Now at the Philly Inquirer, sine the jujitsu

220px-GeoLoganAfter posting that #47traitors piece, it occurred to me that the Philadelphia media might be interested in knowing why national media kept mentioning kin to one of its most notable Quakers. So I elaborated for the Inquirer:

It’s been more than a week since 47 Senate Republicans sent that letter to Tehran, and commentators can’t get enough of asking: What about the Logan Act?

The law, passed by Congress and signed by President John Adams in 1799, prohibits unauthorized people from negotiating with foreign governments. Violating the act is a felony, and anyone convicted under the statute faces a three-year prison sentence.

Since news of the letter broke, more than 200,000 people have signed a petition urging that the 47 senators be prosecuted under the act. The law applies, some believe, because by sending an open letter to Iran’s leaders, the signers directly disparaged the nuclear agreement being negotiated by the State Department.

Legal experts are often quick to explain that, since the passage of the act in the 18th century, no one has been prosecuted under it. But here’s something they don’t often mention: The bill’s namesake was from Philadelphia.

The name Logan rings a bell with most Philadelphians, even if it’s just from the name’s ubiquity in town. “Logan? Like Logan Square?” But the act itself also has very Philadelphian origins: George Logan, a grandson of William Penn’s secretary and later the U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, was a Quaker from one of Philadelphia’s oldest families.

The Founding Fathers knew him well. Dr. Benjamin Rush described Logan as “the early, the upright, and the uniform friend of his country.” Thomas Jefferson commended his “irreproachable conduct, and true civism,” and John Dickinson spoke of his “love of country, candor of spirit, and boundless benevolence.”

During what was known as the Quasi-War between the United States and France in the late 1790s, Logan spent weeks in Paris undertaking that most Quaker of pursuits: listening to French officials and trying to stop naval Kabuki from bursting into all-out war.

I first came across Logan’s story while researching my book-in-progress I Ain’t Marching Anymore: Soldiers Who Dissent, from Bunker Hill to Bowe Bergdahl. Logan’s activism felt of a piece with the seething energy of the early republic, whose citizens sought to flex their muscles at every opportunity. It also felt emblematic of Philadelphia then, when someone like Logan could go beyond a life of pioneering new agricultural methods. Meddling in national diplomacy felt like good citizenship, especially when one considers his lifelong opposition to war.

Logan, who grew up at his family’s ample Stenton estate, had spent the years of the American Revolution at medical school in Europe – returning to hobnob with Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, join the local militia as a medic, and begin serving in the Pennsylvania legislature. Fluent in French and something of early enthusiast of the French Revolution, he became uneasy when the first of America’s wars for unclear purposes – the Quasi-War – came along.

Logan watched closely as Adams responded to naval maneuvers by the French, who had been made uneasy by unresolved treaty obligations and a new U.S.-Britain pact. Soon, the president was securing increased funds for a U.S. Navy and recalling George Washington in preparation for a ground war.

Disturbed by raging anti-French sentiment in Congress, Logan decided to travel to France, hoping to test the waters for peace with the Directory (the post-Revolutionary council). Once there, he proceeded to do what Quakers do best: He listened. When he came home, he talked about what he had heard – and this perhaps is why historian Edward Channing said Logan did “materially” shift the tide of American public opinion from war to peace.

But while he was gone, Congress had passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which, among other things, made it a crime to criticize the president. And because so many members of Congress regarded Logan’s freelance diplomacy as traitorous, the Logan Amendment was attached to the law.

Logan didn’t return home empty-handed. He had secured the release of some captured U.S. sailors and carried a list of possible terms for peace negotiators. However, when he arrived in November 1798, he was immediately, if briefly, arrested. He was never prosecuted – not then and not even a few years later, when he tried to keep the peace with England before the War of 1812.

Today, citing the Logan Act against the 47 GOP senators seems appropriate: Legislation meant to stop an enthusiastic Quaker from preventing a war could be used to block a move that could interfere with a peace treaty on Iran’s nuclear program. I think Logan would approve.


Chris Lombardi is a Philadelphia writer.

The editor wisely cut my reference to political jujitsu, but he left in my overall tilt (including the naval kabuki). Not bad for a fighting dove, writing about one of the first.

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.

