‘Better than nothing’
It is humiliating for a veteran, let alone a Filipino veteran of World War II, to see his service in the United States military reduced to dollars and cents. But that is the result of a six-decade-long struggle that the United States itself caused — and that may have come to an end only the other day, when US President Barack Obama signed his $787-billion stimulus program into law.
The massive spending-and-tax-cuts law includes an appropriation of $198 million for payment of lump sums to Filipino veterans of the US Armed Forces in the Far East — some 18,000 out of an estimated 200,000 at the end of the war — who are still alive. Veterans who had opted to become American citizens will receive $15,000, and those who did not will receive $9,000, or less than half a million pesos.
“It’s better than nothing,” 81-year-old Manuel B. Braga told The New York Times. The Times described Braga as “a guerilla fighter in the Philippine jungles [who] now lives near San Diego,” in California.
If the lump-sum amounts are weighed by the scales of history, not those of politics, which can measure only the limits of the possible, the sums are indeed better than nothing — but not by much. At a time of great peril, Filipinos joined American soldiers in defending the Philippines, then a US colony. When the US soldiers returned home and received generous benefits, it was only a simple matter of fairness that their Filipino comrades in arms, who fought the same enemy and died in the same battles as the Americans, or endured the same ghastly march from Bataan and suffered the same prison of war, receive the same benefits.
The Rescission Act of 1946 put paid to that; in one stroke (of US President Harry Truman’s pen), it stripped Filipino soldiers of their status as US military veterans. In the six decades since, Filipino veterans fought valiantly for US recognition (if not American gratitude) and won a few important victories, including a belated option to immigrate to the United States. But the very attempt to undo the damage of the Rescission Act narrowed the veterans’ struggle, in the view of the US Congress, to money matters alone. (Before US bases negotiators unfairly accused Filipinos of so-called cash-register diplomacy, some US legislators already thought the worst of Filipino veterans.)
It is one of history’s parallel ironies that an offensive legislative act forced by cost-cutting concerns has been redeemed 63 years later by a spending bill.
We must recognize the legislative engineering that allowed the lump-sum appropriation, a key feature of what was the Veterans Equity Bill, to finally become law. Due credit must be given to the redoubtable US Sen. Daniel Inouye, himself a World War II veteran (but in the European theater of war). It was Inouye, a staunch supporter of Filipino veterans’ rights, who inserted the appropriation into the US Senate’s version of the bill, and ensured that the provision would survive the conference committee.
President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has already paid tribute to Inouye. “His crucial role will always be honored and remembered,” she said last week. It is a matter of national honor that we acknowledge Inouye’s leadership on the veterans’ issue.
Inouye said the appropriation allowed Americans to “close a dark chapter in the history of this country.” A statement he released during the congressional debates read in part: “This nation made a solemn promise, and with hardly a hearing, we revoked it. This episode is a blight upon the character of the United States, and it must be cleansed.”
If only the cleansing waters were less murky.
The Filipino veterans should have been granted monthly pensions, because that is what their American comrades in arms and some veterans of the “old” Philippine Scouts received. But after 60 years, and in the dim light of the worst economic downturn since the war itself, a modest lump sum can still pack an emotional wallop. We guess most veterans will welcome this belated gesture from the government they used to serve; the disappointment is probably keenest among those who did not have the chance to serve.
Still, a nagging question remains: Why the difference in lump sums? Those veterans who chose to remain in the Philippines — didn’t they fight the same war?