With the arguable exception of John J. Pershing, whose over-inflated reputation derives entirely from his brief tenure commanding US forces on the Western Front, General Leonard Wood was America’s most prominent military officer during the first quarter of the 20th century. More than any of his contemporaries, military or civilian, Wood embodied the first American empire, inaugurated by the outward thrust of 1898, reaching its zenith in 1917 with US intervention in the Great War, and then petering out in the disappointing aftermath of that struggle.
Throughout this crowded period, Wood occupied positions of prominence. An unconventional soldier, resourceful colonial administrator, military reformer and inveterate promoter of controversial causes (and his own ambitions), he was, in a way, an American version of Lord Kitchener of Khartoum. Certainly, he had Kitchener’s sense of self-esteem and self-assurance, his personal identification with the imperial enterprise, his belief in his own indispensability, and his disdain for politicians who didn’t share his views.
How (if at all) contemporary Britons remember Kitchener is not for me to say. But among Americans, Wood’s standing has suffered with the passage of time. Today – unless you happen on the dusty training camp in Missouri that bears his name – the once famous general is a forgotten figure. Jack McCallum has taken it upon himself to correct that, producing the first biography of Wood in a generation. Although the result is unlikely to vault its subject back into the first rank of American notables, this very serviceable book deserves attention, especially by those contemplating the prospects of the current American empire. For Wood’s imperial ventures in Cuba and the Philippines a century ago retain considerable relevance. In that regard, if McCallum has not written a great book, he could hardly have produced a timelier one.
War with Spain in 1898 – in today’s parlance very much a ‘war of choice’ – launched the first American empire. The outbreak of that conflict found Wood in Washington, a Harvard-trained physician employed as a surgeon for the US army, his sole claim to fame his participation a decade before in the epic 3000-mile pursuit of the warrior-chief Geronimo.
Having cultivated a variety of useful patrons – his patients included the wife of President McKinley; Theodore Roosevelt, assistant secretary of the navy, was among his closest friends – Wood saw the war as an opportunity to escape from a medical profession that he found dull and claustrophobic. So in 1898, he reinvented himself. Along with Roosevelt, perhaps the noisiest of the jingoes, he successfully lobbied Congress for authority to raise a regiment of volunteers to fight the wicked Spanish. (Imagine Douglas Feith recruiting a battalion of neo-cons to have a go at Saddam Hussein.) The result was the First US Volunteer Cavalry, known to subsequent generations of schoolboys as the ‘Rough Riders’.
With Colonel Wood in command and Roosevelt as his deputy, the motley regiment set sail to liberate Cuba. Within days of landing, Wood was promoted to brigade command, handing the Rough Riders over to Roosevelt in time for the celebrated charge up San Juan Hill. The Santiago campaign ended soon after. Through luck more than skill, the Americans had achieved an approximation of victory, the nation thereby acquiring a roster of dashing new heroes, with Brigadier-General Wood (and Roosevelt) chief among them.
After the Spanish surrender, Wood stayed on in occupied Cuba, first as governor of Santiago Province and subsequently as military governor of the entire island until Washington granted Havana (limited) independence in 1902. What the Bush administration has promised in Iraq, Wood actually delivered in Cuba. Vowing to provide his charges with ‘a firm but liberal and just government of the people, for the people and by the people, under American military supervision’, he made good on his pledge. Out of chaos, he produced not only order, but a semblance of decency. Wood’s accomplishments as a benign despot won him worldwide acclaim. McCallum cites Lord Cromer, Britain’s proconsul in Egypt, telling the Foreign Office that ‘there was only one man in the world capable of taking his place, but, unfortunately, Wood was an American.’
Amid all the applause few noticed how quickly Wood’s impressive achievements were undone. The legacy of the US occupation proved remarkably ephemeral. Within three years, Cuba had descended into civil war, necessitating a brief second US military intervention. For subsequent generations of Cubans, liberal and just government remained a pipe dream.
