Thursday, July 2, 2009


This is the 'Doonesbury' Sunday strip from 6/21. Read the strip first, if you haven't already. I'd like to concentrate on the third panel, in which radio talk show host Mark Slackmeyer makes this historical reference - "and Teddy Roosevelt, perhaps mindful that both Washington and Lincoln forbade torture, ordered the court-martial of a U.S. general accused of waterboarding." It bugged me as not sounding right when I read it, but I didn't decide to write about it until a co-worker called the strip "a classic Doonesbury."

The general referred to in the panel is Brigadier General Jacob H. Smith, nicknamed "Hell-Roaring Jake". Smith, after several courts-martial, was mustered out in the 1880s, but later reinstated by President Cleveland. He was promoted to Brigadier General during the Philippine-American War. Smith was court-martialed in April, 1902, and ordered to retire by President Roosevelt in June.1 Trudeau would like you to read it as if waterboarding was the reason for the court-martial, which is misleading. I don't know the exact charges against Smith, or if he was even accused of waterboarding, but I'll take Trudeau at his leading assumption that waterboarding was one of them.

Smith was charged with taking the Samar province of the Philippines under control. This was to be done, Smith believed, by any means necessary. Smith issued an order "kill and burn and make a howling wilderness of Samar." Under his command, he burned villages and crops. Prisoners were tortured and executed without evidence. 2 Though Smith later denied it, subordinates testified that he ordered every Filipino who could bear arms to be killed, and set the age limit at 10 and older. My point, then, is that Smith's court-martial was due to his responsibility for mass murder and not waterboarding. His actions of 'take no prisoners' barbarism were condemned by Roosevelt and, while his punishment was mild, his exit was swift.

I also doubt Trudeau is a big fan of Roosevelt in this period, where much of the world saw him as an imperialist, such as in the cartoon at left (drawn by an unnamed progenitor of Trudeau). Roosevelt himself claimed he was not an imperialist, that he wanted to bring "peace and enlightenment and self-government" to the Philippines and then get out. This sounds similar to George W. Bush's defense of the war in Iraq. Trudeau portrayed Bush as a Roman military helmet.

Please don't interpret the above to mean that I'm all 'rah-rah' for waterboarding. I haven't been firmly convinced either way. But I don't think those who moralize or try to sway opinion should use their version of history to mislead the public.

[1] Silbey, David J., A War of Frontier and Empire: The Philippine-American War, 1899-1902, 2007, Hill and Wang, New York

[2] Bishop, Joseph Bucklin, Theodore Roosevelt and His Time, 1920, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York

Photo of Jacob Hurd Smith from the Portsmouth Public Library website

Cartoon of T.R. - Shaw, Albert (author, but not cartoonist), A Cartoon History of Roosevelt's Career, 1910, The Review of Reviews Company, New York.

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