About VASECMcDonald: it’s not Brian Williams redux

When I first heard the news about VA secretary Robert McDonald‘s calling himself a Special Forces vet, I had two thoughts: 1) “Wow, SOF is kinda like the French Resistance.”  2) “Brian Williams, Bill O’Reilly, now this?” But looking a little more closely at the actual gaffe, it’s perhaps more forgivable than claiming to have taken RPG fire in Iraq or mortars in the Falklands. If you were sitting down w/homeless vets, CBS News watching, and a homeless vet looked up at you and said “I was special forces,” how would _you_ sum up a decade jumping out of parachutes for the 82nd Airborne and keep his attention? Maybe “82nd Airborne parachutist, went to Ranger school” doesn’t roll off the tongue at the bread line,

None of the articles about this, on Tues. a.m., have quoted the homeless vet in question. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the only interview that matters here. Maybe “82nd Airborne parachutist, went to Ranger school” doesn’t roll off the tongue at the bread line?

bowe bergdahl, who walked away from Omelas


I meant to post this eons ago, before Bowe Bergdahl returned to duty and began facing the prospect of court-martial for desertion. But it’s actually time now, with the new-sorta war that has everyone I know on tenterhooks — including/especially those who, like Bergdahl, have spent time in the Sandbox wondering why,

Imagine how much more you’d be if after three months home, and six weeks after talking to Army investigators, you were in limbo at Fort Sam Houston with no idea when or if your life will transform again.His attorney, the sterling mensch Louis Fidell, told reporters this week that he feels like “the Maytag repairman…I’m just waiting for the phone to ring.” That hasn’t stopped the professional talkers, from Fox News to the House of Representatives, from using Bergdahl’s release last spring as a political boomerang thrown at President Obama.

Despite all the time and spilled pixels, it feels like we know less about Bergdahl than we did when he was still a Taliban prisoner and we had only Michael Hastings’ vivid 2012 Rolling Stone portrait.  What we have instead is speculation, and the understandable anger from members of the unit he walked away from, never to return, and measured words from his parents and his attorneys.

In The Nation, Robert Musil fell back on stories of Vietnam-era deserters, to  urge  compassion for”an American kid stranded in the middle of Afghanistan who feels he has no choice but to go away from his unit.” Telegraph UK writer Tim Stanley wrote about Bergdahl, “The rebellious soldier is a paradox that is hard to process.” That word ‘paradox’ was also used by AP’s Martha Mendoza, which calls Bergdahl’s story ” a complicated paradox surrounding a complicated man.” Her narrative includes the soldier’s homesschooling with Calvinist parents, his progressive/hippie college girlfriend, his fantasies of heroism with the Foreign Legion before enlistment and his agonized letters home from Afghanistan.

The New Yorker’s John Cassidy turns to literature to unlock the puzzle: “If anything, he sounds more like Captain Yossarian, the antic antihero of Joseph Heller’s “Catch 22”—who considers his superiors to be nuts and eventually goes AWOL—than Sergeant Brody, the double-dealing protagonist of “Homeland.” In his early twenties, engaged in a war on the other side of the world that many people, including his Commander-in-Chief, would ultimately decide was counterproductive, Bergdahl, seemingly, had had enough.”

Another story that occurred to me, reading the Hastings profile, is Ursula Le Guin’s classic  “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”  In that oft-taught parable,  the inhabitants of a Utopia are shown the suffering that makes their comfort possible. Most accept it, but a few leave their home, trudging without belongings toward a city hard to fathom. “I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”

Similarly, Hastings writes, “Bowe Bergdahl had a different response. He decided to walk away,”  a  sentence written after describing the alternative:  “Active ­duty soldiers in the U.S. Army are currently committing suicide at a record rate, 25 percent higher than the civilian population. Other soldiers lash out with unauthorized acts of violence: the staff sergeant charged with murdering 17 Afghan civilians in their homes last March; the notorious “Kill Team” of U.S. soldiers who went on a shooting spree in 2010, murdering civilians for sport and taking parts of their corpses for trophies. Many come home permanently traumatized, unable to block out the nightmares.”

