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On Barbed Wires, a Pointed Look

In the almost fifty years of American occupation of the Philippines, from 1898 to1946, one aspect of the Filipinos’ way of life which was not shaded by “Western” culture was the nonuse of barbed wire for fencing. Fences, as used in the agricultural areas, are constructed not only to define perimeters of ownership but also to ward off stray animals or to keep pets, chicken, or pigs in. Materials used are mostly bamboo trunks for posts and strips of bamboo to fill spaces in-between. In the big cities in urban areas, especially in Makati City, cemented or brick walls are commonly seen, built primarily for privacy or to warn unwanted guests or intruders. In both cases, barbed wires are never parts of the enclosures.

Barbed wire, or the use of them, is anathema in Philippine culture. Their presence alone in a friendly neighborhood almost always signals malicious intent of the property owners. They are designed to inflict harm. One advice given to me by my father, in my growing-up years in Punta, a small village in Central Manila, was never to go near any structure using barbed wire. Of course, the people in that village were far away from any sight of the barbed wires, never a part of the local scenery. But what I did see was a strand, measuring three feet long with a wooden handle, kept by a village elder to be used as a whip against stray mad dogs.

How that village elder came to own a strand of harmful wires was a story in itself. As relayed by my father, the village elder came upon that strand when he was strolling around a bombed-out building, part of a textile factory complex, used as a camp by U.S. Army engineers at the conclusion of the liberation of Manila during the Second World War. The village elder was aware of what the strand was, a part of something he felt was “devilish” by design. The Village elder, my father said, then carefully picked it up, using his pocket handkerchief to wrap around the sharp points, and headed home in a huff. My father said that the elder kept the whip he had fashioned out of the strand available for use by his next-door neighbors.

Barbed wire, along with their harmful effects, came to the Philippines during the “pacification” campaigns against the native insurgents by the U.S. military forces immediately after the conclusion of the Spanish-American War in 1898. The Spanish soldiers, in the same war, had used them as defensive measures during the siege of Santiago, in Puerto Rico. Widely used also during the opening of the “Western Frontiers” in the southern United States, barbed wire, also known as bobbed wire, is a type of steel fencing wire knotted with sharp edges or points arranged at intervals along strands. Anyone daring to pass through or over barbed wire risks discomfort or multiple personal injuries. The American “pioneers” or settlers, especially the cowboys and the “rancheros” learned how to use and avoid barbed wire as they appropriated acres of virgin lands for their own use. To them, barbed wires were useful tools in restraining cattle.

The creeping presence and attendant harmful effects of barbed wire in the Philippines in the 1900s were halted by a declared prohibition of their use by Ordinance No. 19 enacted by the Municipal Board of the City of Manila on February 6, 1902. The prohibition covered any fence or barrier constructed of barbed wire or “any wire having projecting prongs, barbs, or tines” along street, alley, public walk or drive, public park, or on any land owned by the City of Manila. The Ordinance further stated that such fence or barrier had to be removed within 30 days of notification. Violation was punishable by a fine of $100 or imprisonment for six months, or both. Today’s unpopularity of barbed wire is traceable to this legal prohibition and also to the high costs of their uses.

Fences using wires with sharp edges or points were first introduced in France, later to be modified by an American who saw the possibility of its patented commercial uses in deterring animals in cattle ranches. More patents in the U.S. followed. Ranchers in the 1860s who had moved out on the plains needed to fence their land against encroaching farmers, stray animals, and other ranchers. Traditional materials used in the other parts of the U.S., like wood and stone, were deemed too expensive to use in large open spaces of the plains. A cost-effective alternative, barbed wire, was introduced and later applied to make cattle operations profitable. The cultural effects of this was the eventual surge of Hollywood’s productions of “Western” movies in the 1950s. Who could ever forget John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, and of course, Clint Eastwood?

The U.S. forces’ entry into the First World War in 1915 saw the extensive use of barbed wire in the battlefronts to prevent troop movements. Barbed wire entanglements were placed in front of trenches also to prevent direct hits by enemy bombardments on the soldiers below. The bad consequences of this placement was the introduction and use of more advanced weapons, including machine guns, grenades, and tanks. Barbed wires were used extensively in concentration camps to contain prisoners of war. During the Second World War, Japanese prisoners were contained in camps enclosed by barbed wire. German Nazis in Europe in 1930s and 1940s used electrified barbed wires in concentration camps and in infirmaries in extermination camps, including Auschwitz. The remnants of the Death March of hungry and physically-abused Filipino and American soldiers made the impossible trek from Bataan to the concentration camp in Nueva Ecija which was enclosed in barbed wire.

Wire fencing, without the use of barbed wire, is an effective enclosure to deter property encroachments by malevolent persons and wild animals. Wire fences using smooth wires, electric, welded wire mesh, and “chicken” wire, when designed properly and artistically can be an assurance of peace and comfort to property owners, especially in the Philippines where nonuse of the harmful barbed wires has been a positive cultural experience.


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