Monday, September 4, 2023

What I'm reading: 'Empire By Default' + Remembering Jimmy Buffett

 After the positive response to my piece on a series of books about World War I that I finished recently, I thought it might be interesting to add an occasional feature about what book I’m reading at the moment. My tastes run the gamut from fiction to science to theology, but history is one of my favorite genres. I thought I’d start with a full piece, but at times it might be more of a blurb at the end of a column.

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been slogging through “Empire by default: The Spanish-American War and the Dawn of the American Century” by Ivan Musicant. Some of you who follow me on Twitter may recall that I was asking for recommendations about the Spanish-American War a couple of months ago. “Empire by Default” was the top pick and I think it might have been the only recommendation. The Spanish-American War isn’t exactly a hot literary topic.

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I became interested in the Spanish-American War after reading about WWI. Several of the figures who were prominent in America during the Great War period were young bucks during the Spanish-American War, much as many of the prominent WWII generals cut their teeth as junior officers during WWI. A couple of household names from the Spanish-American War that are recognizable today include Theodore Roosevelt and “Black Jack” Pershing, who earned his nickname through his service with the segregated 10th Cavalry in Cuba.

It’s also interesting to note that some Civil War figures made an appearance in the Spanish-American War as well. Commodore George Dewey, the hero of the Battle of Manila Bay, was a Civil War veteran of the Union Navy. Joseph Wheeler, an American cavalry general, had been a Confederate general before being elected to Congress representing Alabama. “Fighting Joe” Wheeler was tapped by President McKinley to lead volunteers in both Cuba and the Philippines.

And then there are the familiar-but-different names that pop up. For instance, the General MacArthur of the Spanish-American War was another veteran of the Civil and Indian Wars, but Arthur MacArthur was the father of the General MacArthur that most of us are familiar with. Baron von Richthofen even shows up in the Philippines, but in this case, the baron is Oswald the diplomat rather than Manfred the fighter pilot.

The Spanish-American War lasted only four months, but its brevity belies its impact on both the course of American history and the geopolitical balance of the time. It was the first time that the US had intervened on behalf of foreign freedom fighters across the water from its own borders, a policy that would be repeated many times in the future.

The war also marked the beginning of the imperial phase of American history. The US took trophies from the Spanish in the form of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. Ironically, the war that began with Americans moralizing against heavy-handed Spanish colonialism ended with the US taking possession of several territories, some of which it still possesses today, and the onset of another even lesser-known war, the Philippine-American War, against some of the same people who had fought Spanish oppression. America’s expansion into the Pacific also put the country on a collision course with Japan.

The Spanish-American War also sparked advances in areas that were seemingly unrelated to the military. On one hand, the expansion of American seapower in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans was instrumental in the push for the construction of the Panama Canal. On the other, the loss of life and manpower from tropical diseases inspired medical breakthroughs such as the prevention and treatment of yellow fever, an effort led by Maj. Walter Reed, another name that is still familiar to many of us.

The run-up to the Spanish-American War also holds some warnings for our own time. As with WWI, the war was preceded by a war fever that was largely devoid of objective facts. The destruction of the USS Maine in Havana was used as a reason to whip up sentiment against the Spanish, although it now seems certain that the explosion that sank the ship was an accident.

The sinking of the Maine came atop years of coverage of the Cuban revolution. While there were definitely atrocities committed by the Spanish as they fought to put down the revolt, American newspapers largely disregarded similar crimes committed by the rebels. This pattern would repeat two decades later when the media would whip up sentiment against the Germans in WWI even though the British and French behaved in a similar fashion.

Further, the war warns Americans that national power can be fleeting. Spain sat atop a 400-year-old empire but was a paper tiger. Spanish strength was illusory, based on antiquated weapons. Empires can be toppled even more quickly in the atomic age.

If you like somewhat obscure history, “Empire by Default” is a very readable and comprehensive (the librarian called it a “doorstop” when I picked it up) account of the Spanish-American War. The “splendid little war” left a large mark on America and the world.

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CHANGES IN LATITUDES: I’m not normally one to virtue signal or publicly mourn the deaths of celebrities that I didn’t know, but I am saddened by the death of Jimmy Buffett. I’ve been a Buffet fan since I first heard his music about 40 years ago and saw him perform live about five times, mostly in Atlanta’s Lakewood Amphitheater, an outdoor venue where the place to be was the general admission section on the lawn. The Parrotheads in the parking lot were always an entertaining warmup for Jimmy and the Coral Reefers.

One amusing memory that relates to Buffett’s music was in college when I compared and contrasted the lyrics of “One Particular Harbor” to a poem by Edgar Allan Poe on the final exam. I don’t recall the exact poem, but I did pass the class with an “A.” I can only imagine the teacher at the Pentecostal college shaking her head as she read my essay question.

Buffett was best known for his odes to sailing and margaritas, but he was also a pilot. One of my favorite deep tracks was “Somewhere Over China,” a song that described the joy of flying. As a flight instructor in Florida, I used to see his Grumman Albatross seaplane on a regular basis.

Buffett’s death also hit home because he died from lymphoma that began as skin cancer. I’ve had my own brushes with cancer, and my first was skin cancer. Wear hats and sunscreen, folks.

Buffett sang years ago about “growing older but not up” and, on the surface, his lifestyle matched his lyrics. Underneath, however, he was a hardworking entertainer who wrote books, started a restaurant chain, and even composed a Broadway musical in addition to releasing countless albums of “Key Western” music. Much like the Beatles, Buffett produced such an incredible array of diverse music that there’s something for everyone.

Every time I saw Jimmy perform, there were rumors that it was his last tour. Well, now that sad fact is no longer a rumor. Come Monday, we’ll begin to understand that Jimmy will never again be featured at the Labor Day weekend show. The dreamers, romantics, and those born 200 years too late have lost a powerfully poetic voice.

May Jimmy Buffett rest in peace and may God have mercy on his soul.

Fair winds and calm seas, Jimmy.

For those who remain, keep your fins up.

From the Racket News

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