Battle For Batangas: A Philippine Province At War

Glenn Anthony May

Book cover

I have an interest in the Philippine-American War, and particularly the war in Batangas, because my father-in-law’s family comes from there. I appreciated some aspects of this book, but not others. Overall, it’s definitely what it says on the tin–a book focused on the “Battle,” i.e., spending more time discussing troop movements and military tactics than on the lived experience of the war. That’s not a knock on May, of course, just less what I was hoping for. May does spend a fair amount of time discussing the extent to which peasants and working-class Filipinos were supportive of the war. He describes this support as mixed, and ebbing and flowing, which isn’t surprising to me. Even if Filipino peasants were strongly against the American occupation, there were limits to how much they could feasibly support the Filipino troops without grave risk to their own lives, and it was far from clear that the war was winnable (May maintains it was not). However, May positions himself as writing against the grain of some Filipino scholarship that claims that popular support for the war was enthusiastic and near-universal. Having not read these earlier works myself, I can’t judge whether the characterization is fair.

I did find interesting May’s discussion of Miguel Malvar, the general of the Filipino forces in Batangas. He comes across as a very intelligent leader, both politically and tactically. May describes how Malvar balanced between the “pro-elite” Filipino leaders such as Aguinaldo, and the more populist strain originally represented by Bonifacio. My sense by the end was that Malvar’s heart was more on the populist side, but he was pragmatic enough to frame his efforts in whatever way he thought would lead to the greatest chance of success.

May’s language occasionally came across as biased, sometimes offensively so. For example, he says “The frustrations of the campaign might help to explain the frequent use of torture by U.S. troops in Batangas” (147 in my edition). I’m sorry, but this seems needlessly exculpatory. People don’t torture other people because of “frustration,” they do it because of white supremacy, colonialism, and other faces of evil.

I was also a bit “frustrated” by May’s insistence that the US forces weren’t “solely” responsible for the very high death toll in Batangas during the occupation. He reasonably points out that the large number of deaths was largely driven by malaria. However, as he acknowledges, the susceptibility of the Batangueno population to malaria was drastically increased by the concentration policy of the US forces, as well as the disruption of their regular food supplies. If the US caused thousands of Batangueno deaths, does it really matter whether it was by shooting people or by cramming them into concentration camps? Again, it felt to me like May was trying to “rehabilitate” the image of the American invasion.

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars