© 1999 by Th. Metzger Artwork © 1999 by Nick Bougas
An archaic steam locomotive crawled through the Philippine jungle, pulling a converted firefighting engine. Up ahead appeared another village of roughly hewn timber, bamboo poles, palm leaf thatching and hodge-podge planks. Having heard the atrocity stories, the villagers had deserted their homes well before the labored chugging of the steam train reached them. Within a month of their arrival, American troops had begun burning, shooting, raping, and looting.
A fitful plume of smoke wavered up through the Banyan trees and ropey climbing rattan vines. The mechanical panting increased — as though excited — and the engine appeared suddenly like a great blind ox staggering along the two ribbons of iron in the dense tropical jungle.
American scouting parties had preceded the fire-train: a few soldiers in filthy blue uniforms and slouch hats, cradling bolt-action Krag-Jorgensen rifles the Department of War had bought by the hundreds of thousands for this campaign to cleanse the islands of insurrectos.
The train groaned to a halt and a crew of soldiers got the pumps working. However, there was no fire, yet. No water jetted from the hoses. Instead, a noxious geyser of petrol shot onto the huts and larger buildings. A high stinking arc, fuel pumped from the tank car behind. When the village was thoroughly soaked, the engine’s boiler was stoked and the train pulled on, out of danger. It disappeared into the dense curtain of huge drooping leaves and vines.
A squad of soldiers left behind struck matches, lit oil-soaked fronds and tossed them onto the nearest dripping hut. In a steady, deafening moan, flames swallowed the village.
Described by some officers as a "punitive expedition," this ceaseless burning was indeed a kind of punishment for the Filipinos who defied U.S. rule. Five years later, the United States Army was still rounding up natives and shooting them en masse for daring to fight back against their new masters. But just as often the scorched-earth campaign was seen as a kind of cleansing, a "holy fire" to burn away "Asiatic contamination." American military, religious, economic and technical power had thrust itself on the Philippines in 1898 and the U.S. was determined to utterly expunge all trace of uncivilized "Mongolian" taint, all "nameless contagion's" and racial "leprosy."
America had won a quick and easy victory in its war with Spain. With the giddy triumph came control of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. And also came a ferocious debate about America’s changing status. Would it be wise, profitable, righteous, or even constitutional for the U.S. to become an imperialist power? The peace treaty of Paris transferred ownership of the islands from Spain to the U.S. for a token 20 million dollars. Or, as one dubious commentator wrote: "We bought ten millions of niggers at two dollars a head."
Filipinos, however, rebelled against the idea of trading a doddering colonial master for a young and confident one. The prospects of exchanging the crusty, corrupt Catholic rule of Spain for the Protestant, progressive American yoke caused Filipinos to take up arms. "The Philippine Insurrection" ensued. Though it was never declared a war, it eventually involved 200,000 American troops and cost taxpayers over 600 million dollars. It was an apt inauguration for the American century. New technologies were employed against the insurrectos, new ideas about American destiny and untested theories about "Asiatics" (the ultimate racial menace) would have their literal trial by fire between 1898 and 1902.
Two months after Admiral Dewey’s grand victory in Manila Bay, the U.S. Army arrived in force. Raw volunteers for whom the idea of "killing niggers" was one step away from a "turkey shoot," and veterans who’d learned their trade killing Indians, arrived in the Philippines to secure the new acquisition.
Besides being the debut of the new imperialist U.S. identity, it was just as significantly the first time U.S. forces engaged in a prolonged war against "Asiatic heathens." President McKinley claimed to have prayed on his knees "for light and guidance from the ‘ruler of all nations.’ " The message he received was to "educate the Filipinos, to civilize and uplift and Christianize them."
A less lofty version of the same sentiment was published in an imperialist newspaper as the war heated up. The writer called for swift extermination of "these uncircumcised, uncivilized, unthankful and treacherous cut-throats. The sooner soldiers are sent there in sufficient numbers to finish up this business, the better it will be for Christianity and human progress." McKinley called for "benevolent assimilation." What he got was one of the longest, bloodiest and most degrading wars in U.S. history. It should be America’s aim, McKinley declared, "to win the confidence, respect, and affection of the inhabitants of the Philippines." Instead, what ensued was the first war in a century-long racial conflict: the U.S. versus a continent "teeming with half-civilized savages."
