“Little Colonel Funston”

Mark Twain suggested that Funston’s “conscience leaked out through one of his pores when he was little.”

The manner in which Aguinaldo was apprehended also proved unsettling. In an article in Harper’s Weekly on November 11, 1899, Funston had complained that the Filipinos “violated all the rules of civilized warfare, and they knew perfectly well what they were violating. They would bring flags of truce, and when our men went forward under similar flags, the insurgents would fire upon them.” Yet Funston’s stratagem for taking Aguinaldo was far more outrageous. Critics noted that Funston and the Americans had fired their weapons after Aguinaldo had surrendered and that the Macabebes had been wearing enemy uniforms; both actions violated international law. The underhanded manner in which the Filipinos had been defeated raised further doubts about whether the nation’s imperial venture subverted the ideals on which the American nation was founded.

But there was something else too. Although he embodied a heroic ideal as old as history itself, Funston’s stark lust for martial glory, unsoftened by the haze of time, disconcerted those who chose to look closely. There was no point in blaming Funston for his deeds, wrote Mark Twain, “because his conscience leaked out through one of his pores when he was little.”

Shame has always impelled young men to battle and to do things great and gruesome. Tim O’Brien, our foremost novelist of the Vietnam War, explained that he participated as a foot soldier in that conflict “out of a kind of personal terror—fear of censure, fear of humiliation, fear of exile, fear of jail, fear of ridicule, fear that my reputation might be damaged among my friends and family, fear of blushing before the stolid folks in my little hometown. ... In short, I capitulated to an overwhelming fear of embarrassment. . . . Conscience is crippled by cowardice. We kill out of embarrassment. We die of embarrassment.”

Aggression is necessary for military success, and both are essential to the survival of peoples and nations. Yet aggression often takes root in the darkest recesses of the soul, wherein lurks, among young men especially, an immense fear of humiliation. Funston’s life, so familiar in its basic outlines, so heroic in its wild trajectory, so inspiring in its determined assault upon adversity, on closer inspection provides a disturbing glimpse into that darkness.

Sometimes we forget our heroes because there is too much to remember; the press of new events inevitably crowds out the old. But sometimes it’s best that our heroes remain forgotten, lest they remind us of things we do not wish to know.