I recently finished reading Gregg Jones’ new book, Honor in the Dust, Theodore Roosevelt, War in the Philippines and the Rise and Fall of America’s Imperial Dream (New American Library, 427 pages). Amply footnoted and bibliographied, this book is a great read if you are interested in the history of American involvement in the Spanish-American War, the Boxer Rebellion and the subsequent campaign to quiet the insurrection against American occupation of the Philippine Islands in the late 1890s through the early 1900s.
Reminiscent of Civil War historian Shelby Foote, Jones’ writing style is narrative and as such we are right there in the jungles, in the villages, in the White House as we learn of all the Byzantine events, both in combat and politics, that took place in those years. Not the stuff of dry and tedious historical narrative, this book is intensely intimate in the incidents, the emotions and entanglements it describes
We meet a wide cast of characters, Theodore Roosevelt, Frederick Funston, Arthur MacArthur, Emilio Aguinaldo, Littleton Waller, Geronimo, William McKinley, Nelson Miles. two-time Congressional Medal of Honor winner and Marine Corps officer, Smedley Darlington Butler, and William Jennings Bryan, just to name a few.
The United States, at the time this book describes, was a rising international power and wanted to flex its muscles and help spread democracy. (Sound somewhat familiar to certain events following 9/11?) The USA boasted a robust burst of growth and enlightenment and felt it imperative to share the benefits of American Democracy with the world, especially the downtrodden and enchained people of the old Spanish Empire: Guam, Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines.
In Jones’ narrative, we learn that the population majority of the Philippines thought we were coming to throw the Spanish out so they could create their own form of government. They wanted us to come in, defeat the Spaniards and then leave. I think I recall hearing something similar to this when we went into Iraq. They wanted us to go in, get rid of Saddam Hussein, and then leave. And herein resides one of the most important notions (in my opinion) about Honor in the Dust: History, as Santayana and Hegel believed, tends to repeat itself.
In 1898, we didn’t leave the Philippines as soon as we defeated the Spanish. We became involved in a protracted guerilla war with a well organized Philippine resistance generaled by then president of the short-lived Philippine Republic, Emilio Aguinaldo. Jones’ renditions of the grueling grind of the war, the weather and terrain, the personalities of the people involved, puts the reader ringside, so to speak, to torture, murder, pillage, misery, misunderstanding and no-holds-barred politics.
By the end of the insurrection and the surrender of the Philippine rebels, America’s dreams of Imperial might were battered, tattered and for the short term abandoned. Brave and famous Marine and Army officers were tried and in several cases convicted of what were basically charges of torture. President Theodore Roosevelt, a champion of American involvement in the affairs of countries cast far and wide over this planet was chastened by what he learned about the necessities of subduing a large country with determined resistance in a hostile environment.
But we weren’t chastened long (and here, again, I venture into my own opinions). After (and before) our experience in World War I, we sent the Marines into Haiti, Nicaragua and any number of other tropical destinations to put down Insurrectos.
Major General Smedley Butler, the above referenced two-time Congressional Medal of Honor awardee, had the following to say about his service in these various wars:
“I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912 (where have I heard that name before?). I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.”
In Vietnam, my war, we also fought a protracted conflict with charges leveled against American warriors of torture, murder, and pillage, some of which, as in the case of the My Lai massacre, resulted in officers of the United States Army being court martialed and convicted of crimes.
For example, in Iraq we had events at Abu Ghraib and in Afghanistan we had Marines urinating on corpses and alleged murders of families by Army personnel, all symptoms, I think, of our military’s frustrations with the difficulties of fighting in guerilla-type conflicts. And in the cases of Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan, I see parallels with Gregg Jones’ story of the war in the Philippines. Young men are sent to far off countries that we think we are helping, only to become part of a protracted, vicious, guerilla war.
In war, bad things happen, innocent people get killed. What domestic and international politics require, the battle cannot produce. Often the combatants are reduced to involvement in internecine fights that are degraded to the lowest common denominators of horror, viciousness and torture. Not to say that the opposite doesn’t happen, too, because it does. In war, (and I speak here from my own experience) the best about humanity also comes out.
Yet, whether in the Philippines, Vietnam or Afghanistan, the horror that happens on the ground seems to repeat itself. And I wonder if we ever learn anything from the past.
As Hegel said, history repeats itself and as Santayana says, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” But why? The 19th Century American philosopher and thinker, Ralph Waldo Emerson, may have figured out why: “The persons who make up a nation to-day, next year die, and their experience dies with them.”
Again, the book’s title is Honor in the Dust, Theodore Roosevelt, War in the Philippines and the Rise and Fall of America’s Imperial Dream. As you read Gregg Jones’ well-composed prose, I think you will be thinking about the past, the present and future of America’s foreign involvements.