book review by Michael D. Sellers

On September 28, 1901, seventy four members of Company C, Ninth US Infantry, who were occupying the Philippine port town of Balangiga in the latter stages of the Philippine American War, were attacked by machete-wielding native “bolomen” as they were called, as the Americans sat down for breakfast.  Twenty minutes later 48 of the Americans were dead, and the remainder, all but three of whom were badly wounded, were forced to abandon their post and try to escape.   When higher ups in the U.S. Military heard about the “Balangiga Massacre” they ordered a campaign of retribution against the entire island of Samar, where Balangiga was located.  Brigadier General Jacob Smith gave orders to turn Samar into a “howling wilderness” and what followed was described by the Red Cross at the time as genocide.

bala6In America, the event was branded the Balangiga Massacre and was seen as a heinous, criminal sneak attack  by cut-throat Filipinos that produced the worst US military defeat since the Battle of Little Big Horn.

In the Philippines, it was thought of as the Balangiga Uprising – a courageous and principled attack by townspeople who were mad as hell for good reason and not willing to take it any more.

Which version of events is correct?

bala9Bob Couttie’s thoroughly researched and compelling  Hang the Dogs grapples with the question in an engaging and thoughtful way that gives due consideration to both perspectives, Amerian and Filipino, and leads the reader to a place where it is impossible to view the event as anything other than an utter tragedy of miscommunication and good intentions (or at least reasonable ones) gone awry.

Although the events of the book took place more than 100 years ago, they remain relevant as America continues to get itself involved in situations in places like Vietnam, Irag, and Afghanistan where the dynamics that were in play in the Philippines in 1901 are still in play, and can have the same tragic consequences.

bala2By the time Company C, Ninth US Infantry, arrived in Balangiga on August 11, 1901, they were as hardened a group of soldiers as has ever worn the U.S. Army uniform. Their adventures had begun in 1898 when they rode with Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders in Cuba. Then after the briefest of respites they were called to the Philpipines in March 1899 as the Filipinos declared war against America, their newfound colonial masters in the aftermath of the Spanish American War.

They arrived in the Philippines in April 1899 and were involved in contact with the Filipino insurgents from their first day onward.  They fought significant encounters in and around Manila in the first months, then pushed north to San Fernando as the opposition retreated, ending up in Tarlac in November where for the next six months they fought a guerrilla war against stubborn and well-directed insurgents.  Then on June 18, 1900 word came that the Boxers in China were attacking foreign legations, and Company C along with the Ninth Infantry was dispatched to Tientsin China, where they took part in the events that would later be memorialized in “55 Days at Peking.”

balaIt was after all of this, more than two years after the initial deployment, that the Ninth Infantry was called back to the Philippines yet again by Arthur MacArthur, the military governor of the Islands, who wanted the Ninth to do what had until now eluded the United States military – pacify the bloody and untamed island of Samar.

The story as seen from the American point of view has been told more than once, most famously (and erroneously, it turns out) by Joseph Schott in Ordeal in Samar.  Couttie gives equal time to the Filipino side and in so doing creates a far more compelling story told in a style that, at times, reads more like a novel.

Couttie tells us, often through the words of the Filipinos who participated, of a town devastated by a recent typhoon and tsunami-like storm surge that killed thousands on the island of Samar, leaving them fighting for survival faced with severe food shortages. As it struggles to recover Company C, Ninth US Infantry arrives to close the town’s only lifeline, its port. Tensions rise as the needs and fears of the town conflict with military requirements aimed at suppressing insurgency in the surrounding area. Finally, what may have been little more than a soldier’s attempt at horseplay with a local girl in a deeply conservative culture pushes the townspeople to their limit.

It is the aftermath of the attack that attracts controversy. General Jacob H. Smith’s orders to kill everyone over ten, an order countermanded by the officers he gave them to, has been central to the controversy and the claim that a policy of deliberate genocide was put in train.

The trial of Smith and Major Tazewell Waller, the marine commander on Samar, grabbed headlines in the US. For the first time the defense ‘I was only obeying orders’, which came to the fore in the Nurenberg trial of Nazis, was questioned.

Couttie painstakingly dismantles the claims that more than 50,000 people on the island, about one in five of the population, were slaughtered to answer the question ‘was this a war crime?’.

Another sort of crime relates to the seizure of the town’s bells as war trophies. The bells are now displayed at a missile base in Wyoming. The refusal to return them to the town after a half century of requests, despite a strong legal case that they should be, under US law, international law and even the US military’s own Unified Code of Military Justice.

In sum – an interesting tale well told that shines a light on a forgotten moment in American history.

Details of the book can be found here:

The Amazon Kindle version is here


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