One day, our dispatch-boat found the shores of Guantánamo Bay flowing past on either side. It was at nightfall, and on the eastward point a small village was burning, and it happened that a fiery light was thrown upon some palm-trees so that it made them into enormous crimson feathers. The water was the colour of blue steel; the Cuban woods were sombre; high shivered the gory feathers. The last boatloads of the marine battalion were pulling for the beach.
–Stephen Crane, “War Memories”
Twenty years ago, I went to Santiago de Cuba to gather material for a magazine article on the centennial of the Spanish-American War. Over the course of several days, I visited Daiquirí, Siboney, Las Guásimas, El Caney, and of course San Juan Hill—all the main sites associated with that war. All, that is, except one: Guantánamo Bay. But visiting Guantánamo was practically impossible, even then, five years before it became a detention camp for prisoners of the “War on Terror.” The sites related to the Spanish-American War were located inside the perimeter of the US Naval Base—“Gitmo,” to use the military’s shorthand designation—and there was no access to the base from Cuba proper. The only way to enter Gitmo was to fly in on a Navy transport airplane from Virginia Beach, Virginia. And to do that, I would have to obtain permission—rarely granted—from naval authorities. So, much as I would have liked to visit the scene of the war’s first clash between Spanish and American troops, I had to accept the impracticality of such a visit.
Forgoing Guantánamo was especially disappointing because of Stephen Crane’s connection to the place. Crane’s writing about the war and his various adventures in Cuba had long intrigued me. He was one of the few reporters to witness both the landing of the Marines at Guantánamo and their subsequent skirmish with Spanish troops. He wrote several accounts of the event, a couple of which are counted among his best work. In fact, a significant portion of Crane’s writing concerns Cuba, including a book of short stories (Wounds in the Rain), a long semiautobiographical essay (“War Memories”), and some of his best journalism.
The time he spent on the island—a little over five months all told—holds outsized significance in his biography and his oeuvre. It was in Cuba that Crane—already famous for writing a war novel—finally witnessed warfare firsthand and up close. Shortly after hostilities ended, Crane came down with a severe bout of either yellow fever or malaria and had to be evacuated in a state of delirium. The “Cuban fever,” as he called it, certainly exacerbated his latent tuberculosis; nevertheless, while he was still recovering Crane mysteriously returned to Cuba—well after the other correspondents had left—and spent the better part of four months living a kind of underground existence in Havana. Though he filed an occasional report for Hearst’s Journal, he was for the most part incommunicado; even his closest companions and his common-law wife had no idea where he was or what he was doing. The Havana sojourn remains something of an enigma in Crane’s biography.
As it turned out, though I had all but given up on the possibility of visiting Gitmo, while I was in Santiago I fortuitously learned of an opportunity to see the base—or at least to see into it. I was told that a Cuban travel agency, Gaviota, offered tours to a Cuban military facility, an observation post called Mirador de Malones, located on a hillside just outside the American-occupied site. From there, one could look through a telescope and spy on the naval base. It sounded too bizarre to be true—as so many things in Cuba do; but when I inquired at the Gaviota office in Santiago, the bizarre turned out to be true—as it so often does in Cuba. The agent told me that a German tour group was going to the military lookout the next day. I could join the group if I wished. Moreover, the Germans were going to pass the night in Caimanera, the small town closest to the naval base, a town normally off-limits to visitors. This, too, I could do if interested. I booked the tour.
The following day I joined the Germans on a sleek tour bus that raced along a highway all but devoid of motorized traffic. There were plenty of bicycles, horses, and pedestrians, but few buses or trucks and even fewer private cars. After a couple of hours, we passed through Guantánamo City, once a favorite destination of American sailors on liberty call but now a sleepy provincial town “with little to recommend it,” as guidebooks like to say. Beyond Guantánamo City, the road passed through sugarcane fields until, after 25 kilometers or so, it arrived at the northern edge of Guantánamo Bay. The bus left the main highway and came to a checkpoint, the entrance to Cuba’s military zone. From there, the road led into the hills overlooking the wide southern portion of the bay where the US base was located. At the foot of one hill, we exited the bus, passed through a concrete bunker, and climbed steps to the lookout—which proved to be not much more than a ramada draped with camouflage netting.
