Amigo - A film by John Sayles

About the Philippine-American War

AMIGO is set in a very specific time and place- northern Luzon (the largest island in the Philippines) in the year 1900.  The situation we find in the movie is the result of a series of events:

Tensions between Filipinos and their Spanish colonial rulers had been deteriorating for decades.  The Philippines had become a dumping ground for the least effective and most opportunistic Spanish priests and bureaucrats, just as a generation of very well-educated Filipinos (often called ‘illustrados’) came ready to take their rightful place in the hierarchy of the Church and the government.  They were denied entry to these positions on grounds that were clearly racist and imperialist.

At the same time, both Church and government were squeezing the poorer rural people, stealing their land, imposing high taxes and returning little in the way of services, and forcing them to work in the polo, an imposed, unpaid period of work, every year.  The laboring and educated classes finally came together in a revolt against Spanish rule in 1896, with Andres Bonifacio leading Filipinos in tearing up their cedulas (government required identity papers, needed to travel even short distances) and in an armed rebellion.  An early factional battle between Bonifacio and the Cavite native Emilio Aguinaldo resulted in Bonifacio’s execution and Aguinaldo assuming command as supremo of all revolutionary forces.

Despite regional and personal rivalries, the Filipinos were able to fight the better armed Spanish forces (and their trained Filipino troops) to something akin to a “draw”, agreeing on the truce of Biak na Bato.  Aguinaldo and his most important followers accepted a sum of money to call off the fight and go into exile (mostly in Hong Kong) and the Spanish colonial government agreed to implement certain reforms.  Neither side was confident the other would uphold the bargain.

In 1898, partly due to the machinations of a ‘yellow press’ seeking to sell newspapers by provoking a war, the United States declared war on Spain, vowing to drive them out of their last major colony in the  Western hemisphere, Cuba.   In the first violent act of that war, the American fleet under Admiral Thomas Dewey cornered the Spanish Pacific fleet in the Battle of Manila Bay, sinking most of the ships in less than an hour.

Since Manila was the main port of entry for Spanish soldiers and supplies, the Philippine insurrectos (revolutionaries) saw the perfect opportunity to renew their fight.  Encouraged and armed by the Americans, Emilio Aguinaldo and his ever-growing army of Filipinos quickly defeated the Spanish forces all over Luzon and other islands, and the imperialists retreated back into the walled city of Manila.

The Americans quickly defeated the Spanish in Cuba.  But in the debate before their war with Spain was declared, a Congressional bill was passed forbidding the US to annex Cuba as a territory.  Senator Teller, sponsor of the legislation, may have been more concerned about Cuban cane sugar ruining the market for the beet sugar produced in his home state of Colorado than the rights of the Cubans to govern themselves, but the jingos and expansionists had been stopped.  However, other Spanish possessions such as Guam, Puerto Rico and the Philippines were not covered in the bill (quite possibly because Teller and his fellow Congressmen had never heard of them) and as the pressure to ‘gain’ something in the war mounted, eyes began turning towards the Philippines.

When American ground forces, with their naval support and artillery, arrived in Luzon, a secret deal was struck with the Spanish, and in a one-day ‘mock battle’ the American forces marched through Filipino trench positions and into the walled city of Manila, accepting the Spanish surrender and raising the Stars and Stripes- not the Philippine Republic’s new flag- over the city.  Armed Filipinos were warned to stay out of the Intramuros.

Aguinaldo and his followers, though suspicious, at first believed that the Americans intended to act as allies and leave the island to its people.  A congress met in Malolos, a constitution was drawn up, a government was formed- and the first Philippine Republic came into existence.

But the Americans had a different idea.  Negotiating with the Spanish, and hoping to put a veneer of legality on a military takeover, they ‘bought’ the islands from Spain for twenty million dollars, sealing the deal with the Treaty of Paris.  The debate in the U.S. over ratification of the treaty was split between the ‘anti-Imperialists’:

“This Treaty will make us a vulgar, commonplace empire, controlling subject races and vassal states, in which one class must forever rule and other classes must forever obey.”

-Senator George Frisbie Hoar

and the ‘expansionists’:

“Providence has given the United States the duty of extending Christian civilization. We come as ministering angels, not despots.”

-Senator Knute Nelson

By early 1899 relations between American and Filipino troops facing each other (in a ring around Manila) had deteriorated, and finally a shooting war broke out between them (breaking out, not coincidentally, the day before the American Congress was set to vote on ratification of the Treaty with Spain and what to ‘do’ with the liberated islands).  In the initial months of the war, the Filipinos tried to overrun the Americans with conventional tactics and sheer numbers, but were no match to the superior weaponry and training of the Americans (the Filipinos, among other things, had almost no artillery).  Suffering huge casualties, by 1900 Aguinaldo had switched to guerilla tactics, ambushing and retreating both north and south of Manila as the Americans pressed forward.

By 1901, when AMIGO takes place, the Americans had sent two flying columns of troops north, to try to capture Aguinaldo himself and force him to declare the war over and concede the colonization of the Philippines.

As the American forces gained ground, they often garrisoned the towns they had taken, leaving small forces to guard them against a return by the elusive guerilla bands.  The heads of these small towns and cities were put in an extremely difficult situation- they had to serve their constituents and keep them safe, which meant keeping the Americans happy, but they also had to, sometimes out of choice and often not, help smuggle food and information to the nearby rebel forces in the surrounding jungle- an impossible job.  Hundreds were accused of betrayal by one side or the other (often both) and executed.  The parallels to recent American military activities are inescapable, and do not stop there- the cover of a 1902 copy of LIFE yielded the depiction of a tactic American soldiers learned from the Macabebes, an ethnic group hostile to the Tagalog majority, called the “water cure”:

[The “water cure”] is a “treatment” that 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.

-From “Destroy All Goo-Goos: America’s Forgotten War”
by Thomas Metzer, Loompanics 1999

Eventually General Aguinaldo and the other republican military leaders were captured or surrendered, and the United States annexed the Philippines (as well as Guam and Puerto Rico) as a territory.  Though it must be noted that they brought a much more democratic style of education to the islands, they also controlled the writing of history, and the story of the Philippine Republic and its desperate struggle to survive was suppressed.  Generations of Filipinos grew up without knowing of the role of their own countrymen in the fight for independence.  Never comfortable with the identity or responsibilities of imperialism, Americans also were taught little of the war, and it remains one of the least known and dramatized (especially in movies) conflicts in U.S. history.  Soldiers who volunteered to ‘free the Cuban people from oppression’ found themselves fighting against Filipinos to deny them of freedom- a change of purpose that puzzled and dismayed more than a few.

 

The Philippines and the United States now share a great deal of history and culture, but until recently the beginnings of that long, complex relationship was virtually unexplored.  As the United States’ first military foray beyond the Americas as a world power, the Philippine-American war is worthy of closer examination.