Book Reviews

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

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.

Teddy Roosevelt, a famous big game hunter, wanted a war so he could have his manhood tested against the ultimate prey, humans. A few years before the Spanish-American War, he and other militant Americans were pushing for a war with Great Britain over a border dispute in Venezuela. Some felt a war would unify the country, and the military, and help heal the rifts caused by the Civil War.   

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.

The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

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.

Slow Death By Rubber Duck

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.

Teflon Town, USA

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!

Toxic Lawns

Just out sterilizing the kids

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.

Update

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.

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