Honor in the Dust
The historical lessons of Gregg Jones's exhaustively researched book about the US's campaign in the Philippines deserve to be remembered.
George Santayana, the eminent Harvard philosophy professor, novelist, and poet is widely known for his prescient observation: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” However, his lesser-known, but similarly poignant quote, “Only the dead have seen the end of war” is just as applicable in Gregg Jones’ extraordinary new history of America’s campaign for conquest of the Philippines, Honor in the Dust.
Jones’s extensive research details the efforts of United States Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt to subdue the Filipinos following America’s defeat of their previous occupier, Spain, in the Spanish-American War of 1898. His account dovetails perfectly with two other recent books about contemporaneous events: Julia Flynn Siler’s "Lost Kingdom" – about American colonialism in Hawaii – and Evan Thomas’s "The War Lovers," about US adventurism in Cuba. One of Jones’s main theses is one pre-eminent world powers struggle with to this day: that the line dividing liberation and conquest of less powerful nations often becomes blurry and can move with the ease of sharpened skates on fresh ice.
Jones has devoted nearly 60 pages of footnotes to carefully and explicitly document this period of true ignominy for America, which in numerous ways acted as a template for later American incursions into Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Probably the most vivid and startling revelation Jones makes involves a controversial wartime tactic employed against Filipino combatants called the “water cure” – a form of simulated drowning similar to present-day waterboarding –
which, despite its adherents’ claims that its effects were innocuous, was vehemently denounced by detractors as torture.
The book’s central character is Theodore Roosevelt who, from before the time he had completed his education at Harvard University, had already formed the “expansionist” mindset he would maintain and advance throughout his lifetime. In a post as New York City Police Commissioner, he was intent on making his mark on the national political stage. Roosevelt’s friendship with Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge was instrumental in securing him an appointment by President William McKinley as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under John D. Long. The ambitious and energetic Roosevelt took advantage of Long’s relative
inactivity to build up naval forces and aggressively push for confrontation with Spain in the Caribbean. In Cuba, as in the Philippines, armed nationalist revolt grew out of 350 years of Spanish exploitation and misrule.
Roosevelt, haunted by the constant and embarrassing specter of his father’s having hired a substitute to serve for him in the Civil War, believed strongly that by not only advocating but participating in military action, he could reclaim his family’s sullied reputation. But Roosevelt went even farther than that. In speeches about the initial campaign in Cuba, he assailed “the unintelligent, cowardly chatter for peace at any price”, and that such beliefs would produce “a flabby, timid type of character which eats away the great fighting features of our race.” Not only that, he added that “the clamor of the peace faction has convinced me that this country needs a war.”
No one who staked a more moderate position on attacking the Spaniards was safe from Roosevelt’s taunts. President McKinley, who had distinguished himself in the Civil War – rising to the rank of Major in the process – stated “I have seen war ... I have seen the dead bodies piled up, and I do not want another.” His declaration, “Observe good faith and justice toward all nations [and] cultivate peace toward all” was met with angry dismissal from Roosevelt, who huffed that McKinley had “no more backbone than a chocolate éclair.”
The Cuban incursion, dubbed “a splendid little war” by then Secretary of State John Hay, was not an unqualified success; for instance, in capturing both San Juan Heights and El Caney, Americans lost 205 men to the Spaniards’ 215. And they suffered nearly three times the number of wounded. However, the cavalry Roosevelt had hand-picked to serve with him, the “Rough Riders,” acquitted themselves remarkably well, and their bravery was captured by numerous journalists - among them author Stephen Crane, whose novel "The Red Badge of Courage" was a stark reminder of the moral and psychological complexities of war. At the time, Crane (or "Little Stevey", as he was affectionately referred to) was corresponding for Joseph Pulitzer's New York World.
But as relatively faithful as Crane's dispatches had been, the bombasts of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst resembled a Petri dish of yellow journalism - busily "infecting Americans with war fever." Hearst, who just a few months prior to the war's commencement had audaciously inserted himself in the news by allegedly "rescuing a Cuban damsel whose imprisonment had become a cause celebre in the United States", now piloted his yacht Buccaneer to Santiago Bay, bringing with him a correspondent, Karl Decker, and a team of Edison Company cameramen to film the war for New York theatre newsreels.
