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Alaska's Glenn Highway namesake better known for torture in Phillipines

Capt. Edwin Glenn expedition group portrait
University of Alaska image

Editor's Note: This is the second part of a two-part story. Read the first part here

Capt. Edwin Glenn, the man the Glenn Highway is named after, resented his lost opportunity. While he was in Alaska, ordering expeditions up the Susitna and Matanuska rivers, his unit, the 25th Infantry Regiment had distinguished itself in the brief Spanish-American War. Glenn believed other officers in the unit had been promoted in his stead because he had missed the climactic battle in Cuba.

The 25th Infantry -- the famed "Buffalo Soldiers" -- had been transferred in 1898 from posts in Indian country to Florida, where they were poised to attack Cuba about the time Glenn was organizing his first expedition to Alaska. After Cuba was pacified, the regiment returned to posts in the southern Rocky Mountains in 1899. Later that year, however, they shipped out to the Philippine Islands. After returning from his second Alaska expedition, Glenn was ordered to follow his unit to the Philippines in March 1900.

Spanish-American and Philippine-American wars

One of the most unjust wars in U.S. history -- started by Americans to acquire territory, resources, and influence in the Caribbean and the western Pacific Ocean -- was the Spanish-American War. The United States provoked a war with Spain after an American battleship, the U.S.S. Maine, was sunk off Cuba, a possession of Spain, on Feb. 15, 1898. Although conspiracy theories still abound, the most likely explanation for the loss of the warship was a spontaneous fire in its coal bunker that spread to the ship’s gunpowder magazine. But never mind the details: Americans had been whipped into a war frenzy by newspapers, led by William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.  The war, fought primarily in Cuba and the Philippine Islands, another Spanish colony, was over in less than a year. 

Filipino guerillas, believing they were fighting for their nation’s independence, helped the U.S. Army defeat the Spaniards. However, Uncle Sam had no intention of leaving the Philippines; the islands were too valuable as an extension of American power across the Pacific Ocean. Recognizing their struggle had merely substituted one master for another, two days after the Spanish-American peace treaty was ratified, Filipino insurgents attacked U.S. Army units. Americans called this war the Philippine Insurrection. Filipinos called it the Philippine War for Independence.

Like American soldiers and marines in the Vietnam War, distinguishing friend from foe was frustrating in a guerilla war, provoking rage against both insurgents and civilians. In addition to the frustration of a regular Army officer forced to engage guerillas, Glenn chafed at what he believed to be a gross personal oversight. He desperately wanted to be promoted, and he believed his advancement had withered during his two-year assignment in Alaska. In a letter to his brother-in-law shortly after he arrived in the Philippines, Glenn proposed raising a regiment of Filipinos to fight under American officers. The regiment would require a colonel -- him -- for a commanding officer. This appointment would have jumped his rank up three grades. His brother and others forwarded Glenn’s request to various politicians. Glenn was still agitating for the regiment and colonelcy two years later, after he had been promoted to major.

Instead, probably because of his legal training and prior experience, Glenn was assigned as a judge advocate with the 5th Infantry Regiment. During three years of campaigning, the 5th Infantry lost 86 enlisted men, six in battle and most of the rest from cholera. Based on casualties, his regiment was not hard pressed by the insurgents. But Glenn believed it was, and he quickly resorted to an interrogation method unfamiliar to most Americans.

Waterboarding

Waterboarding, or the “water cure,” as it was known to Glenn, was used during the Spanish Inquisition. The U.S. Army probably adopted the technique from the Spaniards or Filipinos. High-ranking Army officers in the Philippines did not sanction waterboarding, but some junior officers ignored their warnings. 

Waterboarding consists of slowly pouring water into the nose and mouth of an immobilized victim in sufficient quantity to simulate drowning. Sometimes the victim’s face is covered with a cloth, and the victim is typically pinned in a supine position. In addition to the frantically overwhelming sense of suffocation, indistinguishable from that of drowning, the technique can cause severe pain, lung damage, or brain damage. As with most forms of torture, victims of the “water cure” often tell their captors anything they want to hear, true or not.