A thousand feet below and several miles distant, the bay and the naval base rippled in the tropical haze. It looked unreal, like some mythic realm. But once I got my turn at the military telescope, what I saw through the viewfinder was not mythic in the least. It was, in fact, all too familiar and mundane: cars on a boulevard, a shopping center, a church, a golf course, the American flag flapping. What made it strange, of course, was that this all-American scenery was on Cuban soil, situated behind concertina-wire fencing and bordered by a minefield.
The guide, speaking in German, drew attention to various features of the base, first on a detailed map and then in reality, pointing to one hazy sector or another while the German tourists craned necks, snapped photos, and tried to clarify for one another what the guide was pointing to. Unable to follow the German conversation, I moved a little way off and tried to correlate the panorama before me with what I knew from reading Stephen Crane’s account of the Guantánamo episode that began the Spanish–American War.
On June 6, 1898, Crane arrived at Guantánamo Bay just after the Marines had landed and secured the location. With night falling, Cuba appeared “sombre” to Crane. Come daylight, he would note that it was a craggy country, cut with ravines. Sandy paths disappeared into thickets of tropical vegetation. Along the coastline, chalky cliffs and cactus-covered ridges overlooked the sea. “The droning of insects” competed with the sound of waves lapping the shore. Crane watched as the Marines—a force of over 600—set up camp and dug trenches. Encamped on the beach beneath ridges, they were in a vulnerable position. But the Marines had met no resistance upon landing and for a day and a half all was tranquil: “There was no firing,” Crane reported. “We thought it rather comic.”
The tranquility did not last. The next night, Spanish snipers opened fire and the Americans scrambled for cover. “We lay on our bellies,” Crane wrote. “It was no longer comic.” Crane, who had written his famous war novel, The Red Badge of Courage, without any personal knowledge of warfare, was finally experiencing what he had only guessed at beforehand. For the first time, he felt “the hot hiss of bullets trying to cut [his] hair.”
But whatever satisfaction or thrill he felt in finally experiencing battle conditions was soon undercut: On the third night, the sniper fire intensified. The company’s surgeon, struck by a Spanish bullet, lay suffering a few yards from Crane. “I heard someone dying near me,” Crane wrote.
He was dying hard. Hard. It took him a long time to die. He breathed as all noble machinery breathes when it is making its gallant strife against breaking, breaking. But he was going to break. He was going to break. It seemed to me, this breathing, the noise of a heroic pump which strives to subdue a mud which comes upon it in tons. The darkness was impenetrable. The man was lying in some depression within seven feet of me. Every wave, vibration, of his anguish beat upon my senses. He was long past groaning. There was only the bitter strife for air which pulsed out into the night in a clear penetrating whistle with intervals of terrible silence in which I held my own breath in the common unconscious aspiration to help. I thought this man would never die. I wanted him to die. Ultimately he died.My view of Caimanera from the observation tower suggested that the little town was much better off now that it had no traffic with the base.
Crane did not know the man’s identity until a voice in the darkness announced that the doctor had died. He then realized that the dead man was John Gibbs, whom Crane had befriended during the previous two days. War was suddenly very real to the previously inexperienced war correspondent: “I was no longer a cynic,” he wrote. These first nights under fire proved to be trying in the extreme: “With a thousand rifles rattling; with the field-guns booming in your ears; with the diabolical Colt automatics clacking; with the roar of the Marblehead coming from the bay, and, last, with Mauser bullets sneering always in the air a few inches over one’s head, and with this enduring from dusk to dawn, it is extremely doubtful if any one who was there will be able to forget it easily.”
The next day, there were services for Gibbs even as the Spanish resumed their sniping. Crane retreated to the beach and sat on a rickety pier with a bottle of whiskey that he had procured from a fellow journalist. He stared into “the shallow water where crabs were meandering among the weeds, and little fishes moved slowly in the shoals.”
