Alaska lawmakers were considering a proposal to rename the Glenn Highway. It turned into a debate about torture.

JUNEAU — A hearing in the Alaska Legislative Assembly earlier this week on whether to rename the Glenn Highway turned into a discussion on ‘cancellation culture’, the definition of torture and historical atrocities in the Phillippines.

Rep. Zack Fields, D-Anchorage, proposed renaming the highway, which runs 179 miles from Anchorage to Glennallen. First, he introduced House Bill 352, which would require the Alaska Department of Transportation and Facilities to consult with tribes and local residents before proposing a new name. The bill doesn’t officially rename the highway, but that’s the end goal, Fields said. The House Transportation Committee heard the measure on Tuesday.

“I looked into it and thought it was worth considering if we should rename this road,” Fields said. “(There are) a lot of admirable Alaskans, and maybe a war criminal isn’t the best person to name one of our main roads.”

The Glenn Highway is named after Edwin Glenn, a United States Army officer who, from 1898 to 1900, conducted mapping and exploration missions in south-central Alaska.

While Glenn was in Alaska, the United States defeated Spain in the Spanish-American War. The Philippines was a Spanish colony and the Americans were aided by Filipino fighters seeking independence. After the war, rather than grant the Philippines this independence, the United States sought to make the islands a colony in its own right.

The Philippine resistance turned against the United States, which fought a years-long counterinsurgency war to maintain control. Glenn, transferred to the Philippines, ordered the waterboarding of Filipinos who supported independence.

He was court-martialed, found guilty, and received a small punishment from his fellow army officers who also fought the Filipinos. On another occasion, he was court-martialed for ordering the execution of Filipino POWs. In this case, he was acquitted.

David Reamer, an Anchorage historian who writes for the Daily News, said the Alaska Road Commission was unlikely to know this story when it named the Glenn Highway in 1942.

“They knew he had commanded a military expedition to Alaska. There is no evidence that they knew anything more than a sentence about him,” Reamer said.

He wrote a column in 2020 for the Daily News that described Glenn’s story in the Philippines and called him a war criminal who tortured captives.

Fields said he was inspired by this article.

“So at the suggestion of a local historian, I introduced House Bill 352, to rename the road. I like the ring of the Katie John Highway,” he said.

John, from the Copper River area, was a well-known advocate for subsistence fishing rights. She passed away in 2013.

To support the highway’s renaming, Fields provided a detailed account of how Glenn used a “water cure”, the early 20th century name for waterboarding. Reamer backed him up with a testimonial describing the practice.

At one point, Rep. Tom McKay, R-Anchorage, asked for a break.

“Do we need all these details? We are the transport committee. We are supposed to worry about roads, planes and ferries, not waterboarding in the 1890s,” he said after the hearing.

Rep. Kevin McCabe, R-Big Lake, had a stronger objection to the testimony.

“It’s cancel culture. I want this recorded,” he said at the hearing. that was torture.”

“If you want to say he was a bad guy and he did some nasty things, that’s fine. But what he did doesn’t rise to the level of ‘let’s totally undo it,'” McCabe said.

In a brief interview on Wednesday, McCabe compared Glenn’s actions to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II, saying that while reprehensible, Glenn’s actions might have ended hostilities more quickly.

Glenn himself made this argument in 1902, adding that he considered every man, woman, and child in the Philippines a legitimate enemy of war.

“I was appalled to see torture dismissed so lightly by some members of the legislature,” Reamer said after the hearing.

McKay and McCabe said it would have been better to discuss the cost of renaming the freeway. Fields’ invoice does not include a cost estimate because it does not officially rename the route.

A Department of Transportation official said the cost of replacing street signs would ‘easily’ exceed $2 million, and that doesn’t include the cost to residents, who would be required to change their addresses on permits driving, passports and mail.

Rep. George Rauscher, R-Sutton, represents a district that includes about 139 miles of freeway and said the borough of Matanuska-Susitna will also incur costs.

“People are definitely going to have to pay dearly,” he said.

During the hearing, McKay seemed skeptical of Fields’ proposal, saying that “with the cancellation going on here”, the committee should also consider renaming the town of Glennallen (after Glenn and Lt. Henry Allen, who led a team that explored United States territory in the 1880s) and Lake Louise (named after Glenn’s wife).

Fields said he wasn’t considering renaming either.

After the meeting, McKay and McCabe suggested that the highway be renamed in honor of astronaut John Glenn, which would eliminate the need for new road signs.

Fields said he might be open to the idea, but the goal of his bill is to solicit ideas from tribes and residents, not just to have a name imposed by the legislature. He said he wasn’t trying to “cancel” anyone.

“I think the issue is that we don’t have a lot of roads in Alaska, and the roads that we have, I think, are major landmarks that we should name after the most deserving people,” said he declared.

Among those testifying in support of the bill were the executive director of the Chickaloon Tribal Village and Joshua Albeza Branstetter, co-founder of the Association of Asian, Pacific Islander and Desi Alaskans.

Alaskans of Filipino descent represent one of the largest ethnic minority groups in the state. The first recorded visit to Alaska by a Filipino was in 1788.

Branstetter said one of his grandfathers fought on the beaches of Normandy during World War II. One of his great-grandfathers served in the Philippine Army in World War II and died on the Bataan Death March.

“These are people we should be celebrating and we should be naming roads, not a man who tortured people,” he said.

Edward K. Thompson