As long as we’re on the subject, let’s talk about another U.S.
government attack on a church.
One hundred years ago, during its war on Spain, the U.S. invaded the
Philippines, sprayed bullets far and wide, and put the entire country
under martial law. The result was costly for the U.S. — it created a
habit of imperialist aggression that is still with us today. And it was
also costly for the Philippines: an entire generation suffered from the
violence associated with a brutal occupation, or the resulting disease
and political turmoil.
Now to the church. In Balangiga, the U.S. Army made slaves of the
residents and turned the place into a work camp. With indefatigable
spirit, the local residents decided not to take it anymore. Church bells
of the local Catholic parish began to ring, signaling a revolt, and 45
U.S. soldiers died. In response, the American commander gave orders to
murder “everyone in sight,” which they promptly did. The result: as many
as 50,000 dead Filipinos, among whom were women and children.
A bit on the disproportionate side perhaps? Indeed, but like the FBI
at Waco, the U.S. military in the Philippines had only one end in mind:
total victory. Adding insult to massacre, the U.S. Army then stole the
church bells and took them to Warren Air Force base in Cheyenne, Wyo.,
where they hang today. But now the parish in the Philippines wants them
back, as a symbol that all this is just ancient history. They even
rebuilt the belfry at the parish in anticipation of the bells’ return.
But as we’ve seen in the Waco case, the U.S. government is
notoriously unwilling to admit error, particularly bloody, egregious
error. Hence, so far, the bells are not forthcoming, despite the attempt
on the part of many groups to intervene and put an end to the parading
of religious objects as war loot. No, instead Congress has passed a
resolution forbidding the return of war booty without its authorization.
In case you think the Filipinos are making an unjust demand, consider
the context. There was no justification for either the U.S. presence in
the Philippines or the violence with which the U.S. carried it out. At
stake was little more than a militarized trade dispute between Spain and
the U.S., while Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines were caught
in the crossfire.
An American officer testified in a letter to the Philadelphia Ledger
on Nov. 11, 1901: “Our men have been relentless, have killed to
exterminate men, women, and children, prisoners and captives, active
insurgents and suspected people, from lads of ten up, an idea prevailing
that the Filipino
was little better than a dog.”
And this gentlemen was writing in defense of the war!
Or consider this letter written before the invasion by another
officer: “There is no use in mincing words. … We exterminated the
American Indians, and I guess most of us are proud of it, or, at least
believe that the end justified the means; and we must have no scruples
about exterminating this
other race standing in the way of progress and enlightenment, if it is
Neither was this merely the attitude of a few recalcitrant soldiers.
Using religion as his cover, President William McKinley later justified
his behavior in similar terms. As he told a delegation of Methodist
- I went down on my knees and prayed to Almighty God for light and
guidance … and one night late it came to me this way. … We could not
leave (the Philippines) to themselves — they were unfit for
self-government — and they would soon have anarchy and misrule over
there worse than Spain’s was. … There was nothing left for us to do
but take them all and educate the Filipinos, and uplift and Christianize
Recall that the Philippines was largely Catholic, which the
Protestant ruling elite in this country did not consider to be a
Christian religion. And what better way to treat these supposed
non-Christians than to starve and kill them? In a similar way, the
Branch Davidians were considered to be a dangerous and uncivilized cult
that needed to be either mainstreamed or exterminated. They resisted and
suffered, as so many before them have suffered.
The costs to the Filipinos, reports Joseph Stromberg in his essay in
the collection, “The
Costs of War,” were immense. Fully 50,000 died in combat, and
another 220,000 civilians died from gunfire, starvation, and the effects
of concentration camps. The oppression continued for most of the first
half of the century, in which the U.S. continued to enforce its rule
over the country, at the behest of large U.S. corporations doing
Why was the U.S. doing all this? The short answer is that the
government wanted to expand its power and that of its connected
interests, regardless of the costs. Why did the U.S. kill so many? The
people resisted. Why did the Army steal the bells? Arrogance: the same
impulse that led the FBI to plant a U.S. flag on the mass grave where
the Branch Davidians once lived.
The U.S. can’t give back the lives of the people of the Philippines
that it took in 1898, but it can darn sure give back the church bells
that it stole. And it can darn sure do what it can to make it up to the
surviving Branch Davidians, who suffered under the hands of the same
regime 100 years later.