Bound by War

How the United States and the Philippines Built America's First Pacific Century


By Christopher Capozzola

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A sweeping history of America’s long and fateful military relationship with the Philippines amid a century of Pacific warfare

Ever since US troops occupied the Philippines in 1898, generations of Filipinos have served in and alongside the US armed forces. In Bound by War, historian Christopher Capozzola reveals this forgotten history, showing how war and military service forged an enduring, yet fraught, alliance between Americans and Filipinos.

As the US military expanded in Asia, American forces confronted their Pacific rivals from Philippine bases. And from the colonial-era Philippine Scouts to post-9/11 contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, Filipinos were crucial partners in the exercise of US power. Their service reshaped Philippine society and politics and brought thousands of Filipinos to America.

Telling the epic story of a century of conflict and migration, Bound by War is a fresh, definitive portrait of this uneven partnership and the two nations it transformed.





IN JUNE 1899, LIEUTENANT MATTHEW BATSON AND HIS SERVANT, a man known to us only by his first name, Jacinto, made camp in the Candaba swamps about fifty miles north of Manila. Surrounded by the poorly armed but devoted soldiers of the Philippines’ decades-long independence movement, the two men surely knew that America’s “splendid little war” to liberate Spain’s Caribbean colonies had become something else: a bitter confrontation in Asia, marked by guerrilla warfare, racial violence, and harsh counterinsurgency. When Matthew Batson enlisted as a private in the US Army in 1888, he surely hadn’t expected to find himself one day in the Philippines. He almost didn’t become a soldier at all. Raised in rural Missouri, Batson tried his hand at teaching and studied briefly for the bar before giving army life a chance. The next ten years brought Batson to the American West and then to Cuba, mostly with the 9th US Cavalry, a regiment of African American soldiers known as the “Buffalo Soldiers.”1

Batson was a decorated soldier with an independent streak. His actions in one of the Philippine-American War’s first battles earned him the Medal of Honor. But by June 1899, the thirty-three-year-old soldier had grown downright frustrated with the heavy-handed conduct of the war he had been sent across the Pacific to fight. Batson was unsurprised by the so-called Philippine Insurrection, reflecting in a letter to his wife that “if I was a Philipino [sic] I would fight as long as I had a breath left.… We come as a Christian people to relieve them from the Spanish yoke and bear ourselves like barbarians.” Batson unburdened his thoughts not only to his wife, but to his servant as well, and at some point in May or June of 1899, Jacinto brought Batson to Macabebe, his hometown in the province of Pampanga not far from their camp.2

What Matthew Batson found there surprised him. Macabebe’s loyalty to Spain meant it was no ordinary city. For years, it had been the largest source of military recruitment for Spain’s colonial army in the Philippines. Eugenio Blanco, a colonel in that army and the city’s most powerful landowner, funneled local men into the Voluntarios de Macabebe. Happy to have the troops, the Spanish protected Blanco in turn after Filipino revolutionaries launched a war of resistance against Spain. In 1898, revolutionaries surrounded the Spanish garrison in Macabebe. Five hundred Spanish soldiers, civilians, and clergy took refuge in the parish church, and 3,000 Macabebe soldiers defended them until the Spanish army rescued the town.3

When American troops conquered Macabebe a few months later, in April 1899, they encountered “about a thousand of the inhabitants of the place assembled upon the banks of the river, cheering the expedition lustily,” and learned that “many of the Macabebes expressed themselves as being anxious to enter the American service.” A delegation from the city traveled to Manila to meet with US officers, eager to transfer their allegiance from Spain to the United States in exchange for protection from revolutionary forces. The Army recruited a hundred men as civilian employees.4

Soon thereafter, the Chicago Tribune informed readers that the Filipinos “are delighted to get 50 cents a day, declaring their loyalty to the Americans.” Jacinto was probably one of them, in all likelihood having previously served in the Spanish Voluntarios. Precisely what Jacinto showed Matthew Batson in Macabebe is unknown, but in June 1899, Batson wrote a letter to his commanding officer asking permission to organize two companies of Filipinos as soldiers—not simply as hired hands—for use in local pacification campaigns. Major General Elwell Otis, who was then the commanding general in the Philippines, hesitantly agreed. And with that began the Philippine Scouts: a colonial army that matched those of America’s fellow empires, and, over time, the foundation of US power in Asia and a symbol of the partnership between the two nations.5