The Americans emerged victorious in the Cuban theater largely under the leadership of rotund and gout-ridden General William Rufus Shafter – prevailing chiefly through timely support by the battleship Indiana, which relieved Shafter's pinned-down American ground forces and led a blockade that smashed the inferior Spanish fleet led by Admiral Pascual Cervera. With this victory, the McKinley administration, largely through the aggressiveness of the peripatetic Roosevelt and his ally in the US Senate, Henry Cabot Lodge, was led to press its advantage in securing the Philippines. The archipelago was looked upon as an important strategic outpost, and as much as wanting to "liberate" it, Roosevelt wanted to prevent it from instead becoming a British, Russian, or German protectorate.
While Roosevelt's sudden and powerful celebrity earned in Cuba was helping him bulldoze a trench leading inexorably to the Philippines, the political war for the conscience of America raged. Indianapolis attorney Albert Jeremiah Beveridge charismatically and bombastically orated in favor of America colonizing the islands. In doing so, Beveridge asserted, China would become the grand prize, with America sitting on its very doorstep. Admiral George Dewey, who had served with Admiral David Farragut, was sent to Manila Bay to pacify the existing Spanish fleet. It wasn't long before he had successfully achieved victory, for which he received salutary praise – most notably (and resoundingly) from Roosevelt.
However, in places like Massachusetts, another movement ran counter to empire-builders like Roosevelt and Beveridge. In addition to the liberal reformers known as "Mugwumps," the dissenters included some prominent Republicans, including Massachusetts Senior Senator George Frisbie Hoar. Hoar was backed by, among others, industrialist Andrew Carnegie, former President Grover Cleveland and labor leader Samuel Gompers, and sought to counter the imperialist and "unconstitutional" objectives of those intent on subjugating Filipino self-rule and independence. In their unsuccessful opposition to the 1899 Treaty of Paris, critics warned against arousing the same kind of colonial antipathy the Filipinos felt toward the Spanish. Spain balked at the US terms of surrendering the archipelago, but after promising to pay $20 million to the economically bereft Spaniards, the US government secured their reluctant signature on the treaty.
It wasn't long before tensions in Manila arose to the boiling point, and soon America had another fight on its hands. American ground troops led by, among others, battle-hardened and combative Colonel Fred Funston of Kansas and General Arthur MacArthur, were repeatedly stymied trying to decisively tamp down the forces of Filipino General Emilio Aguinaldo, who, after enduring the ravages of several months of fighting, decided to move from conventional to "guerrilla" warfare, which "placed a premium on ... familiarity with the local terrain and its population, a war without fronts or fixed positions." Though Aguinaldo was later captured, this network of small guerrilla bands persisted in frustrating American forces through intimidation of US informants, setting booby traps, and staging surprise attacks.
The arrival in Manila of veteran Marine Captain Littleton (Tony) Waller in December of 1899 was both propitious and foreboding for the American campaign. Initially, the Marines did their part in trying to fulfill President McKinley's call for "benevolent assimilation of the Filipinos," and helped them to establish local municipal governments and schools. But just as quickly, Waller and his men were re-deployed to China, where they were to join a multinational (including Japanese, Russian, German, and Welsh troops) expeditionary force in Peking to quell what was being called the "Boxer Rebellion" against foreign occupation. Waller's Marines distinguished themselves in the campaign, but this did nothing to mute the increasingly volatile political atmosphere this prolonged military involvement was causing in Washington.
The election of 1900 was looming, and mounting US casualties and inability to pacify the Filipinos emboldened McKinley's opponents, including the populist candidate for president, William Jennings Bryan. However, the soft-spoken Nebraska lawyer's oratory skill was no match for (now Vice Presidential candidate) Roosevelt's fiery and frequent rants from the campaign stump, and along with Bryan's, the anti-imperialists' opposition soon waned, while McKinley's Republican
party sped toward victory in November's elections. This emboldened Roosevelt and his allies, and through the recommendations of a Philippines field commander and Roosevelt correspondent, Major John Henry Parker, Roosevelt advocated for the justification of increasingly severe measures against Filipino soldiers by a more "strict" reading of the US military's guide to rules of war, called General Orders 100. This, in Parker's estimation, "authorized the summary execution of murderers, part-time guerrillas, highway robbers, spies, conspirators and other violent elements." As Parker asserted, the administration's current strategy of civilized warfare was "the fundamental obstruction to complete pacification."
Aside from the graphic depictions of the "water cure," which Captain Edwin Forbes Glenn was beginning to order against Filipino captives, Jones saves his most searing indictment of rogue American military actions for a series of incidents that took place in the fall of 1901. Earlier that September, William McKinley had been assassinated, Theodore Roosevelt had assumed the presidency, and by that time, American frustrations with Filipino intransigence had accelerated occurrences of, for example, the routine burning of entire villages in retaliation for Filipino attacks. Guerrilla activity subsided as a result, but still the Americans couldn't extinguish the conflict.