Though he confessed to feeling somewhat unnerved from “the weariness of the body, and the more terrible weariness of the mind” that came with being under fire, Crane accepted an invitation to tag along with a detachment of Marines on an expedition to flush Spanish guerrillas from the surrounding hills. Some 200 Marines left camp at dawn, guided by a contingent of 50 Cuban insurgents. American correspondents covering the war generally expressed a negative view of Cuban soldiers such as these. Crane’s impression of them was more ambivalent: “They were a hard-bitten, undersized lot,” he wrote in a dispatch for Pulitzer’s World, “most of them negroes, and with the stoop and curious gait of men who had at one time labored at the soil. They were, in short, peasants—hardy, tireless, uncomplaining peasants—and they viewed in utter calm these early morning preparations for battle.” In Crane’s view, they demonstrated a similar stolidity and nonchalance in response to their officers’ orders.
Crane thought he detected greater determination in the American soldiers: “Contrary to the Cubans, the bronze faces of the Americans were not stolid at all. One could note the prevalence of a curious expression—something dreamy, the symbol of minds striving to tear aside the screen of the future and perhaps expose the ambush of death. It was not fear in the least. It was simply a moment in the lives of men who have staked themselves and come to wonder who wins—red or black?”
The Cuban terrain impressed Crane as he followed the American soldiers. A narrow path wound around the bases of some high bare spurs then ascended a chalky cliff and passed through dense thickets. Insects hummed all around. Reaching a clearing, Crane and the soldiers could look down the chaparral-covered ridges to the sea. Next came a steep climb through cactus patches and then a hike along a ridge to where the troops—exhausted and thirsty but also, according to Crane, “contented, almost happy”—encountered the Spanish guerrillas who were hidden in a thicket, waiting to open fire on the Americans and Cubans.
“The fight banged away with a roar like a forest fire,” Crane observed. During the ensuing combat, this intense noise proved overwhelming. “The whole thing was an infernal din. One wanted to clap one’s hand to one’s ears and cry out in God’s name for the noise to cease; it was past bearing.” Amidst this din, Crane detected a variety of sounds, the nuanced noise of war:
And still crashed the Lees and the Mausers, punctuated by the roar of the [USS] Dolphin’s guns. Along our line the rifle locks were clicking incessantly, as if some giant loom was running wildly, and on the ground among the stones and weeds came dropping, dropping a rain of rolling brass shells.
Crane’s propensity for eliciting such precise details from a scene amazed—and exasperated—his fellow correspondents. They readily perceived his obvious disdain for the grind of daily journalism; Crane often said his real aim was not to produce dispatches but to collect material for a new novel. According to his colleague Ernest McCready, Crane was “contemptuous of mere news getting or news reporting.” In composing his dispatches, Crane was, according to another colleague, “an artist, deliberating over this phrase or that, finicky about a word, insisting upon frequent changes and erasures.” Reportedly, he went through many cigarettes as he wrote (despite being tubercular). McCready, a journalist with long experience, urged Crane “to forget scenery and the ‘effects’” and stick to the fundamentals: “This has to be news,” the veteran correspondent told him, “sent at cable rates. You can save your flubdub and shoot it to New York by mail. What I want is the straight story of the fight.”
But Crane could not easily settle for the straight story, even if months had to pass before his personal impressions yielded up the deeper story that he sought. In the case of Guantánamo, half a year went by before Crane turned those impressions into what his colleague and rival Richard Harding Davis called “one of the finest examples of descriptive writing of the war.” The story, published in McClure’s Magazine (February 1899) and later in Crane’s collection Wounds in the Rain, was “Marines Signalling Under Fire at Guantánamo.”What a convoluted history had gone into the making of the base and the odd little township that had developed along with the naval facility.
The narrative concerns “four Guantánamo marines, officially known for the time as signalmen, [whose duty it was] to lie in the trenches of Camp McCall, that faced the water, and, by day, signal the Marblehead with a flag and, by night, signal the Marblehead with lanterns.” No other journalist mentions these signalmen; Crane, however, devoted an entire story to them, closely observing them and detailing their extraordinary courage—a trait that always fascinated Crane—as they were called upon “to coolly take and send messages.” Crane described how, without hesitation, a signalman would stand on a cracker box to send messages to the ships offshore, exposing himself to sniper fire. “Then the bullets began to snap, snap, snap at his head, while all the woods began to crackle like burning straw.” Watching the signalman’s face “illumed as it was by the yellow shine of lantern light,” Crane noted “the absence of excitement, fright, or any emotion at all in his countenance” as the signalman performed his duty. In contrast, watching from the relative safety of the trench, Crane felt “utterly torn to rags,” his nerves “standing on end like so many bristles.”
