Nonfiction Recommendations from the Hallock Classroom

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I am lucky. I get to teach important stuff that few survey classes touch. By the time US history teachers get to the Spanish-American War, they have one eye on the Great War and everything it sets in motion, and the other eye on the AP test coming up likely in a matter of weeks. Most students I talk to bemoan the fact that they barely cover Vietnam, and their teachers are likely a lot more familiar with Vietnam than the Philippine-American War. If they cannot cover My Lai, Woodstock, and Agent Orange, how can they find time for Balangiga, the Lodge Commission, and the water cure? (Well, some students do, and in the eighth and ninth grade no less!)

I teach trimester electives to mostly high school seniors about American empire and war in the Philippines (and China, Hawaii, Japan, and Pacific islands), in Vietnam (and Cambodia and Laos), and in Iraq (along with Iran, Afghanistan, and more). I try to add value with my own synthesis and analysis, but simply assigning the right readings is the first step to knowledge. I thought I might share some recommendations, not all of which are pictured above. Note that I make no money off the sales of these books, nor have I received any free copies or compensation for endorsing them. This is a 100% “word of mouth” genuine recommendation!

This is great reading to add depth to your understanding of the Fourth of July—or Republic Day, or Fil-Am Friendship Day!

Colorized photograph of the Luneta provided as Sugar Sun series location by author Jennifer Hallock
Park with gazebos and benches in Manila, Philippines (1901). To the right is the Luneta Beach. The Ermita Beach went on south behind the tree. Roxas Blvd. of today goes along where the water line and beach is in this picture. Luneta Park area was filled in where the Manila Hotel, Elks Club, Army & Navy Club, and US Embassy are today. Original at the Library of Congress, provided by John Tewell.
How to hide an empire

This book by Daniel Immerwahr is, in his own words, not really new information—but considering how deftly he weaves together the many threads, you might think it is. How to Hide an Empire is a sweeping history of US expansion since independence, when what we call a republic was actually as much undefined territory as it was incorporated state. It’s eye-opening in a red-pill Matrix way, yet it manages to be entertaining and even funny. How did American Pacific empire between with bird shit? True story. How did overseas US bases inspire the Beatles and Sony? And what does the base system look like now, and why don’t Americans hear about it more in the news?

I would recommend this book to everyone from young adults on up, but I think it is especially important for US citizens. Though I use it as “homework,” it does not feel like it to my students. Many of them choose to read the portions we have not assigned in class because it is that good.

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The Malecon Drive ran parallel to the Manila Bay, opening at its southern end to the Luneta, early twentieth century. Photo courtesy of the White House Historical Association.
overthrow

While How to Hide an Empire paints the forest vividly, with the occasional tree, Overthrow by Stephen Kinzer is a neat row of evergreens at a Christmas tree farm. And just like that row planted by some agri-corp eager to make a profit off idealistic, family-farm nostalgia, Kinzer lays out difficult truths of big business behind seemingly altruistic goals. Each chapter takes the reader through the spy-thriller-esque story (but darker) of every time the US has overthrown a foreign government.

Sometimes the role was at least in part unofficial—a cabal of American-born landowners overthrew the queen of Hawaii, but they probably would not have succeeded had the US envoy not landed the Marines on shore in support. But sometimes the role was very much official, such as when the CIA overthrew the popularly-elected prime minister of Iran in 1953. Kinzer has individual titles that dig more deeply into individual cases, such as his books on the debate over the seizure of the Philippines, the coups in Iran and Guatemala, and the unbelievable Cold War origins when the leaders of US covert and overt foreign policy were brothers! And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Catbalogan-Birds-Eye-View
Vintage postcard of Samar with a view of the wooden causeway connecting town to the port. Scanned image of the early 20th century card by Leo D. Cloma.
The 9/11 report: a Graphic Adaptation

The authors of the first published 9/11 Report intended to make the text readable because they wanted to reach the widest range of Americans possible, to answer the “Why?” questions better than the television networks were doing. But it was a big book, with, you know, lots of words. In my class I use this visual adaptation, and it is often the first time that my students have a teacher using a graphic novel as an instructional tool. They find that disconcerting because my students—wonderful as they are, and they are wonderful—like order and predictability. Shaking up the strict left-to-right line-by-line structure does put them off their game at first, but they get the hang of it. And they love the massive amounts of information this graphic novel version gives them in just a few days of assignments.

