I don't believe William Walter Grayson (above) loved war. Instead I think he saw the Spanish American War as a way to escape Nebraska - as any 23 year old might. But because of what he called the “damn bullheadedness” of his commander, sometime after eight on the evening of Saturday, 4 February, 1899, Private Grayson found himself on a three man patrol in the Manilla barrio of Santa Mesa. It was dark, it was hot, it was humid, and it was dangerous. Grayson and his fellow volunteers from Company D suspected they were being used as cannon fodder for the dreams of politicians and generals 10,000 miles away. And they were right.
When most Americans think of the Spanish American War they think of Teddy Roosevelt charging up Cuba's San Juan Hill, and perhaps Commodore George Dewey telling the captain of his flagship, the USS Olympia, “You may fire when ready, Gridley”, just before sinking the Spanish Asiatic fleet. But most remain blissfully ignorant of the 14 year long “Philippine Insurgency”, a war in all but name. It was the test case for an unnecessary war sold to Congress as a crises, a protracted war sold and resold to voters as being on the verge of victory, a war conducted “to Christianize and civilize” the one million Filipinos the Americans killed, a war whose American blood was spilled almost in secret by a small professional army, a war in which the use of torture was endorsed by American commanders and politicians, and a war that is rarely remembered in America, despite the lessons it offers about the dangers of arrogance and ignorance.
In the dark, Private Grayson heard voices speaking Spanish and Tagalog. Being born in England and raised in Nebraska, William had no idea what was being said in either language. And the version of subsequent events handed out to the press under his name has no more validity than the stories invented in the name of Private Jessica Lynch during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.. The only part of Grayson's story that seems plausible is that, hearing voices, his patrol “went to ground”, Grayson (above, posing on the scene, days after the event) called out “Halt!”. The response was a voice calling, “Alto!” Grayson repeated his command, as did his Filipino doppelganger. It seems evident that neither speaker understood the other, so Private Grayson fired into the dark, setting off a general exchange of gunfire that only proved the existence of several thousand frightened, half trained young men on both sides. American casualties were two men from a South Dakota company, probably killed by friendly fire. Filipino dead were uncounted.
Washington's favorite joke about President William McKinley (above, right) was that his mind was like his bed – every morning someone had to make it up for him, before he could use it. But once his mind had been made up by the “Manifest Destiny” wing of his cabinet, he endorsed it, with his “Benevolent Assimilation” policy, intended, he said, “to win the confidence, respect, and affection of...the Philippines....”
However the "young, handsome, patriotic, and brave."Filipino leader Emilio Aguinaldo, having helped the Americans throw out the Spanish, did not like the idea of “assimilation” by anybody. In June of 1898 elections were held for the First Philippine Republic and Aguinaldo was named its first President. In response the Americans told the democratically elected Filipino President his soldiers would be fired upon if they tried to enter the capital of their new country. And that was what all the shooting in the dark was about on 4 February.
The American General Elwell Otis rejected negotiations with President Aguinaldo, saying “fighting, having begun, must go on to the grim end.” This Second Battle of Manila, as it was called, resulted in the Filipino line being smashed, at a cost of 55 American dead. Officially, there were 238 Filipino dead, but a British witness disagreed:. “This is not war;," he wrote, "it is simply massacre and murderous butchery." Only one Filipino soldier in three had a gun. The Americans soldiers, who referred to their opponents as “niggers” and “savages”, piled the Filipino dead into breastworks, and called the battle a “quail shoot”. One wrote home that “It was more fun than shooting turkeys.”
The open fighting pushed the vote, two days later in the American Senate, to ratify the Paris Treaty selling the Philippians to America for $20 million, by one slim vote over the 2/3 majority the Constitution required. Teddy Roosevelt wrote, “I am more grateful than I can say....partly to the Filipinos. They just pulled the treaty through for us.” America was now committed to a war of conquest in east Asia, conducted so far by men like Private Grayson.
On 31 March, 1899, Private William Grayson was hospitalized, suffering from malaria and exhaustion, stomach upset (ulcers) and over exertion – in, short combat fatigue. When he was released two months later he was reassigned as a cook, out of combat. And then in July Grayson and all the volunteers were shipped home for discharge. Grayson left the service in San Francisco, where, on 10 October of 1899, he married Clara Francis Peters. He found work as a house painter and then an undertaker, and never sought to take advantage of his reputation as the man who started a war.
