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'The War Lovers': The Dangerous Temptation Of War

06/28/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Jun 10, 2015

When Theodore Roosevelt went off to war in 1898, he made sure that the best known reporter in America was by his side. Roosevelt didn't like Richard Harding Davis (he thought the famous journalist was a cad), but he wanted Davis to have a ringside seat as TR's Rough Riders chased Spaniards and glory on the island of Cuba. In his widely read account in Scribner's Magazine, Davis described the first battle not as an ambush of Roosevelt's men (which it was) but rather as a glorious test of their valor.

History is written by the victors, and Roosevelt, his Rough Riders, and the American expeditionary force emphatically won the Spanish American War. Americans were thrilled, and Roosevelt's political career was launched. But the public grew weary as the war metastasized into an ugly counterinsurgency in the Philippines, which America had occupied after defeating the Spanish navy at Manila. It was a conflict that dragged on for four more years, included atrocities and torture on both sides (Americans first used waterboarding), and cost 4,000 American lives.

Not much has been written about that war. Americans have always had a selective memory about the wars they fight. I began my new book, The War Lovers, in 2006 when the Iraq War was going badly. I was thinking and brooding about my own support of the invasion of Iraq as an editor at Newsweek in 2003. I decided to write about the phenomenon of war fever by telling the story of three men who, a century before, helped bring about the Spanish-American War--Roosevelt, his friend Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, and the empire-building newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst. The doves in the story are philosopher William James and House Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed (so powerful on his time that he was named "Czar.").

The War Lovers is coming out now alongside a number of books and movies that try to take a sober look at war, to understand and its fierce pull and often unintended consequences. The Oscar-winning movie The Hurt Locker manages to be neither pro-war nor anti-war but simply honest--searingly so--about the hold war can have on the men who fight it. I recommend as well Sebastian Junger's new book, War, about his time with American soldiers fighting in the mountains of Afghanistan. Junger understands men are seduced by war, elevated by it--and also debased. We are in one of those war-weary lulls now, worn out by prolonged fighting and willing to look at war in a more clear-eyed way. Perhaps the best, at least the most honest book that has been written about Vietnam was just published--Matterhorn, by Karl Marlantes, who fought in Vietnam and spend more than three decades writing a novel about his experience. After a war as fraught and confusing as Vietnam, it can take that long.

Films often fall under the same pattern. For more than a decade following the absurdly heroic 1968 John Wayne flick, The Green Berets, Hollywood stayed away from Vietnam. In Coming Home in 1978, the hero was the paralyzed victim played by John Voight. He got the girl--Jane Fonda, while Fonda's straight-back Marine, played by Bruce Dern--walked into the sea to kill himself. Dark portraits of war followed. In The Deer Slayer (1978), some blue collar boys lose their innocence in the squalor of Vietnam, and Oliver's Stone's Platoon (1986) was wrapped in a haze of dope smoke and blinding fear. But inevitably the glorification of war began to creep back in. The battle scenes in Platoon--the ambushed patrol, the over-run firebase--are horrific, but at the same time thrilling, mesmerizing. By Black Hawk Down (2001), a sort of anti-war movie about a botched 1993 raid in Somalia, audiences were cheering the band-of-brothers. America had just been hit on 9/11, and many Americans (including the President of the United States) were seized with a desire to hit back, to show American bravery in the most tangible way possibly, by sending young men into battle.

War is simply too alluring to young men who wish to prove their manhood and to old men who wished they had. I remember watching the wonderful novelist Tobias Wolff describe how he wanted to write about war's banality and fearfulness in his Vietnam memoir, In Pharoah's Army. Wolff tried to describe the tedium, the fear, the pettiness and meanness. But by the time the book was published, in 1994, when America had not had a seriously bad war for a while and was ready for another, his readers insisted on seeing war as moving and meaningful. It can be, which is why war has always been such a dangerous temptation.