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Gregg Jones
Honor in the Dust
New American Library / Penguin Putnam
US First Edition Hardcover
ISBN 978-0-451-22904-5
Publication Date: 02-07-2012
430 Pages; $26.95
Date Reviewed: 04-15-2012
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2012

Index:  Non-Fiction  

It sounds like the stuff of modern thrillers; ambitious politicians who plunge into front-lines battle, aging generals from past wars who manage a surprise victory, foreign insurgents buying arms with money paid by the countries they are fighting against. And in 'Honor in the Dust: Theodore Roosevelt, War in the Philippines and the Rise and Fall of America's Imperial Dreams,' it reads like a thriller as well. But it's history, compelling and frighteningly relevant to what is happening now, at this moment.

Jones' story is essentially a historical thriller that begins with an explosion aboard the Maine, a state-of-the-art American battleship anchored in Havana Bay, launching the drumbeats from a powerful yellow press so fearless of lying to the public they reported American victories before the war had even begun. Americans were terrified of a potential invasion from Spanish warships. An early warning system involved homing pigeons. By the time the story ends, America's imperial ambitions as it attempted to become a world power were being consumed in self-doubt after the revelation of torture using "the water cure" in the Philippines. Jones' book is a compelling and tragically relevant story of untaught history.

The task that Jones sets is tricky; he has a large cast of characters, many of whom show up in other guises. Some are relics from the Civil War, while his troubled protagonist, Theodore Roosevelt, hits his stride only after the climax of the events chronicled here. But Jones is clearly up to the task of giving readers historical accuracy, stunningly prescient present-day relevancy, and a great reading experience. Jones sets up his cast of characters well, with great attention to a nuanced vision. Nobody here is a mustache-twiddling villain or a knight in shining armor. Roosevelt is ambitious and obnoxious, principled and driven, and soldiers on the ground in the Philippines are complicated; well-armed, but under-supplied, stuck in a hostile jungle environment, fighting a guerilla insurgency.

Plotting in a work of historical non-fiction — getting the facts straight, in the right order and making it all interesting — is also a challenge that Jones conquers with ease. 'Honor in the Dust' gives us a number of outstanding set-pieces, from Teddy Roosevelt's heroic charge with the Rough Riders to the terrifying ordeal of the US Marines in the Philippine jungles. The political wrangling is all here too, as Republican dreams of exporting democracy crash up against the ugly reality of world politics; at home, Democrats find themselves outflanked by Republican politics and a shrieking press.

If all this sounds familiar and frighteningly relevant, it should. Jones book is consistently thought-provoking precisely because it is never polemic. He doesn't take sides, but instead lets the facts and the trials and the players speak for themselves. 'Honor in the Dust' may be the most important historical work of non-fiction not about the present that applies directly to the present you could possibly read this year. But importance be damned. Clearly we will not learn from history. We might as well enjoy reading about it. In a hundred or so years, it's likely another writer will take up the forgotten wars and politics of today. One hopes that they will manage to make our world seems as engrossing as 'Honor in the Dust.'

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