The Philippine Scouts emerged from conversations between Matthew Batson and Jacinto, carried on at times in a pidgin language that American soldiers called “bamboo English,” other times conducted through their translator, a former captain in Spain’s colonial army. But it wasn’t an original idea. The military histories of both the United States and the Philippines made a “native” force a foregone conclusion. Matthew Batson’s life story suggests the American precedents: his time with the Buffalo Soldiers ingrained a racial hierarchy, and years of low-intensity warfare in the American West made him familiar with the Indian Scouts, units of Native American soldiers recruited by the US Army in the late nineteenth century.6

Jacinto’s experiences pointed toward the same outcome. For centuries, the Spanish had depended on Filipino troops to defend their Asian colony. The Philippine Revolution, well under way before the Americans arrived in Manila Bay in 1898, exacerbated divisions within Philippine society, forcing people like Jacinto to choose sides. For the Americans, to win the war—or even just make the war look winnable—they needed Filipino allies. In places like Macabebe, they found trained soldiers willing to take their side. Years of war had devastated large areas of the Philippines. The landless and hungry population was so tired of surviving off boiled banana stumps—as the people living around Macabebe were doing—they were willing to offer their services to any army in exchange for security. For the men of Macabebe, if food and safety required Filipino soldiers to let Batson and the Americans think the force was their idea, so be it.7

As they fought side by side, Filipinos and Americans spoke in a language of blood to make sense of their new bonds. The Macabebes’ enemies called them dugong aso, or “dog-blooded”—a contemptuous term still used today—that suggested an animal’s obedience rather than loyalty, brotherhood, or even self-interest. The revolutionaries called the Macabebes’ service treason, but underneath the apparent contradiction of Filipinos fighting for the Americans against other Filipinos was a deeper truth. As Filipino soldiers served American interests in the Pacific, they also advanced their own nation, although not on their own terms. Instead, the war entangled two countries by linking Philippine national identity with US military priorities in the Pacific. Beginning with that conversation between Matthew Batson and Jacinto, the two nations were irrevocably bound together. This was the first time that Americans found themselves in Southeast Asian jungles with Filipino soldiers by their side. It would not be the last.8

IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY, SPAIN MAINTAINED ONLY A SMALL cohort of civilian and military officials in the Philippines. Mostly, they relied on local landlords and clergy to maintain order and filled their army’s ranks with Filipino soldiers, called by the Spanish indios, or Indians. Resistance to Spanish colonialism steadily increased, leaving Spain’s small military outpost vulnerable. In 1868, the government in Madrid moved to supplement the army with a quasi-military police force, the Guardia Civil, made up of Filipino soldiers under Spanish officers. Marching through Manila in their distinctive three-cornered hats, the Guardia Civil’s 3,500 soldiers suppressed Filipino nationalists, which in turn only fanned the flames of anti-Spanish rebellion.9

The Philippine Revolution began with a dispute about soldiers’ pay. In 1872, the colonial government announced that it would replace some of the Filipino civil guards at Fort San Felipe in Cavite, a small city across Manila Bay from the capital, with a contingent of Spaniards. The Spanish soldiers would do the same service but receive European wages. Outraged, a group of 200 Filipinos, most of them soldiers in the Guardia Civil, walked out on January 20, 1872. Spain called it a mutiny, quickly crushed it, and executed three men before an angry crowd of 40,000 in Manila, setting the Philippines on an irrevocable course toward conflict with Spain.10

A generation later, formal petitions and sporadic rebellions had become armed insurgency. The revolution had many leaders, but after 1897 it was under the political and military command of General Emilio Aguinaldo. Born to a prosperous family in 1869 in Cavite Viejo, near the site of the 1872 munity, Aguinaldo was recruited by a cousin into the revolution’s armed faction in 1895, and soon rose to military leadership, outmaneuvering his rivals and successfully turning a ragtag series of colonial uprisings into a revolution to be reckoned with. Calling on “the brave sons of the Philippines,” Aguinaldo tried (with some success) to draw trained soldiers—and their weapons—from the indios of the Spanish colonial army into the ranks of the Katipuneros, or revolutionaries. At the same time, the movement’s official propagandists documented the excesses of Spain’s army and sought to win converts to the Katipunan by providing security, food, and animals to ordinary people.11