The vietnam reader

I teach a high school course, not university, on America in Vietnam, so I do not have the time to dig deep into the masterworks of nonfiction or fiction on the war in one trimester. This collection includes excerpts in a single volume, including: memoirs like If I Die in a Combat Zone (Tim O’Brien), Born on the Fourth of July (Ron Kovic), A Rumor of War (Philip Caputo); reporting and oral histories like Dispatches (Michael Herr), Nam (Mark Baker), and Bloods (Wallace Terry); and fiction like The Things They Carried (Tim O’Brien), Going After Cacciato (also Tim O’Brien), and more. The collection also includes essays on the major films of the war, along with relevant song lyrics. If you want the flavor of a little bit of everything, like a buffet on the American experience of the war, this single volume will do it. I have used it for so long that my book has literally broken into two halves. (No, I am not careful with my spines, don’t @ me, bibliophiles.)

There are many great works on the war not in this volume, probably because an excerpt would not do them justice. I highly recommend A Bright Shining Lie (Neil Sheehan) for understanding how “body count” and “search and destroy” were the exact opposite of what counterinsurgency strategy should be, as told through an engaging biography of a deeply flawed veteran and intelligence officer named John Paul Vann. For the Vietnamese perspective, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places (Le Ly Hayslip), puts you in the shoes of a woman in Central Vietnam who simply wants to stay out of the line of fire. There are more books written by other Vietnamese authors recently, which is terrific, but I still go back to this one because it is such a simple premise and yet so universal.

An American Requiem

I can’t photograph this memoir by James Carroll, one of several he has written, because I borrowed a copy from my local library. Yours probably has it too. Its full title is An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War that Came Between Us. As you can tell from the subtitle, this book is also partly a biography of his father, the founder of the Defense Intelligence Agency at the Pentagon. Carroll grew up an Air Force brat tooling around East and West Berlin in fast cars, then went to seminary and became a Catholic priest. (Not surprisingly, that is why I initially picked this up. Carroll took off his collar and was eventually granted a dispensation, and his more recent works, like The Truth at the Heart of the Lie, deal with the issues he sees with the priesthood as currently constituted. I recommend those too, as well as his latest fiction, The Cloister.)

Carroll became an anti-war activist, and though he was not quite as important to the resistance as the Berrigan brothers, Daniel and Philip, but his bravery was not in doubt. He had a lot at stake in challenging his own family’s privilege, yet he did it. At his first Mass at an Air Force chapel on base, he made a statement against the use of napalm and Agent Orange—the bread and butter of the USAF during the war. I cringed as I read through this scene, and not because I don’t agree with Carroll. It was really uncomfortable, yet bold.

What I also love about this memoir of the early period of the war is how clearly Carroll shows the complicity of the American Catholic Church, especially Archbishop Francis Cardinal Spellman, in the war. Spellman helped handpick President Diem, and even after Diem’s removal and assassination, he and his subordinates continued to support the war effort unquestioningly. One of Carroll’s first novels, The Prince of Peace, carries this Cold War loyalty as a big theme.

That’s the list…for now

I also teach about America’s involvement in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, including especially Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan. Other than the Overthrow volume, though, I tend to use a lot of chapters from other works, not a single volume. As I find other relevant works, I will add them here. I should also point out that this reading list is not sufficient for understanding the full story of American history. The focus of my teaching is about US imperialism and neocolonialism, helping people understand the American footprint abroad. There are many, many more important books for understanding domestic history. To start this journey, I recommend Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Ibram X. Kendi) and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (Dee Brown).

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Why a War You’ve Never Heard of Matters More Than Ever

The president of the Philippines announced a “separation from the United States” because “America has one too many [misdeeds] to answer for.” Which misdeeds? And why have so many Americans not heard of them before?

American soldiers of the 20th Kansas in trenches in the Philippines during the insurrection. Note the open baked beans can in the left foreground. Photo from the Library of Congress.

The Philippine-American War (1899-1913) was America’s first great-power conquest and its first overseas insurgency. It was first time the US tried to exert American authority and values abroad. (See my previous post on New Imperialism.)

This war was not a small one. As a percentage of the contemporary population, three times as many American soldiers died in the Philippine-American War as did in the recent Iraq War. More than three-quarters of a million Filipinos died from war and related causes, nearly 10% of the population.

Despite this startling fact, many Americans would have told you that they went to the Philippines with what they believed were good intentions. (They still accepted the legitimacy of imperialism and racial discrimination, though, both which have been a part of the United States narrative from the beginning. If you are looking for non-fiction on this topic, I highly recommend How to Hide an Empire by Daniel Immerwahr and Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi.)

