Bergdahl, from @Serial to serial trouble

ARM-Bowe-Bergdahl-post-rescueI know, I know. I kind of left you on tenterhooks after that November skirmish between Bergdahl’s counsel and the Army. That was shortly after I published my Guernica broadside on the challenges of telling Bergdahl’s story while deciding whether Bergdahl’s name deserved inclusion in my book’s title. (That last decision was easiest, and will be explained below.}

I then spent the rest of 2015 and the beginning of 2016 finishing the newest draft of this book, in time for editors at The New Press to decide what should happen next. My limited energy needed to be expended on those hundreds of pages — even as events in the Bergdahl case accelerated.  The soldier himself was and is on desk duty at Fort Sam, as seen in the Army Times photo above.

Now, we’ve seen 5 episodes of Sarah Koenig’s podcast, including the compelling “Escaping” and the perplexing “5 O Clock Shadow,” all of them filling in much of what I never knew about Bergdahl.   After the podcast’s first episode, though, General Abrams overruled the recommendations of both General Dahl and the hearing officer, and ordered a full court-martial for Bergdahl, on both the desertion charges and the anachronistic “misbehavior before the enemy.”

Since then, most Bergdahl news has constituted legal battles between the Army and Eugene Fidell, mostly over how much of the evidence in the case should be available to him and to the public. My email inboxes sag with Fidell’s motions to the Army  Court of Federal Appeals, though he hasn’t always shared the court’s responses. No one reported that Fidell had finally, last week, won a minor victory when Col. Jeffrey Nance, appointed last month to oversee issues of classified data,  ordered the prosecution to turn over every piece of evidence to the defense, now.  The Army then turned to the Court, and that’s today’s news — that a writ has been granted freezing any such action, effectively delaying all proceedings for now. No wonder the court-martial itself was scheduled for August, giving time for such delays.

Bergdahl’s case is thus, as I’ve long predicted, entering that no-man’s land of the national security state, and like Manning’s will only be partially visible to the rest of us. But the delay also gives us time to reflect on what we’ve learned so far, and whether Sarah  Koenig’s mission is diverging even further from mine.

dustwun-screen-shot-2015-12-10-at-5-56-08-pmThe Army denies that the timing of the charges had anything to do with the episode of Serial that preceded them, DUSTWUN, but it can’t have thrilled prosecutors to hear  Bergdahl’s voice that way, or to learn of the wealth of information to come from 35 hours of conversations between Bergdahl and filmmaker Mark Boal (known for working w/Kathryn Bigelow on ZERO DARK THIRTY).

That first episode was named for the status assigned to any missing soldier, dustwun (short for “duty status-whereabouts unknown”), also shorthand for the kind of tumult that follows someone being declared so. He wanted to “cause a DUSTWUN,” Bergdahl told Boal, so that when he reappeared at a nearby FOB he’d be able to inform higher-ups of “serious issues” with his base’s command. He also told Boal that he was trying to be a hero, and saw himself as being someone “like Jason Bourne” of all those movies.

I’m not  the only person who was nonplused by Bergdahl’s declarations, which at least implied that what he had to say was worth the cost to his peers of throwing his base upside down.  Or by how, when  he got lost, his Bourne plans included getting Taliban intelliigence that still might prove him a hero.

At least one journo colleague of mine soured on Bergdahl entirely, calling him a “douche” — an assessment that didn’t shift much when the show moved on to heart-rending accounts of his capture and torture. Koenig also interviewed many of his platoon-mates as well as people associated with the Taliban, who had their own version of how they captured Bergdahl and turned him over to the Haqqani network (kind of the Sopranos of the Taliban). And adding a lot of value has been accounts from military prisoner-recovery personnel, including some who got Bergdahl’s family involved in fighting to make Bergdahl a priority. The harder they all worked, the more of a mysterious child the soldier himself seems.

And if you’ve been following my Twitter feed, you got a glimpse of Episode 5, billed as “Bowe explains why he did it.”  At first I was intrigued by the “good soldier” with a “philosopher-nerd component.” But then he decries FOB Sharana as too cushy: “I wanted adventure, I wanted action.”  And in the middle of making his case for why he didn’t trust his battalion commander, he calls his unit’s counterinsurgency mission “bullshit” and that rather than communicating with locals, they “should have been out there just killing these people who were trying to kill us.”

