Monday, January 11, 2010

Books, Books, Books

Late last year my wife received a P10,000 book grant for journalists from the Freidrich Ebert Stiftung and, since I am an avid book reader, she asked me to tag along to "help" her buy books. I ended up choosing most of the titles. To me, it was a most pleasant surprise and possibly the nicest Christmas gift anybody could give, and at the end of our 4-hour book-buying binge at Fully Booked-Rockwell we ended up with a stack as tall as my 5 year old son. As such, I was in no mood to write these past weeks since I have been busy devouring the books. So far I have only finished reading three of them.

"Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army" is the story of Eric Prince and his elite corps of mercenaries. Eric Prince is quite a character: although he came from a rich family (he inherited about $500 million when his father died) he enlisted in the US Armed Forces joining the US Navy SEAL Team 8. When his wife died prematurely he was forced to leave the service to take care of his two daughters but, in his desire to continue serving his country, formed Blackwater together with his former US Navy SEALs colleagues. He bought 7,000 acres of swampland in North Carolina (the swamp's water appears black hence their company's name) and proceeded to build the largest and most modern military training facilities in the world. At first, Blackwater only trained American SWAT teams, FBI agents and other "war on terror" operatives but soon their company won government contracts to provide security for American diplomats and soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Blackwater became world famous when in March 2004 four of its "private contractors" met grisly deaths at the hands of a mob in Fallujah, Iraq.

After reading the book, I find it worrisome that America has found a way to continue to fight its wars of economic expansion by "privatizing" war. Although the American public has become soft (not to mention flabby), the American government has devised an ingenious scheme to contract out its wars to people who are willing to fight for money. Now, with or without American public support (which was its downfall in Vietnam), the US government can still wage a war by employing mercenaries. As of 2006 according to the book, there are already more "private contractors" (180,000) than soldiers (160,000) in Iraq. Hence, nowhere has the adage "war is business" more true than in Iraq. Blackwater contractors get paid handsomely (around US$15,000 a month for most) and Eric Prince's recruiters have been scouring the world for top-notch military operatives who want to make a fast buck. They have periodically been raiding the armies of Third World countries like Chile, Nepal and yes, the Philippines. In fact, according to the book, Prince was initially planning to set up a training facility in Subic Bay but local political opposition deterred him from doing so.

Another good book is The Imperial Cruise: A Secret Histroy of Empire and War authored by James Bradley of "Flags of our Fathers" fame. The plot is easy enough: in the summer of 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt sent the largest diplomatic mission to Southeast Asia led by his Secretary of War William Howard Taft and his beautiful, aristocratic daughter Alice Roosevelt whom Bradley dubbed as "America's Princess." Their ship's ultimate destination is the Philippines, then America's newly acquired colony, but like tourists they made sightseeing side-trips to Japan, China, Korea. But far from being just a congressional junket, the trip symbolized America's "debut" as a world colonial power and while the congressmen and senators were busy seeing the sights Secretary Taft entered into secret negotiations and agreements with the countries they visited which ultimately shaped American policies to this day. For example, it is not common knowledge today that it was President Roosevelt who planted the seeds of Japanese expansionism by encouraging Japan to militarize and assume a "big brother" role in Asia. Roosevelt wanted the Japanese to check the Russian advance in Asia, and he assured them that America will not stop them if they moved on Korea and China as long as they don't touch the Philippines, its colony at that time. As things turned out, Japan became too greedy and they did not stop in Manchuria, thus paving the way for World War II. Amidst all the political intrigue, Alice Roosevelt on the side was having an affair with one of the congressmen in the delegation. President Roosevelt promptly married the two once they set foot back in America.

The book "Imperial Cruise" is very entertaining and easy to read and I would not be surprised if they make a movie out of it since the book has all the ingredients for a good Hollywood movie: political intrigue, conflict, romance (on the high seas at that), etc. I think Angelina Jolie would make a very good portrayal of the tempestuous and headstrong Alice Roosevelt.

I have been wanting to buy In Our Image: America's Empire in the Philippines by Stanley Karnow for the longest time. After reading it I think the book is perhaps the most balanced and coherent overview of Philippine history ever written by a foreigner. But Filipino nationalists will perhaps not like Karnow's interpretation of Philippine history: Karnow's thesis is that the Philippines as a colony is luckier than most other countries in Asia and most especially Africa which were colonized by Western powers. Karnow claims that viewed from a wider perspective, the Philippine's colonial experience under Spanish and American rule was almost benign and was not as brutally exploitative as the French in Indochina or the British in India or the British in Africa. This is because, as Karnow put it, whereas the British, French, Japan acquired colonies because their home countries lacked natural resources, Americans have everything they need in Continental America. To illustrate his point, Karnow cites the fact that Philippine sugar initially met strong opposition from American beet producers in Congress. In fact, the American Congress and the American people never wanted the Philippines and by the 1920s President Roosevelt already wanted to grant the Filipinos their independence but President Quezon demurred and asked for more time. As such, the Philippines is the only colony who refused independence while in other countries patriots died in the hundreds trying to win their own freedom. Even the Spanish conquistadors, finding no large amount of gold or silver in the islands largely left the natives by themselves and did not exploit them as much as the natives in Mexico and Peru (which had large silver deposits).

All in all, "In Our Image" is a well-researched book full of interesting anecdotes and juicy tidbits and I believe Karnow truly deserves the Pulitzer Prize. It is the best book ever written about the Philippines "love-hate" relationship with America.

Friday, January 01, 2010