With their empire collapsing all around them, from Havana to Guam to Manila, the Spanish launched a last-ditch effort to suppress the revolution by force. They expanded the Guardia Civil and in 1895 set up a new branch, the Cuerpo de Vigilancia y Seguridad, a secret police service that recruited both Spanish and Filipino agents. The Spanish reinforced Filipino troops with about 22,000 peninsulares—soldiers from the Iberian Peninsula—who landed in waves over the course of October 1896 to the cheers of Manila’s Spanish settlers. By January 1897, the Spanish had 36,000 soldiers under arms: most were peninsulares, along with a few thousand recruited from elsewhere in Europe. About 6,000 were Filipino soldiers, whom the Spanish transferred from Manila to guard other, less rebellious regions. To Aguinaldo’s delight, many deserted along the way: as the revolution expanded, the Spanish Army now confronted a new force of Filipino soldiers that they themselves had trained—wielding skills and weapons they had obtained in Spanish service.12

The Spanish were hardly unique in using colonial subjects to police the outposts of Asian empire: the British, French, and Dutch already did the same. After 1898, Americans would look to them for guidance but drew most of their lessons from their own experiences. In the nineteenth-century American West, the US Army regularly turned to cooperative Native American soldiers, first recruited into service in an official capacity in August 1866, and only phased out as a policy in 1897. Most performed manual labor, but some acted as informants, interpreters, or as scouts—a word that Matthew Batson would have known well when he proposed the formation of the Philippine Scouts. The term would have been equally familiar to US Army generals, twenty-six out of thirty of whom had seen service in the so-called Indian Wars of the previous generation.13

This was not the first time the US Army had tried to find Filipinos to fight for them. In the first days of the war against Spain, they hoped to delegate the war to the Filipinos—by arming General Emilio Aguinaldo—only to see it backfire. In the spring of 1898, Aguinaldo was almost completely unknown to US officials, but he seemed like a natural ally. For years, the United States had watched as Cubans challenged Spanish rule over their homeland. Some Americans wanted to help Cuban revolutionaries and civilians imprisoned in reconcentrado camps; some eyed economic opportunity in the Caribbean; a few dreamed of an empire to rival the European powers. They paid little attention to political unrest also occurring in the Philippines. War with Spain followed just weeks after the February 1898 explosion of the USS Maine in Havana, but a conflict over Cuba then summoned the question of Spain’s Pacific empire: the fortified island of Guam and the massive archipelago of the Philippines, then lightly defended by peninsulares and a sizeable naval force sailing outdated vessels. For America, this was a war of choice, with unexpected and enduring consequences. The United States didn’t have to expand the war to the Pacific, and military and political leaders at the time didn’t necessarily think they were beginning a century of US power in Asia. Stopping the Spanish Navy was tactically wise, and recruiting Emilio Aguinaldo—who knew the terrain, had troops on the ground, and held the imaginations of thousands of Filipinos—made short-term sense as well.

But when the United States declared war on Spain, Emilio Aguinaldo was not even in the Philippines. A few months before, on December 14, 1897, the revolutionary general had hammered out a truce with the Spanish at the city of Biaknabato. Aguinaldo wanted to buy time for the revolutionary troops under his command to plant and raise another season of crops, to obtain more weapons, and to continue draining the Spanish will to fight. As Spain’s army lost men to malaria, dysentery, and desertion, and with Cuba in revolt as well, officials in Madrid informed General Camilo Polavieja that no more peninsulares could be spared for the Pacific. Polavieja seized Aguinaldo’s proposed truce and sweetened it with 400,000 pesos on the condition that the general leave the Philippines. Aguinaldo agreed (although he never got all the money) and settled in the nearby British colony of Hong Kong, where expatriate Filipino politicians, intellectuals, and military strategists continued plotting revolution under the command of their twenty-eight-year-old general.14