The episode also included important discussion of COIN and of different kinds of command discipline, as a way of exploring the behavior that caused Bergdahl to believe that his brigade commander “didn’t have our interests at heart.” Important to try to understand the situation for these units in Afghanistan in 2009: but less and less of a story of dissent,less so even than if it had been a case of simple desertion. Though I do tend to think that 5 years being tortured by the Taliban is adequate punishment for what he did, I’m seeing Bergdahl as less a dissenter than an anomaly.

Which brings me back to why Bergdahl only belongs in this project more for what he represented as for what the still-young man ever believed or did.  He certainly doesn’t belong in the title;  even if Bergdahl proved a stealth conscientious objector, using his name would date the book unnecessarily. Better to go with  the new and final subtitle, “From the French and Indian War to the Forever War.”

I’ll still keep listening, and following the case; I’m grateful to Bergdahl’s counsel for keeping me abreast.  It’s an interesting Rosetta Stone, anyway – as Veterans for Peace and others continue with their “Free Bowe Bergdahl” campaigns, just as the GOP presidential contenders compete in calling for his execution.  .

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#Bergdahl = Rashomon

It’s now more than two weeks since the Army brought charges against Robert D. Bowdrie Bergdahl, known to most of us as Bowe.. In that time, journalists and commentators have rushed to characterize a young man most of us knew only from last years’ headlines, and photos of a skinny Army private in Arab robes squinting at the sun.

The charges against Bergdahl, who was released in June 2014 after 5 years as a Taliban prisoner, are stark: desertion and “misbehavior before the enemy” for leaving his Afghan post. But the charge sheet differs substantially from Bergdahl’s own account of what happened that week, which was released by his defense attorney Eugene Fidell (co-founder of the National Institute of Military Justice).

 The media blitz has come before the upcoming Article 32 hearing, the military version of a grand-jury process, at which a wide range of evidence can be presented by either side for consideration. While most major outlets try to present a balanced picture, others have rushed to judgment, convicting or acquitting before all the facts are known. The truth likely has elements of each:

  1. Bergdahl’s a traitor (e.g. Fox News, National Journal.) Between his hippie dad (who spoke Arabic in the Rose Garden when Bergdahl was released) and Bergdahl’s own e-mails to that same dad (published by Rolling Stone in 2012) that said he was “ashamed to be an American,” conservative outlets from Fox News to National Journal have long been calling for the harshest punishment possible. This week they zeroed in on photos of Bergdahl seemingly joking with his captors, and interviewed members of Bergdahl’s unit who challenged his account of the week he was captured. Many quote those platoon-mates and others as substantiating the root of one of the “misbehavior” charges:, that lives were lost as his peers were ordered on search missions to find him.

  2. He’s a conscientious objector (e.g. The Nation, Democracy Now). The assertion may A make the most sense to veterans who actually achieved a discharge as objectors – something that happens only after a long process in which a soldier persuades his command that s/he’ sincere, not disturbed, and has gone through a “crystallization” in which military service became incompatible with his/her belief system. As a staffer in the 90’s with the Committee for Conscentious Objectors, I had the honor of helping a handful of such soldiers through that process; I’ve since met others, from more recent wars, who were quoted this week in articles positing that Bergdahl was a true dissenter from the war in Afghanistan. They cite Bergdahl’s statement that he was just trying to report some command misconduct and tag him a whistleblower; Veterans For Peace, some of whom are CO’s, issued a statement calling for “An End to the Persecution of Sgt. Bergdahl.”

  3. Just a screwed-up guy, who should never have been in the military in the first place (Military Times, countless editorial pages).These writers want neither to valorize Bergdahl nor execute him, arguing that “he’s been punished enough.” The case has been made that Bergdahl should never have been recruited after washing out of the Coast Guard,instead of being welcomed in 2008 by recruiting commands under pressure to fill the needs of a metastasizing war. Berg’s initial desire to serve appears to have been strong. What he was signing up for is less clear, given his original desire to join the French Foreign Legion and his father’s observation that a young Bowe thrived on hero narratives, that the young man is now was “[legendary British soldier/adventurer] Bear Grylls in his own mind.” There’s also been a pretty strong case made for dysfunction within Bergdahl’s unit, given the loose, unstable chaos seen in a BBC documentary filmed before his capture. Some writers point out his homeschooling and the poor grammar of his written statements, and speculate about whether he was prepared at all.

