Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Taguba and His Father: the Empire's Multinational Soldiers

Major General Antonio M. Taguba, the author of the "Article 15-6 Investigation of the 800th Military Police Brigade" that probed into torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, is by all accounts a good man who is compassionate as well as professional. A New York Times article gives us a glimpse of the man's character: "'If you want the truth, he's going to tell you the truth,' said one army general who has served under Taguba. 'He's not bullied; he's a stand-up guy.' . . . 'He's a straight shooter, very professional, and comes across as very empathetic,' said Eric Lachica, executive director of the American Coalition for Filipino Veterans. 'When you talk, he doesn't interrupt you. He really tries to understand what you say'" (Douglas Jehl, "Head of Inquiry On Iraq Abuses Now in Spotlight," New York Times, May 10, 2004, p. A1+). The same New York Times article also hints at the ambivalent social position in which men like Maj. Gen. Taguba find themselves in the complex history of the sprawling American empire: "During World War II, his father had served as a Philippine Scout, a member of a native Philippine unit under the U.S. Army. After he was taken prisoner by the Japanese, he escaped and fought in the resistance against them, but was not repatriated until the war's end" (Jehl, May 10, 2004). Taguba's insistence on pulling no punches in exposing all the excruciating details of Abu Ghraib torture may have been informed by his father's memory of torture at the hands of the Japanese Imperial Army, as a number of journalists noted. It may also have been colored by his own memory of Washington's injustice to his father and other Filipino men who served in the US military. Taguba's and his father's relationship to the US military certainly suggests a mixture of loyalty (to the institution) and resentment (against the elite who control it) -- proud to serve in the military whose leaders have blatantly denied them equal rights:
Taguba went out of his way in 2001 to call attention to what he described as the injustice the army had accorded to his father after a two-decade career that began in the Battle of Bataan in 1942, where he fought alongside U.S. forces. He was captured by the Japanese, whose cruelties toward many of their prisoners have been well documented.

Staff Sergeant Tomas Taguba left the army "without so much as a retirement ceremony to thank him for those 20 years of hard work and faithful service," Taguba recalled with evident bitterness in a Veterans' Day speech. . . .

"I am proud to serve in the world's best Army," General Taguba said in Congressional testimony in 2001. Still, "if we are to remain the best," he continued, "the well-being of its soldiers and families must be its principal focus." . . .

His father was among about 100,000 Filipinos who were essentially drafted into American service after the outbreak of World War II. But it was not until 1999, General Taguba said in the 2001 speech, that the Army finally recognized his father with medals, and his mother, Maria, with a ceremony and a letter of appreciation.

"It took over 54 years to gain my parents their due recognition," he said. "They sought not to be recognized, only to be appreciated." (Jehl, May 11, 2004)
Though the New York Times neglected to mention in the article above, it is only last year when Washington finally granted Filipino-American WW2 veterans "complete health care benefits" -- the benefits still denied Filipino veterans who are neither US citizens nor US permanent residents:
About 75 Filipino American World War II veterans applied for veterans health care Monday at the San Francisco VA Medical Center, ending a federal policy that for more than half a century denied them benefits afforded to other American veterans.

On Dec. 16, President Bush signed into law a measure granting these veterans complete health care benefits, something that they and many others in the Filipino American community have been lobbying for for decades. . . .

Approximately 200,000 Filipinos were drafted to fight under Gen. Douglas MacArthur during World War II and promised citizenship and benefits by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

In 1946, however, Congress passed the Rescission Act, denying recognition of Filipino combatants as American veterans. With it went the benefits that their American counterparts enjoyed.

According to Rudy Asercion of the American Legion War Memorial Commission in San Francisco, the Rescission Act was enacted in part because the United States felt it had done enough with a $200 million grant to the Philippines following the war. The money was supposed to pay for services similar to the United States' G.I. bill, which helped American soldiers transition into civilian life. Asercion says that money never reached the Filipino soldiers.

About 8,000 Filipino American World War II veterans live in the United States. The 21,000 veterans living in the Philippines do not qualify for the benefits. In the 57 years since the war, thousands of Filipino American veterans have died. Those still living are now in their 70s and 80s. . . . (Cicero A. Estrella, "Filipino Vets Get Long-Awaited Health Benefits: New Law Cancels 1946 Act That Had Denied Equal Rights," San Francisco Chronicle, December 30, 2003, P. A15)
While the military is perhaps the best integrated institution -- ironically more people of color are found in the military than in the predominantly white peace movement -- in the United States, racial discrimination continues, and Taguba himself, the second Filipino American general in history, may be a victim of a very subtle form of it: "General Taguba has served as a brigade commander, but he has not held a division command, a step often seen as as a prerequisite for those who aspire to the Army's very highest ranks. The Pentagon announced Friday that he would soon take a new post in Washington as a deputy assistant secretary for reserve affairs, a move that in Army culture is not seen as a major promotion' (Jehl, May 10, 2004). Taguba's new assignment is a sign that his scrupulous efforts to back up all his findings by Army rules and regulations -- David Von Drehle of the Washington Post notes that he "seemed to have memorized every page of every manual" ("Lessons of a By-the-Book Soldier," May 12, 2004, p. A18) -- may not have been enough to protect his military career.

