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Nov 16 2010

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Breaking news

Monsieur d’Nalgar:  The following account is from the “new” autobiography of that master of curmudgeonry, Mark Twain (Volume I, pages 403 – 407).  If you substitute the geography and technology, precious little has changed in the last century.  History repeats in places like Gaza and Fallujah and My Lai and Jenin and Sabra and Shatila and, and, and…

Monday, March 12, 1906

Mr. Clemens comments on the killing of six hundred Moros — Men, women and children — In a crater bowl near Jolo in the Philippines — Our troops commanded by General Wood — Contrasts this “battle” with various other details of our military history — The newspapers’ attitude toward the announcements — The President’s message of congratulation.

We will stop talking about my schoolmates of sixty years ago, for the present, and return to them later.  They strongly interest me, and I am not going to leave them alone permanently.  Strong as that interest is, it is for the moment pushed out of the way by an incident of to-day, which is still stronger.  This incident burst upon the world last Friday in an official cablegram from the commander of our forces in the Philippines to our Government at Washington.  The substance of it was as follows:

A tribe of Moros, dark skinned savages, had fortified themselves in the bowl of an extinct crater not many miles from Jolo; and as they were hostiles, and bitter against us because we had been trying for eight years to take their liberties away from them, their presence in that position was a menace.  Our commander, General Leonard Wood, ordered a reconnaissance.  It was found that the Moros numbered six hundred, counting women and children; that their crater bowl was in the summit of a peak or mountain twenty-two hundred feet above sea level, and very difficult of access for Christian troops and artillery.  Then General Wood ordered a surprise, and went along himself to see the order carried out.  Our troops climbed the heights by devious and difficult trails, and even took some artillery with them.  The kind of artillery is not specified, but in one place it was hoisted up a sharp acclivity by tackle a distance of some three hundred feet.  Arrived at the rim of the crater, the battle began.  Our soldiers numbered five hundred and forty.  They were assisted by auxiliaries consisting of a detachment of native constabulary in our pay — their numbers not given — and by a naval detachment, whose numbers are not stated.  But apparently the contending parties were about equal as to number — six hundred men on our side, on the edge of the bowl; six hundred men, women, and children in the bottom of the bowl.  Depth of the bowl, fifty feet.

General Wood’s order was “Kill or capture the six hundred.”

The battle began — it is officially called by that name — our forces firing down into the crater with their artillery and their deadly small arms of precision; the savages furiously returning the fire, probably with brickbats — though this is merely a surmise of mine, as the weapons used by the savages are not nominated in the cablegram.  Heretofore the Moros have used knives and clubs mainly; also ineffectual trade muskets when they had any.

The official report stated that the battle was fought with prodigious energy on both sides during a day and a half, and that it ended with a complete victory for the American arms.  The completeness of the victory is established by this fact:  that of the six hundred Moros not one was left alive.  The brilliancy of the victory is established by this other fact, to wit:  that of our six hundred heroes only fifteen lost their lives.

General Wood was present and looking on.  His order had been “Kill or capture those savages.”  Apparently our little army considered that the “or” left them authorized to kill or capture according to taste, and that their taste had remained what it has been for eight years, in our army out there — the taste of Christian butchers.

The official report quite properly extolled and magnified the “heroism” and “gallantry” of our troops; lamented the loss of the fifteen who perished, and elaborated on the wounds of thirty-two of our men who suffered injury, and even minutely and faithfully described the nature of the wounds, in the interest of future historians of the United States.  It mentioned that a private had one of his elbows scraped by a missile, and the private’s name was mentioned.  Another private had the end of his nose scraped by a missile.  His name was also mentioned — by cable, at one dollar and fifty cents a word.

Next day’s news confirmed the previous day’s report and named our fifteen killed and thirty-two wounded again, and once more described the wounds and gilded them with the right adjectives.

Let us now consider two or three details of our military history.  In one of the great battles of the Civil War 10 per cent of the forces engaged on the two sides were killed and wounded.  At Waterloo, where four hundred thousand men were present on the two sides, fifty thousand fell, killed and wounded, in five hours, leaving three hundred and fifty thousand sound and all right for further adventures.  Eight years ago, when the pathetic comedy called the Cuban war was played, we summoned two hundred and fifty thousand men.  We fought a number of showy battles, and when the war was over we had lost two hundred and sixty-eight men out of our two hundred and fifty thousand, in killed and wounded in the field, and just fourteen times as many by the gallantry of the army doctors in the hospitals and camps.  We did not exterminate the Spaniards — far from it.  In each engagement we left an average of 2 per cent of the enemy killed or crippled on the field.