Aguinaldo planned a trip to Europe to plead the revolution’s cause and meet with like-minded Cuban exiles. He was already on his way on April 21, 1898, the day the United States declared war. As American consular officials scrambled to track down a potential ally in their new war against Spain, E. Spencer Pratt, the US consul general at Singapore, found Aguinaldo first. The two met on Sunday morning, April 24, for about an hour. Pratt suggested that Aguinaldo return to Hong Kong, and then, should the US Navy be ordered to attack the Spanish fleet in the Philippines, Aguinaldo would accompany Commodore George Dewey, the commander of the Navy’s Asiatic Squadron. When Platt cabled Dewey about the plan, the sixty-one-year-old naval officer was enthusiastic: “Tell Aguinaldo come soon as possible.” Aguinaldo hurried to Hong Kong, spent some of his Spanish money to buy arms, and contacted revolutionary leaders in the Philippines. He urged them to support an American invasion. “There where you see the American flag flying, assemble in numbers; they are our redeemers!” US naval officers were pleased, but the State Department back in Washington was not, warning Pratt not to let Aguinaldo “form hopes which it might not be practicable to justify.”15

Dewey left Hong Kong without Aguinaldo. Secretary of the Navy John D. Long hesitated to expand the war to the Pacific, but his assistant secretary, the young Theodore Roosevelt, had no such qualms. During a brief stint as Acting Secretary of the Navy in the crucial moments of April 1898, Roosevelt ignored his boss and ordered US ships to Manila. Dewey’s sailors “proceeded to daub a new coat of dark, dirty, drab paint over the snow-white that had covered our ships for thirty years,” and sailed as warships for the Philippines, where the US Asiatic Squadron dispatched the Spanish fleet in just six hours on the morning of May 1, 1898. Dewey then found himself stuck. He couldn’t leave Manila Bay: if he entered a neutral port, international law required that his ships and crews be interned. Nor could he stay: there were no American soldiers nearby to support a land invasion, and a halfhearted attempt would surely trigger a diplomatic crisis. International law obliged any occupying power to protect the lives and property of all Manila’s residents, including British and German business owners, so if violence ensued, other imperial powers might enter the fray. If that happened, Dewey would have to hand the Philippines over to Britain or Germany—or go with to war with their far bigger navies, which would surely lead to the same outcome.16

Emilio Aguinaldo was Dewey’s solution. His supporters could fight the Spanish without provoking an international controversy. The Filipino general boarded the USS McCulloch, which escorted him to Manila Bay on May 19, 1898. The two men met the next day in Dewey’s quarters on board the USS Olympia, the Navy’s Asiatic flagship. Dewey was flush with victory and eager to take advantage of Aguinaldo’s forces until Uncle Sam’s soldiers arrived. Aguinaldo was equally keen to use the Americans for his own purposes. The two men—who spoke through a translator—clearly misunderstood each other. What they actually said we’ll never know, as nothing was written down that day. Both men published memoirs, but only later, after war had broken out, and the two accounts are impossible to reconcile. Aguinaldo insisted that Dewey had promised the Philippines its independence. He wrote that Dewey told him “America… needs no colonies, assuring me finally that there was no occasion for me to entertain any doubts whatever about the recognition of the Independence of the Philippines by the United States.” Dewey denied there had been commitments of any kind, later calling Aguinaldo’s statement “a tissue of falsehoods.” But as they shook hands that afternoon, they believed they were in agreement.17

When Emilio Aguinaldo went ashore at Cavite on May 19, 1898, he found his hometown in ruins after two years of revolutionary struggle against Spain. The young general returned, emboldened. On May 24, just as thousands of US troops were boarding Army transport ships in San Francisco bound for Manila, Aguinaldo claimed authority to govern as dictator of the provisional government of the Philippine Republic. He sent word of the new republic to George Dewey, who—since he couldn’t read Spanish—simply forwarded the unread document to the Navy Department in Washington.18

Within weeks, revolutionaries had formalized the Army of the Liberation of the Philippines. Men enlisted for a variety of reasons: nationalist fervor, protection from the Spanish, pressure from the revolutionaries, money. Many were recruited through social networks. When Adriano Rios joined the revolutionary forces as a sergeant, his first order was to enlist fellow townsmen. Aguinaldo’s army functioned with all the trappings of a national force, including ranks, commissions, military justice, and paperwork. The provisional government’s coffers were barely sufficient to make payroll, so most soldiers equipped themselves. The insurgents’ rifles were good (better, at times, than those later issued to American soldiers) but in short supply. For the revolution’s rank and file, military service was a sign of political commitment and a down payment on citizenship in a future Philippine republic. After May 1898, the revolutionary army promised care for wounded soldiers, benefits for veterans, and support for widows.19