Beyond the question of elusive racial equality within the military, there is a matter of historical memory and present reality of multinational foot soldiers of the American empire. The Philippine Scouts, in which Taguba's father served, had originally been created by Washington to exploit the disunity of the Filipinos and employ some Filipinos to put down the Filipino resistance to American colonialism as America bought the Philippines from Spain for twenty million dollars at the conclusion of the Spanish-American War. The Philippine-American War lasted until the end of December 1913, and in the course of its counterinsurgency war, the US military established concentration camps to cut off Filipino freedom fighters from bases of their (actual and potential) civilian supporters. The Philippine Scouts, whose antecedent the Macabebe Scouts captured Filipino independence leader Emilio Aguinaldo by "pretending to be the reinforcements that Aguinaldo was waiting for," proved to be very valuable to the American empire bent on conquering the Philippines. The dominant American view of the Philippine Scouts, however, was fraught with contradictions. Sean McEnroe writes that "a returning American soldier . . . praised the U.S. Army's Philippine Scouts, who fought the 'Filipinos Filipino fashion.' In describing their tactics, the soldier explained that the scouts 'sneak up Indian fashion' to kill the enemy" ("Painting the Philippines with an American Brush: Visions of Race and National Mission among the Oregon Volunteers in the Philippine Wars of 1898 and 1899," Oregon Historical Quarterly 104.1, Spring 2003), implying that the Filipinos as well as the Indians are more savage and dishonest in their manner of warfare than the Americans -- as if sneak attacks were the monopoly of subordinated races -- and yet wishing to exploit to the American advantage the very qualities that the Americans first projected upon the Filipinos and then held in contempt. McEnroe also observes the inversion of the usual American convention of associating urbanization and westernization with civilization:
[Private Albert M.] Southwick's desire to understand U.S. allies as civilized and the nation's enemies as savage is so pronounced that in the spring of 1899 he made some subtle ethnographic distinctions between two indigenous groups. In explaining the situation to his family, he first wrote: "there are several distinct tribes on this island. Only one of which [the Tagalogs] are connected to this insurrection." These are the people that Southwick called "niggers." The Macabebes, who were hostile to the Tagalogs and whom the U.S. was using as scouts, were "probably the most civilized."48 This is a fascinating reassessment. Before the outbreak of hostilities with the Philippine independence movement, Southwick had followed the usual convention of associating civilization with urbanization and westernization. By this standard, the Tagalogs, who were the largest Philippine ethnic group in the city of Manila, would have been the most civilized. Yet, as enemies, Southwick came to regard them as barbarians, even while seeing the Macabebe tribesmen as a promising, "civilized" group. (Spring 2003)
The empire's history of exploiting ethnic divisions within its colonial preys is long and sordid (from the American Indians [see Ray Raphael, A People's History of the American Revolution, NY: Perennial, 2002, especially Chapter 5 "Native Americans"], the Moros in the Philippines, the Hmongs in Vietnam, the Miskitos in Nicaragua, to the Kurds in Iraq), a process through which yesterday's "primitives" become "civilized" allies today and "underdeveloped" undesirables or even "savage" enemies tomorrow.

Perhaps more important than exploitation of ethnic divisions, the empire has a tried and true means at its disposal in recruiting multinational soldiers for its defense: class stratification. "A childhood in Hawaii 'opened my mind to the capabilities and opportunities in America,' Taguba said in a 1997 interview with AsianWeek, after being promoted to brigadier general" (Jehl, May 10, 2004). Promotion is not exactly racially egalitarian and soldiers of color are still over-represented in the Army rank and file:
Three out of ten soldiers in the Army today are African-American, as is one out of ten officers. Until you look at Special Operations.

Negrophobia, and not generalized racism, is characteristic of special ops units, and the more rarified the unit, the whiter it gets - with a few honorary Aryans from Hispano-Latina and Pacific Islander ranks. There are special places for Black soldiers in Special Operations: kitchens, supply rooms, and motor pools. (Stan Goff, "Black Ops, White Ops," November 23, 2002)
Nevertheless, there is no denying that the military does offer "capabilities and opportunities in America" as Taguba, who has three master's degrees, puts it. The economic opportunities turn some of "our" best and brightest, like Taguba, into "their" shining examples of American success stories -- role models for Asian, Latino, and Black youths inside and outside the mainland United States who wish to make something of themselves rather than resign themselves to dead-end McJobs.

The boundary between "savage" and "civilized" is always unstable, however, following the shifting alliances of convenience that the empire makes and unmakes. Therefore, assimilation into the empire is not a right but a privilege, revoked at a moment's notice, as the ordeals of Army Chaplain Captain James Joseph Yee and Senior Airman Ahmad Al Halabi demonstrate.

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