‘The War Lovers’ and Related Thoughts on American War

The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst and the Rush to Empire, 1898

The War Lovers by Evan Thomas is more evidence that it wasn’t just the influential yellow journalism of the New York Journal (William Randolph Hearst) and the New York World (Joseph Pulitzer) and an accidental explosion on the USS Maine that drove us into the Spanish American War in 1898. It was a cabal of powerful agitators such as Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge who stoked the fire, as vehemently as the papers, in the name of manifest destiny, Anglo-Saxon superiority and the moral strength of war as an end in itself.

One of the book’s most fascinating epistolary revelations is the all-consuming fear of its antihero, Teddy Roosevelt, that he might not see battle. (He eventually leaves sick child and bed-ridden wife to lead the Rough Riders.)

Both he and Lodge had watched the mounted, regal officers of the Civil War cheered through their New England towns on their way to fight and die. The romantic visions of these heroes, and their glorified deaths, never left them. Then there was the fact that Roosevelt’s father had bought out of Civil War conscription. TR had to redeem his family name and pay his debt of honor to society—even if he had to start a war to do it.

While Roosevelt was hunting big game and writing countless books on frontier cowboys, Lodge was getting his PhD in Anglo-Saxon studies and buying into the faux-science du jour (especially for Anglo-Saxons) that, according to the Social Darwinists, they were the master race responsible for civilizing the rest of the world. Along with poems such as Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden,” this notion helped comfort the WASPs distressed by watching Eastern European immigrants flood our shores.

Lodge and TR, close friends, believed that without war, manliness would decay and our country would become soft and weak. Without a frontier to march toward, our spirit of exploration and conquest had been snuffed out. Expansionism, was in fact, a major facet of “Americanism,” and had to be resuscitated. Oh, the myriad reasons these men who had never seen war could call upon to defend its moral replenishment! Roosevelt put his money where his mouth. After almost single-handedly modernizing the U.S. Navy as its assistant secretary (with Massachusetts senator Lodge shouting for funding), he created his own regiment of Western cowboys and Eastern elites, and made a dramatic display of fighting in Cuba that would propel him to the presidency.

The other two 1870s-ish Harvard men chronicled in The War Lovers are William Randolph Hearst and William James.

Hearst was an awkward prankster who never graduated and whose überrich family eventually let him run one of its newspapers. Finding a talent for sensationalism, stoking people’s basic fears and desires, and always shouting in huge, bold letters about his “journalism that acts,” Hearst was actually shy and introverted in public. His competition with Pulitzer’s New York World, selling newspapers, and his desire to be a historymaker put his motivations for jingoism in plain sight. No one would expect any less than the Journal’s bellowing of conspiracy theories about the Spanish spies who blew up the USS Maine, despite a lack of evidence and a lack of motive for Spain to provoke the U.S.

If Hearst’s New York Journal exaggerated and spun everything, its account and photos of the Cubans’ suffering and starvation in Spanish camps were reasonably accurate. According to the book, though never plainly stated, the humanitarian cause for intervention was needed to get the ball rolling on a publicly approved war.

William James, teaching at Harvard while Hearst attended, was one of the leading American psychologists and philosophers in the early 1900s. He takes a character-actor role in The War Lovers as the conflicted conscience of a nation. James was a Roosevelt foil: A man of nuance who could not abide sweeping ideologies or simple overarching explanations—especially those concerning WASP Social Darwinists. Literally writing the book on pragmatism, the subjective-minded realist was often attacked for agnosticism and moral relativism, but he was fervent individualist who championed the wisdom of personal experience (“radical empiricism”).

James admired aggressive men of action, such as his two brothers wounded in Civil War battle, mostly because he was not one. And he supported the Spanish-American War, after long and serious consideration, as a remedy to Spanish atrocities and a just liberation of Cubans. James loved his country, even while his anxieties about the concept of American Exceptionalism grew. He “understood that war, while sometimes necessary and unavoidable, could be a bitch goddess, a seductress of young men and old fools, particularly the kind who had never experienced her savage embrace,” Thomas writes.

Reluctant to become an activist and speak out against American “imperialism,” James finally cracked at the McKinley administration’s disastrous handling of the Philippines situation (which preceded the Filipino-American War, officially concluded in 1902 with insurrections raging on until 1912). He took his pluralistic views a step further to condemn intolerance and became a voice railing “against the unintended consequences of liberating a people by conquering them” in 1899’s “On Certain Kinds of Blindness in Human Beings.” We are “insensible to the inner significance of lives different than our own,” he said, referring to our tendency to view strange cultures of dark-skinned people as less than human. “What most horrifies me in life is our brutal ignorance of one another.”