Throughout the summer of 1899, Otis's second in command, General Arthur MacArthur, led 21,000 professional soldiers in a brutal drive north across Luzon. The American Red Cross noted “the determination of our soldiers to kill every native in sight”. Americans took no prisoners, and everyone, men, women and children, not actively working for the Americans was treated as an enemy combatant.
Entire villages were murdered. In November, at Otis' hint, the American government declared the “insurection” was over. Victory parades were held. But many of the professionals had doubts. To McArthur's subordinate, General Shafter, it was a matter not of morality, but practicality. He wrote, “It may be necessary to kill half the Filipinos in order that the remaining half ...may be advanced to a higher plane of life than their present semi-barbarous state affords." In other words, we were killing them for their own good.
By the start of 1900, General Otis was forced to ask Washington for more men. That summer, with American troop levels secretly reaching 75,000, Otis was relieved by General McArthur, who decided to change strategies. Just as the Americans in 2005 judged the capture of Saddam Hussein would end the rebellion, the Americans now concentrated on capturing President Aguinaldo. Both assumptions, made a century apart, were wrong.
The American press were so controlled that during the summer and fall of 1900, it was the soldier's letters home that broke the story of American atrocities against the Filipino people. "On Thursday, March 29th ... eighteen of my company killed seventy-five nigger bolomen and ten of the nigger gunners .... When we find one who is not dead, we have bayonets …"
Lieutenant Grover Flint wrote home to describe the standard method of obtaining information. “A man is thrown down on his back...and then water is poured onto his face down his throat and nose from a jar; and that is kept up until the man gives some sign or becomes unconscious...His sufferings must be that of a man who is drowning, but cannot drown.”
In April, 1901 President Aguinaldo was finally captured. But even after the prisoner signed a loyalty oath to the Americans, the ambushes and acts of sabotage continued, as did the brutal American responses . General McArthur took the hint and resigned, returning to a hero's welcome, and to assure the voters that operations in the Philippians were : "the most legitimate and humane war ever conducted on the face of the earth.”
It was possible to claim American moral superiority because American atrocities not mentioned in official American reports, did not officially happen. However some leaked through. It was under General Adna Chaffee, that the American civilian governor of Abra Province described the new “depopulation campaign”: Residents in entire regions were ordered into “concentration camps”. Those who did not submit were assumed to be rebels. “Whole villages had been burned, storehouses and crops had been destroyed and the entire province was...devoid of food.” Said an anonymous American congressman after a visit, “You never hear of any disturbances in Northern Luzon, because there isn't anybody there to rebel.” . The process was given the military title, “protective retribution.”'
The war would continue, year after year, atrocity after atrocity, declaration of victory after empty declaration. In April of 1902 the Washington Post was driven to suggest, “ The fourth and final termination of hostilities two years ago....serves only to confirm our estimation...A bad thing cannot be killed too often.” Desperate to end the war, General “Howlin' Jake Smith ordered his men to kill “Everything over the age of ten...Kill and burn, kill and burn...(this is) no time to take prisoners.”
Read one report to headquarters, “The 18th regulars...under orders to burn every town... left a strip of land 60 miles wide from one end of the island to the other, over which the traditional crow could not have flown without provision.” A letter from a participant, published in the New York World, detailed what that meant, ending with the story of “...a mother with a babe at her breast and two young children at her side...feared to leave her home which had just been fired...She faced the flames with her children, and not a hand was raised to save her or the little ones. They perished miserably...She feared the American soldiers, however, worse than the devouring flames.”
President Roosevelt declared victory, again, on 4 July, 1902. And again, parades were held to celebrate the victory (above) But, again, in March of 1903, attacks against Americans and their native allies had so flared up that 300,000 Filipinos were forced at gun point back into concentration camps. In August of 1904 the American governor of Samar was asking for more soldiers. By 1907 those additional troops were still required. The last rebel leader, whose capture was supposed to end the war, was executed in 1912. But the war went on, if at a reduced level, until the Japanese invasion in 1942.
Meanwhile, the forgotten William Grayson (above) had come upon hard times. By 1914, the malaria and ulcers he suffered from had progressed to vomiting blood, and he was forced to apply for a pension. It was denied. Said the bureaucrats at the Veterans Bureau , “no pecuniary awards are made by the government for extraordinary bravery in action.” . But Grayson could no longer work and was forced on public relief. Finally, after eight years of shabby treatment by the nation he fought for, whose empire he sacrificed his youth for, in 1922 William Grayson was finally granted a small pension. The man who fired the first shot used to justify America's grab at an empire, died worn out and worn down, at the age of 64, on 20 March, 1941, in the Veterans Hospital in San Francisco.