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.
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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.
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