[August 6th marks the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that fraught moment and four other histories of U.S. military massacres.]
On why it matters how we refer to a 1901 event, and to get beyond that question in any case.
As part of my February 2019 weeklong series on the Philippine American War, I wrote about the seemingly semantic question of whether we call that conflict a war or an insurrection, and why such debates over terminology and classification are in fact quite significant when it comes to how we remember, narrate, and understand contested histories. It stands to reason that such debates over the struggle as a whole would likewise trickle down to our collective memories of particular contested events, and among the most contested from the Philippine American War are the September-October, 1901 conflicts between American soldiers and Filipino villagers near the town of Balangiga, on Samar Island; this fraught, multi-layered series of events has been known not only as the Balangiga Massacre, but also as the Balangiga Encounter (Filipinos in the region commemorate Balangiga Encounter Day to this day), the Balangiga Incident, and the Balangiga Conflict.
Even if we agree to call it the Balangiga Massacre, that phrase nonetheless contains two entirely distinct and opposed historical analyses of these contested 1901 events. From the perspective of the American military, the phrase refers to the September 28th early morning attack on unsuspecting US soldiers (most of whom were eating breakfast in the mess hall at the time) by Filipino villagers, an attack which resulted in the deaths of 48 US servicemen (leading to its frequent description as the most destructive defeat of US military members since the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876). From the perspective of Filipino communities, on the other hand, the massacre refers to the subsequent US military retaliation, an 11-day campaign of violence against local villages which was led by two particularly brutal officers (General Jacob Smith and Major Littleton Waller, both later court-martialed for their actions) and which resulted in at least thousands (and by some historical accounts tens of thousands) of Filipino deaths (most of them civilians).
All of those historical events took place, and all are of course interconnected, so one way to escape this duality would be to think about all of them as part of the massacre (or, perhaps, to use a word like “conflict” instead, since “massacre” is so loaded that it might be impossible not to take sides through the use of it). But at the same, I’d say that the question with which I started this post is deeply relevant to this particular issue—if we define the overarching conflict as a war (which I argued in that prior post we should), then the attack on US forces was justified, while the subsequent attacks on civilian populations would have to be classified as a war crime. And indeed, General Smith’s infamous instructions to Major Waller left no doubt that it was precisely such a crime he sought: “I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn; the more you kill and burn, the better it will please me... The interior of Samar must be made a howling wilderness.” Coincidentally, I’m drafting this post on Memorial Day, so I certainly think we should remember the US soldiers killed at Balangiga—but a more comprehensive and accurate account of the Filipino American War demands that we also and especially remember the horrors that followed.
Next massacre tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other histories you’d highlight?
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