It soon became difficult to tell the savages from the bringers of civilization. A reporter for the Philadelphia Ledger summed up what he saw of McKinley’s "benevolent" crusade:
Who exactly were the Filipinos?, many Americans wondered. Not a homogeneous racial group like the Japanese; not "pure" Asiatics like the Chinese, they were doubly damnable. "Obscene yellow rascals who live on a bowl or rice and a rat a day" were bad enough, but "Asiatic hybrids" were far worse.
Nothing seems to have angered and sickened Americans as much at the turn of the century as race-mixing. And the Filipinos were apparently a mysterious racial amalgam. America wondered: were they Malays? "Chinese Mestizos"? "A heterogeneous compound of inefficient humanity"? Or "a mess of Asiatic pottage, a witch’s cauldron of ‘black spirits, and white, grey spirits,’ spotted people with zebra signs on them?" Clearly, American histrionic fears were not just an excuse to grab land. Something deep, and deeply troubling, was at work in the American soul.
The U.S. was inarguably haunted by racial anxieties. The nation as we know it could not have come into existence without the wholesale slaughter of Indians and the enslavement of Africans. Perhaps nothing has shaped the U.S. more. So it’s no coincidence that the two racial groups show up in Philippine War imagery. Unsure what the Filipinos were, Americans applied old racial terms. Besides the standard Yellow Peril slanders that had developed since the Chinese began entering the U.S. in the 1850s (slurs such as "degenerate and alien races," "contagious moral lepers," "carriers of loathsome diseases, debasing habits, unhuman lusts and drug addiction") the Filipinos were tarred with two broad brushes. They were "niggers" and they were "injuns." And the two terms were fused in the new racial slur — goo-goo — that had echoes sixty years later in the word "gook," used for Vietnamese "subhumans."
Stateside, at the time of the insurrection, "goo-goo" meant an inviting sexual glance. In 1900, as American troops slaughtered the "bloody savages" (in Teddy Roosevelt’s memorable phrase) the song "Just Because She Made dem Googoo Eyes" was popular. A year later we read of someone "throwing a googoo" as if it were an erotic curse or bomb. In that same decade, the term was a noun ("goo-goo giver") and a verb ("She googooed him and he lost his powers of speech."). That the word came to mean a despised, racially degenerate foreigner may seem odd. Perhaps the single syllable "goo," meaning "dirty moisture" is the root. Goo indicates a substance of indeterminate composition — sweet, sticky, wet, shiny, oozing, viscous, vaguely biological, the essence of defilement. It’s been argued too that the Filipinos were called goo-goos because of their "soft, liquid eyes." Others claim it was for its echoes of baby talk. (President McKinley called the Filipinos "little brown brothers.") Or perhaps the racial hatred is tinged with a secret attraction: Asian as the dark-skinned Other who can only be known, communicated with, "loved," by killing. American attitudes certainly were ambiguous: the urge to kill and the urge to civilize were inextricable. Goo-goos were "treacherous and barbarous," a "racial leprosy." They also needed to be uplifted, Christianized, saved.
Where the word comes from may remain unknown, but what the U.S. thought of the goo-goo is quite clear.
The Filipinos in popular American imagination were a bewildering blend of savagery, childishness, racial inferiority, Asian decadence and animality. American soldiers spoke of the Filipinos they shot down with their Krag rifles as little more than small game or water fowl. A volunteer from Washington state wrote home: "Our fighting blood was up, and we wanted to kill ‘niggers’… This shooting human beings is a ‘hot game’ and beats hunting all to pieces. We charged them and such a slaughter you never saw. We killed them like rabbits; hundreds, yes, thousands of them. Everyone was crazy." Another soldier wrote that the killing was "fast and furious," the dead goo-goos "piling up thicker than buffalo chips." One of his comrades wrote the eager folks at home that "picking off niggers in the water [was] more fun than a turkey shoot." Describing the joys of the "nigger fighting business," a proud soldier proclaimed that "I am in my glory when I can sight my gun on some brown skin and pull the trigger."