The Filipino-American War
Only in the last five years has the U.S. been involved in a tragically mishandled population massacre, the “unintended consequences” of the Iraq War’s sectarian violence explosion, comparable to the Filipino-American War of 1899-1902 (Vietnam and Korea differ vastly in scale and complexity). Miscommunication with regard to the post-Spanish authority and the long-term plan for Filipino autonomy (the administration’s exploratory commission decided the natives were not fit yet to govern themselves), allowed maverick U.S. generals and local insurgencies to quickly ratchet up the death toll.

McKinley’s calls to maintain a semblance of order and his overtures to the local leader Emilio Aguinaldo that the march to independence would be slow but certain, came too late to be regarded realistically. After Aguinaldo’s necessary switch from conventional to guerilla warfare against the U.S. military, the policy of “total war” had been adopted by generals such as E. Stephen Otis and Jacob H. Smith, and overcrowded, disease-ridden camps were set up to distinguish civilians from insurgents (ironically, we had initially gone to war with Spain over the squalid death camps they forced upon the Cubans!). Many thousands, whose villages fell to the “scorched earth” tactics, died in the camps and anyone who ventured out was free to be gunned down.

Soldiers who sent letters describing the atrocities back to the States were either forced to retract their statements or court-martialed (though one made it through to Hearst’s Journal, which ran the front page story that General Smith had ordered his men to shoot anyone over 10 years old). Torture, including water-boarding, and horrific mutilation were common on both sides. In the end, anywhere from 35,000 to 100,000 Filipinos, and approximately 4,000 U.S. soldiers, died. If only the Filippinos had been patient enough to wait 45 years for independence, as was promised by McKinley’s administration from the get-go.

Comparing the Spanish-American-Filipino War to recent conflicts

Evan Thomas makes an analogy between the Iraq War and the Spanish-American War in the intro to The War Lovers, offering a modern context and perhaps modern relevance. In February 2003, just before the Iraq War officially started, Salon.com offered a comparison as well. And in the broad view, the similarities are there, primarily their status as “wars of choice.”

The United States entered both the Spanish-American War and the Iraq War without direct provocation, there were no threats or treaty obligations. It took war mongers and jingos (as they were called in 1900) fanning the flames of war from the top down with scurrilous evidence. Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge had the Maine explosion ; Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney had yellow cake uranium and WMD. It took the hubris of dominance, the idea that victory would be not only assured, but at little cost. It took international-cop ideas of moral superiority: clamoring about Spanish atrocities against Cubans and Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime gassing its own people. The administrations seemingly attempted all diplomatic solutions, though William McKinley was looking to avoid a conflict while George W. Bush wanted an excuse to invade. Both administrations went to war without a clear or realistic view of an end game for the battlefield countries.

In the end, counting the Filipino-American War, the casualties ended up roughly the same. So far, the spoils appear to be similar: nada. The Philippines never became a major economic market (eventually gaining independence in 1946) and Cuba, of course, played host to our sworn superpower enemy from the ’40s to the ’80s. In the Middle East, we’ve helped our most hostile adversary, Iran, by destabilizing their archenemy and making a suppressive Islamofascist party the de facto power in the region (outside of Israel). And the oil reserves in Iraq have yet to materialize to benefit Americans, if not the oil companies who will be stepping in soon. As our combat troops leave Iraq, August 20, 2010, nobody is writing about any potential U.S. oil windfall.

It is indeed beneficial to compare and contrast all U.S. wars to gain insights. The similarities were, again, only comparable in broad swaths. In fact, the Spanish-American War (minus the Filipino conflict) is more akin to the Persian Gulf War of 1991 as a whole. More than 20 years had passed since a major mobilization of forces had occurred, an economic recession was waxing and as the Salon piece claims (in much more of a stretch for the 2003 contest) a national sense of purposelessness pervaded (the frontier was settled; the Cold War had ended). The goal was not the toppling of a regime but the liberation of a state. The short-term, decisive nature of both fights could be billed under the headline: “Splendid Little War.”

Speaking of a hawkish public opinion and Congress, fueled partly by the yellow press of 1898 and cable news now, the Salon piece posits “that Spanish transgressions were as much an excuse for war as a cause, which may be the strongest similarity between that war and our putative one.” As has become clear, the Bush administration was looking for an excuse for “preemptive invasion” before 9/11, but to leave 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan out when considering the run up to the Iraq War, as the Salon does, is to leave out a third dimension from reality. Would the Bush administration have been able to bring about the nationalist, flag-waving momentum of post 9/11 or the “fight ‘em over there” revenge-cry foundation of the newly instituted global war on terror? Would Cheney and Rumsfeld have so carelessly sought reasons to strike Saddam, unprovoked, if we hadn’t scored victory in Afghanistan in under 90 days with barely more than a CIA presence? We’ll never know. But considering that the Iraq War was still somewhat tough sell after 9/11 and considering the less than credible ascension to power of W., I’d wager that without provocation from Saddam, beyond harassing weapons inspector, the case for an Iraqi invasion would have fell on deaf ears. (Still, with the Persian Gulf War in 1991 as the model of a quick casualty-less success, having been proceeded by prompt, guiltless incursions into Grenada and Panama in the 80s, who can say?)

