Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A nation feeling its oats, let’s call it America, is whipped into a frenzy to start a war based on false information reported in the press. Based on these false reports, this nation decides that it is going to invade a country to liberate its people from tyranny. Those who are against the war have their patriotism questioned by the party in charge at the time, we’ll call them Republicans.
While reading “The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire, 1898” by Evan Thomas, I couldn’t help thinking of George Santayana’s quote that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The parallels between American actions leading up to the Spanish-American war and the Iraq bungle are eerily similar.
In 1897 Hearst’s newspaper, the New York Journal, printed false stories about Spanish atrocities in Cuba, much as over a century later, the New York Times served as a mouthpiece for false stories about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The Journal whipped the American public into a frenzy for a war, any war. It cynically did so because war is good for circulation and Hearst ‘s paper was printing massive quantities of red ink.
One of the interesting things I learned from “The War Lovers” is that Hearst was not always the rich tycoon as portrayed in Citizen Kane. At this point in his budding newspaper career he was still earning his money the old fashioned way: by asking his wealthy widowed mother for it. A war would help sell papers and make his company profitable. So he constantly promoted war in 3 inch headlines.
When the American ship the USS Maine blew up in Havana Harbor, it gave the war lovers the perfect excuse to start a war with Spain. Never mind that military experts even back then thought that the explosion was an accident. The gunpowder magazine was foolishly placed next to the flammable coal supply. Other ships had experienced similar accidents and the captain had expressed his concerns about this even before setting sail for Cuba. But why let the facts get in the way of a good war?
After a relatively easy victory in Cuba, America then set its sights on the Philippines. It sunk the Spanish fleet stationed at Manila and demanded that Spain turn the islands over to America. This caused somewhat of a rift in American politics as the country was now pushing the type of Imperialism that it decried in European countries. Those arguing for Imperialism won as the Philippines was handed over to the US.
Too bad no one thought to ask the Filipinos what they wanted as the American army proceeded to engage in a guerilla war with Filipino rebels for several more years. Over 4,000 American soldiers died in the conflict. (Sound familiar?) Americans also learned a new way to torture prisoners by pouring water over their mouth to stimulate drowning. We now know this as “waterboarding.” (Now I know that sounds familiar to you.)
It is ironic that the cries of “Cuba Libre” rang in the ears of American soldiers as they fought the Spanish in 1898. Just as Castro’s forces would use this cry in the 1950s and exiled Cuban-Americans use this slogan even now. In the words of Pete Townshend, “meet the new boss, same as the old boss”.
Evan Thomas deftly captures an era when America could blunder into a misguided war without thinking of the consequences and without a plan for what to do with a nation after it was “freed”. He manages to avoid any parallels with the Iraq War until the very last line of this engaging book. Unfortunately, our leaders still are doomed to repeat history.
Much has already been written about Custer’s Last Stand so it’s hard to see what else can be told about it. However, gifted story-teller Nathaniel Philbrick had access to recently surfaced memoirs to add to the already formidable amount of Custer lore. Readers of Philbrick’s prior best sellers about nautical events, Mayflower, Heart of the Sea and Sea of Glory, will not be disappointed as he turns his skills to dry land.
To those who study military tactics and strategy, the Battle of the Little Bighorn is required reading. Custer was a brilliant, if reckless, military leader. He made several mistakes at this battle including splitting up his forces and attacking an enemy force that was many times larger than his own. He acted as if defeat were not possible.
Custer could be forgiven a little hubris. After all, he was one of the most successful officers in the Civil War and was an acclaimed Indian fighter. To date his tactics had worked so why stop now? In retrospect, the massacre of Custer and his troops was almost inevitable. It had almost happened to him in earlier battles but he was able to shrug off the lessons of those events due to his eventual victories in them.
I learned a few interesting facts about Custer. I had forgotten how instrumental he was to the Union victory in the Civil War. During the famous Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, Custer was engaged in a different action on the battlefield that many historians claim turned around the battle and thereby the course of the war. In fact, after the surrender at Appomatox, Union General Sheridan gave Custer the table on which Grant wrote the terms of surrender. Sheridan included a note to Custer’s wife which read in part, ” there is scarcely an individual who has contributed more to bring about this desirable result than your very gallant husband.”
Custer’s two brothers, a brother-in-law and a nephew also died at Little Bighorn. One of the brothers, Tom, was the only soldier to win two Medals of Honor in the Civil War. Courage certainly ran in the family.
