Michael C. Hawkins. Making Moros: Imperial Historicism and American Military Rule in the Philippines' Muslim South. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2012. xi + 185 pp. $38.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-87580-459-0.
Reviewed by Harry Franqui-Rivera (Hunter College)
Published on H-War (November, 2014)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
Theodore Roosevelt dubbed the Spanish-American-Cuban-Filipino War of 1898 a “splendid little war.” This phrase hides the complexity and difficulties of the war, its human costs, and more important, its meaning for the United States and the former Spanish colonies after the war ended. This war decidedly led the United States into extra-continental expansionism and marked the beginning of American imperial projects and colonial experiments from Puerto Rico to the Philippines. These projects were characterized by the American metropolis remaking and modernizing its new subjects. The United States engaged in nation-building projects by seeking to change the socioeconomic and political structures of the new territories as well as the identities of its new wards.
Among the new colonial subjects under the American umbrella was the Muslim population (known collectively as Moros) of the southern Philippine islands of Sulu and Mindanao, a group that Michael C. Hawkins has chosen to study. In Making Moros: Imperial Historicism and American Military Rule in the Philippines’ Muslim South, Hawkins examines the period of direct American military rule over this region (1899-1913). This is not a story of the American Empire. The emphasis instead, Hawkins notes, is on what military rule meant then, and what it means today, for the Moros. Hawkins decenters this imperial history from both an American and Manila loci of enunciation to produce a history articulating from the Muslim South. Aware of the implications and challenges posed by using imperial archives, he attempts to capture the voice of the subaltern by relying on “discourse analysis to coax the Moro voice from the non-Moro sources,” by reading the archival material against the grain, and by contextualizing the Moros’ popular historical memory through oral histories (p. xi).
Hawkins presents two overarching and compelling theses. First, he argues that imperial historicism was the “fundamental philosophy of American colonialism in the Philippines” and guided the metropole’s attempt at social and ethnological engineering (p. 5). Second, no other period was as transformative and crucial for Moros’ self-awareness and “ascent into homogenous modernity” as the fourteen years under American military rule (pp. 5-6). Hawkins boldly claims that “American discourse and policy during military rule shaped the Moros’ concept of themselves and the emergent postcolonial state in modernity” (p. x). Once he establishes these two premises, Hawkins dives into locating the Moros’ self-positioning within modernity and examines how they “established the parameters of their own modern selves” (p. xi). The Moro identity that emerged from that “collaborative colonial encounter,” he argues, was negotiated and discursive as the Moros both resisted and embraced American attempts at reimagining them (p. xi).
Before discussing the effects of American colonial projects on the Moros, Hawkins thoroughly examines the ideology behind the approach of the new metropolis. American imperialists were guided by a “supposed universal ontology of temporal contextualization for every aspect of human culture, society, and in some cases biology.” Hence, the historicizing of populations (and objects) worked as an imperial tool that provided order and logic to a “universal chronology of evolutionary progress culminating in modernity.” Hawkins argues that an “elevated sense of historical omniscience” allowed American imperialists to position themselves at the pinnacle of modernity (p. 4). From their advantageous point, they catalogued ethnic groups still in the race toward modernity, and placed them within a less modern, and even savage, Anglo-Saxon past.
Hawkins’s most compelling argument is found in his discussion of the American approach to the Moros. He convincingly argues that American observers (professional ethnographers and military officers playing pseudo-scientists) imagined the Muslims of the southern Philippines as extremely masculine fierce savages, still in pristine primitiveness and unpolluted by Spanish traditions. The Moros were far removed “from the stereotypically emasculated and conquered subject of an exploitative imperialism,” unlike northern Filipinos and other Asians so often portrayed as effeminate by American observers (p. 3). Basing this repacking of the “noble savage” archetype, so ubiquitous in Spanish, English, French, and American imperial-colonial narratives, American imperialists in the Philippines deemed the Moros as salvageable material. The Moros were still savages, but ones who showed great promise to achieve modernity under the right tutelage.