The word "nigger" was used so often that General Otis forbade its use. But at a time when race hatred was out of control at home (during the years of the war an average of two blacks a week were lynched in the U.S.) hatred for "niggers" would easily slop over onto any dark-skinned enemy. Though some Americans understood that the Filipinos were not closely related to Africans, still the usual anti-black slurs were applied. John McLaurin of South Carolina, for instance, told his fellow U.S. Senators that the Filipinos were a "mongrel and semi-barbarous population… inferior but akin to the Negro in moral and intellectual development." A Utah private described his "goo-goo hunting" philosophy this way: "No cruelty is too severe for these brainless monkeys, who can appreciate no honor, kindness, or justice… With an enemy like this to fight, it is not surprising that the boys should adapt ‘no quarter’ as a motto and fill the blacks with lead."
Further complicating the ethnic anxieties and hatred was the fact that 600,000 Filipinos in the southern islands of the archipelago were Moslems. The practices of these Moros — piracy, slavery and polygamy — made them all the more repulsive to the American invaders. Black Jack Pershing, a veteran of the Wounded Knee massacre and later commander of the U.S. forces in W.W.I, was assigned to pacify these archetypal "negroid heathens." Though he killed many, played politics with Sultans and strongmen, and enticed the Moros with the benefits of civilization, they remained resistant to outside control well into the 1940s.
A soldier song from the war — sung to the tune of "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp the Boys are Marching" — encapsulates the racial hatred, patriotic sentimentality and "white man’s burden" so commonly found mingled at this time.
Indians, also despised and butchered by the American army, were a second current in the stream of race hate. Many of the officers in the American counter-insurgency army had been molded and hardened in the fierce Indian wars of the American West. They often saw the new Asian enemy in cowboy-and-Indian terms: "… half child and half devil, a most accomplished sneak thief, utterly without conscience and as full of treachery as our Arizona Apache." Countless times, soldiers spoke of and wrote of "injun warfare" — pitiless, brutal, relentless — being necessary against the Filipino "savages."
It wasn’t only the soldiers, however, who saw the goo-goo as a savage subhuman. Professor of Law Theodore Woolsey of Yale told a body of learned men that the Filipinos were "incapable of gratitude, profligate, undependable, improvident, cruel, impertinent, superstitious, treacherous… All are liars, even in the confessional." The natives were not only deceitful and barbaric, declared an Episcopal prelate returned from a tour of the islands, but also "defective in reasoning." Yes, American men of God were very much in favor of this undertaking. Dewey’s victory was called "God’s vengeance" by missionaries; the battleship guns were "God’s trumpet-tones summoning his people out of their isolation." Some missionary journals took the religious mandate idea to absurd and obscene lengths: "Has it ever occurred to you that Jesus was the most imperial of the imperialists?" Again and again in Protestant journals, writers argued that the little brown brother needed to be led out of the vile darkness of "paganism and papistry."
Contrasted to the "racially degenerate savages," Americans of the time saw themselves as scions of a proud and vigorous Caucasian race — reaching back to England and a mythologized white culture sometimes called Aryan. Talk of Anglo-Saxon blood, Anglo-Saxon moral fiber, Anglo-Saxons as the true chosen people was everywhere. General Arthur MacArthur, commander of the American forces in the Philippines, expounded at great length to Congress on his favorite subject: "the Aryan Race." History, he explained, was a "process of spontaneous evolution" and the 20th century was a time of great triumph and progress for the children of "Aryan ancestors." General Funston, who became a great hero by capturing the Filipino leader Aguinaldo, spoke repeatedly about the need for a "Teutonic alliance" to "civilize the world." A great admirer of the German Junkers — aristocratic warriors who Christianized Prussia 500 years before with sword and torch — Funston called long and loudly for "Teutonic knights" and pure-blood Aryans to beat back the forces of chaos. Not coincidentally, he also argued that impromptu hangings of anti-imperialists at home might bring a speedier end to the war. Apparently, dragging unpatriotic Americans out of their homes for a quick lynching would strengthen the forces of order and righteousness. Preventing the mixture of races was of particular importance. C.F. Adams spoke for thousands when he proclaimed that "harsh treatment" of Indians, Mexicans, Asians and Africans was justified because it "saved the Anglo-Saxons from being a nation of half-breeds." No less a proud Anglo-Saxon than Theodore Roosevelt praised the American forces’ fight "for the triumph of civilization over the black chaos of savagery and barbarism."
