframing the war in that way starts with a semantic shift.
Last war context tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?

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