  4. Besides, what about… Last but not least are those who are less interested in Bergdahl himself than in using him to make a larger political argument, about the 2009 prisoner swap, what President Obama should or shouldn’t have done – or, like Jesse Ventura, to wonder aloud why Bergdahl is being charged long before military personnel who approved torture at secret prisons overseas.

This is all before anyone has seen the evidence headed for that courtroom. Most military journalists I know have urged me, and by extension all of us, to wait at least until the Article 32 hearings are over before coming to any conclusions. But the truth may be hard to come by, since some relevant evidence — intelligence findings about Bergdahl’s captivity – may be declared “classified” and thus closed to the press.

Nonetheless, I hope that as the case proceeds, a sharper picture of the young man in question will emerge, and that we can all shake off our preconceptions enough to see him.–

Moral injury in real time

MI_1-web-9301There’s a reason why one of my chapters is tentatively titled “The Moral Injury of the Long War.” The great Jonathan Shay may have coined the term, based on the accumulated grief of Vietnam, but this generation has claimed it as they try to parse what honor means when it also means killing for uncertain reasons. (At right, a radio exploration of the same.)

In “How We Learned to Kill,” an essay whose title recalls both David Grossman’s On Killing: The Psychological Consequences of Learning to Kill in War and Society and Richard Rhodes’ lesser known work on serial killers, Timothy Kudo narrates that parsing in all its complexity:

“Take the shot,” I responded. It was dialogue from the movies that I’d grown up with, but I spoke the words without irony. I summarily ordered the killing of two men. I wanted the Marine on the other end to give me a reason to change my decision, but the only sound I heard was the radio affirmative for an understood order: “Roger, out.” Shots rang out across the narrow river. A part of me wanted the rounds to miss their target, but they struck flesh and the men fell dead.

 

Kudo even references Grossman’s book, and ends in its spirit of resignation: “We live in a dangerous world where killing and torture exist and where the persecution of the weak by the powerful is closer to the norm than the civil society where we get our Starbucks. Ensuring our own safety and the defense of a peaceful world may require training boys and girls to kill, creating technology that allows us to destroy anyone on the planet instantly, d ehumanizing large segments of the global population and then claiming there is a moral sanctity in killing. ” But you can feel him doubting that very assertion: his journey isn’t over yet. I’d love to ask Tyler Boudreau, Logan Isaac (Laituri), or the Soul Repair Center where they think it will end.

Back in the Jurassic era, I once interviewed Grossman for a magazine called The Objector. And I can’t but think that Kudo’s essay may find its way into more than one conscientious-objector claim.

Some actual news, some not quite

AintMarchincoverbyAlexYou can likely guess the “not quite.” (I think I’ll use Alex’ image as the standard-bearer for these news roundups….)

  • First and foremost, there’s hope for Andre Shepherd, and a possible higher profile: Wall Street Journal:  “Now German officials must decideWall Street Journal f whether Mr. Shepherd qualifies as a refugee under European Union law as outlined by the court. That sets up a potential clash between American and European law in such sensitive areas as the Iraq war and military desertions, although U.S. officials have to this point not been heavily engaged in the case.” I’ll write more about this in a full post later: I want to talk to his lawyers first.
  • Gizmodo on DOJ completely redacting their own supposed proof of harm done by Snowden. Reading the headline, at first I thought this item (via VICE) was actually about that doubletalking DOJ attorney you see in Citizen Four, trying to persuade a San Francisco courtroom that the NSA shouldn’t be accountable to judicial review.
  • “At the VA they hand out opiates like candy.” I’ve heard that a lot, and it was good to see MSNBC’s Ronan Farrow highlight the issue, working with Aaron Glant – who in addition to his work with the Center for Investigative Reporting, wrote for Haymarket’s the iconic book on Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • I’ve said often that I didn’t want to write about Bowe Bergdahl without talking to him or his attorneys – something that never stops partisan media from speculating. Now The Hill has chimed in with “news” that a decision about Bergdahl is coming “in the near future.” Looks like all you need is ONE quote from the Army secretary and then pack in all the partisan backstory. and Presto – file and get paid. Journalism? I’m not sure.

When troops say no, justice can happen

The "Rules of Engageent" panel from March 2008's Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan.

The “Rules of Engageent” panel from March 2008’s Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan.