In further comparison, our far superior military condition in both Iraq adventures underlies the uniqueness of the Spanish-American War: In 1898, the U.S.’s vigorous war drum–beating was inversely proportional to the the Army’s preparedness for war. As War Lovers illustrates vividly, the Spanish-American War was being pursued and contemplated with an army only 28,000 strong and a newly built navy, both untested. Though 200,000 volunteers clamored for the excitement of war, they had yet to be organized or trained.

Moral Equivalent of War

Written in 1906 by William James, it is clear from his first sentence in this essay that his ambiguity on the subject of war circa 1898 is gone: “The War against war is going to be no holiday excursion or camping party.”

Indeed, James cites the Illiad as representative that “history is a bath of blood.” With epic tales of great warrior/conquerors “our ancestors have bred pugnacity into our bones and marrow, and thousands of years of peace won’t breed it out of us. The popular imagination fairly fattens on the thought of war. Let public opinion once reach a fighting pitch and no ruler can withstand.” Here James brings in the brief example of the Spanish-American War, in which the frothing, restless masses forced McKinley’s declaration.

James writes persuasively that the military-minded cannot fathom that war could be a passing phase in “social evolution,” and are disgusted by even the notion. Nations, they argue, are constantly either shrinking or growing, and without permanent war preparations, a nation is doomed. But not only from outside threats; interior degeneration will creep in and laziness will bring about inferiority. War brings discipline, physical health and hardiness, honor and selflessness, and common purpose and unity. And on top of that, a world without it would be boring: Political and military leaders possess a deep “unwillingness to see the supreme theater of human strenuousness closed.” Even confronted with the death and destruction, they will only say that without the horrors, there would be no triumphal exaltation: “Where is the blood-tax? Where is anything that one feels honored by belonging to?” asks the general.

Admitting himself a pacifist who would like to see the abolition of all war, James sees only one viable option to negating war’s existence: developing a moral equivalent of war. A sort of civil service tour of duty dedicated to constructive, goal-oriented labor, that would serve to turn boys into men, unite them, humble them and discipline them as the military does—and to be “redeemed by that from the suspicion of inferiority.”

I’ll let William James break it down:

“We must make new energies and hardihoods continue the manliness to which the military mind so faithfully clings. Martial virtues must be the enduring cement; intrepidity, contempt of softness, surrender of private interest, obedience to command, must still remain the rock upon which states are built….

The war-party is assuredly right in affirming and reaffirming that the martial virtues…are absolute and permanent human goods. Patriotic pride and ambition in their military form are, after all, only specifications of a more general competitive passion. They are its first form, but that is no reason for supposing them to be its last form. Men are now proud of belonging to a conquering nation, and without a murmur they lay down their persons and their wealth, if by so doing they may fend off subjection. But who can be sure that other aspects of one’s country may not, with time and education and suggestion enough, come to be regarded with similarly effective feelings of pride and shame?…Individuals, daily more numerous, now feel this civic passion. It is only a question of blowing on the spark until the whole population gets incandescent, and on the ruins of the old morals of military honor, a stable system of morals of civic honor builds itself up….

If now — and this is my idea — there were, instead of military conscription, a conscription of the whole youthful population to form for a certain number of years a part of the army enlisted against Nature…to coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dishwashing, clotheswashing, and windowwashing, to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundries and stoke-holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers, would our gilded youths be drafted off, according to their choice, to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas. They would have paid their blood-tax, done their own part in the immemorial human warfare against nature; they would tread the earth more proudly, the women would value them more highly, they would be better fathers and teachers of the following generation.”

With terrorism and Third World destruction for all to see in the news daily, James’ idea in today’s context seems rather ridiculous. But as a universal concept about a future without war, it is the equivalent, I believe, of an absolute truth. And applied to the once insanely militaristic Japanese becoming a socialist-economic juggernaut by the ’80s, it seems to have enjoyed practice in the modern era. The doctrine otherwise seems to apply only to Western Democracies that have no clear need for national defense, after having had one for a while. Or, more specifically, it seems to apply to a notion of isolationist idealism of what America had the luxury of becoming because of its status as prosperous ruler of its own continent. We should all hope that this theory will apply again someday.

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