Lessons from the Philippine American War

January, 2013

Lincoln -- "The Fighting First Nebraska: Nebraska's Imperial Adventure in the Philippines, 1898-1899" in Nebraska History gives a disturbing account of the role of Nebraskans in the little-remembered Philippine American War. Nebraskans fired the first shots starting the war and later participated in waterboard torture on the Philippine insurgents. The waterboarding precedent has since become a justification of the practice in more recent wars.

The article notes that Nebraskans were divided about the war. The soldiers defended themselves as honorably serving their country. Col. Frank Eager of Lincoln, a lawyer in civilian life who was wounded at the Battle of Calumpit and awarded the Silver Star, wrote glowingly of the history of the Nebraska regiment. William Jennings Bryan, conversely, considered the war imperialistic and an immoral use of American troops. A Lincoln newspaper, The Independent, railed against the war from its populist viewpoint.

What the article misses is the irony that Frank Eager was the owner of The Independent and an avid supporter of Bryan. How he could simultaneously hold two such divergent views warrants more investigation. Likely it was Eager's editor, Thomas Tibbles, who wrote the editorials against the war. But it may have been Frank Eager himself who offered The Independent view that overseas wars corrupted soldiers and that soldiers could not be held accountable for being placed in an environment that contradicted their sense of morality.

This is relevant to our times, in which soldiers' suicides outnumber battlefield deaths. The new term "moral injury" attempts to describe the struggles caused by war, and the suicides that result from the inability to come to moral terms with the wars they fought.

Frank Eager is buried in Wyuka Cemetery in Nebraska's capital, Lincoln. His grave is not on the tour of Wyuka notables (no veteran of the Spanish American or Philippine American War is represented, unfortunately). I am a Vietnam veteran; when at Wyuka I often put his grave on my own personal tour. It is not as if I am honoring bad conduct in a bad war; Eager's own Nebraska regiment left the Philippines before the waterboarding.

I never met Frank Eager, although our lives overlapped by seventeen years and we had much in common. The Eager homestead in northeast Lancaster County was near where my family lived as I was growing up; my classmate Larry Frerichs lived on the Eager farm and probably met the Colonel, even if I didn't. In 1967 I passed through Calumpit, on the route between Olongapo and Manila, not knowing what had happened there. I visited Nagasaki sixty-nine years after Frank Eager and his Nebraska regiment aboard the Hancock stopped there on the way back from the Philippines. My home outside Lincoln is on property once owned by the Eager family. Had I ever met him, I'm sure there is much I could have learned from Frank Eager.

If anyone is looking for a worthy subject for a senior thesis or even a dissertation, I have a big file on Frank Eager and would be pleased to assist.