A Times editorial added that “Thousands of soldiers desert during every war, including 50,000 American soldiers during World War II. As many as 4,000 a year were absent without leave for extended periods during the Iraq war. They leave for a variety of reasons, including psychological trauma, but whatever their mental state, it is the military’s duty to get them back if they are taken prisoner.” And not to make assumptions about their mental state either before or after such an ordeal.

That applies to us, too. To me, even though I’m currently contemplating including Bergdahl in my title. Because we still don’t know anything.

 Telegraph UK’s Tim Stanley does what I’d be tempted to do: state that the case shows ” the damage to a nation’s psyche caused by a controversial war,” note all the auxiliary issues civilians wrestle with at times like this, and conclude:  “Bowe Bergdahl should never have been in Afghanistan in the first place. Bush should never have sent him there; Obama should have brought him home sooner. War makes a Hell of men’s lives.”  I agree, but it’s not enough.

Before I write a word about Bergdahl in this book, I need to do much more reporting. I really want to talk to Matthew Hoh, himself a soldier-dissenter, who knows the family and spoke clearly about Bergdahl’s journey for CNN:


I can only hope to talk to his attorney, one of the nation’s best-known specialists in military law, who I talked to very occasionally in the CCCO days. And just as with Chelsea Manning,  I know there’s no way I can interview the man himself, and thus am skittish about writing any actual commentary of my own here.

I’ll instead give the last word to that attorney, Eugene Fidell — via Sig Christensen, who’s 10X the journalist I’ll ever be and who wrote last week’s story on the Army’s delay.   “Fidell wouldn’t discuss Bergdahl’s activities here but said his client wants to focus on his education once out of the Army. “His time is up. His enlistment has long since expired. He wants to go to college [..] There are many bridges that have to be crossed before he has to make a decision on where he’s going to live.”

Why Bradley Manning belongs here

WWI_FortMeade I’m already getting assailed for including in my title Bradley Manning, who so many have already branded a traitor — even some vets who are themselves in the book draw the line at what he’s done. But as mesmerized as I am by the case, I’m even more mesmerized by the way it’s galvanized so many people — some soldiers/vets, some civilians like me who’ve internalized that old VVAW slogan “Love the warrior, hate the war.”  It’s why I got my butt onto that Occupy bus and went down to Fort Meade for Manning’s first pretrial hearing more than a year ago.

Here’s what it was like— something I hadn’t put up here because I thought would be the prologue to this book. As I pull my manuscript apart to reshape it, some leaves fall off that might still be worth sharing — and I thought this might explain some things. I’ve posted photos of that weekend on this blog  before, and they’re not hard to find — so the image above is simply that of old Camp Meade, back when it was an army camp instead of the intelligence-HQ Fort Meade. I’m betting that the scene outside the fort last month wasn’t that different from what I described then.


Fort Meade, MD, December 16, 2011

The morning had already begun to chill as the bus pulled onto Reece Road long past the highway signs that said FORT GENERAL GEORGE MEADE.  Were it not for that sign, it might have seemed a suburban neighborhood like any on the Beltway, streets filled with ranch houses and McMansion where barracks once stood (thanks to the DoD Privatization Initiative). Certainly no sign that this had been, in 1917, one of the first camps built for new troops in 1917, its three infantry divisions processed 400,000 soldiers (as well as 22,000 horses and mules.). Or that seven million had done the same during World War II, including the women telephone operators known as Hello Girls, and certainly no sign of  the Vietnam-era 11th ACRBlackhorse Regiment, which had beginning in 1966 powered the Sheridan tanks arriving in Phu Hoa, South Vietnam with the then-new   Armored Cavalry Assault Vehicle.

Those were long-ago days, and all that was left of those huge posts was the intelligence units that had been at their core, now morphed into the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency. To look at now, you would have to look hard to find signs of either, until you arrived at the base’s low-profile main gate, where dark-uniformed personnel waved in cars and gestured to the driver of a chartered bus, that had come all he way from New York with members of Occupy Wall Street. Most were twentysomething activists, happy to be plastered with a sticker with a photo of an Army private even younger than they. The group was directed to the lawn in front of the fort, and told it was their “designated protest area today.”

Already on the lawn were reporters sheltering their notepads from the wind shadowing a mix of weathered activists, some young (like the Occupants)  and some who looked like they could have been at Woodstock, including a scattering of veterans from wars spanning three decades. Many wore stickers or held signs with the three words being chanted by the rest: FREE BRADLEY MANNING.