An American teacher, Mary Scott Cole, is pictured with her class in Palo, Leyte. Photo from the University of Michigan Bentley History Library.
An American teacher, Mary Scott Cole, is pictured with her class in Palo, Leyte. Photo from the University of Michigan Bentley History Library.

The United States sent over 1000 schoolteachers—and not just to Manila, but to any “pacified” town in the islands. These teachers are usually regarded as the best import of all, especially by the young women of the islands who had been only sparingly educated by the Spanish—and that only if they were wealthy enough to afford it. In my novel Under the Sugar Sun, I reimagined one of these teachers as a Boston schoolmarm named Georgina Potter. Georgie is sent to Bais only to find her fiancé straying, her soldier brother missing, and a prominent nationalist flirting. Adventures (and love) ensue.

Girls playing basketball in the beginning of the twentieth century.
Girls playing basketball in the beginning of the twentieth century.

There were other investments in infrastructure and human capital made by the Americans, from roads to ports to the development of the Philippine Supreme Court. Philippine universities founded in this era have become regional attractions, particularly for their science and medical educations.

But it was not all bailes and basketball—though basketball is still wildly popular. There was also a down side to imperialism, obviously, and this appears in my books, too. The second book of the Sugar Sun series, Sugar Moon, features a character who never wanted to be a soldier in the Philippines and will struggle with drug abuse and thoughts of self-harm. (Full content warnings available on this website.) He tries to stop some bad stuff from happening, but the events unfold as history tells us they did—to everyone’s detriment:

In 1901, the American captain of the Balangiga garrison imprisoned the men of the town and used them for forced labor. The town’s retaliatory attack left forty-eight Americans dead, the biggest loss for the Army since Little Big Horn. The American military machine retaliated disproportionately. General Jacob “Hell Roaring Jake” Smith told his men to turn the whole island of Samar into a “howling wilderness”:

I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn, the more you kill and burn the better it will please me.

When asked the limit of age to respect, General Smith said “Ten years.” Smith declared the coasts of Samar to be “safe zones,” but anyone inland was assumed hostile to the United States and therefore a valid target. The entire island was embargoed. Cities grew crowded and diseased, and many starved. There is still a lot of debate about the number of Samareños who died in this period, with figures ranging from 2500 to 50,000. A reasonable judgment is about 15,000, according to historian Rolando O. Borrinaga.

editorial_cartoon_about_jacob_smiths_retaliation_for_balangiga
Smith’s order “Kill Everyone Over Ten” became a caption in the New York Journal cartoon on May 5, 1902. The Old Glory draped an American shield on which a vulture replaced the bald eagle. The caption at the bottom proclaimed, “Criminals Because They Were Born Ten Years Before We Took the Philippines.”

Samar was the My Lai—or the Abu Ghraib—of the Philippine-American War. Newspaper readers in both countries would have been fed daily reports on General Smith’s court-martial, which happened only after a round-about investigation of a totally different incident. With the advent of the trans-Pacific telegraph cable, people could follow events with an immediacy that had been previously impossible. As a result, even though General Smith received only a slap on the wrist, popular outcry in the US later forced President Roosevelt to demand the general’s retirement.

Why such a light punishment? The dirty secret was that Smith’s commanding officers wanted this “chastisement” policy because they agreed with him that “short, severe wars are the most humane in the end. No civilized war…can be carried on on a humanitarian basis.” And the leaders of the insurgency in Samar did surrender in April 1902, only seven months after the attack at Balangiga. The Americans thought the ends justified the means. (Keep in mind that while General Orders No. 100 did allow for severe war, much of what Hughes, Chaffee, Smith, Waller, and Glenn did in Samar violated this code of conduct.)

General Vicente Lukbán, center, who led the revolution on the islands of Samar and Leyte. He is seated with 1st Lt. Alphonse Strebler, 39th Philippine Scouts, and 2nd Lt. Ray Hoover, 35th Philippine Scouts. Image in the public domain from the Library of Congress, scanned by Scott Slaten.
General Vicente Lukbán, center, who led the revolution on the islands of Samar and Leyte. He is seated with 1st Lt. Alphonse Strebler, 39th Philippine Scouts, and 2nd Lt. Ray Hoover, 35th Philippine Scouts. Image in the public domain from the Library of Congress, scanned by Scott Slaten.