After Cuba, Wood’s friend Roosevelt, now installed in the White House, posted him to Zamboanga in the Philippines, the crown jewel of the American empire. There Wood became governor of the Moro Province, trying with less success to apply the methods he had used in Cuba. In return for submission, he offered the Filipino Muslims a better way of life. Whereas the exhausted Cubans had been compliant, the obstreperous Moros resisted. A small, protracted and very ugly conflict ensued, with distinctions between combatants and non-combatants becoming blurred. In their efforts to bring the Moros to heel, US troops under Wood’s command routinely perpetrated acts that we would now see as war crimes.
Viewing the Moros as primitives, few Americans paid much attention. Soon enough the entire episode vanished from historical memory. This was unfortunate: Wood’s campaign to pacify the Moros exposed the moral snares awaiting US troops sent on missions of liberation only to discover that the presumed beneficiaries of their exertions had ideas of their own.
A full century later, the Moro resistance continues. In the aftermath of 9/11, the Bush administration classified the Moro Islamic Liberation Front as part of the global Islamist conspiracy. American soldiers have since returned to Zamboanga, unaware that theirs is not the first American encounter with the Moros.
From the Philippines, Wood returned to Washington, where he became army chief of staff and an ardent champion of military modernisation. When war broke out in Europe in 1914, he launched a national campaign for ‘preparedness’ – rearmament with an admixture of militarism – which put him at odds with President Woodrow Wilson, who didn’t want the United States embroiling itself in European quarrels, didn’t see any need for a bigger army, and above all didn’t take kindly to generals mucking around in politics. By 1917, when Wilson’s policy of neutrality collapsed, Wood awaited the summons to command in France, but the president refused to let him get anywhere near the fighting. A furious Wood spent the duration training draftees in Kansas, carping at the administration’s mismanagement of the war, and plotting ways to repay those who had denied him the prominent role he considered rightfully his.
Repaying Wilson meant displacing him. When the war ended, Wood – still on active duty – made a bid for the presidency and came within an eyelash of winning the Republican nomination in 1920. His consolation prize came in the form of a ticket back to Manila: President Warren G. Harding appointed him governor-general of the Philippines.
McCallum provides only the sketchiest account of Wood’s years in Manila’s Malacañan Palace. Yet in some respects, this closing act of the general’s career is the most instructive of all. To understand the absurdity of sending Wood to run the Philippines in 1921, imagine George V dispatching Kitchener (had he survived the war) to govern Ireland. Circumstances had changed, radically and irreversibly. Nationalism was in the ascendant. The imperial twilight had begun, and the time had come to bow out gracefully – the posture that an ageing proconsul was least able to assume. When Wood attempted to show the Filipinos who was boss, the emerging local elite stymied him at every turn. In Wood’s eyes, Sergio Osmeña, Manuel Quezon and Manuel Roxas were impudent upstarts. But they rendered him politically impotent. More than a quarter of a century after the Americans had proclaimed it their duty to confer the blessings of liberty on their newly acquired subjects, the Filipinos were making it clear that (as Quezon put it) they preferred ‘a government run like hell by Filipinos to one run like heaven by Americans’. Denizens of Baghdad’s Green Zone, take note.
Wood died in 1927, not in Manila but in a Boston hospital, as a team led by the famous surgeon Harvey Cushing botched an attempt to excise a brain tumour. McCallum, himself a doctor, describes the operation in gory detail: ‘When Cushing pulled the last of the tumour from under the bone, the great vein tore and the haemorrhage was incontrollable. Cushing first stuck his finger in the hole and then filled it with cotton balls.’ Wood never regained consciousness. Unlike countless other soldiers of far less distinction, he never had the chance in old age to write his memoirs and to reflect on a life spent in service to empire. For such a restless man of action, introspection would in any case have come hard.
Still, his was a life that deserves careful examination. Wood was not, as the subtitle of this book suggests, the architect of the first American empire. Rather, for more than two decades, he served as its chief engineer. His job was not to design the empire, but to make it work, first by getting the ‘wogs’ to behave and then by bringing them to comply with American values. In that regard, despite all his efforts, he failed abysmally. The architects and engineers of the present-day American empire should ask themselves why.
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