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Massacre in the Clouds: it is a fine work and will go some way to restoring this incident to the mainstream of history

The title is a pointed correction of the misnomer ‘the battle above the clouds’, by which the slaughter was known at the time

The three-day siege of Bud Dajo, in which the US fired more than 400 artillery shells at the poorly armed Moros, is relayed in four chapters
Massacre in the Clouds: An American Atrocity and the Erasure of History
Author: Kim A Wagner
ISBN-13: 978-1541701496
Publisher: Public Affairs
Guideline Price: £28

The United States has, in the postwar period, become so adept at “delegating” authority through a dense and sometimes shifting network of influence and clientelism that it is easy to forget it once had a formal empire of its own. The impetus for its imperial ventures came from its intervention in the Cuban War of Independence against the flailing Spanish Empire in 1898, which resulted in the acquisition of Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. The latter would be the most troublesome of Washington’s new possessions, with Filipinos taking up arms against their new overlords in a series of regional insurgencies from 1899 to 1902.

But even when US forces had pacified most of the archipelago, there remained a restive region – the south, in the provinces of Mindanao and Sulu, where they faced continued fighting for several years from Muslim insurgents known as Moros (the Spanish having transposed the name of their historic Moorish adversaries to Philippine Muslims). The colonial administration had begun to finally get Mindanao under control in 1906 when it decided to extirpate a community of Moro holdouts that had taken refuge on the extinct volcano of Bud Dajo on the island of Sulu to evade US rule and its hated poll taxes. The ensuing assault in March of that year would result in the infamous massacre of up to 900 Muslims, many of them women and children, a slaughter made all the more infamous for it being a wilfully forgotten chapter of US imperialism.

Danish-British historian Kim A Wagner provides a thorough, if, by his own admission, incomplete, account of the incident and the events leading up to it in Massacre in the Clouds, the title a pointed correction of the misnomer “the battle above the clouds”, by which the slaughter was known at the time. This miscategorisation drew derision from early critics of US imperialism such as Mark Twain, who called it a “slaughter” perpetrated by “Christian butchers”.

From a rogue’s gallery of US military men and administrators, the commanding officer, Major General Leonard Wood, stands out. Wood was the commander of the Philippine Division and the governor of Moro Province and a close friend of president Theodore Roosevelt, who did all he could to protect Wood from blowback when anti-imperialists and Congressional Democrats began speaking out about the massacre back home. Wagner casts Wood as a bumbling careerist widely despised within the military. Wood was a thoroughly venal sort, who “accidentally” smashed the glass negative of a trophy picture of US troops posing with the corpses of the slain Moros while on a visit to the photographer’s studio, when the photo’s wide circulation was beginning to get uncomfortable.


Yet Wood was no outlier either. Though US politics was divided on the massacre, he belonged in the majority camp. The slaughter was considered a regrettable necessity by most pundits and politicians (and, as Wagner shows, continues to be viewed as such by many US military historians). A virulent white supremacism ran through the US imperial project, and Wagner sees the Indian Wars, in which many of the troops involved in the Philippine campaigns cut their teeth, as a dry run for expeditions abroad. A particular antecedent was the massacre of 300 Sioux at Wounded Knee, Dakota in 1890 (also disingenuously labelled a “battle” in its day).

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Though the United States was every bit as skilled as European imperialists at racial taxonomy they lacked the Europeans’ long-honed know-how at domineering people in far-off lands. Wood had toured European capitals in 1902, consulting with none other than Lord Roberts and Lord Kitchener, and Roosevelt ordered him to take the long eastward route to the Philippines the following year so he could stop over in British and Dutch colonies along the way.

Wagner, a specialist in British colonial rule of India, is an exceptionally diligent researcher, unearthing abundant first-hand accounts (admittedly all from the United States), and even manages to put a name to the long-unknown author of the aforementioned trophy photograph. The book’s sole weakness stems perhaps from this wealth of archive material. The three-day siege of Bud Dajo, in which the US fired more than 400 artillery shells at the poorly armed Moros, is relayed in four chapters, in more detail than is probably warranted, given the operation was “no brilliant feat of arms”, as Twain dismissively put it. These chapters feel like narrative padding and have the unintended effect of dragging on the book’s momentum.

This quibble aside, Massacre in the Clouds is a fine work, which will go some way to restoring this shameful incident to the mainstream of western historiography. An elegant coda to the book is Wagner’s pandemic-delayed trip to the site in 2022 , as he meets descendants of the rare survivors, who certainly haven’t forgotten what happened in March 1906.

Oliver Farry

Oliver Farry is a contributor to The Irish Times