Courtesy Reuters

Greg Bankoff is Senior Lecturer in Asian Studies at the University of Auckland.

As the impact of September 11 continues to ripple through American society, its aftershocks are not only determining the future but also reshaping the past. Not since the Vietnam War have external affairs so influenced the direction of U.S. historiography. Whereas that debacle generated critical introspection, however, the operations in Afghanistan appear to have restored confidence in the efficacy of foreign military intervention. This is the backdrop for the recent "rediscovery" of the Philippine-American War, a trend represented well by Max Boot's book The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and American Power and Thomas Donnelly's review of it in these pages ("The Past as Prologue," July/August 2002). Reappraising the past to shed light on the present is generally to be welcomed. But seen from abroad, this particular discussion seems marked by a disturbingly narrow and America-centric perspective.

Boot's broad study, written largely before the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon but completed afterward, charts the rise of the United States from commercial power to superpower. What intrigue him are the low-intensity military engagements -- what he calls "small wars" -- waged to establish and then police America's growing global interests. Ranging from the Barbary Coast in 1804 to Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo in the 1990s, Boot spins a narrative of no mean interest and considerable literary skill. He reminds the reader that the projection of U.S. power overseas has a long pedigree and that America's much-vaunted isolationism prior to World War II extended only to Europe. There is a moral, at times almost religious tone to Boot's prose when he concludes that the United States has a "mission" to place its awesome military machine at the service of the "down-trodden of the world." Ultimately, the book is a warning to his fellow citizens about the dangers of undercommitment and the need to fight future "savage wars of peace" so as to maintain and enlarge the "empire of liberty."

Donnelly's review essay suggests that he shares Boot's belief in both the efficacy of the Pax Americana and in regarding contemporary American predominance in world affairs as a de facto empire. He draws a parallel between the present campaign against terrorism and the Philippine-American War, pointing to the latter as a model of how modern Western armies can successfully carry out major counterinsurgency operations. Both the parallel and the conclusion are debatable, however, and display an inability or unwillingness of Americans to rise above their own ethnocentrism.

Start with the description of the war itself as "small." Granted, the United States suffered only some 7,000 casualties, dead and wounded. But estimates of Filipino mortality range from 200,000 persons upward. This is hardly small, especially considering that the total Filipino population at the time was around seven million. Nor is it accurate to say the war ended in 1902, unless one accepts the terms of President Theodore Roosevelt's November 1902 Brigandage Act, which redefined any band of more than three men as bandits and subjected them to 20 years imprisonment or the death penalty. In fact, guerrilla warfare continued until 1907, waged by popular revolutionary leaders who refused to accept the colonial yoke anew -- men such as Luciano San Miguel (who died on the battlefield of Corral-na-Bato in March 1903), Macario Sakay (who was hanged on September 13, 1907) and Julian Montalan (who was sentenced to life imprisonment and exiled to Palawan until 1921). No, the war did not actually end in 1902, but the U.S. colonial authorities conveniently branded everything subsequent to that as ladronism, simple thievery.

The bias of these accounts continues in references to the rear-guard action fought by General Gregorio del Pilar to prevent U.S. troops cutting off the flight of Philippine President Emilio Aguinaldo in December 1899 as "the Battle of Tila Pass." Tila may well be another name for this narrow rock formation, but the battle is always referred to in Philippine and other U.S. historiography as that of Tirad Pass; few Filipinos, I suspect, would readily recognize it by such a denomination. A small point, certainly, but then both Boot and Donnelly do single out this engagement as the "Filipino Thermopylae." Altogether, one is left with the feeling that two very different wars are being described here, an impression that is only compounded when Donnelly reverts to the colonial rhetoric of yesteryear by referring to the Tagalogs, the largest ethnic group in the archipelago and one now numbering about 40 million people, as a "tribe." Would U.S. citizens of, say, Irish descent deem it appropriate to be described in a similar manner?

As for the claims that Filipinos fared much better under U.S. imperialism than their counterparts elsewhere did under European colonialism, and that the Philippines was the first Asian state to establish a national legislature (in 1907) and win self-government as an autonomous commonwealth (in 1935), all are true. But a more balanced assessment would also mention that the United States was the only colonial power to establish its dominion by suppressing an indigenous revolution, ignoring a declaration of independence as a meaningful act of sovereignty, and overthrowing a representatively convened national assembly (the Malolos Republic).

These are more than mere quibbles over fine points of semantics or interpretation. Donnelly claims that Boot's book is an important and timely contribution to American self-awareness that shows the nation's future by reviewing its past. If so, then a distorted reconstruction of that past is likely to preview an equally distorted future. Most people probably would indeed prefer a global order based on U.S. "benevolence" to one based on Islamic theocracy or Chinese communism, but that does not mean that they always have to like it or will necessarily view American soldiers "as liberators rather than conquerors." One has the sense that the wars described by Boot and Donnelly are depicted as "small" not because the conflicts were militarily insignificant to all concerned, but rather because they took place in the developing world, whose inhabitants do not merit the same consideration as Americans do.