US military atrocities abroad | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

US military atrocities abroad

An insightful article in the March 26, 2012, issue of Newsweek reminded worldwide readers of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam on March 16, 1968, when American soldiers entered the village of My Lai and left it a few hours later with between 300 and 500 Vietnamese dead, most of them unarmed women, children and seniors. The article was illustrated with a black-and-white photograph of Lt. William Calley (the only soldier convicted of this crime, who was given a 20-year prison sentence, but was actually released after three and a half years of house arrest!) and a horrendous color photograph of the bodies of slain women and four toddlers sprawled on a dirt road.

The article was written in the context of atrocities committed by US soldiers abroad, like the abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib in Iraq and a more recent incident in Afghanistan where one soldier killed 16 people. Memory is helped by color photos from 1968, more so with video in 2012, but I wondered why there was no reference to the conduct of US soldiers in a much earlier conflict then known as the “Philippine Insurrection” (a revolt by Filipinos against the established US government in the Philippines), later revised into the “Philippine-American War” (meaning a conflict between two nations, this change in name finally recognizing the Malolos Government or First Philippine Republic).


When the soldiers who participated in the My Lai massacre were interviewed, they said that Lieutenant Calley ordered them to rid the village of the enemy, and that the order included the extermination of children. During his trial Calley claimed that children had to be included in the order of battle because they threw hand grenades at the soldiers! This little detail should have been connected to US Brig. Gen. Jacob H. Smith (1840-1918), who was tried in a court martial for ordering his men to “take no prisoners” and lay waste to the Philippine province of Samar, making it a “howling wilderness.” Smith is quoted to have said, “the more you kill, the more it will please me.”  His order of battle included women, children and the elderly, who were unarmed and noncombatants but who were apparently just as bad because they provided food and shelter to the enemy. When one soldier asked what was the cut-off age for the children to be killed, Smith replied that the soldiers should kill all Filipino children 10 years or older because they were big enough to brandish bolos!

We have archival photographs in sepia of dead Filipino “insurrectos,” making the horror very remote from our times. We have transcripts of interviews with US soldiers at the turn of the 20th century who witnessed or participated in atrocities in the Philippines, but since these are text-heavy documents in archival records rather than color photos or streaming video, again the horrors of the Philippine-American War are so far from living memory that they are, at best, described as “panahon pa ni Mahoma.” Can we date this “panahon ni Mahoma” to pre-Spanish times when advanced settlements were Muslim? Is “panahon ni Mahoma” a reference to the introduction of Islam in Tawi-Tawi in the 14th century or to the 16th-century attack on the Spanish Philippines by the Chinese pirate Lin Feng, better known as Limahong?


From the New York Times of April 15, 1902, we have an eyewitness account of the so-called “water cure” that was used to extract information or confessions from Filipino prisoners. This incident occurred in Igbaras, Iloilo, on Nov. 27, 1900, and the victim was the town presidente who was not named:

“This [town] official was about 40 years of age. When he (the witness) first saw him he was standing in the corridor of the convent, stripped to the waist and his hands tied behind him, with officers and soldiers about. The man, he said, was then thrown under a water tank that held about 100 gallons of water, and his mouth placed directly under the faucet and held open so as to compel him to swallow the water which was allowed to escape from the tank. Over him stood an interpreter repeating one word, which the witness said he did not understand, but which he believed to be the native equivalent of  ‘confess.’ The presidente agreed to tell what he knew, was released, and allowed to start away. He was not, however, permitted to escape. Water was brought in a five-gallon can, one end of a syringe was placed in it and the other in the man’s mouth. As he still refused, a second syringe was brought and one end of it placed in the prostrate man’s nose. He still refused, and a handful of salt was thrown into the water. This had the desired effect, and the presidente agreed to answer questions.”

The use of torture in the Philippines was often explained away as “harmless” because nobody is supposed to have died from it. In some instances a medical doctor was on hand to supervise and ensure maximum pain with no fatalities. Sometimes the excuse given by US military officers was that the “water cure” was something they learned from Filipinos, or that this was actually administered by Macabebe Scouts.

It seems it is not only Filipinos who have short memories but Americans as well. Thus, when we are reminded of US military misconduct in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, we should not forget to remember the beginning of it all. We must go back to the early 20th century, to the Philippine-American War.

Comments are welcome in my Facebook Fan Page.

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, History, Looking Back, opinion, us military, War
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