THE POVERTY OF MEMORY
RENATO REDENTOR CONSTANTINO
May 3, 2004
The poverty of memory - this is our collective quagmire, its alleviation our common hope.
In a photograph taken "for historical purposes," ten US soldiers dressed in camouflage are handling coffins covered with the American flag. The coffins are in the Dover airbase in Delaware. They contain the remains of US soldiers - new casualties of America's occupation of Iraq.
The photo - along with 300 others - was released in April after a website called the Memory Hole filed a Freedom of Information Act request for pictures of coffins arriving from Iraq at the Dover base. A small veil is lifted and Americans react with shock, anger and sadness.
Releasing the photos is wrong, the Bush administration huffs, even as it tries to stamp out sparks of public reaction. "We must pay attention," hectors the White House spokesman, "to the privacy and to the sensitivity of the families of the fallen." A ban on the coverage of the arrival of remains at Dover, an airbase which houses the US military's largest mortuary, has been in force since 1991.
And yet ironically, as recent as last November, the US Defense Department itself released a photo of a casket containing an American casualty of the Korean War being carried off an aircraft by an honor guard at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, "an image almost identical to what takes place at Dover."
The difference? Slight but terribly significant.
Past American presidents "have never attended memorial services for US troops killed during a war and the ban on pictures from Dover and other military facilities does not extend to recovering the remains of troops killed in previous wars."
"Photographs and film footage of coffins coming home from battlefields have been a stark reminder for Americans of the toll of war," wrote Gregg Zoroya of USA Today. "During the Vietnam War, the image of caskets arriving at Dover became a staple of the nightly news."
"They don't want the public to see what the great difficulties are," said Robert Dallek, a historian of Boston University. "They're fearful that the public [may turn] against the war because it's frustrated by the losses of blood and treasure, in this case Iraq and earlier in Vietnam."
This should all sound familiar to Americans as well as Filipinos. Unfortunately, it is not and therein lies the problem.
We have forgotten so much.
"Why is it that the American outlook is blacker now than it has been since the beginning of the war?," wrote John Bass of Harper's Weekly in June 1899 regarding America's annexation of the Philippines. "First the whole population of the islands sympathizes with the insurgents; only those natives whose immediate self-interest requires it are friendly to us ... The sooner the people of the United States find out that the people of the Philippines do not wish to be governed by us the better."
John Bass' dispatch almost doesn't make it to the US. There is an active US military censorship in place in the Philippines to prevent all too accurate coverage concerning US atrocities and Filipino resistance from reaching America's shores.
"We all know that we are in a terrible mess out here, but we don't want the people to get excited about it. If you fellows will only keep quiet now we will pull through in time without any fuss at home ... My instructions are to shut off everything that could hurt McKinley's administration," said the censorship regime presided over by the over-all military commander of the US invasion army in the Philippines, Gen. Elwell Otis, who did not deny suppressing facts in his meeting with members of the media.
A joint letter of protest led by Robert Collins of the Associated Press is drawn up by American reporters concerning US military censorship of the US invasion: "We believe that, owing to official dispatches from Manila made public in Washington, the people of the United States have not received a correct impression of the situation in the Philippines, but that these dispatches have presented an ultra-optimistic view that is not shared by the general officers in the field ... We believe the dispatches err in the declaration that 'the situation is well in hand,' and in the assumption that the insurrection can be speedily ended without a greatly increased force. We think the tenacity of the Filipino purpose has been under-estimated."
A tenacity to resist the invasion that snuffed out the nascent Philippine republic, the product of a national revolution that had just thrown off the yoke of Spanish colonial rule. An invasion that met with such fierce Filipino resistance that, by the time the last armed group opposing US rule had been put down, the war had already claimed the lives of at least 250,000 Filipinos. So brutal was America's annexation of the Philippines that, according to a US War Department official, just around the first year after the US invasion, "14,643 Filipinos had been killed and 3,297 wounded." Meaning, for every five Filipinos killed, one was wounded.
The reporters led by Collins delivered their letter in person to Gen. Otis and explained to him that it was their intention to publish their protest in the US. Gen. Otis lashed out at the reporters: "You have served a paper on me-a most extraordinary document. Are you aware that this constitutes a conspiracy against the government?" I should have you all summoned to "a general court martial and have you tried for conspiracy."
Fall in line. Toe the line. Ten-hut!
"The US record is not one of imperialism," said US Secretary of State Colin Powell in February last year. "It is one of doing the job, bringing the peace, restoring order and helping a responsible government take its place in leading the country ... We are going to Iraq not to destroy the place but to make it better."
US record? Before Afghanistan, before Nicaragua, Indonesia, and Vietnam; before all these and much more - it was the Philippines. And what a start it was.
"We will not renounce our part in the mission of our race, trustees under God, of the civilization of the world," said US Senator Albert Beveridge, an articulate luminary of America's imperial ambitions who called for the annexation of the Philippines over a hundred years ago. "God has not been preparing the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-admiration. No! He has made us the master organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigns."
Our collective deliverance we will find in our common past. And the task to begin this search must begin today. "To look always for an answer," said Stuart T. Hess, "a solution to the ever-puzzling riddles that confront us: that is our responsibility, our curse and our blessing."
1. AP photo, TODAY, April 25, 2004.
2. "Bush criticizes release of photos of soldier coffins," Thom Shanker and Bill Carter, TODAY, April 25, 2004.
3. "Return of U.S. war dead kept solemn, secret," Gregg Zoroya, USA TODAY, December 31, 2003.
4. Leon Wolff, Little Brown Brother: How the United States purchased and pacified the Philippines, Doubleday & Company, Inc., New York, 1961.
5. "Powell: We'll make Iraq a good neighbour," Bangkok Post, February 22, 2003.
6. Joseph L. Schott, The ordeal of Samar, Bobbs-Merrill, 1964.