Capt. Glenn was assigned to the 5th Infantry on Panay Island as a judge advocate, a military version of a prosecuting attorney. At least one source claims Glenn often resorted to the interrogation technique. On Nov. 27, 1900, he administered the “water cure” on a mayor who was being held captive and questioned about the presence of insurgents in the town of Igbarras. The official divulged no useful information, so he was subjected to a second round, this time with salty water. The mayor then “confessed” he was a captain with the insurgents and led U.S. troops on a search into the bush for nearby insurgents. When they returned, Glenn ordered the town of 10,000 souls burned to the ground. Glenn received his long-awaited promotion to major about six months later.

Waterboarding was a controversial issue in America during the Philippine-American War. Historically, most Americans and the national media have considered the practice torture. The controversy resurfaced in 2004 when the media reported its use at Abu Ghraib and revealed the Central Intelligence Agency was using the technique to obtain information from suspected terrorists. President George W. Bush’s administration concluded there was a range of acts that were considered cruel, inhumane, or degrading, and waterboarding was something less than torture. After 2004, newspapers and many Americans softened their views on waterboarding, although the same newspapers called waterboarding torture when it was perpetrated by a country other than the United States. Since President Bush declared a war on terror, the attitude of most Americans and the national media seems to be if they do it to us, it’s torture; if we do it to them, it’s not.

Glenn’s court-martial

But in 1900, in the Philippine Islands, waterboarding was considered torture. Several enlisted men in a volunteer infantry regiment witnessed the November 1900 incident. After returning to the United States, one described the incident in a letter to a local newspaper. A long-cherished belief held that Americans treated prisoners of war with respect. However, soldiers returning from the Philippines were reporting hundreds of instances where U.S. forces employed various torture techniques or shot captives. The Armed Services and President Teddy Roosevelt’s administration initially denied the allegations. But the letter condemning Glenn tipped the scales. Several enlisted men were asked to testify before Congress. Embarrassed, in 1902, President Roosevelt directed that Glenn be brought back to the United States to stand trial.

Glenn objected to a trial in the United States because of the “high state of excitement” and misunderstanding about the interrogation technique. When he subsequently learned of the plan to bring the enlisted men, now civilians, to the Philippines to testify against him, Glenn argued that it would cost too much and, in effect, give the men a vacation at government expense. He admitted he had used the water cure so he could be tried in the Philippines by officers who might have similar frustrations with the war.

Glenn argued that the use of waterboarding was justified by military necessity. In his defense, Glenn claimed, “I found very soon after my arrival in Panay that every man, woman, and child in the islands was an enemy, and in my best judgment they are today, and always will be.” Like many British officers in the American Revolutionary War he mocked the Filipinos’ wish for independence as a “high-sounding phrase.” He concluded, “I am convinced that my action resulted in hastening the termination of hostilities and directly resulted in saving many human lives, and directly injuring no one.” He also argued that he was not guilty because the technique was not torture.

Major Glenn was found guilty, suspended from command for a month, and fined $50. A few months later President Roosevelt sidestepped further embarrassments by declaring victory in the Philippine-American War. However, the U.S. Army remained, and guerilla warfare continued until 1913. The Philippine Islands did not become an independent nation until 1946.

The Army’s Judge Advocate General was dissatisfied with Glenn’s lenient punishment. He complained to the Secretary of War that Glenn’s testimony admitted that the water cure was “the habitual means of obtaining information,” despite the fact that the technique was not sanctioned by his superiors, military necessity does not allow torture to extort a confession, and there was no compelling military need to torture the mayor to gain information that insurgents were operating in the vicinity.

Nothing official came of the protest; however, Glenn was reassigned from the Judge Advocate Corps to command of a recruiting depot in Ohio. This seems to have been a step down, but may have fit Glenn’s quirky sense of self-promotion.