The role of imperial historicism in the American imperial effort is well argued and developed in the first sixty pages. However, Hawkins may be overstating its relevance as he sides with other scholars to contend that “the real importance of the Philippines to the United States has been moral and exemplary, rather than strategic or economic” (p. 8). This approach forces the reader to ignore how the United States came to be in control of the archipelago in the first place. The reader is compelled to revive and accept the simplistic “empire by default” thesis, and to ignore dozens of works explaining American expansionism and colonial experiments in the twentieth century in terms of geopolitics and economic needs.
For example, Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan inculcated his influential followers (presidents; secretaries of war, the navy, and state; senators; and military officers) with the belief that America’s might lay in its economic strength, but for it to flourish the United States had to control the sea trade routes by securing access to coaling stations and other strategic naval installations. Hence, Mahan recommended that in the new territories, full of “unassimilable” alien subjects who “were still in race-childhood,” the United States should follow the “beneficial and parent-like approach of the British instead of the inhumanely oppressive Spanish model.” According to his plan, the United States would engage in what he called “uplifting benevolence” to pay for the acquisition of the bases needed to ensure the preeminence of the Anglo-Saxon race as represented by the United States. Mahan may very well be an example of the “imperial historicism” that Hawkins discusses, but it was clear in his writing that the United States would engage in the remaking of certain peoples because of geostrategic concerns. If the Philippines (or for that matter Puerto Rico) had not been deemed important militarily and economically, there would not have been any attempts to “modernize” their people. What has been called an “American sacred-secular project,” and what Hawkins calls “imperial historicism,” served to sell the imperial geostrategic project to both the American masses and to the elites who volunteered to lead the effort.
Equally, treating the Moros as a separate entity from northern Filipinos was a sound military approach. The Philippine-American War was by no means a walk in the park. More than 120,000 American soldiers participated in it and some 4,200 of them died in the conflict. The toll was even more appalling for the Filipinos with some 16,000 fighters dead and roughly 200,000 civilians dying due to famine and disease, the byproduct of the American policy of relocating the native population. Within this context, it is easy to understand why the American authorities followed policies that underscored the northern and southern Filipinos’ differences. For, as Hawkins points out, there were, and there are, real differences among northern and southern Filipinos. But at any rate, the American ethnographic construction of the Moro as a salvageable noble savage comes after and not before military needs.
Hawkins convincingly explains the Moros’ rationale for embracing the American military government. In 1899, the Bates Treaty guaranteed Moro leaders limited sovereignty, a monthly stipend paid in Mexican dollars, and freedom of religion. The Moros found in the Americans, at least initially, an umbrella that protected them from the northern Catholic Filipinos, whom some view as bent in continuing the former Spanish imperialists’ mission of conquering and converting them. The Moros, Hawkins explains, enthusiastically embraced the American “supposed great synthetizing force of modernity-capitalism” (p. 22). American observers were positively impressed with the Moros’ alleged natural propensity for entrepreneurship, private property, and the concept of public and private spaces.
Hawkins is right to assert that the Moros were changed by the American occupation, but so were Catholic Filipinos, and on the other side of the globe, Puerto Ricans. However, one should be careful not to overestimate the American influence while underestimating four centuries of contact with the Spanish Empire. Did fourteen years of American military rule affect Moros’ “sense of history, ethnicity, religious identity, and political orientation” more than four centuries of resisting the Spaniards (p. 132)? Even after acknowledging that the Americans indeed arrived to the Philippines during a transformative juncture and that they penetrated the Muslim South in ways the Spaniards never could, fully accepting this argument is a bit difficult.