I hadn’t been following the Lorance case, apparently the right-wing media’s Chelsea Manning — a commander that ordered the shooting of Afghan civilians on a motorcycle, to the shock of the veterans in his platoon:

“War is hard, there is collateral da mage. I get that — I’ve got my own stories,” Staff Sgt. Daniel Williams said in an interview. But Sergeant Williams, who was on his third tour in Afghanistan and was a squad leader in the platoon, added, “That’s not what this was; this was straight murder.

This aren’t the words if some “peacenik” like those we love– not Rory Fanning, not Brock McIntosh, not even a conflicted Bowe Bergdahl.  With their multiple deployments, they know the value of the chain of command. But they also took the rules of engagement seriously enough to say no:

Lieutenant Lorance then ordered the sharpshooter to aim near children and women in a grape field next to the outpost. The sharpshooter, Specialist Matthew Rush, refused.

“I said, ‘You know, they’re kids,’ ” Specialist Rush testified at the court-martial.

Lieutenant Lorance told the soldiers the next morning that the Army’s rules of engagement, governing when they could use deadly force, had changed and that they were now allowed to fire on any motorcycle they saw. Soldiers testified that they were shocked but did not argue. At the trial, Army prosecutors showed that the rules had not changed — a fact they suggested Lieutenant Lorance would have known.

I’ve bored many boomer friends praising this generation, from which the offender also hails. But you’ll forgive me for imagining that with guys like these, we might never have needed Hugh Thompson at My Lai. We might even never had Haditha, or the Kill Team.

the power and the glory

Wondering what to read for Veterans Day? Try this round table sponsored by Boston Review, in response to the essay “War is Betrayal” by Chris Hedges. The responses are from three veterans, a Texas professor of history, and mio — I was honored to be invited. Check out some bracing prose, including

  • Phillip Carter: “War is hell, to be sure, but it is also an incredibly complex endeavor that registers the gamut of human emotions and experiences: the inhumanity of killing without justification; the conflicted act of killing for a just cause or in the name of self-defense; the fear and courage of soldiers and civilians…”
  • /p>

    Continue reading

Evan Thomas at Guernica: how he pushed the Iraq war like Citizen Cane

If I’d been nattering here as much as on Facebook, you’d have heard more than you care to about my interview with former Newsweek editor Evan Thomas. But I’m pretty happy with how it came out. At the bottom, click to read it at Guernica Magazine, and maybe throw in your two cents?

Wolf in the Heart

Chris Lombardi interviews Evan Thomas, September 2010

The historian and departing Newsweek editor on how he (like Remnick and Keller) caught war fever after 9/11, the obsession with being a man, and how his dad glowed in Navy whites.

In the October, 2001 “Talk of the Town,” New Yorker editor David Remnick called George Bush’s post-9/11 speech “reassuring.” Despite the fears of some, he explained, “taken as a policy pronouncement of sorts, it pointed in the right direction.” Even as it became clearer that the “policy pronouncement” was signaling war in two countries, many, if not most, writers and editors were as much participants in the preparations as observers. By April 2002, the New York Times’s now-notorious Judith Miller was deep in her dance with Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi, reporting enthusiastically on the “important new discoveries” of weapons of mass destruction. The New Yorker again chimed in with similar reporting by then-staff writer Jeffrey Goldberg, whose 2002 stories led with graphic details of the gas poisoning of Kurds in 1988. “In five years,” Goldberg wrote in October, 2002, “I believe that the coming invasion of Iraq will be remembered as an act of profound morality.” So adamant was The New Republic’s plumping for war that editor Peter Beinart recently felt the need to write an entire book, The Icarus Syndrome, bemoaning American war hubris. Also caught in the fervor was Newsweek’s Evan Thomas.

TR Pose-Body.jpg
Newsweek, which emblazoned “God Bless America” on its post-9/11 cover and followed that issue with articles in the coming weeks entitled “A Fight Over the Next Front” and “Blame America at Your Peril,” became perhaps the most visible of the Ernie Pyle-wannabes. By December of 2001, Thomas, an editor-at-large who announced last month he will be leaving the magazine he joined nearly twenty-five years ago, was on CBS calling Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld “a great war leader,” and by March 2002 his byline was on a story about a “growing consensus” in the Bush administration that “the next target” in the war on terror was Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. All this less than twelve months before the magazine’s “Shock and Awe” cover breathlessly reported the devastation that resulted.

