Over a century old, but resonant
Consigned to the archives and lost to memory is the record of the US Senate Philippine Committee that investigated atrocities committed by the US military during the Philippine-American War. Transcripts of interviews conducted in January-June 1902 fill over 3,000 pages. A proposal to subpoena Emilio Aguinaldo, Apolinario Mabini, and other prominent Filipinos had been rejected, leaving Filipino historians with only the enemy side of the story. Then there was debate over allowing the press to cover the Senate hearings. Due to space limitations, only three press associations were allowed in, so aside from the Senate record we have snippets from the New York Times that describe the atmosphere in the room as well as the senators’ demeanor when arguing a contentious point.
The text and conditions are over a century old, but the issues resonate in our times under a presidency increasingly pressured at home and abroad to own up to and correct its human rights record.
Fake news was present then as now even without social media. The New York Times quoted Sen. George Hoar, a prominent anti-imperialist, as saying at the hearings:
“He had been taunted by newspapers for three or four years with a statement attributed to Gen. Lawton to the effect that if certain people at home would hold their tongues there would not be any difficulty with the islands. But what the General is understood to have said was that we should ‘stop this accursed war: it is time for diplomacy, time for mutual understanding.’ There is no one, Mr. Hoar declared, who can tell whether Gen. Lawton said that or whether he said the other, or it is a forgery.”
Much attention was focused on the use of the “water cure” as part of interrogation. The US military suggested that the procedure was necessary to obtain crucial information that would advance the pacification of the islands and save the lives of American soldiers. Whether it was torture or inhumane or cruel was another issue. Some of the resource persons said they had heard of the water cure but did not actually see it done, making hearsay of their sworn testimony. Others said the water cure was a Filipino technique perfected by the Macabebe Scouts employed by the enemy during the capture of Aguinaldo in Palanan in 1901 and during the pacification campaign.
It was clear, as stated by the short-lived military governor-general of the Philippines Arthur MacArthur Jr. (father of Douglas “I shall return” MacArthur), who appeared before the committee, that while the Philippines was ceded to the United States at the conclusion of the Spanish-American War at the bargain price of $20 million, “the United States had acquired sovereignty by treaty, and in a way owned the Philippine Islands, but did not own the Philippine people.”
A report from Tayabas, for example, acknowledged the burning of towns in the vicinity of Dolores in 1901; it did not state where the people were relocated, but this was known as “reconcentration” or “hamletting.” Civilians were herded into concentration camps to starve the guerrillas of support and provisions. In these camps the civilians suffered malnutrition, disease, and harsh treatment.
In the summer of 1901 there were reports of: the use of water cure on a native of Dolores by enemy soldiers from San Pablo, the torture of a boy by the commanding officer in Lagulmanoc, and the torture of civilians in the pueblo of Pagbilao on several occasions by enemy soldiers from Lucena or Tayabas.
The lesser charge of “harsh treatment” reads:
“That men belonging to a detachment of soldiers stationed at Candelaria looted a store in that town, November 1901. That a detachment of troops took away a pony from a peaceful citizen of Dolores, September 1901. That the house of a native of Candelaria was forcibly taken for a smallpox hospital and afterward burned by order of the Surgeon at Sariaya; that the said native was not remunerated, July 1901. That a party of soldiers attacked with pistols three natives working on the roads near Lucena, November 1901. That certain soldiers belonging to a troop of cavalry stationed in Tayabas, Pueblo, did attack five women of that town, January or February 1901.”
Then there was 1st Lt. George De G. Catlin who punched natives of Lucena in the face for failing to take off their hats to him; threatened and compelled a native to deal cards for him; and kept a native in the guardhouse without food or water for three days. All in September 1901.
All these primary sources make fascinating reading today because they show how little we have changed in over a century.
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