This country’s disastrous adventure in Iraq is not the first time we’ve picked a fight with a less powerful nation on a flimsy pretext, then gone in and trashed the place. A quick trip into the history books, back before Bush Sr.’s first Gulf War, before Vietnam — more than a century ago, in fact — reveals one of the most outrageous examples of the pursuit of what was then called “manifest destiny,” the Philippine-American War (1899-1914).
Even by today’s Abu Ghraib standards, US efforts to suppress the so-called Philippine Insurrection (we bought the Philippines from Spain for $20 million after defeating that colonial power in 1898, but the Filipinos dared to declare their independence soon afterward) were shockingly ugly. Washington officials fulminated about “naked savages.” The US Army developed the heavy-duty .45 automatic to knock down rebellious Filipino “niggers.” Somewhere between 250,000 and a million civilians were killed, villages were burned, and torture was used. A few Americans — among them Mark Twain — objected to the aggressive imperialism. But in many newspapers and magazines of the day, political cartoonists delighted in portraying Filipinos as little brown brats or Africanized heathens with spears.
Filipino-American authors Abe Ignacio, Jorge Emmanuel, the late Helen Toribio (all three from the East Bay), and Enrique de la Cruz collected more than two hundred of those degrading cartoons and put them into The Forbidden Book (T’Boli, $24.95) alongside text on this neglected, shameful chapter of history. The similarities are striking between official justifications for invasion, then and now. Ignacio and Emmanuel come to Berkeley’s Eastwind Books (2066 University Ave., 510-548-2350) Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m. to discuss that long-ago war and its ramifications. Eastwind manager Harvey Dong, who also lectures in Asian-American studies at UC Berkeley, sees The Forbidden Book as an attempt to connect the dots: “It’s an example of later generations seeking to discover hidden truths in their past. That earlier war set a precedent on how to take over a population. It was considered a progressive thing for the US to spread its influence.” Then and now.