Later, during the hilltop skirmish with Spanish guerrillas, another signalman stood exposed on a ridge to send the requisite message. “I watched his face,” Crane wrote, “and it was as grave and serene as that of a man writing in his own library. He was the very embodiment of tranquility in occupation . . . There was not a single trace of nervousness or haste.” Crane’s admiring account of this “very great feat” emphasizes the stoic, masculine qualities that he saw in the regulars, the foot soldiers who did the arduous fighting. Elsewhere, he would criticize the press corps for ignoring these paragons of courage in favor of heaping praise on volunteers such as Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. Crane refused to overlook the regulars, making them the focus of his dispatches and stories, lauding their stoicism and grace under pressure, and holding them up as exemplars of what Crane perceived as American ideals.
Crane tried to live up to those ideals himself, according to those who observed his activities during the fight. A letter from a Marine commander recalled Crane’s bravery at Guantánamo. An official Navy report recognized Crane’s “material aid during the action” in delivering messages between platoons. The report does not say whether Crane did more than carry messages, but a biographer (Paul Sorrentino) says that “he quietly carried supplies, built entrenchments, dragged artillery up hills, and helped to fire guns.” In “War Memories,” which is taken to be semi-autobiographical, Crane’s stand-in narrator (named Vernall) is asked by a Marine captain to undertake a brief scouting mission. Crane/Vernall does so: “All the time my heart was in my boots,” he says, contrasting his fear with the stoic regulars “who did not seem to be afraid at all, men with quiet composed faces who went about this business as if they proceeded from a sense of habit.”
Shortly after the hilltop battle, an exhausted and somewhat unnerved Crane left Guantánamo on the dispatch boat with his fellow journalists. Ahead of him were the events at Daiquirí, Siboney, Las Guásimas, and San Juan Hill, followed by a breakdown (perhaps malaria or yellow fever), which further eroded his already precarious health. Just shy of two years after the events at Guantánamo, Stephen Crane was dead at 28.
Standing at the Malones Lookout, gazing across the hills at the approximate location of these events, I recalled Crane’s description of this same landscape. He wrote two versions—one version in a news dispatch and a second version in “War Memories.” Both passages involve a panoramic survey from atop the mountain where the skirmish took place. In the dispatch, Crane noticed the view in the heat of combat: “The sky was speckless, the sun blazed out of it as if it would melt the earth. Far away on one side were the waters of Guantánamo Bay; on the other a vast expanse of blue sea was rippling in millions of wee waves. The surrounding country was nothing but miles upon miles of gaunt, brown ridges. It would have been a fine view if one had had time.”
In the second version, Crane (through his fictional narrator Vernall) takes in the view during the relative calm after the fight is over: “I discovered to my amazement that we were on the summit of a hill so high that our released eyes seemed to sweep over half the world. The vast stretch of sea, shimmering like fragile blue silk in the breeze, lost itself ultimately in an indefinite pink haze, while in the other direction, ridge after ridge, ridge after ridge, rolled brown and arid into the north.”
This was essentially the same panoramic view that I now had at Malones Lookout, although my view—if I had the geography right—was a little farther inland and a little higher up. And, of course, later in time by a century. Because of the time that had passed, I could see what Crane could not: the upshot, the end result of the Marine action at Guantánamo in June 1898—namely, the naval base spread out before me. As Crane sailed out of view, off to report on the coming battles of the war, I turned my attention to Gitmo, one of the principal prizes of that war.
What a convoluted history had gone into the making of the base and the odd little township that had developed along with the naval facility. Following Spain’s surrender in the Spanish-American War, Cuba became a protectorate of the United States. Overt American administrative control of the country lasted a little over three years while US officials and Cuban representatives negotiated the conditions of Cuba’s independence. That any terms at all should be imposed was outrageous to Cubans; even worse, the United States insisted on particularly onerous terms.