Contrast these things with the great statistics which have arrived from that Moro crater!  There, with six hundred engaged on each side, we lost fifteen men outright, and we had thirty-two wounded — counting that nose and that elbow.  The enemy numbered six hundred — including women and children — and we abolished them utterly, leaving not even a baby alive to cry for its dead mother.  This is incomparably the greatest victory that ever was achieved by the Christian soldiers of the United States.

Now then, how has it been received?  The splendid news appeared with splendid display-heads in every newspaper of this city of four million and thirteen thousand inhabitants, on Friday morning.  But there was not a single reference to it in the editorial columns of any one of those newspapers.  The news appeared again in all the evening newspapers of Friday, and again those papers were editorially silent upon our vast achievement.  Next day’s additional statistics and particulars appeared in all the morning papers, and still without a line of editorial rejoicing or mention of the matter in any way.  These additions appeared in the evening papers of that same day (Saturday) and again without a word of comment.  In the columns devoted to correspondence, in the morning and evening papers of Friday and Saturday, nobody said a word about the “battle.”  Ordinarily these columns are teeming with the passions of the citizen; he lets no incident go by, whether it be large or small, without pouring out his praise or blame, his joy or indignation about the matter in the correspondence column.  But, as I have said, during those two days he was as silent as the editors themselves.  So far as I can find out, there was only one person among our eighty millions who allowed himself the privilege of a public remark on this great occasion — that was the President of the United States.  All day Friday he was as studiously silent as the rest.  But on Saturday he recognized that his duty required him to say something, and he took his pen and performed that duty.  If I know President Roosevelt — and I am sure I do — this utterance cost him more pain and shame than any other that ever issued from his pen or his mouth.  I am far from blaming him.  If I had been in his place my official duty would have compelled me to say what he said.  It was a convention, an old tradition, and he had to be loyal to it.  There was no help for it.  This is what he said:

Washington, March 10.

Wood, Manila:–

I congratulate you and the officers and men of your command upon the brilliant feat of arms wherein you and they so well upheld the honor of the American flag.

(Signed) Theodore Roosevelt.

His whole utterance is merely a convention.  Not a word of what he said came out of his heart.  He knew perfectly well that to pen six hundred helpless and weaponless savages in a hole like rats in a trap and massacre them in detail during a stretch of a day and a half, from a safe position on the heights above, was no brilliant feat of arms — and would not have been a brilliant feat of arms even if Christian America, represented by its salaried soldiers, had shot them down with Bibles and the Golden Rule instead of bullets.  He knew perfectly well that our uniformed assassins had not upheld the honor of the American flag, but had done as they have been doing continuously for eight years in the Philippines — that is to say, they had dishonored it.

The next day, Sunday, — which was yesterday — the cable brought us additional news — still more splendid news — still more honor for the flag.  The first display-head shouts this information at us in stentorian capitals:  “WOMEN SLAIN IN MORO SLAUGHTER.”

“Slaughter” is a good word.  Certainly there is not a better one in the Unabridged Dictionary for this occasion.

The next display line says:

“With Children They Mixed in Mob in Crater, and All Died Together.”

They were mere naked savages, and yet there is a sort of pathos about it when that word children falls under your eye, for it always brings before us our perfectest symbol of innocence and helplessness; and by help of its deathless eloquence color, creed, and nationality vanish away and we see only that they are children — merely children.  And if they are frightened and crying and in trouble, our pity goes out to them by natural impulse.  We see a picture.  We see the small forms.  We see the terrified faces.  We see the tears.  We see the small hands clinging in supplication to the mother; but we do not see those children that we are speaking about.  We see in their places the little creatures whom we know and love.

The next heading blazes with American and Christian glory like to the sun in the zenith:

“Death List is now 900.”

I was never so enthusiastically proud of the flag till now!

The next heading explains how safely our daring soldiers were located.  It says:

“Impossible to Tell Sexes Apart in Fierce Battle on Top of Mount Dajo.”

The naked savages were so far away, down in the bottom of that trap, that our soldiers could not tell the breasts of a woman from the rudimentary paps of a man — so far away that they couldn’t tell a toddling little child from a black six-footer.  This was by all odds the least dangerous battle that Christian soldiers of any nationality were ever engaged in.

The next heading says:

“Fighting for Four Days.”