Seven years later, all of the media outlets above have recanted some of what they published back then, even as the buzz for a new war with Iran threatens to repeat the cycle (with participation of some of the same personnel, such as Jeffrey Goldberg, now with The Atlantic). Beyond a few journalism-ethics seminars, few have tried to examine why they did it. Thomas, who now admits that he and the others were in the grip of “war fever,” has turned to history to help himself understand what that means.

History, and controversy, are familiar ground for Thomas. The grandson of an old-line pacifist who helped found the Fellowship of Reconciliation and son of a World War II vet who was a giant in the publishing industry, Thomas spent much of his early career covering intelligence during the end of the Cold War and writing books about that war’s beginnings. In 1998, he won the National Magazine Award for coverage of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and in 2004 he oversaw similarly award-winning Newsweek coverage of the abuses at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. Among Thomas’s seven published books are many works whose subjects span all of American history. He is both a fellow of the Society of American Historians and a former trustee of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression. It may have felt more natural to him than, say, the New York Times’s Bill Keller, to wield a historian’s tools to ask why Americans love war.

The resulting book, The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire, is both exploratory and questioning, especially regarding the role of a single publisher, William Randolph Hearst, in cheering the government to war.

Hearst, the iconic newspaper mogul, zealously nudged America into its first full-fledged overseas wars in Cuba and the Philippines. The War Lovers notes that as early as 1895—not long after he bought the New York Journal, hoping to compete with Joe Pulitzer’s New York World—Hearst responded to diplomatic troubles in Venezuela with “Is This a Prelude to War?” and reported on Civil War veterans “ready to fight.” For the next three years, he kept up the pressure, and eventually sent to Cuba a notorious yellow journalist named Frederick Lawrence (a sort of proto-Judith Miller). Throughout 1896 the Journal published Lawrence’s entirely fictitious stories. At least one—an account of the Spanish using “women soldiers, known as ‘Amazons,’ who fought with machetes” against the noble Cuban insurgents—was read aloud on the floor of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

After exploiting the famous USS Maine incident, Hearst was equally enthusiastic about the subsequent invasion and occupation of the Philippines—where, as Thomas also notes in a rare reference to the present day, “the United States plunged into a counterinsurgency that cost the lives of nearly four thousand American soldiers, roughly the same number as lost in Iraq between 2003 and 2009.” Moreover, he adds, it was in that war that American soldiers “pioneered the practice known as waterboarding—one of several inhumane practices” used to garner intelligence from Filipino insurgents. Those practices now have new names, thanks to the consensus of many of the media outlets mentioned above: and it’s that kind of consensus that is Thomas’s real target in The War Lovers.

Thomas also looks at Congressmen shouting on both sides of the issue, writer William James, and the rest of the post-Civil-War former-abolitionist crowd. The latter included Civil War widow Josephine Shaw Lowell, who joined Mark Twain in the short-lived Anti-Imperialist League. The book’s vivid scenes of James, Lowell, and others agonizing about post-Civil-War militarism are followed by glimpses of Hearst as he helps escalate pro-war fervor—from popularizing the term “Remember the Maine!” to vivid newspaper covers about “Spanish butchery.” Its focus on the symbiotic relationship between Theodore Roosevelt and Hearst thus goes far beyond the moment some of us remember from Citizen Kane: “Get me the pictures, I’ll get you the war!”

During our interview, Thomas admits he was inspired to write The War Lovers out of a sense of partial responsibility for the war he had unwittingly helped nurture, and that he’d done so partly by dismissing his own reporter’s instincts in the face of the seemingly inevitable war to come: “I felt like this is what the media did during World War II.

I spoke to Thomas by phone, both from his office at Newsweek and from Martha’s Vineyard. As perhaps befits a man about to leave journalism behind to concentrate on writing books and teaching at Princeton, he alternated between genial author/professor and the wary, somewhat weary, journalist he was for thirty-plus years. Prepared to talk about his new book, he was less immediately forthcoming on other subjects. But his voice warmed significantly when asked about his father, especially as he remembered how great his dad looked in his dress whites. “He was literally glowing.”

–Chris Lombardi for Guernica

Guernica: One of the first things you said, even before The War Lovers came out, was that it was your way of trying to explain why you got swept up in the pro-war season of 2002-2003.

Evan Thomas: I was a hawk on the Iraq war. And if I’m honest with myself, I think I did feel a kind of war fever. A lot of journalists did.

