Balangiga bells
Image courtesy of The New York Review of Books

CHICAGO – Two church bells have been returned to Japan by superintendents of the U.S. Naval Academy and the Virginia Military Institute.

The mayors of Detroit, Duluth, Atlanta, and Topeka have also returned church bells to Japan.

And last year, the superintendent of the US Military Academy at West Point returned to the Philippines another similar bell which was taken as a war booty in 1901. The move to return the bell was undertaken by a group led by former U.S. Navy Captain Dennis Wright, chairman of the Board of the Clark Veterans Cemetery Restoration Association and the Bells of Sorrow Association and Peregrine Development International based in Dubai Airport Freezone in the United Arab Emirates.

Why can’t the U.S. Congress return the Balangiga Bells to the Philippines?

The U.S. bicameral joint conference committee met on Sept. 30, 2017 when the provision that prohibits the return of the Balangiga Bells to the Philippines expired.

The Senate and House are to reconcile their bills regarding a little-known provision of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The issue is whether to keep or delete the provision that blocks the return of the Balangiga Bells to the Philippines.

The Senate version allows the deletion of the provision, while the House version wants to keep it. At least one group of supporters, the Chicago Nightingales (CN), a nurses organization, that held a vigil to remember the victims of the Balangiga Massacre 116 years ago on Sept. 28 (Sept. 29, Philippine time) will lobby for the deletion of the provision.

Liz Cheney (R), a junior member of the House of Representatives and elder daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, reinserted the restrictive provision first proposed by Senator Craig Thomas nearly 20 years ago into the House version of the bill.

A group of concerned veterans, diplomats and friends, and with the support of Senators McCain, Reed and others were able exclude the controversial, if not Byzantine, provision from the Senate version. The bill now must be reconciled with the House bill through bicameral negotiations.

While the House version perpetuates the provision, the Senate version does not. Supporters for the move to return the bells are urged to call on their senators and congressmen and ask them to remove the restive provision of the House version.

The provision that prevents the return of the Balangiga Bells expired on Sept. 30, 2017. And the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives should be informed that this provision should not be extended.

The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a huge bill that executes its Article 1 constitutional obligation to “provide for the common defense” also equips, supplies, and trains the troops, cares for them and their families, and sets national security policy in a dangerous world.

However, embedded in past NDAAs is a small provision that no one ever gave much thought to. Back in 2000, the Wyoming congressional delegation successfully inserted the small provision that prohibited the return of “Veteran Memorial Objects” brought to the US from foreign shores with the singular purpose of preventing the return of the two bells in Warren Air Force Base – – without even mentioning bells.

This well-crafted and seemingly innocuous language was sponsored and inserted by former Wyoming Senator Craig Thomas.  It went under the radar so to speak, and no one took exception at that time because few were even aware of it, and fewer still understood the facts and circumstances surrounding the bells and how they were taken and their history.

In 1998, former Wyoming Governor Stan Hathaway wrote Senator Thomas arguing that it was wrong to keep the bells. Hathaway said the position of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion on this issue is wrong. “As a member of those organizations and as a combat veteran of World War II, I think I have a right to express that opinion.

“If we adopted the same philosophy with respect to Germany and Japan and have no forgiveness of military acts between our nations, we would indeed be asking for more trouble.

“The Germans have forgiven us for the killing of 300,000 people in Dresden bomb raid of 1945. I was on that mission. To hang on to some undefined military principle after 100 years doesn’t make any sense to me or most people of Wyoming.

“I realize that you have taken a position on this issue, but I hope that you will change that position so that we can improve friendship with the Philippines, which was once a protectorate of the United States, and help them celebrate their 100th birthday as free nation.”

The healing process must begin somewhere by someone and thus far it has taken our nation’s heroes of 1942 to include the Forgotten War of Korea and Vietnam to know first-hand the ugly face of war.

The Philippine American war was unavoidable with the then colonial conditions that ended tragically on both sides 116 years ago.