Why Men Love War

Article excerpt

Byline: Evan Thomas

The reasons and causes--territory, ideology, WMDs--may change with the times, but our lust for it is eternal.

Theodore Roosevelt wanted a war, and almost any war would do. In 1886, when he was a 27-year-old gentleman rancher in the Dakota Territory, he proposed raising "some companies of horse riflemen out here in the event of trouble with Mexico." He wrote his friend Congressman Henry Cabot Lodge: "Will you telegraph me at once if war becomes inevitable?" In 1889, while agitating for military "preparedness," he wrote British diplomat Cecil Spring-Rice: "Frankly, I don't know if I should be sorry to see a bit of a spar with Germany; the burning of New York and a few other seacoast cities would be a good object lesson on the need of an adequate system of coastal defenses." Roosevelt loved hyperbole, but he was apparently serious. He wrote Spring-Rice, "While we would have to take some awful blows at first, I think in the end we would worry the Kaiser a little." A few years later, in 1894, he wrote a family friend, Bob Ferguson, that he longed for "a general national buccaneering expedition to drive the Spanish out of Cuba, the English out of Canada."

In my new book, The War Lovers, I tell this story--of Roosevelt, and of how we became involved in the Spanish-American War--as a way of understanding the ancient pull of the battlefield. I was, in part, trying to understand my own attitude on the Iraq War. As a NEWSWEEK journalist writing about that conflict (from a safe distance), I had initially been hawkish, then regretful as the costs mounted. The war may, in some muddled way, achieve some of its objectives, but it is clear that too many journalists, including me, caught at least a mild dose of war fever between 9/11 and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. I looked to the past to come to terms with those impulses.

Now we're almost a decade into "the Long War," as some call our engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan and the ongoing struggle with Islamic extremism. A kind of war weariness has set in. To most people the fighting seems far off and, in a way, easy to ignore. Not coincidentally, perhaps, a recent spate of books and movies has arrived seeking to make graphic and realistic the true experience of war, most notably the Oscar-winning film The Hurt Locker and War, the Sebastian Junger volume of war reportage we excerpted in the previous article. These are cautionary tales that seek to make us understand and remember. They may for a time dampen the age-old atavistic lust for war, though war fever, I believe, never really goes away. It is too fundamental to the male psyche.

Roosevelt was a true war lover. Whether he was trying to compensate for his beloved father, who bought a draft substitute in the Civil War, or because, as he often wrote, he feared that the Anglo-Saxon "race" was becoming "overcivilized" and weak, Roosevelt wanted to test himself in the crucible of battle. He got his wish on July 1, 1898, charging up Kettle and San Juan hills with his Rough Riders in Cuba. ("Did I tell you that I killed a Spaniard with my own hand?" Roosevelt exclaimed in a letter to Lodge.) That seemed to satisfy his war lust, for a time. As president, TR preferred to "talk softly but carry a big stick." Still, in 1917, overweight and increasingly infirm at 58, the former president of the United States volunteered to raise a division to fight in France. (Not wanting to make Roosevelt a hero or a martyr, President Woodrow Wilson declined.)

Roosevelt was an extreme case. But how many men, over how many millennia, have wanted to know how they would do in combat? Would they be brave and fight? Or would they cringe and run? War has been, for almost all peoples and all times, the purest test of manhood. It is a thrilling addiction and a wretched curse--"a force that gives us meaning," as former New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges has written--and the ruination of peoples and nations. …