Even before the war—but post-9/11—I have to confess I had almost this sense of relief. After what felt like years of superficial subjects, from Monica to Gary Condit, we were so glad to be writing about serious subjects. And after the attack, we kind of felt like editors during World War II: the time was over for that old adversarial relationship.

There’s a kind of excitement about going to war.

Guernica: Do you think you made some serious journalistic mistakes as a result?

Evan Thomas: Two things come to mind. First, when Colin Powell gave that speech at the UN [in February 2003], with “proof” of WMD and Saddam’s al Qaeda connections, right around then, Michael Isikoff was getting some cautionary signals from the CIA, which we did not pursue the way we should have.

Second, I have to admit that the very tenor and tone of Newsweek during February-March 2003 was pretty excited about war. Even when I wrote cautionary articles about What Could Go Wrong, there was a kind of energy to them. Even antiwar articles had it.

There’s a kind of excitement about going to war. And there was—it’s hard to describe now—that atavistic need for revenge many of us felt post-9/11. Especially if you were in New York or Washington. In March of 2003, a lot of other editors besides me were hawkish on Iraq: Bill Keller, David Remnick.

Guernica: And Peter Beinart, who like you felt so bad he wrote a whole book about it.

Evan Thomas: I know. I haven’t read it, but I have bought it.

Guernica: Is Richard Haass’s story, “Rethinking Afghanistan,” an effort to do things differently? To not just go along with an administration’s war plan?

Evan Thomas: I’m not sure. Haass makes good arguments. The problem is that the kind of limited effort he wants doesn’t work. I went to Afghanistan a year ago, and talked to the people around McChrystal. They too had some pretty convincing arguments. Any anti-terror war, they said, you can’t do it without intelligence. But you can’t depend on your intelligence without the support of the local people. I found it very convincing.

There’s no question that an embedded reporter gets seduced. They end up writing from within “their” units.

Guernica: Except when the people you thought were allies turn out to not tell the truth, or shift sides too quickly. A lot of those WikiLeaks docs seem to point to that. And then there’s the inherent tendency of people not to want foreigners running things.

Evan Thomas: Look. When I was thinking about this a year ago, one thing came clear: There is no actual winning scenario. Just ways that are worse than others.

Guernica: A lot of what we’re learning right now did not come from embedded reporting, which you and the major dailies participate in. Even before WikiLeaks, we had the Rolling Stone story by a “rogue” reporter. Do you think embedding hurts your ability to get the story right?

Evan Thomas: Look. There’s no question that an embedded reporter gets seduced. They end up writing from within “their” units. The good side of it: our military gets represented correctly, as hardworking, brave kids. And as armies in wars go—with exceptions we all know about—the American military does pretty well in avoiding war crimes.

Guernica: You’ve looked at this in a number of your histories. But I want to ask you about a military veteran in your own life: your father, Evan Thomas II, who was in World War II before becoming a sort of giant in New York publishing. What, if anything, did he share about the war when you were growing up?

Evan Thomas: My dad kinda got into the war sideways. Before Pearl Harbor, he was an interventionist, and signed up with American Field Service as a noncombatant. He was an ambulance driver.

Guernica: Very Ernest Hemingway of him.

Evan Thomas: Yes, exactly. Then after the war started he switched to the the U.S. Navy, so he got to experience both the sands and heat of North Africa and the raging seas of the naval war.

So I heard about World War II, but in a sort of complex moral context, since my grandfather was a pacifist—though not really, since he wasn’t against World War II. So dad’s war stories came in this very complicated moral dimension of how to have it both ways.

I’ve always felt a little guilty, because it was kids without the privilege I had going to war.

Guernica: Did you ever hear stories about your great-uncle Ralph, who fought in World War I?

Evan Thomas: Not much. I heard a lot more about his younger brother, my great-uncle Evan, who was sentenced to life imprisonment for being on a hunger strike, because he refused to go to war. A life sentence for not wanting to fight! I knew my great-uncle Evan, so I heard about the war from that perspective. But my great-uncle Ralph was long since gone. All I know about him was that he was in the Army, and that he was an engineer.

Guernica: I’ve actually seen a few of the clippings about Evan and your family back then. And I thought that the climax of that story—when your great-grandmother marches into Fort Riley to talk her grandson into eating—was something for the movies.

