SAN DIEGOŚCasiano Santos was among the lucky ones. On April 9, 1942, U.S. forces on the Bataan peninsula and their Filipino allies, including Santos, surrendered to Japanese forces, and the Death March began. Santos, a Filipino inducted into the U.S. Army 17 days after Pearl Harbor, escaped from the march on April 14.
He joined guerrilla forces and fought with World War I-vintage Springfield rifles until suffering serious shrapnel wounds on March 27, 1945. Another Filipino guerrilla fighter -- he was 16 when he picked up his gun -- was Resty Supnet, who this morning is seated next to Santos, doing justice to a large American breakfast of pancakes and wondering, with Santos, why American justice has not been done to Filipinos whose fighting, according to Douglas MacArthur, saved America many dollars and lives.
The question is whether Santos, Supnet and others like them should be eligible for the full benefits accorded U.S. veterans. The vocabulary of controversy concerns money, but what is really at issue is another value that colors many political controversies: recognition.
Their advocate is Rep. Bob Filner, a Democrat who grew up in New York, was a civil rights Freedom Rider in 1961, spent two months in a Mississippi jail, and worked on Hubert Humphrey's Senate staff. Filner discovered the Filipino veterans' cause when, canvassing for votes, he kept knocking on doors that were opened by Filipino Americans who, being thoroughly acculturated to their adopted land, knew how to hector a congressman.
The 2 million Filipino Americans comprise the nation's second largest Asian community. There are approximately 96,000 of them in San Diego County, more than half in Filner's district -- more than any other congressional district outside of Hawaii. This is because Filipinos used enlistment in the military as a gateway to citizenship. Filner says that of the approximately 250,000 Filipinos, here and in the Philippines, whose war service arguably should have qualified them for status as U.S. veterans, about 70,000 are still alive.
Filner's legislation would give pensions and health care benefits to those veterans and their families, about a quarter of whom are U.S. citizens. In 1946 the Philippines was given its independence and Congress said, never mind that the United States conscripted many of you, you are the Philippine government's problem.
The World War II generation is dying off, so the potential cost of according them increased entitlements is declining about 18 percent a year. In another decade mortality will have made the issue moot. Meanwhile, Congress is increasingly composed of people with no military experience, and for whom even Vietnam is just a faintly remembered secondhand experience of this century's violence.
In 1946 Congress appropriated $200 million for Filipino armed forces. Today about 13,000 Filipino veterans of certain units or their survivors get about $55 million a year in U.S. disability payments, and the Congressional Budget Office says it would cost $4.5 billion over five years for full benefits for all Filipino veterans.
Filner says that number has been inflated by making assumptions designed to maximize potential costs, and anyway he is panting to compromise because, for the veterans, the issue really is not money. The goal of the septuagenarian and octogenarian veterans -- some of whom recently picketed the White House wearing faded uniforms and sparkling medals -- is public attestation of their service. That makes this one more episode that proves the poverty of materialism as the sovereign explanation of political action.
The quest for intangibles such as honor and prestige drives the behavior of nations more than many so-called "realists" recognize. And the yearning for recognition -- a revolt against mere money as the measure of all things -- goes far to explain the moral energy of the civil rights movement. More recent and less admirable examples of contested recognitions are the curriculum wars on campuses, particularly the campaigns to treat the teaching of history as reparation, conferring status by emphasizing the importance of individuals, groups and events not hitherto considered consequential.
The fact that such history often involves bestowing bogus significance
does not discredit all "recognition politics." The Filipino veterans' cause
has come to a brief boil on the 100th anniversary of America's acquisition
of the Philippines as a result of the Spanish-American War. It is almost,
but not quite, too late to act on a truth spoken 52 years ago: "There can
be no question but that the Philippine veteran is entitled to benefits
bearing a reasonable relation to those received by the American veteran,
with whom he fought side by side." So said a World War I veteran, former
captain of artillery Harry Truman. ..George F Will, AP & Washington
POST Aug 16,1998..
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