What’s it like to reach out and touch history in the moment, to peel back the layers of hyperbole and political deception for yourself as a simple soldier? Try the Philippine-American War, sometimes referred to as “the first Vietnam” (1899-1902). You might find that “desertion” really means conversion to a noble cause and “enlisting” is just another form of surrender…
Three American infantrymen in the last months of major hostilities, the Filipinos all but beaten. Each man is quietly running from a prior life. One, a young corporal, naïve and inexperienced, is hiding from a gallows in Pennsylvania. Another is a disillusioned Catholic priest, running from God and himself. The third is a proud “Negro” soldier from the 24th U.S. Colored Infantry, a man who has deserted the army to actively join the Filipino forces. Their lives intersect with a beguiling and mysterious young Filipina, a respected figure of inexplicable influence among her people. All four join forces to hold back the tide of greed and racially motivated barbarity from a ravenous Eagle.
One will die. One will find himself by learning that truth stands alone, wears no flag, and employs no spokesman. The other two will live forever, legends in the minds and hearts of the Philippine people.
What is the backstory behind Running with Cannibals and What value can someone that is not in the military take from “Running With Cannibals”?
So, I’ll address both of these questions as they sort of bleed into each other. Initially, people should know Running with Cannibals is a military book, but please don’t get the idea that it’s about heroism on the battlefield or glory or anything like that. Hopefully, the book will still appeal to readers of traditional military fiction as it’s based on actual events and characters and centered around one of the worst defeats ever for the U.S. Military on foreign soil. The battle scene is a pivotal event in the book. That said, I don’t consider it a “war” novel. I hope it’s much more than that. It’s a story of a not-so-proud time in U.S. history, a story we don’t tell our school children, and one that has been conveniently written out of our history, a lesson not learned that might have helped prevent the war in Vietnam.
Running with Cannibals is set in America’s Age of Manifest Destiny, a time when powerful forces in industry and government, including Theodore Roosevelt, pushed a policy of American Colonialism in the Far East, modeled on the British experience in Africa. The Spanish-American War presented the perfect opportunity to pounce and President McKinley grudgingly gave his blessing. So the U.S. “bought” the Philippines from Spain for a token price and declared itself “custodian” of the seven thousand islands. The aim was to control trade routes in the Far East and strip the Philippines of its abundant natural resources. The U.S. simply installed a military government to rule the islands and declared any Filipino opposition “insurrectionist.” That’s the condensed version anyway and the debate played out in public between two great writers of the time; Samuel Clemens, a fierce critic of the brutal and inhumane policy, and Rudyard Kipling, the British defender and “lionizer” of Africa’s British conquerors. The colonialists prevailed, arguably bringing us The Philippine-American War. The U.S. arrogantly preferred to call it The Philippine Insurrection. This is the time and place in which I chose to drop my characters and tell a story.
It’s the story of a young man from Pennsylvania, raised on a farm in the aftermath of the Civil War and forced by circumstance into the army where he is sent to this strange place on the other side of the earth to help quell the “insurrection.” In the islands he sees terrible things, even does terrible things but builds friendships with Filipino people and unexpectedly finds love. Those factors combine to challenge long-held beliefs about patriotism, humanity, even right and wrong. As the conflict rages in his soul, the young man faces a choice that will define him forever and chart the future course of his life. In that choice lies the value of this book to a reader who has never served in the military. Some of those who have served, like myself, may also see that value—or not.
What is the biggest takeaway that you hope a reader will learn from running with Cannibals”?
I’d better be careful here. I tried diligently not to “preach” in this book, but this question calls for an honest assessment of my motives for writing the story and that’s a fair question for an author to answer. Speaking only for myself, I won’t write a book anymore unless I have some social commentary or other I want to express through my characters. As for this book, I served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War. I was never in combat, so I don’t profess to know a damn thing about it beyond what I’ve read. But I remember how I felt at eighteen years of age and I remember being spit on at O’Hare Airport in 1969 just walking through the terminal in uniform. I believed everything I was told by those in authority. I believed if I committed a mortal sin and got killed by a hit-and-run driver on the way to confession, I would go to hell. I believed that Jews could never go to heaven because they murdered Jesus. My church and my family taught me these things. Who was I to argue with the damn Pope? To this day I call myself a recovering Catholic. It was the same thing with my government, although I couldn’t even define the term geopolitics. So I believed Vietnam was a just war. I believed we were stopping the spread of Communism. I believed that anyone who protested the war was a “traitor” and a “commie.” I was a cookie-cutter moron.