These were outlined in the notorious Platt Amendment of 1901, which the United States insisted on inserting into the new Cuban constitution. The Platt Amendment (so called because, as introduced by Senator Orville Platt, it had amended an Army Appropriations Bill in the US Congress) gave the United States the right to intervene in Cuban affairs whenever American interests were threatened. It also stipulated that Cuba would lease territory to the United States for the purpose of establishing a coaling station and port facilities. The territory in question was Guantánamo Bay.As I studied Gitmo from the overlook, I thought the base was an absurdity, a ludicrous embodiment of America’s imperial ambitions (past and present).
The war had demonstrated to the Navy the bay’s strategic value: a protected body of water from which the Navy could monitor approaches to New Orleans and the Panama Canal (then in the planning stages). Although Cubans were loath to accept the base of a foreign power within Cuban territory, the United States insisted: no base, no independence. By 1903, it was a done deal; the United States had secured the right to operate, essentially in perpetuity, a naval base of 45 square miles on Guantánamo Bay. Remuneration was to be around 2,000 dollars a year. “Naval Station Guantánamo Bay” became one of America’s first overseas naval bases, and it remains the oldest overseas American base still in operation.
Despite the Navy’s insistence on Guantánamo’s importance, development of the facilities occurred fitfully. Congress did not provide sufficient funding for many years. Early photos show that the naval station was not much more than a camp with rows of tents for Marines and sailors. Early on, however, the base proved useful as a staging area for American interventions in Cuba and the Caribbean region, and eventually the facilities were improved.
By 1920, the base could accommodate visits from the naval fleet; periodically, training exercises involving 20,000 sailors were conducted there. A National Geographic correspondent accompanied the fleet in 1921 and reported that Guantánamo, a “plant of extraordinary value,” featured rifle ranges, a landing strip, a balloon school (at the time, hot-air balloons were considered to have military utility), hospitals, clubhouses, canteens, and a sports complex with baseball fields and tennis courts. There was also a pigpen, which the National Geographic writer called a “principal attraction” for sailors from the Midwest “with fond recollections of the old farm.”
The correspondent marveled at the base’s natural setting: “Now and then the sharp fin of a shark is seen. Pelicans drift overhead with their air of aldermanic dignity. Fish hawks are forever circling against a sky of almost incandescent blue.” Summarizing the near-pristine quality of the place, the writer called it a “sanctuary” for “the wild animals of the hills.”
In years to come, the base continued to expand with more permanent facilities and housing for military personnel. A community developed, a small American town in the tropics, as families of officers arrived. By 1927, according to a visiting journalist, there were “low green bungalows” nestled “in a tangle of palms and trumpet vines, a flowery oasis in a desert of scrub and thorn.” The wives of naval officers rode “lazy ponies over the hill to call on the ladies of the Marine Corps at Deer Point.” It was, when the fleet was not in port, a place of “vast, placid stillness”—a languid and somewhat dull outpost of the expanding American Empire. “Old Civil Service clerks thankfully close their desks as the shadows start to lengthen,” the journalist observed, “and scramble into motor boats to go home and loll on their breezy porches on the bare yellow crest of Hospital Key. A shout or a loud, hearty laugh would be as noteworthy in Guantánamo as it would be in a church. There was just enough tennis to keep in condition, just enough swimming to keep moderately cool, just enough bridge of an evening to exhaust the conversation of your neighbors.”
Such were the appearances. Beneath the placid surface, Gitmo could be stultifying and dismal. This was the impression conveyed in an anonymously written “tell-all” magazine article published in 1930. Under the byline of “Navy Wife,” the writer described what she called the “Guantánamo Blues.” The article’s subtitle coyly promised “A Taste of Tropical Fruits of Prohibition.” For the most part, the writer agreed with previous observers that life on the base was merely dull: “no daily papers, no real news except a few items that sifted in by radio.” During the Prohibition years, not even alcohol was available on the base—at least not officially. According to the Navy Wife, American women living on the base spent the bulk of their time playing bridge, holding teas and dinner parties, and gossiping, sometimes ruthlessly, about one another (“the usual post-mortems,” she called such gossip). It was a life of “coffee cups, long ribald conversations about nothing.” One lived with “an inescapable smell of stale paint . . . the buzz and thud of tropical insects against the screens.”
