On this date, when U.S. Marines landed in Samar during the Philippine-American War (referred to by Filipinos as the Philippine War of Independence and sometimes patronizingly referred to as the Philippine Insurrection by the U.S.), Brigadier General Jacob Hurd Smith (“Hell-Roaring Jake”) issued his murderous orders:
I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn. The more you kill and burn the better it will please me.
This bloody Philippine-American War, which began in 1899 and officially ended in 1902 (although sporadic fighting continued until 1913), resulted from the foreign policy of a group of imperialists within the Republican Party of President William McKinley. After their quick victory in the Spanish-American War in 1898, the United States military found themselves playing the part of an occupying army on the Philippine Islands. A Filipino independence movement had been working to overthrow their Spanish colonizers for years. Emilio Aguinaldo, the charismatic leader of the movement, provided critical aid to the Americans during their war with Spain. However, when U.S. armed forces did not withdraw from the islands and the U.S. government did not recognize Philippine independence, Aguinaldo and his compatriots rose up against the United States. Although General Aguinaldo was captured on March 25, 1901, there followed no mass surrender of other Filipino revolutionary generals. Fighting went on.
“I am not afraid, and am always ready to do my duty, but I would like someone to tell me what we are fighting for.”–Arthur H. Vickers, Sergeant in the First Nebraska Regiment
According to Luzviminda Francisco, the Philippine-American War was a forgotten war in the U.S. annals. American textbooks contain several pages on the Spanish-American War but only devote a paragraph on the Philippine-American War despite the fact that the latter was more pronounced in terms of duration, scale, and number of casualties. The war was ugly, ruthless, and brutal, prompting Stanley Karnow to describe it as “among the cruelest conflicts in the annals of Western imperialism.” Other scholars refer to the conflict as the United States’ “first Vietnam.” Luzviminda estimates that as many as 126,000 American soldiers, or 3/4 of the U.S. army, were shipped to the Philippines, and at least 600,000 Filipinos died during the war. American anti-imperialist Mark Twain claimed that the number of Filipino casualties was close to one million or the equivalent of 1/6 of the country’s total population at the turn of the century. He famously wrote:
. . .There is the case of the Philippines. I have tried hard, and yet I cannot for the life of me comprehend how we got into that mess. Perhaps we could not have avoided it — perhaps it was inevitable that we should come to be fighting the natives of those islands — but I cannot understand it, and have never been able to get at the bottom of the origin of our antagonism to the natives. I thought we should act as their protector — not try to get them under our heel. We were to relieve them from Spanish tyranny to enable them to set up a government of their own, and we were to stand by and see that it got a fair trial. It was not to be a government according to our ideas, but a government that represented the feeling of the majority of the Filipinos, a government according to Filipino ideas. That would have been a worthy mission for the United States. But now — why, we have got into a mess, a QUAGMIRE from which each fresh step renders the difficulty of extrication immensely greater. I’m sure I wish I could see what we were getting out of it, and all it means to us as a nation. . .
Some American infantrymen were equally mystified by what was taking place:
“Talk about dead Indians! Why, they are lying everywhere. The trenches are full of them…There is not a feature of the whole miserable business that a patriotic American citizen, one who loves to read of the brave deeds of the American colonists in the splendid struggle for American independence, can look upon with complacency, much less with pride. This war is reversing history. It places the American people and the government of the United States in the position occupied by Great Britain in 1776. It is an utterly causeless and defenseless war, and it should be abandoned by this government without delay. The longer it is continued, the greater crime it becomes – a crime against human liberty as well as against Christianity and civilization…” –Theodore Conley, 20th Kansas Regiment
During the war, torture was resorted to by American troops to obtain information and confessions. The “water cure” was given to those merely suspected of being rebels. Some were hanged by the thumbs, others were dragged by galloping horses, or fires lit beneath others while they were hanging. Another form of torture was tying to a tree and then shooting the suspect through the legs. If a confession was not obtained, he was again shot, the day after. This went on until he confessed or eventually died. On the other hand, Filipino guerrillas chopped off the noses and ears of captured Americans in violation of Aguinaldo’s orders. There were reports that some Americans were buried alive by angry Filipino guerrillas. In other words, brutalities were perpetrated by both sides.
In 1901, the U.S. commander at Balangiga on the Island of Samar had sent troops out to destroy crops and grain reserves, to keep such food from flowing into the hands of the insurgents; he had also ordered all males over the age of thirteen, at gun-point, to work at clearing brush and repairing the streets of the town. The people of Balangiga revolted in reaction to their abuse at the hands of the Americans — an American garrison in the town of Balangiga was attacked between 6:20 and 6:45 in the morning of 28 September 1901 by the local population, with the support of the local police chief and members of the insurgency. Fifty-four of the seventy-eight American troops stationed at Balangiga were killed; only four escaped uninjured. The massacre shocked the U.S. public and many newspaper editors noted that it was the worst disaster suffered by the U.S. Army since George Armstrong Custer’s “last stand” at the Little Big Horn in 1876. Brigadier General Jacob Smith was given the task of crushing the resistance on Samar and exacting revenge for the deaths of the American soldiers at Balangiga.
At the beginning of the campaign when officers had gathered at the site of the Balangiga Massacre, Smith told Marine Major Littleton W. T. Waller:
I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn, the more you kill and burn the better it will please me. I want all persons killed who are capable of bearing arms in actual hostilities against the United States.
Since it was a popular belief among the Americans serving in the Philippines that native males were born with bolos in their hands, Waller asked, “I would like to know the limit of age to respect, sir?”
“Ten years,” Smith said.
“Persons of ten years and older are those designated as being capable of bearing arms?”
“Yes.” Smith confirmed his instructions a second time.
Smith would later send Waller a written order “that the interior of Samar must be made a howling wilderness.” However, aware of Smith’s penchant for making outrageous oaths and the extravagance of his language, Waller therefore did not execute Smith’s orders. Instead, Waller applied the rules of civilized warfare and the rules provided under General Orders No. 100 of 1863 dealing with irregular warfare (involving non-uniformed combatants), which stated that if enemy units gave no quarter and became treacherous upon capture, it was lawful to shoot anyone belonging to that captured unit.
Nevertheless, a sustained and widespread massacre of Filipino civilians followed. As a result of Smith’s policies during the four and half month-long campaign, an estimated 15,000 Filipinos died on Samar.
- Teodoro A. Agoncillo, A Short History of the Philippines, New American Library, 1969.
- Bob Couttie, Hang the Dogs: The True and Tragic History of the Balangiga Massacre, New Day Publishers, 2004.