Parable of the Alamo flag and Balangiga bells
By Scott Stroud / email@example.com
March 25, 2011
If the latest attempt to recover the only flag known to have flown at the Alamo in 1836 doesn't remind you of the Bells of Balangiga, maybe it should.
The bells hung at a church in the Philippines until 1901. That's when they were seized by U.S. troops following an especially bloody exchange after the Philippines became an American territory.
The Philippine government and the Catholic Diocese of Borongan want them back. As with the flag that once flew over the Alamo, they've been asking for quite some time.
Just like the New Orleans Greys flag, which Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna seized and sent back to Mexico after his troops stormed the Alamo, the bells were claimed by the U.S. as war booty.
The Alamo flag is on display in the Museo Nacional de Historia, at Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City. Two of the bells hang at Warren AFB in Cheyenne, Wyo., while the third, according to published reports, stays with the military regiment that captured it. That would be the 9th Infantry Mechanized Regiment of the 2nd Infantry Division, now stationed in Korea.
Lt. Brooke Brzozowske of the Warren AFB public affairs office said it receives at least one inquiry a year about the bells, but she said their return would require congressional approval.
“It seems every year that Congress has said, ‘Nope, we're not giving them back,'” she said.
Texas Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, who revived the Alamo flag fight by sponsoring new legislation directing Gov. Rick Perry's office to negotiate the purchase or lease of the Alamo flag from Mexico, hadn't heard of the Bells of Balangiga.
He wasn't worked up about the contradictory positions, though he chuckled when I mentioned them. He just thinks passions have cooled enough on the Alamo that something can be done about the flag.
Bruce Winders, the Alamo historian and curator, hadn't heard of the bells, either, but didn't care to take up either fight.
“If everybody starts demanding their lost war trophies, where does it end?” he said. “If they would like to give it back, that's one thing. But we're not saying they're not nice people if they don't give it back.”
That's the kind of reasonable stance that has no place in our current political discourse — which brings me to what makes this fascinating. It's nothing if not an allegory for modern American politics.
Ours is an era in which one president claims broad authority to make war, prompting howls from the other side that he's defying the Constitution. Then an election comes along, the tribes switch roles, and the same thing happens in reverse, more or less.
Other examples of shape-shifting abound — on trade, war, the right of the Senate to hold up nominations or do anything without 60 votes, on runaway government spending. What you say at any given time depends less on what you think than which club you're in.
I'm not trying to defend either side here, at least not right now. Both shamelessly assume we'll forget the last go-round. But it all boils down to which group you're rooting for in the first place — which brings us right back to the flag and the bells.
So we Americans tend to think the Alamo flag should be returned to its rightful owner because it was taken from us. And the bells should stay right where they are because American soldiers earned them with their blood.
Incompatible truths, maybe, but still the kind of thing we hold to be self-evident.
Which says more about our ability to rationalize than our actual powers of firstname.lastname@example.org
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