The War Lovers, by award-winning journalist Evan Thomas, serves as a reminder that everything old is new again.
While economic issues are eternal, the America of the late 19th century was faced with a different set of problems, including a perceived “need” by high-ranking officials to expand the American “brand.” While Spain was pressing an iron boot on the neck of a Cuban nation yearning to be free, many of this country’s leaders --- for the purposes of this book, Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, and William Randolph Hearst --- sought to garner public and political support to lead the charge --- literally --- to aid another nation struggling for independence. Thomas highlights the ambitions of these three men, as well as a selection of those opposed to involvement, for any number of reasons, such as President William McKinley and psychologist/philosopher William James (whose inclusion strikes me as misplaced).
Roosevelt and Hearst receive most of the attention in this volume. Thomas runs through a detailed account of each of the principals’ backgrounds as a way of explaining how they arrived at their respective points of view. He does not necessarily paint them in the most glowing light. Roosevelt, who was serving as Secretary of the Navy immediately prior to the Spanish American War, was torn between the (dull) duties of family life and the desire to prove his manhood. Likewise, Hearst --- publisher of the New York Journal and the Rupert Murdoch of his day --- desperately wanted to prove his importance not just as a news conduit, but as a news maker by creating a public opinion situation that fairly demanded U.S. military action. In fact, as Evans reports, several instances of atrocities perpetrated by the Spanish were, if not made up out of whole cloth, grossly exaggerated in order to fan the flames of patriotism and extend paternalism to a less fortunate nation.
(The War Lovers refers not only to the main subjects, but in a broader sense to those either too young to have fought in the War Between the States or too old to serve in the current situation, as if they missed something endemic to proving their masculinity.)
The first half of the book deals with Roosevelt, Lodge, and their contemporaries looking for almost any excuse or provocation to expand the American way of life, while the second --- and better --- half reports on how the U.S. entered into and won the War.
Thomas is at his best --- if a bit too graphic at times --- when describing the preparation for and engagement in battle: how the men fought not only the Spanish, but the elements of heart, hunger, and disease. More men died of Yellow Fever than wounds sustained at the hands of the enemy. Roosevelt --- who resigned his position in the administration to lead the famous Rough Riders --- is shown as a man hungry for action, yet unsure of how he would hold up in the face of combat. He is presented in multiple lights: impetuous, proud, vain, beloved by his underlings, mistrusted by his equals, a cipher to his family. That he politicked for a Medal of Honor for his admittedly brave deeds is a sad discovery, a disappointment for those readers more comfortable with a modest hero.
Thomas has been making the talk show rounds, discussing his book and comparing that conflict with the war against Iraq, even to go as far as describing a waterboarding-like torture employed against the enemy. It is slightly disingenuous, a forced way to connect an event from so long ago to make it appear contemporary. Armed conflicts will always have similar characteristics if examined closely enough. It seems unnecessary to force the pieces to fit.
Reviewed by Ron Kaplan on January 24, 2011