Printer Friendly

Sitting in darkness: Americans in the Philippines.

Upon finishing this wonderful if slightly flawed book, one is seized by a desire to invite its subject, Gen. Frederick Funston, and its author, David Haward Bain, over for an evening. Despite Bain's antipathy to everything that General Funston represents, I suspect they would get on famously. They share a love of adventure, of ideas and of slightly exaggerating their own exploits, though those exploits would be impressive enough without exaggeration. I had not heard of either man before, but if Sitting in Darkness gets the attention it deserves, Bain and Funston could make each other household names.

Unfortunately, the dinner could never take place, as General Funston died in 1917, after fifty-one years of highly romantic existence: a childhood on the Wastern frontier in Kansas; service as a government biologist collecting specimens on long, dangerous trips through the wilderness; and finally, embarkation for desperate and exotic missions abroad. Gripped by a sense of national destiny, he conquered all he challenged. For the best and worst reasons, he was a quintessential American hero.

Bain's own research has been equally indefatigable (or plumb lucky). He has come up with a treasure-trove of firsthand accounts by Funston and his contemporaries that bring all those adventures to life. Reading them, one knows it was not really an interest in fauna that drove Funston to risk his life in Death Valley or to get snowbound in Alaska, where he had to eat his sled dogs before he was rescued by Eskimos. He clearly loved those those adventures for their own sake. And if one remains a touch skeptical about the exact degree of Funston's peril--if one suspects that maybe he knew a quick way out of the woods in case the Eskimos didn't show up on time--he becomes all the more lovable for the scope of his legend.

Lovable, that is, until he carries his adventurism to war. But even then, Funston seems to enjoy stacking the deck against himself to insure the natives some semblance of a fair fight. That was his style. His causes, however, are a different matter, and they get the criticism they deserve in this book. The general fought to conquer Cuba and--the main subject matter of this book--the Philippines. Funston and his Washington counterpart, Theodore Roosevelt, no doubt considered those the proudest moments of American history. They weren't.

Americans still teach their young that Admiral George Dewey won the Philippines from the Spanish during a glorious battle in Manila Bay. As Bain describes the battle, however, the Spanish "fleet" was seven armorless ships whose fate was so hopeless before even a shot was fired that the Spanish admiral parked them in the shallowest waters of the bay to keep the sailors from drowning when they sank.

No, the Philippines were won from the Filipinos, in wars that took considerably longer than Dewey's duck shoot against the Spanish. Once again, Bain lets the story be told by those who lived it. A soldier from upstate New York explains:

Last night one of our boys was found shot and his stomach cut open. Immediately orders were received from General Wheaton to burn the town and kill every native in sight; which was done to a finish. About 1,000 men, women and children were reported killed. I am probably growing hard-hearted, for I am in my glory when I can sight my gun on some dark skin and pull the trigger.

The final victory, which Funston planned and carried out, was over Emilio Aguinaldo, the president of the short-lived Phillippine republic, who fled to remote hills to fight a guerrilla campaign with a few hundred followers. There are signs that Bain intended Aguinaldo to be the second major character in the book, a full counterpart to Funston. For whatever reasons, however--cultural differences, or a lack of adequate source material-Aguinaldo never comes to life as do Funston and even Bain.

Bain threw himself into the story by trying to duplicate, with a group of friends, Funston's long march over field and stream, forest and sand, to the remote outpost where he captured Aguinaldo. The book is a series of intertwined passages, first from Funston's day, then from Bain'S. The contemporary stuff sometimes works, but sometimes not, and therein lie the book's flaws, forgivable as they are.

There is a clear attempt here to carry forward the colonial sins of eighty years ago to account for the plight of the Phillippines under Ferdinand Marcos. It doesn't work. Americans have plenty to regret in their policies toward the Philippines, but the policies plaguing us now are those of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, Not Theodore Roosevelt.

Between Roosevelt's mistakes and Reagan's there is a lot of history and even many good deeds. In fact, the poignant thing about the Philippines now is that unlike a lot of the Third World countries that suffer under U.S.-fostered state-socialist dictatorships, the country learned--from us, and our American education system--the value of democracy. unlike the many African nations that experienced the colonialism of European monarchies, for example, Filipinos understand how free government ought to work. They know (at least the generation that grew up before Marcos declared martial law and rewrote the textbooks knows) what it is we have now conspired to take away from them.

An examples of America's benign policy of a few decades ago is that when Aguinaldo gave up his fight, the was allowed to return home and live comfortably to a ripe old age, surviving Funston himself by three decades. Eventually Aguinaldo participated in the independent democracy the United States briefly bestowed on the islands before and again World War II.

Bain's effort to describe the current situation in Manila is unexeptional journalism, not up to his history. His firsthand observations don't have the depth of his research and read like anecdotes pulled together during a short stay overseas. They often miss the point. Great as it is, his account of his group's adventures on the trail of Funston should have been pared down. Their risk of death from starvation and "savage pygmies" seems exaggerated. On the other hand, Freddie Funston would have desired no less from his biographer: a hero, even if a little of the heroism is supplied by a creative pen. If it isn't the political expose one expects, Siting in Darkness is, nevertheless, a tale of great people, wonderfully told.
COPYRIGHT 1984 The Nation Company L.P.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1984 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Kwitny, Jonathan
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1984
Previous Article:"Primitivism" in 20th Century Art.
Next Article:Confessions of a Taoist on Wall Street.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters