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16 September 2013

Book Review: The War Lovers

The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire, 1898The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire, 1898 by Evan Thomas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Would we have gone to war in Cuba without Hearst, Roosevelt and Lodge?

Would we have gone to war in Iraq without Cheney, Rumsfeld and Murdoch?

The more things change, the more they stay the same.  Thomas' thesis is that worries about the weakening of the Anglo-Saxon race, combined with the rise of strong women, created a generation of men with free-floating anxiety and angst that was only cured by strenuous exercise and war-lust.

That was in 1898.  But read it again.  Could be now, couldn't it?  Cross-fit and Afghanistan.

Thomas' book concentrates on a select few figures, one of which is philosopher William James.  James, who taught at Harvard (taught Roosevelt and Lodge, in fact) had the "good sense, and the rare judgement, to see through the social Darwinists."  James was not "free of the prejudices of his age, but he was unusually--among his fellow academics, almost uniquely--open to the idea that different races had different qualities, and that one should learn from them, and not simply judge."

Outside of James, the prevalent teaching was Anglo-Saxon superiority, which requires the parallel belief of All-Other-Race inferiority.  W.E.B. DuBois studied with James.  Roosevelt was more partial to a man named Norman Shaler, a social Darwinist who worried that "alien races" would water down good American stock.

On the surface, Shaler paired fighting for the independence of the dark-skinned Cubans seems oxymoronic.  Just as the strenuous exercise and war-lust paired with the prevalence of nervous exhaustion seems so.  But logic is rarely a driving force in history.

Take the sinking of the Maine, one of the reasons the US sent troops to Cuba.  The ship blew up.  Logical minds thought, "Accident," because the coal bunker was right next to the gunpowder magazine.  But Hearst ignored logic, stirred up conspiracy, ignored facts and presented the kind of news that is less news and more fodder for advertising dollars and sales.

And then there's Spain, who knew they would lose a war with America but felt the need to fight one anyway because of a concept called punctilio: better to be defeated than to be seen backing down (at one point, they even fought a fake battle, but got confused and people died anyway)

By the time the first shots were fired, the war was actually mostly over but it led to a quagmire in the Phillippines, which Korea and Vietnam echoed a half-a-century later.  And the question of how Cuba would govern itself has multiple echoes in the 20th century.

Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it. --  Edmund Burke

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the shadow

T.S. Eliot

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