So our men were at it four days instead of a day and a half.  It was a long and happy picnic with nothing to do but sit in comfort and fire the Golden Rule into those people down there and imagine letters to write home to the admiring families, and pile glory upon glory.  Those savages fighting for their liberties had the four days too, but it must have been a sorrowful time for them.  Every day they saw two hundred and twenty-five of their number slain, and this provided them grief and mourning for the night — and doubtless without even the relief and consolation of knowing that in the meantime they had slain four of their enemies and wounded some more on the elbow and the nose.

The closing heading says:

“Lieutenant Johnson Blown from Parapet by Exploding Artillery Gallantly Leading Charge.”

Lieutenant Johnson has pervaded the cablegrams from the first.  He and his wound have sparkled around through them like the serpentine thread of fire that goes excursioning through the black crisp fabric of a fragment of burnt paper.  It reminds one of Gillette’s comedy farce of a few years ago, “Too Much Johnson.”  Apparently Johnson was the only wounded man on our side whose wound was worth anything as an advertisement.  It has made a great deal more noise in the world than has any similarly colossal event since “Humpty Dumpty” fell off the wall and got injured.  The official disputes do not know which to admire most, Johnson’s adorable wound or the nine hundred murders.  The ecstasies flowing from Army Headquarters on the other side of the globe to the White House, at a dollar and a half a word, have set fire to similar ecstasies in the President’s breast.  It appears that the immortally wounded was a Rough Rider under Lieutenant Colonel Roosevelt at San Juan Hill — that extinguisher of Waterloo — when the Colonel of the regiment, the present Major General Dr. Leonard Wood, went up to the rear to bring up the pills and missed the fight.  The President has a warm place in his heart for anybody who was present at that bloody collision of military solar systems, and so he lost no time in cabling to the wounded hero “How are you?”  And got a cable answer, “Fine, thanks.”  This is historical.  This will go down to posterity.

Johnson was wounded in the shoulder with a slug.  The slug was in a shell — for the account says the damage was caused by an exploding shell which blew Johnson off the rim.  The people down in the hole had no artillery; therefore it was our artillery that blew Johnson off the rim.  And so it is now a matter of historical record that the only officer of ours who acquired a wound of advertising dimensions got it at our hands, not the enemy’s.  It seems more than probably that if we had placed our soldiers out of the way of our own weapons, we should have come out of the most extraordinary battle in all history without a scratch.

Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume I, ed. Harriet Elinor Smith et al. (Berkeley and Los Angeles:  University of California Press, 2010), 403 – 407.

Permanent link to this article: http://levantium.com/2010/11/16/breaking-news/

1 comment

  1. Jacques

    Two days later, Wednesday, March 14, 1906, Twain was still writing about the “breaking news” of his day. Note the still-contemporary references to assuming “full responsibility” and to claims of human shields to excuse massacring civilians:

    …Harvey said he believed the shock and shame of this episode would eat down deeper and deeper into the hearts of the nation and fester there and produce results. He believed it would destroy the Republican party and President Roosevelt. I cannot believe that the prediction will come true, for the reason that prophecies which promise valuable things, desirable things, good things, worthy things, never come true. Prophecies of the kind are like wars fought in a good cause — they are so rare they don’t count.

    Day before yesterday the cable-note from the happy General Dr. Wood was still all glorious. There was still proud mention and elaboration of what was called the “desperate hand-to-hand fight,” Dr. Wood not seeming to suspect that he was giving himself away, as the phrase goes — since if there was any very desperate hand-to-hand fighting it would necessarily happen that nine hundred hand-to-hand fighters, if really desperate, would surely be able to kill more than fifteen of our men before their last man and woman and child perished.

    Very well, there was a new note in the dispatches yesterday afternoon — just a faint suggestion that Dr. Wood was getting ready to lower his tone and begin to apologize and explain. He announces that he assumes full responsibility for the fight. It indicates that he is aware that is a lurking disposition here amidst all this silence to blame somebody. He says there was “no wanton destruction of women and children in the fight, though many of them were killed by force of necessity because the Moros used them as shields in the hand-to-hand fighting.”

    This explanation is better than none; indeed it is considerably better than none. Yet if there was so much hand-to-hand fighting there must have arrived a time, toward the end of the four days’ butchery, when only one native was left alive. We had six hundred men present; we had lost only fifteen; why did the six hundred kill that remaining man — or woman, or child?

    (from pages 407 and 408)

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