Unknown Moments

Coal miners battling for their rights in West Virginia. Scandal tainting the national pastime. Piranhas on the loose. All not-so-stellar moments in our country’s history, but ones presented to a vaster audience than most history books reach, thanks to the pen and camera of filmmaker John Sayles.

(OK, the last bit is not part of our history, but Sayles did write the script for Piranha in his days working as a hired gun for B-film producer extraordinaire, Roger Corman.)

The author and filmmaker

Sayles is also a novelist, and he was in town last night to discuss his latest book, the historical novel A Moment in the Sun. I haven’t read it, but I know the near-1,000 page tome covers, as usual, parts of our history most American don’t know about—and that some flag-waving types would probably prefer we all ignore. Why dwell on the details of stomping out foreign freedom fighters or denying blacks their rights, when we are at heart God’s chosen country?

Yeah.

The decidedly leftist Sayles does want to dwell on the details, as he writes about the only insurrection in U.S. history, led by white supremacists against the duly elected black officials of Wilmington, NC. And as he takes a look at the bloody—some might say ruthless and/or barbaric—squashing of a rebellion in the Philippines, as locals who had successfully battled Spain for independence had a tougher time against the Yanks. Both events took place in 1898 (though the Filipino insurrection stretched on for several years), in the aftermath of the Spanish-American war.

The new(ish) book

Sayler read a chapter (a whole freakin’ chapter; it was the longest reading by an author that I’ve ever attended…) which describes the life of a NYC “newsie” trying to sell papers announcing the start of that war. Newspapers, or one in particular—William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal—is often cited as the fanner of flames to get America into the war, after the mysterious explosion of the battleship Maine in Havana Harbor. (Modern consensus—it was an accident, not some deliberate attack by Spanish forces, which then controlled Cuba.) And the refrain through the chapter was “War!” shouted out by our streetwise hero and the other kids trying to make a buck hawking papers.

I’m not an expert on the era, but I did notice one historical inaccuracy in the chapter: The narrator talks of the newsie putting one of his hard-earned pennies, a “Lincoln,” into a Mutoscope, an early motion-picture machine. Only problem is, the first Lincoln penny did not appear until 1909. Oops. But the chapter was filled with wonderful dialogue and a fine eye for historical detail—including the marked attention to ethnicity paid by the characters-from-many-backgrounds. We have, of course, transcended that today…

Emilio Aguinaldo--first pres of the Philippines, captured rebel leader

Afterward, Sayles and fellow author Francisco Goldman talked about the book, Sayles’s creative process, and a bit about his latest film, Amigo, which covers some of the same territory as the book. Sayles noted that he didn’t know about the war in the Philippines until his mid 30s—not a sign of his lack of intelligence, but of the general effort, deliberate or not, to whitewash that first major American intervention.

I dug out an old high-school textbook from the 1970s. Its references to the Filipino insurrection: one sentence about the Filipinos taking up arms “in open revolt against the United States” and another about the general news blackout regarding the “war to suppress Emilio Aguinaldo and his Filipino patriots.” And this from a book written by generally liberal—or at least mainstream—historians. In 2006, in a different kind of book, historian David Traxel wrote about the Progressive Era and the country’s role in World War I. Crusader Nation, its subtitle says, is about the “United States in Peace and the Great War, 1898-1920.” Which implies all was peaceful from the end of the Spanish-American War until 1914, but Sayles, and the tens of thousands of Filipinos killed by American guns, knew better. I found no mention of the insurrection in Crusader Nation.

But I found some telling quotes about the war, and America’s foray into imperialism, while writing a short historical play a few years back. It was called “Truth, Justice, And…” and it riffed on comments by-then president George W. Bush, suggesting that the horrors of Abu Ghraib (a bit before the even-worse horrors of Haditha), were an anomaly; violence, especially toward the innocent, is just not part of the American character. The play suggests otherwise, as do some of these quotes I found from some of the young American soldiers sent to battle the Filipinos:

“It was like hunting rabbits; an insurgent would jump out of a hole or the brush and run; he would not get very far…. I suppose you are not interested in the way we do the job. We do not take prisoners.”

“…legs and arms nearly demolished; total decapitation; horrible wounds in chests and abdomens, showing the determination of our soldiers to kill every native in sight. The Filipinos did stand their ground heroically, contesting every inch, but proved themselves unable to stand the deadly fire of our well-trained and eager boys in blue. I counted seventy-nine dead natives in one small field, and learn that on the other side of the river their bodies were stacked up for breastworks.”

“We burned hundreds of houses and looted hundreds more. Some of the boys made good hauls of jewelry and clothing.”

Some soldiers, though, then as now, were not altogether thrilled with their mission:

“They are fighting for a good cause, and the Americans should be the last of all nations to transgress upon such rights. Their independence is dearer to them than life, as ours was in years gone by, and is today. They should have their independence…”

(You can find these and other quotes here.)

Sayles said that much of our present position—I assume he means as an intervening nation—started with the war in the Philippines. It certainly made us an imperial power, which is what some American leaders wanted. Other voices, however, did speak out against taking on the “white men’s burden”; Mark Twain comes to mind. But then as now, the forces that speak for fighting wars when we have not been attacked always seem to get more play than those that oppose killing foreigners for exaggerated claims of “national security.” The Filipinos certainly learned that, even if most Americans–still–don’t.

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