Dewey, still hamstrung by the laws of war, quietly turned over weapons the Americans had captured from the Spanish to the Filipino army. After consolidating power in Cavite province, Aguinaldo’s army marched toward Manila. For the moment, Dewey was thrilled. “The Filipinos were our friends, assisting us; they were doing our work.” But he grew increasingly concerned, soon warning the Navy Department that Aguinaldo and his men had become “aggressive and even threatening.” Bound together by their opposition to Spain, the two nations soon saw their interests diverge. Secretary of the Navy John Long forbade George Dewey from any communication that might recognize Aguinaldo as the head of a legitimate political entity.20

In June 1898, revolutionaries gathered in Cavite. They were worried the Americans might seize the Philippines, but they also wanted to prepare for the possibility that the Americans would withdraw and hand the islands back to the Spanish—or that both countries would withdraw and another imperial power would arrive. On June 12, 1898, they issued a declaration of independence. “Weary of bearing the ominous yoke of Spanish dominion,” the new republic declared itself “released from all obedience to the crown of Spain” and called for a “dignified place in the concert of free nations.” Aboard the Olympia just offshore, George Dewey had been invited by Aguinaldo to attend the festivities. Dewey declined, on the grounds that June 12, a Sunday, was his “mail day.”21

On August 13, 1898, the official US invasion began. The battle—which one American soldier described in his diary as “a very tame affair”—followed a plan carefully prearranged by US and Spanish diplomats. The Olympia opened fire at 9:30 a.m., then sent a signal at 11:00 a.m. calling on the Spanish to surrender, which they promptly did. The staged conflict allowed the 13,000 Spanish soldiers in Manila to protect their political, imperial, and racial prerogatives by surrendering not to their rebellious imperial subjects but to the Americans. The deal also gave the Americans, rather than the revolutionaries, control of the colonial capital. An additional irony became apparent a day later, when news reached Manila that the August 13 battle had been altogether unnecessary: on August 12, the Americans and Spanish had agreed to end the war, but news of the armistice did not reach Manila because Dewey had cut the only cable line between Manila and Hong Kong.22

About 11,000 American troops entered and occupied the Philippines, nearly all of them quartered in Manila or the nearby naval station at Cavite. They were no longer looking for allies. “There must be no joint occupation with the insurgents,” ordered the War Department. “The insurgents and all others must recognize the military occupation and authority of the United States.” George Dewey and the Navy faded from the picture, handing over the work of the occupation to Major General Wesley Merritt of the Army. Merritt readied to enter Manila as a conqueror, but he knew almost nothing about the Philippines. He arrived with a briefing book that included—among other items marked “confidential”—several transcribed pages of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Merritt named one of his assistants, Arthur MacArthur, a fifty-three-year-old Civil War veteran, as the provost marshal general and civil governor of Manila. While his son Douglas stayed home in Milwaukee to study for the West Point entrance exams, Arthur MacArthur shipped out for the Philippines. He quickly imposed martial law, much to the dismay of city residents.23

Crossing the Pacific with Merritt and MacArthur were enlisted men who had volunteered in the war fever that gripped the United States in the spring of 1898. When Filipino nationalist Isabelo de los Reyes disparaged “Yankee soldiers” as “simple adventurers recruited on the waterfronts of San Francisco and neighboring ports,” he was on to something. Zeno Lucas signed up on May 3, 1898, while watching a parade in Portland, Oregon. H. C. Thompson rushed to the colors in Eugene after the sinking of the USS Maine and shipped out from San Francisco on May 25. For such men, who averaged twenty-five years of age, five feet eight inches in height, and 150 pounds, the Pacific undertaking was something between a boyhood adventure and a noble mission. Writing from Portland just days before embarking with the US volunteers, Joseph Evans assured his brother that “this trip is nothing but a vacation—we will have lots of fun.” Oregon soldier Edward Kelly linked America’s new Pacific venture to earlier westward expansion: “We are facing the same conditions over there that we faced on our own frontiers for so long,” he wrote. Myths aside, many of Kelly’s fellow Oregon soldiers had never been on a horse. Some had never seen the ocean.24