What in practical terms did this grand crusade for progress and civilization entail? What did the U.S., in Senator Albert Beveridge’s words, "the trustee under God, of the civilization of the world," achieve in the Philippines?
Twenty thousand Filipino insurgents were killed in combat. Another 200,000 noncombatants died from hunger, rape, disease, torture and other indirect results of the war. And a systematic scorched-earth campaign left thousands of acres, hundreds of villages, houses, crops, food stores, animals and boats burned to ash. Though not as successful as other genocidal campaigns, still one out of every forty men, women and children killed in a distant jungle colony is a testament to American persistence and know-how. Besides the traditional methods of killing civilians, an innovation with far-reaching echoes was developed in the Philippines: the concentration camp.
As the Filipinos gave up trying to best the U.S. forces in conventional fire-fights, a long and brutal guerrilla war ensued. Frustrated by their inability to use high-tech weapons to advantage, the U.S. resorted to gathering all natives — combatants and non-combatants — into prison camps. Though not original to the U.S., the Spanish had used them and the British found them effective in their war against the Boers in South Africa, the sheer number and brutality of the American camps marks a radical departure. Total war meant not just killing the enemy soldiers, not only confining and punishing civilians for the crime of racial inferiority, but active and systematic eradication. And many American officers thought explicitly in these terms. Dr. Henry Rowland, an Army surgeon, explained that "it does not take the American soldier, from private to general, long to conceive of the insurrectos as vermin, only to be ridded by extermination."
On the island of Batangas, everyone other than the inhabitants of a few major cities was forced into a concentration camp. Frustrations that the war was dragging on may have made the U.S. military more eager to lash out, even at Filipinos who’d not lifted a finger against them. Some atrocities were committed against U.S. troops, adding to their murderous rage. But something deeper was also at work here: the urge to exterminate an entire population. Though General Bell, who’d created the camps on Batangas, insisted that they were built to "protect friendly natives from the insurgents, assure them an adequate food supply" while teaching them "proper sanitary standards," the commandant of one of the camps was slightly more realistic, referring to them as the "suburbs of Hell."
It was not just the sun that burned in the Philippines, however. Repeatedly, the torch was used to "cleanse" the islands of their "savage polluting taint." Only a month after the war began, the U.S. command ordered reprisals against the civilian population for an insurgent ambush. Every dwelling within twelve miles of the ambush site was burned to the ground. A letter to the San Francisco Call explained that "orders were received from General Wheaton to burn the town and kill every native in sight; which was done to a finish." While ministers and senators sermonized about the U.S. carrying the torch of civilization to the benighted jungles of "goo-gooland" a special high-tech torch penetrated the "Negro wasteland." Under General Otis’ orders, a party of U.S. troops burned through the jungle on a steam train, squirting oil on villages to hasten their destruction. Another general, Robert Hughes, was proclaimed a hero for burning "a path 60 miles wide from one end of Panay to the other."
Beside the innovative use of new technologies (machine guns and shotguns too were used as anti-personnel weapons) the U.S. Army brought to perfection an old form of torture called affectionately the "water cure" by soldiers in the field.
This "treatment" consisted of spread-eagling a prisoner on his back, forcing his mouth open with a bamboo stick and pouring gallons of water down his throat. Helpless, the insurrecto was pumped with water until his stomach was near the bursting point. Then he was questioned. If he refused to answer — which happened surprisingly often — an American soldier stood or kneeled on is belly, forcing the water out. One report by a U.S. soldier told how "a good heavy man" jumped on a prisoner’s belly "sending a gush of water from his mouth into the air as high as six feet." This cure was repeated until the prisoner talked or died. Roughly half the insurrectos given the cure survived. How many Filipinos were killed by torture is not known, but the extent of the practice is well documented by a letter sent home by a soldier who bragged of inflicting the water cure on 160 Filipinos, 134 of whom died.
The career of General Jacob Smith might be seen as the peak or nadir of brutality and racist rage in the Philippines. Having spent thirty-five years fighting Indians in the American west, Smith was an appropriate choice to command the U.S. forces on Samar. A veteran of the Wounded Knee massacre, he was well versed in genocidal tactics. General Bell promoted him to brigadier and assigned him the task of pacifying Samar by any means necessary.