Evan Thomas: My daughter is writing a book about it, called Conscience. It’ll be out next year.

Guernica: Speaking of war and conscience, how did your own ideas about war develop?

Evan Thomas: Well, I’m Vietnam generation—but not really. By the time I turned eighteen and graduated from high school it was 1973, and nobody my age was going to war. Not anyone middle-class, anyway. I’ve always felt a little guilty, because it was kids without the privilege I had going to war.

Guernica: So you don’t go to Vietnam; you go to Harvard instead. In those days, did you just assume you’d be a wordsmith like your dad?

Evan Thomas: They left me alone to do what I was gonna do. Students today are thinking about their careers constantly. I don’t remember thinking much about my career until I graduated and didn’t have a job. I went to law school, and eventually became a journalist.

Guernica: Once you were doing that, was history a natural next step?

Evan Thomas: In retrospect, it was an obvious choice. But actually, I didn’t think about writing a book of any kind until Walter Isaacson suggested I write a book with him. After The Wise Men [about the birth of cold-war liberalism] I obviously got the bug, because I’ve been writing books ever since since.

Guernica: One of your early books was The Very Best Men, about the OSS, which became the CIA. It came out in 1986, when some ugly truths about the Agency were coming to life. Were you thinking about the contemporary stuff when you were writing about its origins? Had you done any reporting about it?

Evan Thomas: Only sort of. I’d done a little writing on intelligence. I had covered the Hill at TIME Magazine for a while and at Newsweek. Certainly those misadventures were on my mind at least somewhat.

Guernica: You went on to what I think of as a naval series, starting with the John Paul Jones biography.

Evan Thomas: A series? Nothing that intentional. [Laughs] I guess the nice thing about being a journalist and author is that you can do what you want. But if all biography is really autobiography, I guess it’s true that I’d always been reverential about the Navy. I remember that my mother used to keep on their dresser, for years, a photograph of my father in his dress whites from 1943. He glowed.

Guernica: A man in a uniform—there’s an undeniable pull to that.

Evan Thomas: Absolutely. He was literally glowing. He had a deep tan; it was the spring of 1943, he was the picture of health—radiant. It definitely led me to romanticize the Navy, and that’s probably what led me to John Paul Jones and the books after.

Guernica: You got to your father’s war with a battle I never knew about until recently. What drew you to the engagement in the Battle for Leyte Gulf, which drew in the entire Japanese Navy and most of ours?

Evan Thomas: It’s definitely in the realm of battles people have never heard of. People asked me: Why are you writing about this battle? It was a complex battle. I was drawn to it partly because it was a fuckup, and journalists love writing about disasters. It had embedded in it a lot of stories—of loyalty, heroism, a lot of drama. It was complex, but it was a pretty compelling story.

Guernica: Does The War Lovers feel like an extension of that series or something very different?

Evan Thomas: It’s an extension, I think. By the early two thousands I was writing a lot about the government, and terrorism, and the misdirection that got us into the Iraq War. It got me thinking about the whole notion of war fever

Guernica: So you didn’t start with Teddy Roosevelt.

Evan Thomas: No. I started with William James, actually. I was reading Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club, and James is one of the characters. There’s a section where he quotes James on the heroism of Robert Gould Shaw, who commanded the Massachusetts 54th regiment of black soldiers, and what that kind of heroism stood for thirty years later.

So I wanted to look at that period, when war was brewing, as a way of looking at our own. And the instant you start thinking about 1898, bing! Teddy Roosevelt pops up. It wasn’t easy. He’s been written about a lot, so it’s tricky to bring out something people haven’t seen.

In explaining war, the gender studies people talk about this obsession with being a man, what Roosevelt called “the wolf rising in the heart.”

Guernica: I love your evocation of Massachusetts back then—especially the recounting of James at the Shaw memorial, and the ping-pong of emotions after Civil War. And thank you for introducing me to Josephine Shaw Lowell, sister of Col. Robert Gould Shaw and ancestor to poet Robert Lowell, who went from celebrated Civil War widow in 1865 to anti-war activist in 1905.

Evan Thomas: You know, I wanted to make her a major figure, but I didn’t have enough of a paper trail to flesh her out enough for that.

Guernica: You illustrate well the effects of the 1893 economic crash. Do you think it played into the war fever then, the same way George W. Bush saw war as a way to boost the economy?

