Q&a: Paul Kramer

A forgotten war worth remembering

The United States' bloody struggle in the Philippines after the Spanish-American War has parallels with the conflict in Iraq


The United States military overwhelms an outmatched opponent, easily taking the capital city of a country half a world away. Mission accomplished, or so it seems.

Actually, it was the beginning of a protracted guerrilla war, years of bloody fighting that led to allegations of brutality on the battlefield and widespread protests and political controversy at home.

It is not Iraq that Johns Hopkins University historian Paul Kramer is writing about; it is the Philippines. His newly published book The Blood of Government: Race, Empire, the United States and the Philippines tells the story of a war fought as the 19th century turned into the 20th that is largely left out of the history books.

Most know of the war that preceded it, the Spanish-American War of "Remember the Maine" and the Rough Riders' charge up San Juan Hill fame. Many know that it included Commodore George Dewey's sailing the American Pacific fleet into Manila, and his order "You may fire when you are ready, Gridley," taking out the Spanish ships guarding their Philippine colony.

But few can say they know much about what came next, a fight not with the Spanish but with Filipinos over the fate of their archipelago. It is a story that quite obviously resonates a century later.

Why do people know so little about this war?

Sometimes it is referred to as a forgotten war, which sounds like a passive process, as if it eroded away in people's memory. Actually, it was hidden. There was a deliberate attempt to suppress its memory.

While the Spanish-American War was referred to as "a splendid little war" by Secretary of State John Hay, there was nothing splendid nor little about this war, which makes its suppression all the more striking.

It went on for at least three years - by some measurements as long as 10 - and involved over 120,000 U.S. troops, with almost 5,000 of them killed. There were 16,000 Filipino military deaths and, by conservative estimates, over 250,000 Filipino civilians died from malnutrition and disease.

One of the factors that led to its hiding was the name for it. From the very beginning, U.S. forces refused to call it a war, because that would give recognition to the forces of the Philippine republic. The U.S. administration wanted to believe that it was fighting a war to enforce a legitimate legal treaty with Spain, so the war was called an insurrection, a term for a domestic uprising within a legally constituted sovereign society.

That means veterans of the war were treated differently. It didn't become part of commemoration ceremonies; it doesn't make the list of U.S. wars. That was a decision made at the turn of the 19th century into the 20th that has, in a way, echoed across the decades in facilitating the erasure of the war from U.S. memory.

How did this war come about?

It helps to see the occupation of the Philippines as a part of a much older set of prerogatives that has to do with the expansion of U.S. trade into Asia. In the 1890s, the U.S. suffered the worst economic depression it had ever experienced, and the theory that came up to explain it was under-consumption - the country was producing goods at a breakneck pace but did not have enough people to consume them. The government focused on overseas markets. This was an era when most of Asia and Africa were colonized by European powers, so the U.S. was entering a very competitive environment One of the things it did was develop its first modern navy in the 1890s, becoming one of the world's top three naval powers, along with Great Britain and Germany.

Then 1898 comes along, with rising tensions with Spain over its treatment of a Cuban independence movement. The Spanish were using very brutal tactics, including setting up concentration camps for Cuban civilians, warehousing people without adequate water or sanitation or housing. Americans were also concerned about their significant business interests in Cuba, even the possibility of annexing this rich sugar colony.

With the humanitarian concerns raising hell in the press, the U.S. sent the battleship Maine to Havana, where it mysteriously exploded in February 1898. A naval inquiry determined it was as a result of a torpedo, evidence of Spanish treachery. In some ways, this is the first time the question of weapons of mass destruction was raised in the U.S. It was subsequently determined that, in fact, internal technical failures led to the explosion. But at the time it was seen as an outrage against American honor, and there was a great popular upsurge for a war against Spain.

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