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Posted on May 16, 2021 in Armchair Reading, Front Page Features

“War and Resistance in the Philippines 1942-1944.” Book Review.

“War and Resistance in the Philippines 1942-1944.” Book Review.

Ray Garbee

War and Resistance in the Philippines 1942-1944. 2021.  Author: James Kelly Morningstar. Naval Institute Press. 384 pages. ISBN: 9781682475690

The popular perception of the Philippines during the Second World War is shaped by a handful of key events – the surrender of Corregidor, The Bataan Death March, MacArthur’s pledge to return and of course, the actual return of US combat forces to the Philippines beginning in 1944. But between the bookends of General Wainwright’s surrender of Corregidor and General MacArthur’s return at Leyte was a period of over a thousand days during which the Philippine islands were occupied by the Japanese Empire. Conventional histories suggests that the Filipino people were a people without agency, led into resistance by a handful of American troops that took to the hills, with a s trickle of aid provided by the United States and motivated by the remote directions of General MacArthur from Australia. 

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Dr. James Kelly Morningstar’s recent book War and Resistance in the Philippines 1942-1944 dispels that traditional interpretation and explores the robust resistance movements countering the Japanese occupation. In doing so, Dr. Morningstar shines a light into the complex cultural patterns behind the spectrum of resistance groups that ranged from Philippine Army soldiers through Chinese communists, and across tribal and familial lines.  

Presenting the history of the Filipino resistance – even an overview – is an ambitious task. The sheer size and the diverse physical and cultural geography of the Philippine Islands served to splinter the resistance into numerous groups separated by space, but also separated by cultural factors including language, religion, education and socio-political class. Addressing these traditional factors in reviewing the resistance, Dr. Morningstar overlays the spatial and political dimensions with the additional cultural dimensions of tribal and familial obligations.

The book is organized as a chronological narrative starting with the Japanese invasion. The conventional military campaigns of what was the United States Army Forces Far East and the US Armies invasion of Leyte and Luzon are not covered in detail. Rather, these events are covered only as they intersect with the experiences of future resistance elements.

The narrative follows the inception of the resistance movement and explores the multiple origin points including escaped soldiers, local politicians as well as ethnic minority groups such as the Chinese or the Moro tribes of Mindanao. Reflecting the disconnection caused by physical geographic separation and cultural differences, each chapter is broken into short vignettes which capture the activities performed by the resistance across the islands, as well as the Japanese Empire and the United States military. 

Dr. Morningstar’s narrative shows how the resistance was much more than a band of fighters lurking the in the jungles. It encompassed individuals engaging in intelligence collection, carrying messages between groups, procuring supplies and working with civilian populations. The activities of the Japanese Empire are depicted as well and include attempts to convert Filipinos to the Japanese cause through educational reform (eliminating unwanted ‘western’ influences) and propaganda, while attempting to maintain local governance. These efforts were offset by the Imperial Japanese Army’s reliance on local supply and failed efforts to convert the Philippine economy into a market that supplied Japan with foodstuffs and raw materials. Underlying the friction caused by these logistical efforts was the cultural conflict in which many Japanese took the belief in their own superiority as requiring supplication and acquiescence from all Filipinos.

This sense of entitlement became a foundational grievance when it extended to the abduction of Filipina woman. These acts did more than horrify and offend the moral sensibilities of Filipinos. Morningstar shows how these injustices also mobilized the Filipino extended family networks to seek retribution for the immoral acts inflicted on their wives, sisters and mothers.

Beyond exploring how tribal and family ties influences the resistance, Dr. Morningstar also covers the political dimension in which Filipino politicians walked the line between their responsibility to their people and the demands the Japanese occupation imposed on the Filipino government. These political actions can be compared to the similar challenges faced by the Vichy French government between 1940 and 1944. While the pre-war President of the Philippines, President Manuel Quezon, had joined Douglas MacArthur in Australia, other politicians like Benigno Aquino remained in the Philippines to manage (under Japanese supervision) the civil administration of the islands.

War and Resistance provides excellent coverage of Unites States military efforts to support the resistance. Starting from efforts to build an intelligence network across the islands, Dr. Morningstar documents efforts by the United States at supporting and controlling the resistance. A primary method was through the delivery of supplies to the resistance via numerous submarine patrols that provided personnel, weapons, medicine and other critical supplies.

The book includes a good set of maps that provide a snapshot of various metrics regarding the situation in the Philippine Islands. The book could have used more detailed maps as the narrative delves into place names not found on the maps. The maps are too general to provide a sense of topography or detailed representation of settlements and roads. It’s unfortunate, as understanding those spatial relationships would aid with the readers understanding of the situation described in the text. It’s worth hunting down period maps of the Philippines to pair with the excellent narrative. (The maps published with the US Army’s “Green Book” official history are a good starting point, but search out the digitized collections of Army Map Service maps from the period for an excellent sense of the land during the war.)

Dr. Morningstar successfully challenges the traditional narrative to impart a clear sense of agency by the Filipino people. For over two years, Filipinos navigated the Japanese occupation practically on their own. In a way, War and Resistance is an expression of Filipino action and suffering that make MacArthur’s declaration of “I have returned”, seem to warrant a response of “Welcome to the party, pal!”

This is not to say that Morningstar discounts Douglas MacArthur role as a passive external figure on the resistance. Rather, the narrative includes MacArthur as an omnipresent paternalistic figure dispensing favors and conferring legitimacy while remaining aloof of day-to-day operational control. 

Viewed through the lens of insurgency, War and Resistance allows the reader to apply the importance of tribal and familial bonds to the experiences of waging modern counter insurgency operations. To paraphrase Tahseen Bashir, the fragmented Filipino resistance movement can be viewed as “Tribes under a Flag”. That’s a shorthand way of expressing the animosity and differing goals that existed amongst the various groups. It captures the fact that deep divisions – often driven by tribal or long-standing family grievances could compromise a unity of action against the Japanese occupation.

But Dr. Morningstar also addresses the commonalities that bound them together – resentment of Japanese attitudes, mistreatment of the people by their supposed liberators and the unifying vision offered by the idea of an independent Philippine nation. Comparison and contrast of the successful insurgency in the Philippines against recent modern efforts suggest the importance of the social and cultural dimensions within an insurgency, and how these often get short shift from modern geopolitical analysts.

War and Resistance is a solid work of military history. It fills in a gap in the knowledge covering the Japanese occupation of the Philippine islands. War and Resistance is an essential narrative that captures the complex relationship between civil populations, insurgents and military forces. It’s as much a study in personality, character and psychology as a conventional military history. While the book does cover the US citizens involved in these efforts, the narrative shines where it documents the role Filipinos played in resisting the Japanese.  War and Resistance showcases the people whose resistance became instrumental in the formation of an independent post-war Philippine state. War and Resistance will be of interest to the student of the World War II Philippines campaigns, the post-war Philippine insurgencies and general counter-insurgency studies.

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