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War Of The Amateurs

July 2024
3min read

One of the things that made the first part of this century so bewildering and complicated for those Americans who had to live through it was the fact that the nation had just concluded a war with Spain: one of the most significant and consequential things that the country ever did, for all that the struggle itself was only of pint size, in a military sense, and was loftily dubbed “a splendid little war” by the complacent John Hay. Neither Roosevelt himself nor the era to which he gave his name can quite be understood without reference to the Spanish-American War and what came out of it, and a very good companion volume to Professor Mowry’s book is Frank Freidel’s The Splendid Little War , which follows the course of that war with sprightly text and a huge number of pictures.

From this safe distance, that war looks like something straight out of Richard Harding Davis—an exercise in romantic gallantry in which the other side obligingly did most of the suffering and the dying and in which our side, going forth with picturesque infantrymen and gleaming new warships, won an easy victory with sure efficiency and a casual, almost effortless competence. Actually, as Mr. Freidel points out, it did not quite go that way. The nation stumbled into the war, engaging in it for a variety of reasons of which many were not in the least clear to the participants; its general direction of operations was not often characterized either by efficiency or competence, and the fabulous battles in Cuba—small as they may look nowadays by comparison with the immense conflicts of earlier and later wars—were nevertheless as bloody, as discouraging, and as costly to the men who had to fight in them as any battles anywhere.

The Splendid Little War, by Frank Freidel. Little, Brown and Company. 314 pp.; illustrated. $8.50.

The whole business began with—or at least primarily stemmed from—the sinking of the battleship Maine in Havana harbor. The Maine went there for no very clearly defined purpose, was blown up by an explosion whose exact cause is a mystery to this day, and left the nation in a condition of angry excitement for which war was the only logical outlet. The war itself lasted hardly more than four months, and when it ended America had quite unexpectedly acquired a colonial empire and had emerged as a world power: which is to say that one of the fundamental bases on which the Republic had until then operated had been profoundly and permanently changed. The war may have been more a symbol of change than an actual cause, but that matters very little. With the sinking of the Spanish fleets at Manila and Santiago, and with the victory of the American Army in the tangled hills of southeastern Cuba, the American nation had entered a new phase of its development.

Mr. Freidel’s concern is much less with the longrange implications of this than with the process by which it actually happened, and he has put together a book which is both solidly informative and of high entertainment value. In his writing he has drawn heavily on the dispatches filed at the time by the innumerable war correspondents—this war was a correspondent’s paradise, and one sometimes almost gets the feeling that it had been arranged largely for the benefit of such men as the above-mentioned Richard Harding Davis—and while the romantic glitter of the war is amply preserved, a good, realistic picture of it does emerge.

It was not (to repeat) quite as splendid in all of its aspects as Mr. Hay considered it. The complete destruction of two Spanish fleets seemed at the time to reflect enormous credit on the United States Navy, but a sober examination of the ships involved and of the marksmanship of American gunners makes the picture look a bit different. The Spaniards were woefully overmatched; neither Spanish admiral had the slightest doubt about what was going to happen to his ships once the firing started, and while the American ships fired a huge number of projectiles the percentage of actual hits was almost incredibly small. On land the situation was not a great deal better; the American Army was still using black powder, the Spaniards used the smokeless kind, and the sweating infantrymen had to pay for this with their own blood. The bravery and endurance of the American fighting men were beyond praise, Dut one does finish this book with the feeling that this country was very, very lucky. If the Spanish war machine had had even a minimum of competence, that war might have been long, costly, and extremely troublesome.

Among other things, this war may be taken as the end of the age of innocence. For the last time, America went to war on an amateur basis. The volunteer regiments still bore state names and numbers; officers of battleships in action went wandering about the deck snapping pictures of the fight; the assistant secretary of the Navy (Roosevelt himself) hastily resigned, wangled a commission as lieutenant colonel, and went blithely off to fight with a cavalry regiment; and a press correspondent could insult an Army commander and get away with it. All of this was changed later, and in 1917 (and, still farther on, in 1942) everything had become more or less professionalized. This was the last fling in the tradition of the land of amateurs; it worked; the war was won—and the world has been different ever since. They rang the curtain down, after the Spaniards quit in the summer of if worked; the war was won—and the world has been different ever since. They rang the curtain down, after the Spaniards quit in the summer of 1898.

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