A few years later Col. Glenn was back in the Philippines in charge of a detachment. He found himself in hot water when he scandalized members of his detachment with a series of alleged peccadillos involving other officers’ wives who, by some accounts, were not really officers’ wives, in his residence. A formal inquest was held. Several officers testified Glenn was a heavy drinker, but their assertions were contradicted by others who swore they never saw him drink a drop. In the end, nothing came of the allegations.

Pancho Villa and World War I

After returning from his second tour in the Philippines, Col. Glenn became the chief of staff for Gen. Leonard Wood, Teddy Roosevelt’s commanding officer during the Spanish-American War. 

In yet another ironic twist of fate, the Army War College asked Glenn to write The Rules of Land Warfare, published in 1914 and used, with revisions, through World War II. This was not a book on military strategy or tactics, but a detailed explanation of the legal basis for war and the treatment of combatants and noncombatants. The Rules of Land Warfare reiterated the legal principle in effect when Glenn was court-martialed -- that “military necessity” does not allow “torture to extort confession.” Glenn never admitted that the “water cure” was torture, nor did he ever concede that Filipino insurgents were lawful belligerents. Still, at least one of the principles in his book must have triggered some serious introspection: “… in general, military necessity does not include any act of hostility which makes the return to peace unnecessarily difficult.”

Glenn’s ego continued to foment controversy. In 1916, on the brink of America’s involvement in World War I, his speech at a public dinner was widely quoted in newspapers. Glenn averred it would take five years and 400,000 to 500,000 American troops to “stabilize” the Mexican government. With two-thirds of the regular army, about 22,000 men, pursuing Pancho Villa back and forth across the Mexican border, he claimed “the United States army is pathetic, and all the nations of the world know it.”

But his genius for shooting himself in the foot was matched by his overweening self-aggrandizement. Whenever he learned a higher rank would soon be available, often before the position was vacated or advertised, Glenn would prod friends and relatives to send letters to politicians urging their support. The resulting avalanche of letters to the Secretary of War and other senior officers frequently resulted in reprimands for Glenn, who appeared undeterred. He eventually attained the rank of major general and commanded a division in World War I. However, the division never fought under Glenn; it was divided into replacement units for other divisions

Castner, a 2nd lieutenant when he embarked on the 1898 expedition to Alaska, also attained the rank of major general. He had been awarded two Silver Stars for bravery in action during the Philippine-American War. He was awarded another Silver Star and the Distinguished Service Cross during World War I after his brigade routed the Germans in the St. Mihiel salient, a major battle in France near the end of the war.

Naming the Glenn Highway

The pack trail that Castner blazed up the Matanuska River was used through the 1930s. It was upgraded to a gravel highway during World War II to connect Elmendorf Air Base with the rest of the Alaska Highway System and, via the Alaska-Canada Highway, to the contiguous United States.

I did my stint in the military and I’ve survived a number of bosses – good, bad, and indifferent – since then. I’ve always preferred leaders who lead to those who push from the rear. Although it can be difficult to take the full measure of a man by reading his journal, selected letters, and after-action reports, I’d pick Castner over Glenn as a supervisor, mentor, and friend. 

So who named the highway after Glenn? I’ve beaten the bushes for the answer to that question, and I still have no idea. By the time the highway was built and named, Glenn was dead, but Castner lived until 1971. If I may be permitted a slight flight of fantasy after weeks of wading through reams of official records, I’d imagine that Glenn would have felt the honor was his due. 

Alternatively, Castner, when he heard the highway was named after his commanding officer, might have recalled Jack, the last mule he had to shoot on the Goodpaster River, because it could no longer stand. Ten days later, he and his men had circled back to the rotten carcass to share what was left with wolves and ravens. Ten years after his adventure in Alaska, Castner confided that in overcoming the many natural obstacles encountered in Alaska, he had experienced “one of the best years of my life.” I suspect Castner didn’t lose much sleep when the highway wasn’t named after him. 

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Contact Rick Sinnott at rick(at)alaskadispatch.com