On December 21, 1898, as the Oregon rank and file settled in to Manila life, President William McKinley confirmed Filipinos’ worst fears by declaring America’s intention to annex the whole of the Philippines. The revolutionaries had been steadily establishing provisional governments in the provinces they controlled, enforcing laws, collecting taxes, and recruiting soldiers, and US troops could be found nowhere other than Manila. So McKinley’s move was meant to counter the revolutionaries’ obvious political power and mask America’s weakness. “We come, not as invaders or conquerors, but as friends,” the president announced in a declaration posted in the cities and towns US forces occupied. Filipinos could look forward to America’s “support and protection.… The mission of the United States is one of benevolent assimilation, substituting the mild sway of justice and right for arbitrary rule.” McKinley also issued a veiled threat. “In the fulfillment of this high mission… there must be sedulously maintained the strong arm of authority.” Uncertainty evaporated: the Americans were here to stay.25

News of annexation, as Aguinaldo later recalled, “struck like a lightning bolt into the camp of the revolution.” Apolinario Mabini, Aguinaldo’s chief political partner, warned Filipinos that colonization “will unite us forever with a nation… which hates the colored race with a mortal hatred.” McKinley’s proclamation was publicly defaced, and Aguinaldo threatened a death sentence to Filipinos caught reading it. A month later, on January 21, 1899, the revolutionary government gathered at the city of Malolos, just north of Manila, and adopted a constitution for the Philippine Republic. But the time for politics was quickly passing; now there was talk of little other than war. The revolutionary cabinet split over whether to take up arms against the Americans, but in the meantime, General Aguinaldo collected weapons, trained his troops, and required them to swear to “recognize no authority but that of God and the Revolutionary Government.”26

In early 1899, Americans and Filipinos both struggled to mobilize armies in the Philippines that would demonstrate their political legitimacy. The United States aimed at imperial acquisition through military occupation, whereas the Philippine Republic pursued national consolidation through revolutionary struggle. References to “the mild sway of justice” could not obscure American violence, nor could revolutionary appeals to the unity of “all the Filipinos” hide divisions within Philippine society. Bound by their competing national ambitions, war was the only common language the two nations could speak. Aguinaldo—America’s first Filipino soldier—had been an expedient ally in the war with Spain in April 1898, neither the first nor the last time America armed and trained a useful rebel who turned on them. Very soon, he would become a formidable enemy.



  • "Bound by War is a pathbreaking, intimate, panoramic, and impressively binational case study of America's emergence as a Pacific power with the conquest of the Philippines in 1898, and its evolution thereafter, through war and peace, into the gargantuan global military establishment we know today."—John W. Dower, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Embracing Defeat
  • "Bound by War is a tour de force. It shows how military service has bound the United States and the Philippines together from the formation of the Macabebes and Philippine Scouts at the dawn of the twentieth century, through the Bataan death march, Cold War campaigns in Korea and Vietnam, and recent interventions in the Middle East. In addition to illuminating how the United States enlisted a core partner in the Pacific, it reveals how talk of brotherhood and shared service have hidden inequities and divergent ambitions."—Kristin Hoganson, author of Fighting for American Manhood
  • "A must read for Americans and Filipinos who would hardly remember the epic relationship of the United States and Philippines if not for Christopher Capozzola's masterful work chronicling the long, turbulent relationship between the two countries. Full of personal stories, this is America's history of the Philippines, of Filipinos and Filipino Americans' ongoing fight for recognition, and how America's imperial rule still looms over them to this day. We cannot afford to let this history to be shelved and forgotten."—Major General Tony Taguba, US Army Retired, Chairman Filvetrep

On Sale
Jul 28, 2020
Page Count
480 pages
Basic Books

Christopher Capozzola

About the Author

Christopher Capozzola is professor of history at MIT. Author of the award-winning Uncle Sam Wants You, he is also a cocurator of “The Volunteers: Americans Join World War I, 1914-1919,” a traveling exhibition that originated at The National WWI Museum and Memorial to commemorate the centennial of the First World War. He lives in Boston, Massachusetts.

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