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War fever: 1898 and 2003

Guest Blogger

In his Washington Post review of “The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst and the Rush to Empire, 1898,” James McGrath Morris provided a modern context for author Evan Thomas’s tale of the march to the Spanish American War. Thomas, the reviewer wrote, “delivered an innovative, frequently entertaining and valuable retelling of an episode that set the pattern for more than a century of foreign military adventurism. This timely book is a cautionary tale about how the psyche of powerful and ambitious leaders may matter more than fact -- or even truth -- when the question of war arises.” That some reviewers -- and readers -- would draw parallels between Thomas’s century-old war and the Iraq War was inevitable. Here Thomas discusses writing history in light of current events.

By Evan Thomas

Dorothy Rabinowitz of the Wall Street Journal warned me. She said that the promotional materials for my new book "The War Lovers" read, in effect, like a lefty tract. My editor, Geoff Shandler, referred to my characters as "war mongers" and drew parallels between the Spanish American War and the Iraq War. I didn't make too much of her warning. The people who write jacket copy in New York publishing houses tend to be left of center. Besides, I figured, maybe the Iraq hook would sell a few books, even though the word Iraq appears in my book only once.

But Rabinowitz, who knows whereof she speaks, was right to give me a heads-up about the reaction from conservative reviewers, and not just them.

The lead customer reviewer on Amazon wrote that “The War Lovers” is "hard to put down" but is nonetheless "dumb" and "idiotic" for its subtle, or not so subtle, political bias. ("And I'm not even a fan of Dick Cheney," he said.) The reviewer from the Economist said much the same thing, praising me for an "excellent" account of the Spanish American War but accusing me of distorting historical comparisons because I am a "liberal internationalist." I suppose I shouldn't complain; I got wonderful reviews in the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal and it's a four star book on Amazon.

My book is about some larger than life characters who went off to war in a joyous, heedless rush. "Holy Godfrey, what fun!" Teddy Roosevelt shouted as he stormed San Juan Hill. True, the war in Iraq got me thinking about war fever, but the book was about the Spanish American war, not the Iraq War. That this distinction seems to be lost on some readers makes you stop to think how politicized everything has become. I prefer to be a centrist on most things, but the media environment and the blogs almost certainly shout out at you to choose sides on the Red-Blue divide.

Politics can cloud perceptions or distort memory in different ways. A lot of liberals forget that they were not exactly antiwar in 2003. As a journalist writing about the upcoming invasion in Iraq in the winter of 2003, I felt a sense of anticipation, even excitement, and noticed that others in my trade did too. Later, when the war turned badly, there was a certain amount of amnesia in the ranks of journalists.

History is never written in a political vacuum, which is one reason why we constantly re-write history. But sometimes a story is just a story. I wasn't just writing about the temptation to go to war in Iraq, but the seduction of war in any age. After all, the Best and the Brightest, the men who got us into the Vietnam War, were by and large liberal internationalists.

--Thomas will be in D.C. for a book signing at Politics and Prose (5015 Connecticut Ave. NW) on Wed., May 12, at 7 p.m.

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By Steven E. Levingston  |  May 11, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags: Iraq War, Spanish American War, Theodore Roosevelt, rush to war, war fever  
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