Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Honor in the Dust: Theodore Roosevelt, War in the Philippines, and the Rise and Fall of America's Imperial Dream by Gregg Jones

Have you ever wondered when it was that the United States turned into a world power?  In 1898, Spain was trying to repress independence in its colonies and the US sent the warship Maine to Havana to keep an eye on this. The ship exploded and the US invaded Cuba with Roosevelt and his Rough Riders. Roosevelt also led the portion of public opinion that felt it was time for the US to take a role in world affairs. That led us to the Philippines, Spain's other major remaining colony and a strategic location for a country that wanted to exert power overseas.

What stood in the way was that the Filipinos were already fighting a war of independence. At first we were uneasy allies in ejecting Spain, but soon it became clear that the United States had no intention of supporting Philippine independence. In addition to US ambitions to become a world power, the prevailing racism of the time persuaded many Americans that people with darker skins were incapable of self government. In fact, many of the military officers sent to the Philippines were veterans from the Confederacy or the Indian Wars. I learned that Gen. Arthur MacArthur served in the Philippines before his son.

Nevertheless, many other Americans felt that it contradicted our principles to create colonies or to suppress another people's struggle for independence. Some feared “The White Man's Burden” that Rudyard Kipling praised in his poem. Mark Twain was vocal in opposition with his sarcasticTo the Person Sitting in Darkness.”  The 1900 election served as a referendum on the question, with Roosevelt campaigning hard for his vision of the US as a world leader.  McKinley was re-elected with Roosevelt as his vice-president, and then McKinley was assassinated. 

But the war dragged on, even after Philippine president Emilio Aguinaldo was captured. As frequently happens, guerrilla tactics led to retaliation and atrocities. Insufficient troops meant that, “From the beginning, the American pacification effort had been plagued by the inability to provide security to locals under their nominal control.”  Efforts to “bring civilization,” like building schools for the peasants, were undermined by the use of torture in interrogation and execution without trial. “The expansionists had waved their banner of exceptionalism and claimed divine guidance in their quest for empire. Now knowledge that America's soldiers had behaved no differently from the brutal Europeans devastated righteous men.”

The upshot was a series of court martial trials. The author particularly focuses on the career and trial of Marine Major Littleton Waller Tazewell Waller from Tidewater Virginia who had been a hero during the Boxer Rebellion in China. Many of the same arguments about conduct in war are being re-argued in the wake of our wars in the Middle East.  President Roosevelt was particularly incensed by Southern segregationists who opposed the Philippine war and in his Memorial Day address in 1902 said, “From time to time there occur in our country, to the deep and lasting shame of our people, lynchings carried on under circumstances of inhuman cruelty and barbarity, cruelty infinitely worse than any that has ever been committed by our troops in the Philippines.” 

Jones leaves it to the reader to extrapolate the lessons of history and apply them to the foreign policy of today. Still, his selection of people and events to include is not neutral. Other books in the catalog look at different aspects of the Philippine War.  In Sitting in Darkness David Haward Bain follows Funston's path to the remote village where he captured Aguinaldo. He has more photos, both from the war and from his 1982 adventure. The Philippine War 1899-1902 by Brian McAllister Linn is a military analysis, quite critical of Aguinaldo as a commander and approving of the US military efforts at nation-building. It was published in 2000, before Middle East wars that influenced Honor in the Dust. Gregg Jones has given us a readable account of a very complex time that offers a fresh perspective on our current situation, a consequence of those decisions a century ago. 


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