Almost none of holding those signs saying “Free Bradley Manning” had even met the 24-year-old Army private in question, or even seen him. This was definitely true of the thousands of around the world who had written, rallied, or donated toward his defense and the Bradley Manning Support Network. It was even true of those who, either now or elsewhere, had worn the well-circulated mask with a photo of Private Manning’s smiling face and the words “I AM BRADLEY MANNING.” All had their own reasons for doing so, and not all of them about the case itself: some were fuzzy about the details, though all knew that Private Manning was being charged with the largest intelligence leak in 50 years.

For some supporters,  it was enough that Manning’s alleged actions challenged the U.S.’ national-security apparatus. Those opposed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were wowed by the probability that he had leaked footage of an Apache helicopter raid, later nicknamed Collateral Murder. “He saw what needed to be public, and made it so!”  And for most of those from the loosely-termed Occupy Network, it got even morer specific: Manning had allegedly linked diplomatic cables that are often credited with sparking the “Arab Spring”  with  long-suppressed truths about dictators Tunisia,  Yemen, Egypt, The protests in the Arab world had then helped spur the first ‘Occupy’ encampments. “I asked Why? And when I heard ‘Bradley Manning’s trial,’ I said hell yea,” a slim blond woman from Occupy Newark had told this reporter at 5 a.m., before we climbed the bus from New York’s Zuccotti Park.

Aboard that bus was also Captain Lawrence Rockwood, also a whistleblower of sorts, who’d himself been court-martialed back in 1994 when he refused to ignore conditions in Haitian prisons (during Clinton’s Operation Restore Hope). “I haven’t been back here since I was in uniform,” he said before he departed the bus.

A few feet away, talking to a reporter, was Jeff Paterson, who had refused in 1991 to board the plane taking him to the Gulf War, dragged off the tarmac in handcuffs. “It seemed like a good idea at the time,” he liked to say.

Behind Paterson was former Marine Corps Reserve lieutenant Michael Thurman, 24, who thanks to help from Paterson bore with a brand-new discharge on the grounds of conscientious objection.  “Were you court-martialed?” he was asked by Lt. Dan Choi, not that much older than Thurman  and still in his Army dress blues, though since being expelled for coming out as gay he’d mostly worn his uniform for TV or protests like these.

As morning turned to noon, the Vietnam-era rebel soldiers turned up, first recognizable from afar in their lined faces and graying heads.    A few had gotten up early enough to be allowed into the courtroom, like Nate Goldschlag, who toward the end of that war had founded one of the largest underground GI  newspapers at his German base.

The latter group hugged each other in greeting before holding signs and asking motorists to honk. Colonel Ann Wright, 64, who had quit the State Department in 2003 when war was declared against Iraq, had a voice as girlish as her round blond  face as she led a chant: “Free Bradley Now!”  Beside her was Bill Perry, who decades earlier had testified before TV cameras about atrocities he had seen in Vietnam as an Army sergeant, at a hearing in Detroit known as “Winter Soldier.”

Ward Reilly, his gray hair reaching his shoulders, wore a hand-crafted pendan, made from his mutilated dog tags, reshaped into three letters: FTA (Fuck the Army).  “I was court-martialed four times,” he told Thurman and Capt. Rockwood. “My platoon sergeant wanted to put me away for 20 years. But the platoon was short of good marksmen, we just kept getting sent back to the infantry. During Vietnam,” he explained for the civilians listening, “a prison sentence was kind of a promotion.”  The vets just laughed, in that kind of soldier-solidarity not usually available outside the American Legion.

As the sky darkened, and the air chilled further, the crowd splintered a little — some took breaks in warmer spaces, others huddled together under the Occupy tent.  Thurman went off to the theater that had been set up for remote viewing of the legal proceedings, though he hadn’t gotten admitted to the courtroom. He came back and sad he’d seen Nate Goldschlag stand up and shout “Bradley Manning is a hero!” before being ushered out by military police. Goldschlag was exuberant, only somewhat because he knew his outburst would lead the evening news.  Less exuberant at end of day was Lt. Dan Choi, who said he had been manhandled by security as they escorted him out of the courtroom. “They tore my dress blues!”

