The return of the Balangiga bells is a reminder of a dark episode in PH-US war

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Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The bells are back. After more than a century of being displayed as trophies of war in Wyoming, the church bells of Balangiga, Samar, will finally return home. The peal that signals the start of Misa de Gallo should sound sweeter for the town’s residents this holiday season, and deservedly so. Yet at the same time, we should also be on guard and make sure the loud chimes do not drown out the history of war crimes that are at the root of this bittersweet homecoming.

The memory of the so-called Balangiga Massacre and its aftermath can be regarded as an aberration in Philippine history. It is one of those episodes that have gained an iconic status in our collective memory. At least two book-length works are available to those interested in the topic, Rolando Borrinaga’s “The Balangiga Conflict Revisited” and Bob Couttie’s “Hang the Dogs,” both written by respected scholars.

The incident, however, is just a part of the much wider yet oft-forgotten Philippine–American War (1899–1913). Compared with similar momentous events such as the Philippine revolution against Spain (1896–1898) and the resistance against the Japanese during the Second World War (1941–1945), the Philippine–American War seems to be continuously fighting a losing battle just to earn a place within the Filipinos’ collective consciousness.

A quick look at our calendars reveals this historical twist. While we have the National Heroes' Day and the Araw ng Kagitingan to commemorate the first cry of the 1896 revolution and the fall of Bataan, respectively, there’s no counterpart for the decade-long armed struggle against U.S. colonialism. As for our individual heroes who have gifted us with national holidays — Jose Rizal, Andres Bonifacio, and Benigno Aquino Jr. — none of them were even alive during the Philippine–American War, even if we extend its timeline to 1913, the year which marks the final gasp of organized Moro resistance.

The peculiar nature of the Balangiga conflict also stems from its peripheral location: Samar, despite being the third largest island in the archipelago, is barely a blip on the radar in the traditional, Manila-centric narrative of Philippine history. It seems Samar grabs the headlines (whether in history or in the news) only when it involves disasters, whether natural (like Typhoon Yolanda) or man-made (like the Balangiga conflict).

But to call the Balangiga conflict a man-made disaster is a huge understatement given that it occurred against the backdrop of a brutal occupation that could be declared a crime against humanity. The American began their offensive against the Filipino revolutionaries on Feb. 4,1899, but it dragged on for years as it encountered guerilla resistance especially in the far-flung provinces. The province of Samar was one of these arenas of anticolonial struggle. On Sept. 28, 1901, around 500 men, divided into seven units, launched a surprise attack against Company C of the 9th U.S. Infantry Regiment, which was in charge of the American military occupation in Balangiga.

It is tempting to turn this homecoming story into another mythologized facet of America’s altruism to its former colony. Yet this act of “reparation” cannot amount to an act of “closure” for this dark episode in the history of Philippine–American relations.

The Filipino revolutionaries’ wicked design caught the enemy off-guard. They planned to conduct the assault the day after the town fiesta to ensure that the American soldiers were still hung over from a tuba drinking spree the night before; attackers hid the bolos they would use inside the church to avoid being confiscated; and to top it all, 34 men from Barrio Lawaan cross-dressed as women to disguise themselves. The bells of Balangiga’s church pealed as the revolutionaries swooped down on the unsuspecting Americans.

In the aftermath, 36 were killed in action, including station commander Capt. Thomas W. Connell. In response, Brig. Gen. Jacob H. Smith, with the aid of a U.S. Marines battalion, waged a “kill and burn” campaign in Samar from October 1901 to January 1902, leaving thousands of fatalities — many of them innocent civilians — and turning these areas into a “howling wilderness.” Smith’s order: “Kill every one over the age of ten.”

That the U.S. government is now returning the Balangiga church bells, taken as war booty by American soldiers who executed Smith’s murderous wish, compels us 21st century Filipinos to reexamine the traditional narratives of goodwill between the two countries. It is tempting to turn this homecoming story into another mythologized facet of America’s altruism to its former colony. Yet this act of “reparation” cannot amount to an act of “closure” for this dark episode in the history of Philippine–American relations. Amid the U.S.’s pivot to the Pacific and in light of a new imperial threat to our sovereignty, the impending return of the bells should force us to reflect on our colonial and postcolonial relations with the U.S. and draw relevant lessons. One such lesson from our history is the capacity of Filipinos to fight for their independence despite the odds.

Often lost in the retelling of the Balangiga conflict, and the Philippine–American War in general, is the arduous situation that revolutionaries found themselves in: fighting an upstart imperialist power (U.S.) immediately after defeating its old colonial master (Spain). In the face of two bullies, Filipinos believed in fighting for their freedom despite the odds. It is thus unfortunate to hear some Filipinos opting to side with the U.S. in light of Chinese incursions. To supposedly protect our islands in the extremities of our territorial limits, some of our so-called patriotic leaders have allowed American forces to patrol our seas and use our facilities, including their former bases as well as new ones.

Such is a concrete manifestation of the Filipinos’ historical amnesia with regard to the brutalities of the Philippine–American War, as well as the implications it had on a global scale. Historian Alfred McCoy, for instance, has pointed out the significance of the American colonial project in the Philippines, which informed the subsequent imperial adventures in places like Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Cloaked in the discursive veneer of bringing “modernity” and “democracy” in so-called semi-civilized parts of the globe, U.S. chauvinist and militarist adventurism is far from being a dusty historical relic. The cries and shrieks of murdered Filipinos in Balangiga in 1901, unfortunately, have been echoed in My Lai and Abu Ghraib.

The bells’ homecoming is thus an opportunity to revisit forgotten places, literal and figurative, in Philippine history. It is high time that the peripheries, such as Samar, be brought front and center in our discussion of historical patrimony. At the same time, forgotten episodes such as the Philippine – American War need to be reanalyzed and reinserted into public discussion. It is noteworthy that the campaign to bring the Balangiga bells back home is complemented by legislative measures like the House Hill 2092, which would enact the declaration of Feb. 4 of every year as “Philippine–American War Day.”

Slowly but surely, such seemingly small acts of historical remembering can give us fresh perspectives to aid us in our present-day problems.