by Jason Ditz
This week marks the 100th anniversary of the last major battle in one of the most brutal military occupations in American history, and one that has gone almost entirely forgotten, left as little more than a footnote in the history books of children. I am speaking, of course, of the U.S. occupation of the Philippines.
The United States took control of the Philippines in 1898, after it was ceded to them by Spain following the Spanish-American War. The big problem was that the people of the Philippines had already declared independence from Spain several months prior.
What followed was 15 years of bloody crackdowns by U.S. forces under the pretext of what President McKinley called a goal of “benevolent assimilation” of the islands into a dominion of the United States. The fighting started with the First Philippine Republic, whose soldiers were mostly armed with spears and bows and arrows and whose leadership objected to US military rule. It quickly turned into the sort of ugly war against an insurgency that is all too familiar to us today from US adventures into Iraq and Afghanistan.
In an era where attack drones and warplanes weren’t available, the combat was mostly close quarters, with all of the bloody atrocities straightforward, committed with rifles and bayonets and without the plausible deniability so common today. The slaughter of villagers in combat areas wasn’t any great secret, and rather the focus of the administrations at the time was in claiming the atrocities were justified.
Villagers in these areas were herded into concentration camps by the hundreds of thousands. Disease was rampant, torture and summary executions commonplace. Some provinces saw virtually their entire populations forced into the camps, nominally to “protect” them from insurgents.
Tens of thousands of Filipino combatants were dead; hundreds of thousands of civilians were also killed. Exact figures will never be known, but the US estimated a population of around nine million when they took the islands over, and by 1908 the estimate was less than eight million remained.
As the war dragged on into its second decade the last resistance to American occupation was in the far south, among the islands’ Muslim minority, the Moro. Major General John Pershing was appointed the military governor, with an eye toward full-scale disarmament of the population and establishing full military control over the Moro.
The last real battle was fought in mid-June of 1913, 100 years ago. From June 11 through June 15, an estimated 10,000 Moro villagers fortified themselves at the top of Mount Bagsak. Gen. Pershing sent in the troops and after convincing many of them to leave, sieged the fortress.
On June 15, 1913, the fortress fell. The last of the Moro rebellion, armed with knives and spears, were all killed. There were no prisoners taken, and no tending to the wounded, who were left to die or killed outright.
When America’s global war on terror began in 2001, hawks began trotting out General Pershing as an example of the proper way of crushing an insurgency — wholesale slaughter. The stories, brutal though they already were, were even exaggerated to suggest Pershing’s anti-Muslim zeal matched the modern fervor.
But as war exhaustion continues to grow in America, and more wars continue to be planned in the halls of power, it is important to remember the horrors of occupation remain to this day. From the Philippine child shot with a U.S. soldier’s service revolver 100+ years ago to the three children killed earlier this month by a US drone strike, it is the innocent who often bear the gravest costs of our wars.