In his conclusion, Hawkins analyzes the testimony of Datu Asam, one of the leading Moros of the district of Lanao, before the last military governor of the Moro Province, General John Pershing. After stating that the Moros should have followed the advice of the general and the American way more closely, Asam explained that “the thoughts of the Americans are the same as those of the Moros” but that “the Americans have only one custom, while the Moros have two, one good and the other evil, and as soon as they can break away from the evil one they will be just as prosperous as the Americans” (pp. 130-131). Hawkins exhorts the reader not to take Asam’s statement as an “admission of ethnic or cultural inferiority” but as a “pronounced and nuanced understanding of historicism as the fundamental logic of American rule” (p. 130). He suggests that we understand Asam’s use of “good” as “modern” and “evil” as “archaic.” However, at least for this reviewer it is hard to ignore the dichotomy that Asam presents whether we take evil as evil or as archaic. Was Asam’s discourse genuine, and hence, an admission of defeat and inferiority? Or were Asam and other Moro leaders paying lip service to the powerful American general? That is a question that is left underexplained as Hawkins quickly jumps to discuss what these statements meant for American military officers in Moro Province. For the Americans, Asam’s speech meant that the Moros had “the ability to recognize and interpret [their] own temporal location” (p. 131). However, the temporal location that they recognized lagged behind the Americans’ position. Asam’s speech indeed sounds like an admission of defeat and submission.
In the epilogue, Hawkins analyzes how the military colonial regime is remembered today. Engaging in an exercise in nostalgia, many Moros interviewed by Hawkins identify the military government period with “wealth, prosperity, peace, order, and religious freedom” (p. 135). Some even call for its return. The sultan of Tugaya even told Hawkins: “We need to become a colony of the American military again” (p. 136). Hawkins shows that such opinion is not an anomaly by pointing out that 42 percent of Moros want a sustained U.S. military presence, and that among them there is a feeling that the U.S. military has an “unfinished obligation to the Moro people” (p. 137). It is quite understandable that the Moros would look back at this period nostalgically—they would not be the first group to look back at the past with uncritical nostalgia. As Hawkins explains, running the southern Philippines as a de facto separate entity did allow for the strengthening of Moro self-perception in opposition to northern Filipinos. However, one should be careful when seeing the past through the eyes of those who did not live it. Neither should one ignore that those interviewed, as Hawkins explains, have much to gain from an American military presence. The U.S. military offers protection against both Abu Sayaff and the Manila-controlled Filipino army. But one wonders, what does the other half of the Moro people think of the American military presence? Or, for that matter, what does Abu Sayaff have to say about it?
I highly recommend this book. In just about 146 pages of text, Hawkins has produced a splendid little book. It is beautifully written, amply researched, and theoretically engaging. Making Moros offers an insightful analysis, mixing the role of the military, science, race, gender, and culture in the making of empire and colonial experiments. This is a fine contribution to the new imperial history and subaltern studies. Its relevance goes beyond Filipino historiography and the early twentieth century. Hawkins’s thesis could be easily applied to other ethnic groups within the informal American Empire then and today. Some of Hawkins’s findings will surely ignite much debate but that would be a conversation worth having.
On a final note, this work may offer some insight for policymakers. Not too long after the fall of Iraq, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld declared that the military did not engage in nation building. A cursory review of American history proves him wrong. From the ubiquitous presence of the U.S. Army in the expanding American frontiers, to its role as administrators of the new territories and colonies in 1898, and the occupation of Hispaniola between 1915 and 1934, the military has been very much engaged in nation building. Outside of what became the fifty United States, such endeavors came with a price for both the United States and its colonial subjects. It would be unfortunate to learn the wrong lessons from Hawkins’s work. The Moros engaged with American imperialists to advance their own goals and in the process both redefined and reaffirmed their identities in stark opposition to their northern brethren. Ironically, military intervention and rule in the southern Philippines may have led to a permanent fragmentation of the archipelago. Will the same happen in Iraq and Afghanistan?
. See Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power upon History 1660-1783 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1890), 83-84; and Alfred Thayer Mahan, “The Relations of the United States to Their New Dependencies,” in Lessons of the War with Spain and Other Articles (1899; repr., Freeport: Books for Libraries Press, 1970), 245-249.
. Anders Stephanson, Manifest Destiny: American Expansionism and the Empire of Right (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995), 60.
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Harry Franqui-Rivera. Review of Hawkins, Michael C., Making Moros: Imperial Historicism and American Military Rule in the Philippines' Muslim South.
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