Something else I learned was that Custer’s father was a Joe Kennedy type, pushing his war hero son to run for President. One of the reasons that Custer was so eager to win this battle was that the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia was due to begin soon. He figured the news of his great victory would reach the Centennial just as it opened on July 4th, thereby increasing his stature and future political prospects.
Philbrick also conducted research among Native American documents to tell their side of the battle. They were, after all, the only survivors of the Last Stand. While they won the battle it was just a temporary reprieve to their eventual herding onto reservations and the loss of the war.
Philbrick manages to tell a tale of what could be dry military maneuvers so artfully that the book reads like a fast paced novel. He makes great use of maps to highlight the maneuvers that took place. This is a highly readable and engaging account of one of the major disasters of American military history.
Lost On Planet China by J. Martin Troost is one Westerner’s attempt to understand the world’s most complicated country. The China that Troost portrays is not all that appealing. It is obviously crowded, 1.3 billion have to go somewhere, but it is also incredibly polluted. Wherever Troost goes he describes the air as some variation of “dismal haze”, “hideous pollution”, “vile” or this nugget, “wheezing as if I’d just chain smoked three packs of Marlboro Reds.” Not to mention the quaint Chinese custom of spitting everywhere in public.
I’ve read many travel memoirs. The first part of the book is usually devoted to witty observations about the differences between country X and the author’s native land. Then there is some transcendent moment where the author “gets” it. Maybe it’s a delicious meal or a wonderful interaction with the locals. All of a sudden they have a newfound love for the country they are visiting and all is right with the world.
I kept waiting for that moment to occur in Lost In Planet China. At page 100, I noticed I still hadn’t heard much that was positive. By page 200 I was becoming a bit alarmed that Troost just wasn’t going to like China, although I did appreciate his glaring honesty. He did like Hong Kong a little but mostly because it wasn’t like China. He also liked Tibet. But since Tibet has been under the authoritarian thumb of China for 50 years it’s sort of politically correct to like Tibet. To not like it would be like pointing out that Girl Scout cookies really aren’t that good.
By the end of the book I realized, “Holy cow, he really didn’t like this place.” Based on his descriptions I can’t really blame him. That said, the book is an entertaining read. Those who enjoy the travelogues of Bill Bryson will appreciate Troost’s wry look at the sights and events unfolding around him.
If the last century was the American Century it looks more and more like the next one will be the Chinese Century. They are already America’s largest lender and continue to build up their military and manned space program. As American consumers demand ever cheaper “Made in China” consumer goods at the likes of Wal Mart we are actually hastening our own demise. Sorry to be such a downer today but it’s actually quite depressing.
I have been planning for an upcoming around-the-world trip. China was a stop on my proposed itinerary because, well, it’s China and don’t you have to see it? After reading Lost on Planet China I think I can safely skip it and not feel that my life is unfulfilled.
In the film The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman’s character was told that the future was in plastics. DuPont gave us the slogan ”Better Things for Better Living…Through Chemistry.” Today those chickens have come home to roost, well at least the ones that haven’t been poisoned or lost all reproductive functioning.
Slow Death By Rubber Duck:The Secret Danger of Everyday Things by Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie is an eye-opening expose about the effects of chemicals in our environment. They focus on seven chemicals that are pretty much everywhere. From baby bottles to the air we breath to yes, even little rubber duckies.
What blew me away is the level of these chemicals that show up in our blood and urine. Even if you try to live an organic lifestyle you are being affected. The author’s tested their own body fluids and found traces of chemicals that were banned over 30 years ago. This stuff really sticks around for a long time.
Speaking of sticking, a chapter is devoted to the plight of Parkersburg, West Virginia, also known as Teflon Town. This is where DuPont manufactures the miracle product that is found not only in pots and pans but pizza boxes, cosmetics and clothing. It’s even been detected in the flesh of seals in the Arctic. I don’t know of too many seals that cook so that is really disturbing. Unfortunately, it has also been showing up in Parkersburg’s water supply leading to increased rates of prostate and other cancers and birth defects. Oh, and if you’re reading this it’s also likely in your body since it appears in the bloodstream of 98% of the US population. Bon Appetit!
To those parents out there who dream of being grandparents someday, you may want to hold off on applying the Scott’s Weed and Feed to the lawn that little Joey and Susy play on. The chemical in most herbicides, 2,4-D, works by disrupting the hormone process in plants. Guess what? It does the same thing in humans too. 2,4-D is linked with rising rates of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, infertility and birth defects. Is it really worth all that just to kill a few dandelions? Many cities in Canada don’t think so and have banned the cosmetic use of herbicides.
