By Eugene L. Meyer
THE CENTENNIAL of the Spanish-American War, like the historical
event itself, seems to have come and gone in a flash. But wait! The
aftershocks of the war lingered for years, some would argue for even a
century. So, before we move on, here come two exhibits to remind us that
war is never quite "splendid" nor "little," as Secretary of State John Hay
glibly described the conflict.
The exhibits, at the National Museum of Health & Medicine and in the
Smithsonian's Ripley Center, show us that war, however the politicians and
top brass paint it, is still hell to the participants and to the indigenous
peoples who suffer in its wake.
It's likely that the 250,000 who, whipped into a patriotic frenzy, enlisted
fight Spain, hadn't a clue what they were up against -- not so much Spanish
bullets as disease, which accounted for far more fatalities than did battle
wounds. Nor did they expect a prolonged postwar insurrection in the
Philippines or an occupation of Cuba that lasted, the first time, until 1902.
War has a paradoxical way of accelerating the technology of both killing
and curing, and the Spanish-American War was no exception, as the
exhibit at the National Museum of Health & Medicine illustrates. Here was
the first wartime use of X-rays, and the exhibit includes a dramatic image
of a bullet lodged in a man's skull.
This modest but powerful exhibit consists of 17 photographs, along with
several artifacts and an oil painting of the U.S. Army hospital ship Relief,
which took in the sick and wounded off the coasts of Cuba and Puerto
The pictures range from the primly posed to the pitiful, from six nurses
facing the camera on the hurricane deck of the Relief to a trench full of
dead Filipino insurgents, a ghastly image reminiscent of photos taken at
Antietam's "Bloody Lane" during the Civil War. "It's horrifying," said
Michael G. Rhode, museum chief archivist and the show's curator, "but at
the same time, war isn't pretty, as anyone who's seen 'Saving Private Ryan'
None of the images are what would be called heroic, but some are stirring.
There's a picture of men removing wounded from a cart in the Philippines.
Two are helping a third walk away from the cart, their arms extended over
his shoulder in support. Another picture shows two men placing a severely
wounded man in a stretcher onto a horse-drawn ambulance while a
soldier, holding his rifle almost at parade rest, watches respectfully. You
wonder what he is thinking.
There's another scene of a field hospital in the Philippines, with a bunch
soldiers just sort of hanging out in front, leaning on their rifles. It looks like
fun. Then reality intrudes, in the form of a soldier behind the porch railing
with his arm in a sling. Another photograph shows a medical officer leaning
over a wounded soldier, with troops to the left marching by, oblivious, or
perhaps just battle-hardened.
This portfolio of photographs is as anonymous as it is dramatic. Nobody
apparently thought to record the name of the picture-taker, at least as far
as Rhode could tell. It would be nice to know who took them, but not
essential, because the images themselves are so affecting. There is an
immediacy to them that transcends the years.
At the Ripley Center's "Beyond the Maine: Imaging the New Empire," the
80 images of the years immediately after the war are almost exclusively the
work of two photographers, Charles Edward Doty and Helen Hamilton
Gardner. He was a professional government photographer; she was a
shutterbug, the wealthy wife of the first commanding American general in
Puerto Rico and an author, lecturer, socialite and suffragette. Gardner also
became the first woman appointed to the U.S. Civil Service Commission.
She did not take the photos displayed here until she and her husband
commenced a six-year traveling honeymoon in 1902.
The "Maine" in the exhibit title refers, of course, to the U.S.S. Maine,
battleship that mysteriously blew up on Feb. 15, 1898 in Havana harbor,
leading to the American declaration of war against suspect Spain less than
three months later. Among Doty's pictures is one of the Maine's mast still in
Havana harbor in 1902, several years before the ship was raised and
reinterred at sea near the Cuban coast and its mast taken to Arlington
Doty's and Gardner's pictures -- prints and glass negatives -- have long
been in the Smithsonian's possession but are on exhibit for the first time in
this show, which began in Miami, moved to Key West and now has come
to Washington before moving to Madison, Wis. They are not about war so
much as its aftermath.
Many of the pictures are prosaic. Doty, after all, worked for the
Engineering and Public Works departments during the U.S. occupation
from 1899 to 1902, and most of his photographs reflect his assignment:
lots of streets, lots of buildings, few people. Still, some human images stand
In the picture Doty titled "Cuba Libre," a father poses with his peasant
family, 15 in all, displaying the Cuban flag. But these "free Cubans" also
look impoverished, especially the children, who are barefoot and naked.
There is a depressing universality about the image, a sinking feeling that this
family and its descendants are eternally destined, despite the faintly
optimistic flag-waving, to underclass status.
There's another image of a homeless man, living in a cave. Still another
image shows reconcentrados, Cubans forced by the Spanish to live in
concentration camps, now "free" but homeless. One man is sleeping on the
ground, while two women sit nearby, disconsolate, almost beyond despair.
The scene is so foreign, yet it hits close to home, reminding one of the
homeless living in the streets of, say, downtown Washington.
Intensely chilling is Doty's pictorial study of the garrote, the executioner's
iron collar and screw, in Havana. A black man is posed in its grip. Is it real
or posed? We do not know.
By contrast, Doty shows us two upper-class young white women having
tea. They are well-dressed and seem without a care, the antithesis of the
others. Then there is Doty's portrait of the distinguished-looking Tomas
Estra Palma, the first president of Cuba, two days before taking office in
1902. He wears a three-piece suit and a watch fob, has thinning black hair
and a thick gray mustache. Both pictures capture a time more than a place.
The young ladies could be Gibson girls, and he could be an aging Civil
Most of Gardner's 34 snapshots are of people. She photographed women
in particular: a seamstress working on a San Juan street, women and girls
weaving Cuban hats, upper-class women posing in a sitting room, women
in a field of pineapples. Four of her photos are from the Philippines, the
rest from Puerto Rico. They are not, strictly speaking, photojournalism.
The point of view is passive at best.
Gardner also shot street scenes, which have a touristy rather than a
documentary quality. In later years, she would go on the lecture circuit with
her photos made into lantern slides to accompany her lectures. Her niece
gave the collection to the Smithsonian in 1926.
Accompanying the Smithsonian exhibit is an 11-minute compilation of
Spanish-American War film from the Library of Congress collection.
These early movies show troops landing in Cuba, President William
McKinley reviewing soldiers in Washington and some battle re-creations
done especially for the camera. They are, in effect, the first war flicks.
Still or moving, these images help make the past more vivid and, unlike
ephemeral commemorations of events, unforgettable.
"THE COSTS of 'A Splendid Little War,' " Friday through Nov. 29, at the
National Museum of Health & Medicine, 6825 16th St. NW, on the
grounds of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Open 10 to 5:30 daily.
Free admission and parking (pick up a parking pass, required on
weekdays only, at the museum information desk). Weekend visitors must
enter by Georgia Avenue and Elder Street gate. 202/782-2200. Thirteen
of the images in the exhibit are also available on the museum's Web site:
"BEYOND THE MAINE: Imaging the New Empire," a Smithsonian
Institution traveling exhibit, is open through Oct. 16 in Room 3111 of the
Ripley Center, 1100 Jefferson Dr. SW (Metro: Smithsonian). The center is
open 10 to 6:30 daily. Admission is free. A public reception will be held
Wednesday from 6:30 to 8. Call 202/633-8016 or 202/357-1600.