Thursday, 4 February 2010

The White Man's Burden

In The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War, which I've just finished reading, James Bradley (author of Flags of Our Fathers) details the circumstances of the U.S. takeover of the Philippines just over a century ago, an event that inspired Rudyard Kipling to write the poem "The White Man's Burden". The U.S. had long eyed the Philippines, formerly a Spanish colony, as a potential gateway to Asia, enabling them to compete with the British and Russians for the riches of China. Hawaii had been annexed by the U.S. in 1896 following a coup instigated by local Euro-American business leaders, and the Spanish-American War of 1898 provided an opportunity for the U.S. to gain control not only of the Philippines but also of Guam, providing yet another stepping stone across the Pacific.

In May 1898, with the help of Filipino freedom fighters (who backed the Americans on the understanding that they would be given independence once the Spanish had been driven out), the U.S. invaded the Philippines and soon surrounded the capital, Manila. Resigned to defeat, the Spanish agreed to hand over Manila to U.S. forces. With the Spanish on the run, the Filipino resistance leader Emilio Aguinaldo proclaimed the independence of the Philippines and began setting up a government. However, the U.S. reneged on their agreement to grant independence, instead agreeing to purchase the Philippines from Spain for 20 million dollars. This sparked the Philippine-American War, otherwise known as the Philippine War of Independence.

U.S. troops administering "the water cure" to a Filipino captive in 1901

The Philippine-American War lasted for just over three years and left over 4,000 U.S. dead and nearly 34,000 wounded. Figures for the losses on the Filipino side vary, but conservative estimates are that the U.S. forces killed some 20,000 resistance fighters and 300,000 Filipino civilians. During this war the U.S. military experimented with a variety of torture techniques, one of which involved holding the victim down and pouring water over their face and down their throat and nose until they either submitted or lost consciousness. If they passed out they were rolled aside and allowed to come to, whereupon the procedure was repeated. This form of torture was dubbed the "water cure". It is still practiced today under the name waterboarding.

The Philippines remained a U.S. colony until 1946. Following independence, the U.S. continued to occupy two large military installations, the Subic Bay Naval Complex and Clark Air Base, as well as several smaller ones. These were eventually handed over to the Philippines in 1992. The U.S. military still have several hundred troops in the Philippines as part of a counterinsurgency operation known as the Joint Special Operations Task Force - Philippines.

Hawaii became a U.S. state in 1950 after the grip on power held by the Euro-American business leaders who had controlled the islands since the 1890s was finally broken. Guam is an unincorporated territory of the U.S. While its people are U.S. citizens, they have no right to vote in presidential elections and their representative in the U.S. Congress cannot vote on legislation.

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