Evan Thomas: You know, I tend to veer away from economic explanations for war. There’s been a predominance of that kind of thinking, in the histories of the time. If anyone in academia gets it right, I think that the gender studies people are closer to the truth here. They talk about this obsession with being a man, what Roosevelt called “the wolf rising in the heart.”

Guernica: You also write about the Anti-Imperialist League, which James co-founded and which once had as vice president Mark Twain (whose antiwar views are in the news with the upcoming publication of his long-suppressed memoir). What’s your overall impression of the group, which allied Civil War vets with plutocrats like Andrew Carnegie?

Evan Thomas: One word: feckless. But you know? They represented something, a real trend. Everyone thinks of this period as some historic Beginning of American Imperialism. But it wasn’t! By 1900, even though the anti-interventionists lost, McKinley wasn’t a big fan of the occupation either, and Americans had gotten sick of the whole thing. In 1902 Roosevelt declared victory and got out, and the country very quickly became isolationist. Same after World War I.

Americans are very ambivalent about this stuff. To this day, the issue bugs us. People ask: what are we doing there? Now it’s what are we doing in Afghanistan? I wonder why we haven’t heard more of that. Maybe we will now.

Guernica: Do you think public sentiment is turning against this war, as with Iraq?

Evan Thomas: The elites this summer are starting to turn against it, for sure. Americans overall aren’t paying attention to it, at all.

Guernica: Unless you have a family member in uniform.

Evan Thomas: I think about this a lot. We fought this nine-year war, Americans didn’t feel it. No war bonds, our taxes never went up. The nature of these wars is a cruel aspect of how we’ve constructed our society. One tenth gets all the pain. It was bad during Vietnam, as I said before. Now it’s grotesque.

Guernica: About that earlier movement: I was surprised not to see mention of some of the League’s Civil War veterans, especially Carl Schurz and Charles Francis Adams.

Evan Thomas: There have been very good books about the Anti-Imperialist League. And I had to pick and choose: I kind of have a rule not to have more than about six characters that people have to remember.

Guernica: And Roosevelt and Hearst are so outsized, they make up about four right there!

Evan Thomas: It is an issue, because you run the risk of skewing your story. But if you don’t, you end up with what we used to call at Newsweek “the Russian novel problem.”

But here’s the real problem: Life is a Russian novel. It has too many characters and too many plots. When you narrow it down, you run the risk of distorting history.

Guernica: I’m still going to ask you about one more stream you didn’t include: Lewis Douglass, Frederick’s son, who fought with the 54th and was very vocal in opposition to that war, and on the other side Booker T. Washington, who appeared at rallies for McKinley to promote black enlistment as a way of illustrating black patriotism.

Evan Thomas: Again, you make choices. I was only tangentially aware of Lewis Douglass’s involvement; I touch on the black-soldier issue a little, because of some statements Roosevelt made about their capabilities. But there can be whole books—are whole books—about black soldiers in that war. It wasn’t a choice I made.

Guernica: When you write about historical disputes over other wars, do you ever feel echoes of those divisions in your family? I’m thinking of your grandfather’s generation again, your uncle Ralph going to war while Evan starved for peace and the rest of your family worried—including your grandfather Norman, who helped form the iconic antiwar group the Fellowship of Reconciliation. When you wonder why sentiment against the Afghan war isn’t stronger, do you hear those ghosts in the back of your mind?

Evan Thomas: I don’t think that much about it. Not that way.

Guernica: How about when you’re writing about politics, since ours has moved so far from that postwar consensus your father lived in? When an offhand comment where you said “Obama is God” was talked about for weeks, and lives on on the Internet?

Evan Thomas: [Laughs] Oh my word, the headlines! “Newsweek thinks Obama is God—Proof that the Media are a Left-Wing Conspiracy.”

Guernica: And some mention the fact that your grandfather, Norman, ran for President on the Socialist Party ticket. Does that make things difficult for you?

Evan Thomas: I’m proud of my grandfather, though I think socialism doesn’t work at all. Norman’s socialist identity was all bound up in specifics, not ideology: He got involved helping poor people in tenements. And if you wanted to organize against World War I, they were the only game in town.

Guernica: How would he have reacted to the fact that, when asked in a survey, 55 percent of Americans consider “socialist” an accurate label for President Obama?

Evan Thomas: [Laughs] What would he have thought? He’d have snorted at it.

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