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Our Painful Birth as a World Power

The U.S. military proved itself in the Philippine jungle but at great cost.

By 3.7.12

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Honor in the Dust: Theodore Roosevelt, War in the Philippines, and the Rise and Fall of America’s Imperial Dream
By Gregg Jones
(New American Library, 430 pages, $26.95)

The story of the Spanish-American War has its roots in Guantanamo Bay, in scandalous military abuses by our boys far from home, in water torture and acrimonious political debates. The reader is thus vaulted straight into the present.

Texas journalist Gregg Jones does not have to force history to resonate.  His new book Honor in the Dust shows how war can divide a nation and how soldiers’ brutality will always be with us. By turns, I had to struggle to avoid substituting Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan as the real story behind Jones’s narrative.

Jones’s meticulous research breathes life into a wide array of hundred-year-old court transcripts, yellowed newspaper clippings, previous books, War Department reports and letters home from both the Cuban and Philippine campaigns in this forgotten war. Many of the soldiers were young and inexperienced except for skirmishes in the American West against Comanches and Apaches.

But the Spanish-American war, we now can say with hindsight, represented more than a dispute with Spain.  It satisfied the American thirst for global influence that had been gathering force for decades in a large portion of society. Now the expansionists had found their opportunity. For better or worse, the United States sent in the Navy, then the Marines and the Army, and has never really looked back.

This book is only the latest in a virtual cottage industry of previous book-length attempts to make sense of the Americans’ first efforts to project their power internationally. None of the earlier books gives us what Jones has dug up: graphic accounts of atrocities on both sides.

The Spanish-American war -- which liberated Cuba and expelled the Spanish from the Philippines -- was characterized at home as  “a splendid little war” and “a dirty little war” to others.

But the old world in Europe was watching closely as the U.S. showed off its muscle, first in Cuba to support an independence movement, then in the Pacific theater, placing both Hawaii and the Philippines under American control by 1900. The old colonial superstructure for world affairs was crumbling.

Gregg describes this historical turning point in ringing tones: “With its powerful ships and brave soldiers, its material wealth and industrial might, the United States had humiliated a once-great European power. Its claim to world-class status no longer in doubt, American marched confidently onto the global stage.”

Jones’s journalistic punch puts a fast pace on his style as a war historian. This makes for a ripping read -- facts and context interspersed with the smells and sounds of jungle warfare. Periodically he makes deft transitions back to Washington, where President William McKinley dithered, then his successor Theodore Roosevelt took the reins after McKinley’s assassination. He backs up his story with 57 pages of notes.

The raw American troops had much to learn as the Filipino foe invented his own brand of guerrilla warfare. Jones uncovered letters home that indicate the U.S. troops “lived in terror of capture” by the Filipinos, much as General Custer’s trapped troops at Little Bighorn had preferred a quick suicide to Indian captivity.

Readers will be transported to Vietnam and the Middle East by descriptions of Filipino strategy as “a war without fronts or fixed positions.” Filipino soldiers would dress in peasant garb to “blend in with villagers and townsfolk, awaiting opportune moments to strike.” The Americans responded in kind. Dwellings and rice crops were burned, unarmed civilians were mowed down and summary executions were staged to terrorize the population.

The Greeks and the Romans were no saints, but the Filipinos brought something new to the war zone. They slashed and dismembered the sometimes naïve Americans in hand-to-hand encounters with an unexpected fury. In return, the Americans used “enhanced interrogation” techniques to figure out what to expect next. Prime among them was water torture, a method learned from Filipino collaborators who had learned it from the Spanish, who in turn inherited it from the Spanish Inquisition dating back to the 15th century.

Jones describes the interrogation of one prominent Panay Island villager in detail, based on eyewitness descriptions. The man’s hands were bound behind his back and he was thrust to the floor under a large water tank. His mouth braced open with a stick, he was then forced to swallow large quantities of water from the spigot. The American soldiers pounded on his swollen, rigid abdomen until he vomited. “His stomach now empty, the torture began anew,” Jones writes.

American policymakers in Washington were unaware of the brutality of this war, Jones writes. Field reports from commanders were uniformly optimistic. Indeed, President McKinley was already giving voice to the American dream of giving “little brown people” an opportunity to become “devoted to the arts of peace, in touch with the commerce and trade of all nations, enjoying the blessings of freedom, civil and religious liberty, of education, and of homes.” They would strive forward “in the pathway of the world’s best civilization,” McKinley intoned. Jones makes much of the irony of these conflicting positions.

The morality of American intervention was always controversial. Opposition attracted the support of former President Grover Cleveland, Andrew Carnegie, and perhaps the most articulate of critics, Mark Twain. Trials for war crimes eventually cast a shadow over the Philippines campaign.

Jones manages an even-handed narrative of this bitter period and notes that even Teddy Roosevelt ultimately wondered whether the cost of imperial power might be greater than its benefits. At one point he even said, “America’s dream of empire had passed.”

Although Jones does not say so, World War II changed all that.

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About the Author

Michael Johnson spent 17 years at McGraw-Hill, including six years as a news executive in New York. He now writes from Bordeaux in France.