“We all wanted to kill ‘niggers’…beats rabbit hunting…”
–White US soldier commenting on the Philippine-US War
One of the least known conflicts in US history was the Philippine-US war. The length of the war is, itself, a subject of some debate, having ended according to many historians in 1901, but actually lasting closer to 1913. An outgrowth of the Spanish-American War (1898), it represented, in effect, an extension of the expansionism of the USA that had included the destruction and absorption of Native American lands, the seizure of northern Mexico, and the capturing of Hawaii. Though the USA is considered a country that downplayed establishing its own colonies, this is historically inaccurate. Through the Spanish-American War, the USA gained several, including the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam, and a semi-colony: Cuba.
In the case of the Philippines, the US forces that arrived under Admiral Dewey were not necessary in order to defeat the Spanish. Philippine rebels, well organized and led, had defeated the Spanish except in Manila. Rather than surrender to the Filipinos, the Spanish chose to cut a deal with the USA and surrender to them instead. The US forces took advantage of this and soon had sufficient troops on the ground in order to begin the process of occupying the archipelago.
The Philippine revolutionaries had accepted the US forces as genuine allies and were, therefore, completely unprepared for the treachery that ensued. The war launched by the USA was bloody, racist and actually genocidal. While more than 4000 US troops were killed and another 3000 wounded, somewhere between 250,000 – 1.4 million Filipinos were killed. The strikingly racist nature of the war is what has been written out of most histories. The Filipinos were identified by white Americans as, for all intents and purposes, being black. The usage of the term ‘nigger’ to describe the Filipinos, then, was not seen as analogical by the racists, but rather as an appropriate characterization. The combination of the deep-seated racism plus the frustration faced by the US in fighting a guerrilla war with a well-organized resistance made this one of the bloodiest engagements the USA ever undertook, and one for which the USA has never made amends.
African American troops were deployed to the Philippines to fight the resistance. This took place at a peculiar moment in African American history. Jim Crow segregation and political disenfranchisement were the growing trends in the South. The gains won during the period of Reconstruction had been lost. There were different responses towards this catastrophe within the leadership of Black America, with the most famous being the great debates between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois. The Washington/Dubois debates were largely over the domestic struggle, but there were also struggles regarding how African Americans should approach the question of US foreign policy, and more generally, US imperialism. One school of thought held that African Americans needed to prove themselves worthy and patriotic citizens and, therefore, support US adventures overseas. The other school of thought was consistent with a significant anti-imperialist movement of the time (with which the noted author Mark Twain was associated) that condemned US aggression, particularly with regard to the invasion of the Philippines.
Into this situation entered one David Fagen, an African American soldier originally from Florida, who enlisted in the Army and eventually found himself in the Philippines. Rather than entering into a war against Spanish colonialism, Fagen and other Black troops were now engaged in a very unpopular war of aggression against a brown-skinned and black-skinned people who wanted national independence. The war was unpopular enough among the troops that there were desertions and, in fact, defections to the Philippine Army.
Fagen was one of small group of deserters who defected to the Philippine Army and fought with valor, rising in the ranks of the guerrilla army. His reputation became such that the US military went all out to find, capture and kill Fagen. By 1901 the Philippine resistance weakened and key leaders were either captured or surrendered. The US military was unwilling to pardon Fagen and, despite efforts by the US military to convince them otherwise, Fagen’s Filipino comrades refused to turn him over. As a result Fagen disappeared. In a strange incident, however, an individual brought in the head of a man he alleged to have been Fagen, thereby seeking a reward from the US military. The circumstances were so odd that it was largely assumed that it was some sort of trick and that Fagen was, actually, still alive. In subsequent years there were reports of sightings of Fagen but nothing confirmed. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, Fagen lived out the rest of his life among the Filipino population.
Fagen’s existence, and specifically his actions in defecting to the Philippine Army raised at the time, and continue to raise, important questions about conscience and patriotism. From the standpoint of the US military, Fagen was a deserter and traitor, but from the standpoint of the Filipino resistance, and for much of the national democratic movement in the Philippines subsequently, Fagen was a hero who stood with them during their darkest hour.
Fagen took a stand against an illegal and genocidal war. It was not simply a verbal stand but a refusal to be complicit in such criminality. It was this actual stand that made him such a dangerous person, at least from the standpoint of US authorities. There was another side to Fagen’s stance which must be understood: the example that he set at a moment of intense racial/national oppression against African Americans. At a point when African Americans were losing virtually every right to which they were supposed to be eligible, Fagen’s actions were, in effect, challenging the very notion that there was any obligation on the part of African Americans to respect the authority of the United States. Such an example simply could not have been tolerated by the ruling elite. It was not just that Fagen chose not to return to the Jim Crow USA, but that Fagen was quite prepared to take up arms.
Fagen’s actions force a discussion about the stance that should be taken in the face of illegal and immoral actions by one’s government. This is a matter far deeper than the issue of taking up arms. In the conditions of war, Fagen made a choice, but he was not the only person who had to make the broader choice. A mass movement existed at the time in the USA, as earlier noted, that protested US aggression. Yet there were African Americans then, as there are now, who suggested that Black America must constantly prove itself to be worthy citizens by being complicit in actions of aggression. Whether, in our time, it was events such as Colin Powell misinforming the United Nations about the alleged weapons of mass destruction, or the current wave of drone assaults being carried out by the USA with large numbers of civilian casualties, or, for matter the continued US involvement in the Philippines, African Americans are encouraged to either silence our criticisms or to actively support such actions. Dr. Martin Luther King certainly did not take up arms against US imperial might, but his profound condemnation of US aggression in Indochina (and other parts of the world) made him as disreputable a character as was David Fagen, at least as far as the perpetrators of imperial arrogance were and are concerned.
It is to this matter of the current US involvement in the Philippines that the story of David Fagen brings us. Since the 1946 nominal independence of the Philippines, the US has continued its interference in the internal affairs of the country, turning the Philippines into a neo-colony. Whether in their support of dictators, such as Ferdinand Marcos, or their support for other ‘democratically challenged’ governments that have conducted or turned a blind eye to human rights abuses, the USA has been on the wrong side of history. The Philippines has been engaged in a civil war since the early 1970s pitting a radical alliance known as the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (led by the Communist Party of the Philippines) against various governments of the Philippines. The USA has done nothing to assist with a peaceful settlement between the NDFP and the government and, if anything, has encouraged a further militarization of that conflict. The USA has also been of little help in the conflict on the southern island of Mindanao (with the largely Muslim Moro people fighting for autonomy), which the USA treated as largely a matter of alleged Islamic terrorism.
US media has generally ignored developments in the Philippines unless there is some sort of alleged Al Qaeda connection, and it pays no attention to nor expresses any concern regarding US military machinations or the efforts to sabotage peace talks with the NDFP. In that context the apparition of David Fagen hangs over Black America asking us, once again, to choose, that is, to ask ourselves to what extent do we wish to either be complicit in the imperial adventures of our government or, in the alternative, to side with democracy and justice?
The choice is ours, and ours alone to make.
[NOTE: This essay is written in recognition of “Philippine Solidarity Week,” which commemorates the opening of the Philippine-US War in February 1899. There are a number of interesting pieces written on the matter of David Fagen. I refer the reader to a very interesting piece by my colleague E. San Juan, Jr. cited earlier in this essay. I also would suggest: Michael C. Robinson and Fran N. Schubert, “David Fagen: An Afro-American Rebel in the Philippines, 1899-1901,” Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 44, No. 1, (February 1975), pp.69-83.]