On September 28th, 1901, a US military contingent in the Samar Island village of Balanciga, Company C, was ambushed, resulting in 48 casualties, and had left the Balancigans a cache of weaponry – "a haul like nothing the lightly armed Samar resistance had ever seen." Roosevelt, fearing the loss of his presidency over this "massacre," ordered that the resistance be "crushed," and this resulted in the appointment of Colonel Jacob Hurd "Hell-roaring Jake" Smith to that effort. A man Jones calls "one of the most colorful scoundrels ever to wear the uniform," Smith dramatically accelerated the more severe punishments the new reading of the military guide sanctioned. This included ordering the killing of any male over 10 years old capable of carrying a weapon. Tony Waller, whose Marines had since returned to the region, was slightly more generous – establishing the age at 12 years.
On December 28, 1901, basking in an earlier victory in the Samar village of Sohoton, Waller received clearance from Smith to take 55 Marines on a trek across the island for establishing a network of US outposts. Enthusiasm led inevitably to disillusionment and concern as Waller's lack of preparation, the arrival of the rainy season, and heavy vegetation slowed the men's pace to a crawl. Starvation and disease would later befall them, and inevitably, the band could proceed no longer as a group. Captain David Dixon Porter and Waller proceeded to split their forces. Waller, fortunate to have been rescued by colleagues, traveled up the Lanang River to an outpost at Basey, and readied relief parties for his fellow Marines.
While in Basey, Waller received a call from Porter saying there were 11 treasonous Filipinos he was bringing up. Porter and fellow officer John Henry Quick had convinced Waller that the men, "bearers" and scouts, had tried to kill their Marines. Waller ordered them shot, without trial or investigation, in Basey's central plaza. News of the killings reached Washington, as well as the media, and led to increased public concern over the conduct of American troops in the Philippines which Roosevelt would finally find unavoidable to address. The Washington Post, for instance, reported that in Luzon, US Brigadier General J. Franklin Smith had forced civilians into resettlement camps. And now, beloved humorist Mark Twain was distinguishing himself as one of Roosevelt's harshest critics while continuing to "crank out pamphlets and books denouncing America's actions in the islands."
The Senate was "goaded" into holding hearings on the alleged abuses, and faced with the daily drip of disclosures of even more extensive abuses having taken place in the islands, Roosevelt and his Secretary of War, Elihu Root, were put on the defensive, struggling to provide counter-evidence that the actions of US soldiers should be seen in a "broader" context against the brutality that American soldiers had to face at the hands of "savages". As Roosevelt put it: "In a fight with savages, where the savages themselves perform deeds of hideous cruelty, a certain proportion of whites are sure to do the same thing." Finally, Secretary Root, who continued to hear reports of cruelty committed by Americans, and on March 4, 1902, Marine commander Tony Waller was court-martialed on charges of murdering Filipino prisoners, and though he would eventually escape conviction, as did Major Edwin Glenn, others such as "Jake" Smith would be convicted – though in Smith's case, even superficial punishment was not forthcoming.
Roosevelt and Root now did an about-face on the issue, no longer able to place blame for the revelations on "the fabrications of anti-imperialist zealots and opportunistic Democrats." General Adna Chaffee, the administration's point officer in the islands, proceeded to step up his revelations of even more abuses, and was now being ordered to "accelerate punishment of misconduct." General Nelson Miles traveled to the islands to gather additional evidence of military atrocities, which revealed the "water cure" being applied to Catholic priests and other non-combatants, and other actions by the torture's chief practitioners, General Robert Hughes and his deputies Glenn and Lieutenant Arthur L. Conger, Jr. But by the time Miles' report was received and released by Secretary Root, public apathy had given it all the force of a balloon landing on a pillow. Roosevelt was later easily re-elected to a second term, and went on to accomplish the establishment of an extensive national park system, as well as social and other important reforms.
Jones, in his "Epilogue," notes that other historians have given the Philippine campaign and its ramifications little attention, and that this might be understandable given "all [Roosevelt's] great achievements in the six years that followed"; but that Roosevelt himself in his memoirs mentioned the archipelago only nine times in a 600-page book and thus "helped create the void in American memories." The exhaustive amount of original research Jones has done has admirably helped to close that void. "Honor in the Dust" is a work of monumental consequence, and its important historical lessons, though they've been frequently unheeded by subsequent administrations, are in any case most worthy of remembrance.
Chris Hartman is a Monitor contributor.