The incident that President Duterte likes to talk about the most was not in Samar, though. The president is from the island of Mindanao, where the United States fought its first war against Muslim separatism. Islam was the primary Filipino religion before the arrival of the Catholic Spanish, and still today about five percent of Filipinos are Muslim. Ninety-four percent of Filipino Muslims, dubbed Moros by Spanish, still live on the large southern island of Mindanao. When the Americans first arrived in the Philippines in 1898, they had enough problems on their hands with the Filipino Christians, so they made a “live and let live” agreement with the Moros. Once the rest of the islands were pacified, though, the Americans tried to extend their rule over Mindanao. They wanted to issue identity cards, collect taxes, outlaw slavery, and disarm the population.

Not all of these are bad things—I’m thinking mostly of the abolition of slavery—but to the Moros these laws struck at the heart of local autonomy. In the resulting fight, young warriors attacked anyone considered an enemy of Islam—and though they were not specifically bent on suicide, they were not afraid of death, either. They were so relentless, in fact, that the American Army had to requisition a whole new firearm, the .45-caliber—the only pistol with enough stopping power to fight Moros armed only with knives. This pistol, named the 1911 after the year it was adopted, was a standard-issue firearm until 1985, and it still remains a favorite of many in the military today.

Bodies of dead Filipino Muslims killed at the First Battle of Bud Dajo during the Moro Rebellion.
Bodies of dead Filipino Muslims killed at the First Battle of Bud Dajo during the Moro Rebellion.

Americans fought their largest engagements against the Moros, and this meant some of the worst massacres happened against the Moros. At Bud Dajo in 1906, the Moros had retreated to the interior of an extinct volcano and were surrounded by American forces who had the high ground. Instead of a slow siege, the Americans fired down into the crater and killed 900 Moros, including women and children. Reports of the event shocked Americans at home, but it did not stop the war, which would rage on for seven more years, until 1913.

Part of the reason the Moro War stretched on so long was that it was all “chastisement” and relatively little “attraction.” In other words, there were fewer hospitals, almost no teachers, less infrastructure, and so on. Today, the Moros have the same complaint against the majority Catholic government of the Philippines—they are not getting the public works and development projects they see in the rest of the islands, but they cannot run their own affairs, either. Though part of Mindanao has been made an autonomous region, such a compromise has not brought an end to the violence. Some groups aim for legitimate political goals, some groups are professional kidnappers-for-hire, and a few are eager hangers-on of the latest Islamist terror organizations, including al Qaeda and ISIS.

Duterte has not cut off ties with the United States. According to the Agence France-Press:

A frequent pattern following Duterte’s explosive remarks against the United States, the crime war and other hot-button issues has been for his aides or cabinet ministers to try to downplay, clarify or otherwise interpret them.

And within a few hours of Duterte’s separation remarks, his finance and economic planning secretaries released a joint statement saying the Philippines would not break ties with Western nations.

Moreover, the White House insists no one has officially asked for a change in relations. The real test will be to see if the Philippines really buys weapons from China and Russia, settles its legal dispute with China over the Spratly Islands bilaterally (cutting out the United States and United Nations), and ceases joint exercises with the US military in the South China Sea.

Sailors signal to an MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter attached to the “Golden Falcons” of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 12 as it hovers over the flight deck of the Arleigh-Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbel in the South China Sea. Photo by the US Navy.

None of this is happening in a vacuum. It is more like a family dispute, where discussions and disagreements today are affected by the baggage of our shared history over the last 120 years. If we approach the news only with an eye on today and ignore the way that relationships have developed over time, we miss all the important subtext.

I have an illustrated talk—“America in the Philippines: Our First Empire”—that shows how our experience in Asia fundamentally changed the U.S. role in the world and launched some of our best known political and military figures, to boot. I will tell you more about the good, the bad, and the ugly of how Americans ruled—and why, despite it all, the Filipino-American friendship has been so strong for so long. I will also show how recent stump speeches on transpacific trade, immigration, and national security are actually reprises from the turn of the century.

Tell your local librarian, community college, high school, veterans group, historical society, book club, or other non-profit. My talk is free to these groups…as long as I can get there.

Carabao photograph from the University of Michigan Special Collections Library.
Carabao photograph from the University of Michigan Special Collections Library.

[Featured photograph of a Filipino soldier blowing a horn to call for formation, from the University of Michigan Special Collections Library.]