Mount on Capozzola, 'Bound by War: How the United States and the Philippines Built America's First Pacific Century'

Christopher Capozzola
Guy Emerson Mount

Christopher Capozzola. Bound by War: How the United States and the Philippines Built America's First Pacific Century. New York: Basic Books, 2020. 480 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5416-1827-5

Reviewed by Guy Emerson Mount (Auburn University) Published on H-Diplo (January, 2021) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

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In this sweeping chronological account of US-Philippine relations, Christopher Capozzola delivers a cutting-edge military and diplomatic history wrapped in the cover of a popular trade book. Beyond the bloody battles and smoky boardrooms, this is a wide-ranging history of the Philippines told through its entanglements with American military power. As a stern indictment of US empire, this book also demonstrates how both countries’ military institutions functioned as the figurative jeepneys that carried US colonialism into the neocolonial era. In this deeply researched and highly readable book, Capozzola argues that American military power and Filipino responses to it have served as the defining feature of US-Philippine relations over the past 122 years. 

After nearly destroying the Philippines in 1898 and then again in 1945, America’s empire established itself, in many cases, as the only game in town. Capozzola points out that from the beginning of the US occupation, Filipino revolutionaries were typically offered a choice between a life behind bars or a life in the military. Those who chose the carceral state were often forced to build American military installations anyway. With such “choices” in the offering, communities like Olongapo and Angeles City constantly found their local politics and their regional economies distorted by the power of US military dollars.

Empire would also warp and distort the foreign relations of the Philippine state. Filipino politicians endlessly chased US foreign aid packages and subcontracts from American imperialists—hoping to somehow make up for the damage that colonialism had wrought. But as most impoverished nations know, US aid dollars came with strings attached. Typically, if not explicitly, the strings in the Philippines required loyal support for the US military’s geopolitical objectives. This cycle of militarism repeated itself endlessly and poisoned everything it touched. Even after a series of apparent civilian handovers in the Philippines, military force continued to loom large. 

In the face of this structural predicament, Capozzola skillfully shows, individual Filipinos did their best to use their proximity to US empire to survive within it. The paradox was that “as Filipino soldiers served American interests in the Pacific, they also advanced their own nation” (p. 16). This made Filipinos “partners in violence if not partners in power” (p. 48). Building on Al McCoy’s 2009 book Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State, Capozzola follows this dynamic as it worked out dialectically within Philippine foreign and domestic policy. By 1908 two-thirds of all Filipinos in Manila were under surveillance by the US-led constabulary (p. 53). At least one-fifth of the city’s population had been arrested (p. 64). This authoritarian police state propelled the country into its postcolonial era. The brutal regimes of Ferdinand Marcos, the killing of over twenty thousand civilians by Rodrigo Duterte, and the massacres of hundreds of thousands of Muslims in Mindanao appear less as anomalies for Capozzola and more as the long echoes of an orchestrated American empire. 

And, of course, the Americans never really left. US military operations continued long after independence at regular intervals. The police state envisioned over a century ago by American imperialists also continues to this day. Indeed, Capozzola is at his best when drawing long callbacks to previous eras in order to make sense of contemporary concerns. For example, he shows how during the early colonial period US atrocities in the Philippines were attributed to Philippines’ scouts, thereby absolving American empire of its role in everything from waterboarding, to assassinations, to civilian assaults. He argues that the pattern repeats itself today as the various human rights violations taking place under US-backed regimes or in the shadows of Central Intelligence Agency dark sites around the world are blamed on local actors rather than US (neo)colonial power.

While rightly concerned with the high-level political ramifications of this process, Capozzola has also managed to write a beautifully narrated social history of everyday Filipino soldiers. As attempts to navigate American empire played out on a global stage, this interplay between the local and the global—the personal and the national—is never lost on Capozzola. Filipino soldiers are, first and foremost, workers in his account. Everyday Filipinos needed money. The US military provided it, not just through direct employment but also through service subcontracting, urban development, and the added consumer demand for various support industries from sex work to farming to construction. By 1972 the US Department of Defense was the second largest employer in the Philippines with countless others employed in support industries. Yet, while the US military offered employment, it did so by manufacturing poverty—destroying local ecosystems, disrupting indigenous food pathways, and crushing competing local industries. Empire, like war, was a labor racket. As Capozzola puts it, “every armed force is simultaneously a utopian political project and a mundane labor system” (p. 45).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the US state quickly abandoned Filipino soldiers after their work was done. Pensions and benefits were routinely denied by claiming that Filipino troops in the US military (even after earning US citizenship through that labor) were still foreigners because of America’s colonial relationship with the Philippines. Following Paul Kramer’s 2006 Blood of Government: Race, Empire, the United States, and the Philippines, Capozzola shows that this creation of a “foreign” colonial army grew directly out of Spanish institutions. Americans did not undo the horrors of Spanish colonialism as many writers of the Black Legend would claim. Instead Americans extended and perfected those horrors while building on its institutions.