But when the fleet returned, so did the excitement—sometimes more than was welcome. With men outnumbering women forty to one, every woman, even those who were married, received plenty of unwanted attention, especially at fleet dances. These were “a nightmare,” the Navy Wife recalled. She was sweet-talked, pulled onto the dance floor, propositioned, and groped. She was “protected only by the thin shred of circumstance which lies in the proximity of others.” Her “woman’s instinct” told her she “must not dare get outside the circle of light and moving white figures,” lest she become subject to “a violent seizure as if I were to be the victim of a rape.”
This undercurrent of lust, potential violence, and vicious gossip hidden below the superficial boredom made Guantánamo seem like a tropical Peyton Place. Over the decades, other residents and visitors noticed this undercurrent as well, even as the base was growing and taking on the appearance of a typical all-American town with outdoor movie theaters, hamburger joints (including, eventually, a McDonald’s), Little Leagues, Scout troops, bowling alleys, golf courses, skating rinks, playgrounds, and skateboard parks. But this surface placidity concealed (barely) drug and alcohol addiction, racism, classism, and sexism. Crime was minimal, but visiting journalists noted that violence did occur now and then, particularly alcohol- and jealousy-fueled spousal abuse.“Now and then the sharp fin of a shark is seen. Pelicans drift overhead with their air of aldermanic dignity. Fish hawks are forever circling against a sky of almost incandescent blue.”
In the publications it provided to newly arrived families, however, the Navy continued to project the image of Guantánamo as an idyllic community. “One of the nice luxuries of Guantánamo Bay,” one such publication noted, was “the fact that domestic help is available.” Besides the cheap labor of Cuban maids, residents on the base could enjoy a variety of recreational activities, hobby shops, libraries, and theater, along with “dances, special parties, bingo and the like.” There were religious services, Bible studies, choirs, and Sunday school. Residents could join any number of clubs, from the PTA to Toastmasters. Touting these perks, the Navy publications presented life on the base as pleasant, even blissful. And indeed, former residents typically have fond memories of their time at Gitmo.
After 1960 and the success of Fidel Castro’s revolution, however, life on the base became even more insular. As tensions between the United States and the new Cuban government mounted, the gates to Guantánamo closed. US personnel were no longer allowed to venture beyond the perimeter to explore and enjoy Cuba proper. Both sides mined the area around the perimeter—making it the largest minefield in the Western hemisphere—and cacti were planted to make the barrier even more difficult to penetrate. This so-called “cactus curtain” featured sandbagged outposts, watchtowers, and perimeter patrols. The base was turned into a sealed-off garrison. Guantánamo became what a National Geographic reporter in 1961 called “an idyllic prison camp.” One military wife told the reporter that life at Gitmo could be described as “comfortable claustrophobia.” The base had everything families needed, she said, “but in fifteen minutes you can drive from one end of it to the other. . . It’s the same old thing day after day.”
In such circumstances, the “Guantánamo Blues” that the anonymous writer struggled with in the 1930s became all the more acute. Visiting journalists in the 1960s and 1970s reported on racial tensions, drug and alcohol problems, and occasional violence. According to a 1973 article in Esquire, “Guantánamo is a good place to become an alcoholic. During the last twelve months gin has been the leading seller at the base Mini-Mart, with vodka a close second.”
A strange place to begin with, Gitmo became even stranger during the Cold War period, given that it was a US military facility on the sovereign territory of a country aligned with the Soviet bloc. By the time I stood at the Malones Lookout in 1998, with the Cold War supposedly a thing of the past, Gitmo seemed like a weird anachronism of both neo-colonialism and the Cold War. My opinion at the time was that Guantánamo was outdated and unnecessary; keeping it seemed counterproductive, and returning it to Cuba seemed like the right thing to do.
I had said as much in some of my conversations with Cubans. In fact, I had told many of my interlocutors that I had a gut feeling President Clinton was going to normalize relations with Cuba and begin the process of returning Guantánamo before he left office in two years’ time. What I didn’t understand then—even though I lived in Miami—was that both political parties were already anticipating that Florida would be the decisive state in the 2000 presidential election, so Clinton could not possibly consider jeopardizing the Florida electoral vote by making amends with Cuba.