What is particularly disturbing about this book is that the chemical companies seem to have the regulators tied around their fingers. Many of the chemicals are unregulated so it is left to industry to determine what the “safe levels” are. It turns out that the safe level is whatever level is profitable and public health be damned.
It’s a shame that we live in an era when people who care about the environment are sometimes called “enviro-Nazis”. This is ironic considering it is the chemical companies, along with their lobbyist friends in Washington that are the ones actually killing millions. Much like Silent Spring by Rachel Carson a generation ago, Slow Death By Rubber Duck shines a bright light on this subject.
A reader pointed out that I had incorrectly attributed the “better living through chemistry” slogan to Dow Chemical instead of DuPont. The correction has been made. Dow Chemical is better known as one of the producers of Agent Orange, the defoliant used in Vietnam that has caused significant health problems among American troops and Vietnamese civilians.
Ahh what a simpler time. When a recently minted ex-President could hop in the car with his wife and take a road trip, unescorted by any security, halfway across the country to visit his daughter and some friends. Even though Truman was the target of an assassination attempt while President, back then once you left the White House you truly were a private citizen and could move about unencumbered by security details and an entourage of personal assistants.
“Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip” by Mathew Algeo pitch perfectly captures the 1950s along with a time before ex-Presidents became money printing machines from speaking fees and board memberships. In fact, Truman was rather poor. He hadn’t been in the Army long enough to claim a military pension and his Senate career was cut short to become Roosevelt’s Vice President so he missed out on that pension too. What a far cry from today when even a single term as United States Senator guarantees an income for life.
The author retraced the trip himself, staying at some of the same hotels and eating at the same restaurants. He even met a few people who interacted with the Trumans along the way, including a police officer who stopped the couple for driving too slowly. Harry, who was a car buff and notorious speeder, had to agree to Bess’ rule that they obey the posted speed limit.
Although Truman left office with a 22% approval rating, people were eager to meet him and give him well wishes. He made a triumphant return to Washington where the press asked him for his impressions of the Eisenhower administration. Normally never one to mince words, Truman didn’t feel it was his place to judge the new president. (You hear that Mr. Cheney?)
Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick is a valuable peek behind the curtain of North Korea, a gray land whose monochrome pallor is broken up only by the bright colors in propaganda posters lauding their Dear Leader.
It is notoriously difficult to report on North Korea. Access by outsiders is severely limited. When foreigners are permitted to enter the country their movement is constantly monitored by two minders (one of the minders is there to watch the other one). It’s as if the North Korean government used George Orwell’s 1984 as a blueprint for how to run a country.
While Demick has visited North Korea, the heavy-handed monitoring on these tours prevents any open interaction with ordinary North Koreans. Thus she provides most of the narrative from interviews with defectors who have safely made it to South Korea. Ordinarily I would be put off by reliance on such subjective sources whose commentary can not be independently verified. But Demick manages to verify what she can and weave together a story that sounds altogether plausible about what is taking place north of the DMZ.
In a word it is horrible. Almost an entire population has been reduced to scrambling for any sustenance they can find among the roots, bark and even dirt of already picked over forests. Children are starving by the thousands causing drastic reductions of the school age population. School itself is just another tool for furthering the regime’s propoganda. The book’s title comes from a song that school children recite which includes the line, “We have nothing to envy in the world.”
The big question with North Korea is: do the people truly believe this propaganda or can they see through it? This has vast foreign policy implications for America should there ever be the need for a military action against North Korea or a revolution from within. When the Berlin Wall came down it became obvious that Eastern Europeans knew their way of life was worse than in the West. They were already receiving glimpses of it through TV signals where they could watch Western programming.
North Koreans have no such view of the outside world. They don’t have the Internet or phones. Their TVs and radios are mechanically set to the approved government station. In fact, these days they rarely even have electricity. Would people who live such a primitive life even be able to adapt to the modern world?
Demick addresses these questions in her book. While many North Korean defectors do have problems at first with South Korean ways, most do manage to adapt. Interestingly, some of those who defected had been able to overcome the mechanical locks on their radios to change the station and receive South Korean broadcasts. In this way they were able to decide for themselves that they were being fed a pack of lies by their own government.
This past year I visited Berlin and found that most of the new high-end stores and hotels are located in the now thriving former East Berlin. It is difficult to imagine anything similar happening in the Koreas. Demick points out that in 1990, with the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, it appeared that North Korea’s days were numbered. Yet here we are in 2010 and the North Korean regime still exists. It is mind boggling.
Those of you who think America is on a Marxist/Socialist/Leninist/Whateverist path should read this book to see what such a society is really like. It is recommended reading about a country that truly is like no other place on Earth.