Review: Honor in the Dust

I really enjoyed James Loewen’s books about how we record and pass on history.  One of the points he made was how few books there are that chronicle the US war in the Philippines, so I decided that when one came up on my radar I’d be sure to have a look.  Enter Gregg Jones and Honor in the Dust, which discusses Roosevelt, that war, and US imperialism.

Jones does a nice job corralling his facts and following the chronology of the conflict.  He tracks the US’s grab for Cuba and the almost incidental grab for the Philippines in support of their revolutionaries.  It is a good place to start as it frames Roosevelt’s character and support for military intervention well against the times before getting into the dirty details of the Philippine War.

The details are pretty dirty, and not at all surprising to any 21st century observer.  US soldiers in a hostile and grueling environment are ordered to use extreme measures to put down insurrections lead by desperate guerrilla fighters.  Slaughter, torture, and betrayal abound, and when these actions come to light the high command denies everything.  Except that with more than 100 years of time and investigation there is much stronger consensus about the misdeeds committed and the origin of them. It makes for depressing reading, especially when it rings so much like foreshadowing.

Jones has his facts straight and writes clearly, but there is a lack of urgency to his narrative.  Events proceed inevitably but there is little tension.  Some of this may be due to a desire not to oversensationalize the events, which are quite appalling enough without embellishment.  Some of it may be that Theodore Roosevelt, the most larger-than-life of the players, disengages quite a bit from the war itself as he becomes president.  And perhaps some of the lack of tension is that we know that the public and military are going to largely forget about the lessons that the war teaches.  Whatever the reason, the narrative flags somewhat in the later part of the book.

This is important, gut-wrenching stuff to know about, but to an extent it feels like literary vegetables.  It is nutritious but does not go down easy.


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