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William Dean Howells: Spanish Prisoners of War

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

American writers on peace and against war

William Dean Howells: Editha

William Dean Howells to Henry James: The most stupid and causeless war

William James: The Philippine Tangle

Edgar Lee Masters: The Philippine Conquest

Mark Twain: To the Person Sitting in Darkness

Leo Tolstoy: Two Wars and Carthago Delenda Est

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William Dean Howells
Member of the Anti-Imperialist League

Spanish Prisoners of War
Literature and Life (1902)

Certain summers ago our cruisers, the St. Louis and the Harvard, arrived at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, with sixteen or seventeen hundred Spanish prisoners from Santiago de Cuba. They were partly soldiers of the land forces picked up by our troops in the fights before the city, but by far the greater part were sailors and marines from Cervera’s ill-fated fleet.

I have not much stomach for war, but the poetry of the fact I have stated made a very potent appeal to me on my literary side, and I did not hold out against it longer than to let the St. Louis get away with Cervera to Annapolis, when only her less dignified captives remained with those of the Harvard to feed either the vainglory or the pensive curiosity of the spectator. Then I went over from our summer colony to Kittery Point, and got a boat, and sailed out to have a look at these subordinate enemies in the first hours of their imprisonment.

….

I tried to bewilder myself in the ignorance of a Catalonian or Asturian fisherman, and to wonder with his darkened mind why it should all or any of it have been, and why I should have escaped from the iron hell in which I had fought no quarrel of my own to fall into the hands of strangers, and to be haled over seas to these alien shores for a captivity of unknown term.

[I]f there is anything more grotesque than another in war it is its monstrous inconsequence.

If we had a grief with the Spanish government, and if it was so mortal we must do murder for it, we might have sent a joint committee of the House and Senate, and, with the improved means of assassination which modern science has put at our command, killed off the Spanish cabinet, and even the queen—­mother and the little king.

This would have been consequent, logical, and in a sort reasonable; but to butcher and capture a lot of wretched Spanish peasants and fishermen, hapless conscripts to whom personally and nationally we were as so many men in the moon, was that melancholy and humiliating necessity of war which makes it homicide in which there is not even the saving grace of hate, or the excuse of hot blood.


Spanish Prisoners of War at Portsmouth Navy Yard
(Click to enlarge)

They lay in their beds there, these little Spanish men, whose dark faces their sickness could not blanch to more than a sickly sallow, and as they turned their dull black eyes upon us I must own that I could not “support the government” so fiercely as I might have done elsewhere. But the truth is, I was demoralized by the looks of these poor little men, who, in spite of their character of public enemies, did look so much like somebody’s brothers, and even somebody’s children.

….

At a certain cot the chief surgeon stopped and said, “We did not expect this boy to live through the night.” He took the boy’s wrist between his thumb and finger, and asked tenderly as he leaned over him, “Poco mejor?” The boy could not speak to say that he was a little better; he tried to smile – such things do move the witness; nor does the sight of a man whose bandaged cheek has been half chopped away by a machete tend to restore one’s composure.

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