Now I believe in education. I believe in books, all books, especially the ones some people want to ban. I believe we should all learn from our mistakes and our governments should learn from theirs. I believe it’s important to accurately record history so the record can guide us away from future misadventures. Most of all, I believe in the truth, which is increasingly difficult to find in today’s world, therefore increasingly vital to our survival.
Is there anything that you had to Edit OUT of the book that you wished was kept in?
Glad you asked that question. The short answer is no and I think that’s why it took so long to interest a traditional publisher. A good small press is more likely to take a chance on a controversial book and mine is a good one. To be frank, the book contains rough language, although only in direct quotes from a few characters. There was no way to tell this story honestly without being accurate. I wouldn’t diminish the brutality and inhumanity of this colonialist misadventure by couching the language to make it less offensive. This was a cruel war of aggression against the Filipino people prosecuted by a U.S. government serving the forces of greed and power. Thousands of Filipinos were murdered, thousands more marched to containment “camps,” many subjected to the brutal art of “water torture.” All these things were carefully documented in the war crimes tribunal and courts marshal several years after the fact. They languished for decades in obscure military archives. The language of my characters was the actual language of many American soldiers and editing it out would have been dishonest to my story.
What books had the most impact on you and your development?
Awesome question because I didn’t figure that out after having my first two books published. My first book was a legal thriller, “Immoral Authority,” published in trade paper by a wonderful 2000 startup small press (now titled The Concrete Kingdom on Amazon). Of course, there was no self-publishing then. One review said it “read like a first novel.” I think the woman was right. The next book was better, Catch a Falling Lawyer, and published by a wonderful small press named New Leaf Books in 2004 (now titled The Best Lie Wins on Amazon), but I had no interest in writing more legal thrillers. My head was always in the clouds somewhere with Len Deighton’s two heroes of “Goodbye Mickey Mouse,” brothers in all but blood, one mortally wounded, doomed to crash and both waiting for the moment the sea would claim young Mickey. Two simple salutes and an exchange of smiles across P-51 cockpits told a tale I could never forget, brought it to life without a single word, and made me cry, bringing me closer to an understanding of brotherhood than could expertly craft pages of conversation or narrated reflections. At some point, it dawned on me that I was writing what I knew, after many years as a criminal defense lawyer, but not what I loved. So I started to reread the other authors I’d loved most as a young man; Solzhenitsyn, Graham Greene even Joseph Conrad. That’s when I recognized I was writing the wrong stuff. I loved stories of history, courage, brotherhood, and redemption. From that moment my mission became to bring my commentary and observations to life in compelling stories of memorable characters through history. In 2007 New Leaf published The Sakhalin Collection in hardcover, a political thriller set in 1970 Japan, and I never looked back. I see Cannibals as a progression in that journey.
What is next for you and your writing projects?
Glad you asked. I’m shopping for another completed historical fiction, A Long Way from Clare. A young Irishman arrives in Chicago in 1903 to visit his brother but finds himself on a quest to peel away secrets and rediscover a dead sibling he idolized but never really knew, hoping in the process to learn the true meaning of brotherhood–but the secrets may kill him first. His quest reveals an Irish Republican plot to assassinate a visiting British Royal and into an alliance with two women, a mesmerizing Jewish widow and a struggling young Irishwoman, his brother’s former mistress. The women will teach him existential truths of life and love, guiding him along his path, each in her own way. But the brother he finds may not be the brother he remembers. A Long Way from Clare is a candid story of immigrants and one man’s struggle with the relationship between bigotry and justice in an unforgiving city where your mistakes can kill you if your good deeds don’t kill you first. This story was inspired by the life and alleged suicide (1914) of my wife’s grandfather, a Chicago Policeman, an Irish immigrant, and barroom Irish Republican. The family believes this version. Personally, I think he was drunk on duty and fell into the Chicago River.
Bob enlisted in the Air Force out of high school, during the Vietnam War and served as a Russian linguist attached to the NSA (USAFSS). His travels included Asia and Europe. Honorably discharged four years later, he attended university and law school in Chicago. Thirty-odd years as a criminal defense lawyer slowed his career development as a writer but did not temper his enthusiasm. Today he only writes. His publishing history consists of three small-press releases in the early 2000s, two legal thrillers and one Cold War political thriller. He has re-released all three independently. His website is http://www.robertsmithbooks.com.
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