Smith’s nickname — "Hell-roaring Jake" — referred to his enormously loud voice, often heard on the battlefield exhorting his men to give no quarter. But the sounds of hell — flame and abject screaming — were also associated with the brutal bantam general. Court-martialed, but exonerated, for atrocities in the Philippines, he bragged to a reporter that his aim was to set the entirety of Samar on fire and leave every inhabitant dead. Though he didn’t achieve his goal of total extermination, he did give orders that everyone on the island (roughly 250,000 people) be placed in concentration camps. Anyone who refused was shot on sight. Another command, given to his subordinate Major Littleton Waller, was played prominently in the stateside papers during Smith’s trial. "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."
When Waller asked about an age limit he should respect, Smith told him to kill anyone over ten years. Waller was also instructed by Smith that "the interior of Samar must be made a howling wilderness."
By the skillful use of bayonet, bullet and torch he hoped to "create in the minds of all peoples a burning desire for war to cease." However, it seems more likely that a man who’d made his living for thirty-five years killing undesirables was less eager for peace than driven by an urge to totally eradicate inferior peoples: "injuns, niggers, goo-goos." Smith was, in short, engaged in the business of racial extermination.
Though the soldiers, observers and boosters back home used the term "exterminate" to describe the killing in the Philippines, was it metaphor, exaggeration or an accurate appraisal of the war?
First, bear in mind that extermination is systematic, not a random spree of killing. Often with the gloss of science or rationality, the exterminator uses whatever tools are best fitted for the job. He is supposedly not driven by emotion or irrational impulses. His work is routine; he’s done it before and he’ll do it again, because he’s a professional. He’s paid for his work. This is no leisure activity but a source of income, an economic transaction. An infestation of insects and rodents threatens property values or business viability. Likewise, the presence of undesirable humans is a threat to profitability. It may seem obvious, but it’s important to keep in mind that the exterminator is an outsider, brought in or imposing himself from another environment. It’s implied that he comes from a vermin-free place, superior to the one he must cleanse. He is of course of another species. Men kill bugs; the exterminator is totally unlike the vermin. The rules that apply to him do not apply to the inferior, infesting presence. "Murder" only applies to intra-species killing. A hunter doesn’t murder his prey; nor does the exterminator murder the vermin. To exterminate implies correctness — if not moral, then certainly hygienic or medical. It is the right and proper thing to do. There is no such thing as "wrong" extermination. And lastly, when the exterminator leaves, he makes sure that the place is uninhabitable. He leaves behind a toxic residue, poison or traps. He plugs up the reentry points, builds barriers and removes attractions for the vermin.
Was then the war in the Philippines an exterminationist campaign? By all the standards just mentioned: yes. Some are obviously the case. Only the notion of inter-species eradication requires any further discussion. Repeatedly in campaigns against racial undesirables, propaganda, slang terms, social mores and explicit law make an attempt to redefine "human." If the enemy is a "goo-goo" or "nigger," if he’s uncivilized, barbaric, bestial (an ape, a turkey, a rabbit, an insect) then he is not human in the way the conqueror is human. Every campaign of extermination requires a rigid differentiation: racial or ethnic categories become "scientific" or "biological" truth. Nazis depicted Jews as lice and rats. The Boers called Africans bobbejaan (baboons). The upper class of northern Nigeria viewed Ibos as verminous subhumans. French colonists in Algeria called Moslems ratons (rats). The Japanese during World War Two were repeatedly depicted as apes while Americans were seen by Japanese as devils. Lynched blacks in the American south were "monkeys." And in the Philippines we find the "goo-goo," a strange amalgam of clichés and slanders, deserving punishment for genetic inferiority, racial cleansing, total extermination.
Carlisle Collection. U.S. Army Military History Research Collection at Carlisle Barracks. Carlisle, PA.
Martin, Albert. The Spanish American War. (Atheneum: NY). 1991.
Miller, Stuart C. Benevolent Assimilation. Yale University Press, 1982.
O’Conner, Richard. Pacific Destiny. (Boston: Little, Brown) 1969.
Wolf, Leon. Little Brown Brother. (Garden City, NJ: Doubleday) 1961.l