Many, if not most, Americans couldn’t have even told you it happened. That doesn’t make the Philippine-American War, which lasted from 1899-1902, any less real.
St. Thomas history and psychology double major Nathan Parsons understands that all too well as – thanks to a Young Scholars grant – he researched the conflict last summer. The scope of the very intentional brutality used by American soldiers was shocking, Parsons said (waterboarding can be traced to this war). He wondered how members of a country, so adamant it was there to help an “under-civilized” nation, could resort to such horrific means.
The answer he found lies in the psychology of a Progressive Era America that believed itself to be the world’s model: When its belief was put to the test with actual threat in life- or-death military situations, Americans resorted to reasserting their dominance by force. The façade of benevolence and selfless desire to help disappeared, Parsons said, and was replaced by violence.
“When its fighting superiority was challenged it created a dissonance between what you think of yourself and what you actually are,” he added. “This is quite dangerous for a country like America.”
Parsons questioned why the U.S. foreign policy for decades has placed its soldiers in similar situations, a reality that carries through to modern day. Parsons’ research and the difficult questions it forces landed his paper in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Military History, a prestigious national journal that rarely accepts undergraduate work.
“Especially with America becoming increasingly conscious of our wrongdoings, I don’t think it’s fair to put our soldiers, our people, in this kind of situation,” he said. “It is hard to act nobly in these situations.”
Plans for next year: Enter a Ph.D. research program and continue his education as a historian.