Capozzola further shows that throughout the “American Century” and even to this day, the Philippines functions as a surplus labor supply for the US military. US lawmakers might dangle money and citizenship in return for low-cost labor or, conversely, tighten up opportunities when such labor is no longer needed. For Capozzola, this mining of Filipino desperation and the extraction of Filipino suffering proves the stuff of neocolonial relationships. As American missiles destroy villages and cities around the world, Filipino workers are predictably there to pick up the pieces. In one of the most haunting examples of this, Capozzola points out that over twenty Filipino workers died in the Twin Towers as American empire boomeranged back home. Almost immediately after, however, countless other Filipinos worked in recovery crews to clear away the rubble while literally dusting off the bones of the dead at Ground Zero. Only 2 percent of Filipinos would support the US invasion of Iraq that followed (p. 354). Yet hundreds of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) built the prisons in Guantanamo, served food on navy vessels, and rebuilt the capital of Bagdad after it was leveled. For Capozzola, these diasporic Filipino workers had not merely “responded to the incentives of the labor market” but were “brought there by a century of history and by the new demands of US foreign policy” (p. 364).

Time and again with every post-1898 American war, from World War I to Vietnam to Iraq, new opportunities opened to Filipinos but only if they were willing to ride the wave of American empire. Some were not. Capozzola also highlights the anti-base movements, labor actions, citizenship demands, and Pan-Asian solidarities that constantly stood in the way of American hegemony. Yet any sustained alternatives to America’s global order in the Philippines—either in the form of communist uprisings or Muslim demands for autonomy—were quickly put down. In 1931, the US banned the Communist Party in the Philippines. Despite the fact that many of the communist Huk guerrillas fought alongside the US in World War II (as previously detailed in Vina Lanzona’s 2009 book Amazons of the Huk Rebellion: Gender, Sex, and Revolution in the Philippines), when its leaders were elected to the postwar Philippine legislature American interests demanded that they not be seated. With the subsequent attempts by the US and Philippine militaries to put down various communist uprisings, the Philippines served as a critical proving ground for US military and state-crafting strategies during the Cold War. Americans before and after the Korean War discovered that “anticommunism in the mountains of Luzon could be exported to South Vietnam” (p. 9).

This presumption that the domestic sphere of the Philippine nation should serve as an international testing ground for US military tactics and strategies would continue in the post-9/11 era. In 2003, over 1,700 US troops fought on the ground against the Muslims of Mindanao as part of a supposed “War on Terror” (p. 351). As late as 2017, the US military continued to support the Philippine military’s campaigns against what both states regarded as “terrorists.” Strategies and tactics were soon circulating back and forth between the Philippines and the Middle East. In the end, according to Capozzola, “the Philippines built the military force the United States wanted and was willing to pay for, which in turn required Filipinos to continue to align their security needs with America’s geopolitical ambitions” (p. 219).

All told, this is a truly monumental work with deep insight and lasting resonance. While several minor errors can be found (the Philippines rather than Hawai’i is cited as the first location of a “big” US military base, for example), the book remains a model for careful, thoughtful scholarship. While one could argue that Capozzola stretches his evidence to make the Philippines appear more central to the US than it might have been, the explanatory case on the Philippine side is compelling. While this book can certainly be seen as part of the historiographical project to uncover a “hidden” American empire, Capozzola also shows that this America empire was never hidden at all from everyday Filipinos. Woven into the fabric of Philippine institutions, political culture, food pathways, transportation networks, and cityscapes, the imprint of the American military is everywhere. Hopefully, Capozzola’s work will serve as a signpost for the next wave of scholarship on American empire—one infatuated less with America acting upon the world and more with the ordinary people living within that world as they confronted and navigated the seemingly endless expansion of American power.

Guy Emerson Mount is an assistant professor of African American history at Auburn University. His upcoming book, From Slavery to Empire: Reconstruction in the Black Pacific analyzes the connections between American slavery and American colonialism by tracing the lives of everyday Black workers who migrated to Hawai’i and the Philippines between 1810 and 1946.

Citation: Guy Emerson Mount. Review of Capozzola, Christopher, Bound by War: How the United States and the Philippines Built America's First Pacific Century. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. January, 2021. URL:

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