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Sunday, July 6, 2003


Remember the Philippine-American War?

Forgotten history revealed through art, poetry, memoirs and essays

VESTIGES OF WAR: The Philippine-American War and the Aftermath of an Imperial Dream 1899-1999, edited by Angel Velasco Shaw and Luis H. Francia. New York: New York University Press, 2003, 436 pp., $29.95 (paper).

What if your country fought a war and then "forgot" it ever happened. Sound unlikely? Such a thing happened to America and the Philippines.

In 1898, the United States fought the Spanish-American War, which began with U.S. Commodore George Dewey's destruction of the anchored Spanish fleet in Manila Bay. Spain ceded the Philippines to the U.S. by the Treaty of Paris, but Filipino leaders did not recognize the treaty. So they continued a struggle that essentially had begun a few years earlier as a revolution against Spanish rule. The last organized resistance to U.S. power took place in 1906. The Philippines would not achieve full independence from the U.S. until 1946.

Most American kids don't learn about the Philippine-American War in school. When it's taught at all, it gets shoehorned into lessons about the Spanish-American War, which only lasted three months.

Historian and anthology contributor John Kuo Wei Tchen acknowledges that most Filipinos don't know about it either: "Americans will look at the book's title and ask 'What war?' and say they thought Filipinos were somehow Spanish. Just as most people in the U.S. don't know much history, it is also true that most people in the Philippines and in the Filipino diaspora don't know much history."

Inklings of the U.S. war in the Philippines crop up unwittingly. "The U.S. war in the Philippines survives," Tchen writes, "in an odd story abuela [grandma] tries not to tell when the young ones are around, or discovering a photograph of any great-grand-uncle, virtually forgotten and killed 'during the war,' or in a threadbare piece of fabric worn in the escape and now kept in mothballs."

It is from these vestiges -- these old photos and threadbare pieces of fabric -- that the real history has been being pieced together in this powerful anthology, created in honor of the war's centennial.

Amnesia and revisionism are rampant. The American nationalist version of history tells of "a splendid little war" and "benevolent assimilation," while the Philippine version tells of "fraternal tutelage" by America. Philippine resistance is termed "banditry."

No longer. Angel Velasco Shaw and Luis H. Francia, the editors of this huge anthology -- both in size and content -- tell it differently. They see the war as the beginning of American imperialism in Asia, and call it America's "First Vietnam war." They want to reopen the archives and re-examine the "willfully forgotten" past.

Through forceful poems, archival photos, art, visual essays, plays and memoirs, three dozen contributors including Eric Gamalinda, Rene G. Ontal, Mark Twain, Jessica Hagedorn and Nguyen Qui Duc weigh in against the glossed over or repressed history of the war and its aftermath in the Philippines, throughout Asia and among the worldwide Filipino diaspora.

What were the effects of 400 years of colonization by the Spanish, by America and briefly by Japan on the Philippine psyche? Here's Alfredo Navarro Salanga's "A Philippine History Lesson." Moves us away From what we are We call it names Assign it origins And blame the might That made Spain right And America-bite. This is what it amounts to We've been bitten off, excised From the rind of things. What once gave us pulp Has been chewed off And pitted-dry.

No longer excised from the rind of things, these contributors buck the official accounts of their governments and break the silence of their ancestors.

One of the main insights of the volume is how the war was a catalyst for U.S. intervention and expansion in the Asia Pacific Region. Writer and popular San Francisco radio show host Nguyen Qui Duc makes light of imperialism by starting his essay with dark humor: "There's a joke I like to tell. Why is there never a coup d'etat in the United States? Because in the United States, there isn't an American Embassy."

Qui Duc acknowledges that many people who hear this joke do not appreciate it. Perhaps they have forgotten about American involvement in Iran, Iraq (previously), Panama, Chile and many other nations worldwide. Perhaps they live in a vacuum and never knew about it in the first place. But among those who do laugh at the joke, many are foreigners who have come to live in America to escape the turmoil in their homelands.

Qui Duc writes: "I hear in their laughter an instant recognition of the truth inherent in the flip side of the joke's punish line. Where there is an American Embassy, if not a coup d'etat, there would be attempts at influencing state, economic, social, military and cultural affairs."

The joke is poignant. The social, political and cultural wounds of war run deep. Other historical "footnotes" are examined as prisms of modern times.

Of particular interest is Ontal's essay on the ambivalence felt by African-American soldiers in the Philippine-American War. Other contributions are just as eye-opening and profound.

Many of the contributors in this volume find a home in art, recovering their lost histories. Some try to balance the world of their parents with the world of their children. In the play "Dust Memories," Dionisio Velasco writes of the pains of assimilation, the rift between cultures living as a Filipino in America:"Growing up in America, I never learn to speak Tagalog. But I understand it -- that's what all the Flips in America say. I don't speak, but I can understand it. When our parents address us, they speak to us in English, they converse with each other in Tagalog. Tagalog becomes lodged in my subconscious, but never a part of my own speech. Incredibly, my own language is strange to my tongue, removed, yet somehow so familiar. So in college I major in English."

The history, like the language, is lodged in the subconscious as well. It's not an easy history -- but real history never is. In fact, the editors hope that readers will find this anthology unsettling. They want the silence to be broken loudly. They want the pervading myths on both sides to be debunked. And they've succeeded brilliantly in presenting a complex, vibrant, multifaceted view of the war and its past, present and future.

In giving voice to these once-silenced stories, the editors have retrieved the past, shone a harsh but necessary light on this historical blind spot and illuminated the truth for future generations. If more textbooks were written like this, there might be fewer wars.

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