Some chapters of Veterans for Peace had brought identifying  banners, including Baltimore’s PHILIP BERRIGAN CHAPTER and the Massachusetts SMEDLEY BUTLER BRIGADE, both bearing names of vets who had famously written against war. In addition to those ghosts, supporting from afar was Daniel Ellsberg, the former Marine whose similarly huge Pentagon Papers had helped end the war in Vietnam, and Scott Olsen of Iraq Veterans Against the War and Occupy Oakland, now famous for being injured by a police tear-gas canister.

For this reporter, there were many other virtual allies at the rogue soldiers’ backs — many elsewhere that day, others long dead.  Major Hugh Thompson, who’d stopped the bloodshed at My Lai. Lt. Silas Soule, who’d done the same during an 1864 massacre against Indians. Evan Thomas, one of the World War I objectors whose tortures were vividly described by poets. As the vigil broke up, everyone knew it wasn’t near over.


And it isn’t of course. Neither is the trial, which I’ll cover here eventually. I’m making no declarations about his heroism or not: but this is an important moment, in our “post-9/11” world, and these guys are definitely shaping it.

we all have our secrets

Speaking of Bradley Manning…

Photo: Bill Perry

Photo: Bill Perry

I first saw the video below last year, during the very FIRST of Manning’s pre-trial hearings; I was at that week’s vigil outside Fort Meade, which also doubled as a Veterans for Peace convention. (I’m the one in the beret in this photo, behind Dan Choi and Ray McGovern).

Even though the text was drawn from the chat logs, I had the same worries about posting it as about writing about the gender issue. Now, I think it’s an easy way to get a peek of some useful information, including a glimpse of that young-libertarian mindset that’s familiar to so many of us.

Bradley Manning Had Secrets from Animate Projects on Vimeo.

bradleymanning1.jpg.scaled1000Before he ever was a soldier, Manning was an out gay guy – a gay Starbucks barista, of all things.  We know that from his Facebook page, preserved for us by PBS. We also know that he stayed openly gay AFTER enlisting. He doesn’t mention being gay-bashed in basic, something his peers told Welsh journalists about, though he does mention being in the “discharge unit.”  But by then he was a soldier, and felt himself part of something important, and hoped to stay on. And then.

Then hasn’t ended yet, by a long shot.

it sounds so much simpler when he says it

I know this blog has been silent for so many m0nths: more than six! How can it be? But I  didn’t feel like I could keep writing here until I had the book actually delivered to the publisher.

That has now happened, and I’ll say more about it later. But right now, I wanted to talk about the clip below, in which Lt.  Dan Choi is unapologetic in his support for whistleblower Bradley Manning. (At right, the March rally in which Daniel Ellsberg and Ann Wright were both arrested, protesting Manning’s treatment at Quantico.)

“A soldier who lived up to the mandate of the soldier.” That’s elegant. I now wish I’d managed to interview him directly, before including him as one of the major figures of my final chapter. Manning, of course, is a far more major figure, embodying at least three of Ain’t Marching’s core themes. And the first change suggested by my editor, when she read the book, was in its title: it’s now I Ain’t Marching Anymore: Soldiers Who Dissent, From George Washington to Bradley Manning.  I couldn’t say it better than Choi above, though I certainly did at greater length.

Like Choi and almost everyone else expressing an opinion about his case, I’ve not had the opportunity to speak to Spc. Manning, or even to his attorney or best friend. I’m trying not to project onto him my own ideas about dissent, or whistleblowers as mavericks, or the inherent challenge thrown at militarism by its gender issues. I’m hoping to be able to cover his  court martial this fall, and perhaps to offer some somewhat more direct observations.

But right now, it’s both true and poetic that the whole Wikileaks scandal has punctured anyone’s ability to make conventional assumptions about our foreign policy. And if that’s not dissent, I’m not sure what is.4

What do you think?

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.

To read the rest, including the Guernica comments, click here.

Don’t ask, don’t tell — don’t fight? queer notes from another pacifist for soldiers

Photo: Stephen Voss for The Advocate

I mentioned David Mixner back on Groundhog Day, when, appropriately enough, the Senate held their first-ever hearings on DADT. Now, you can click here to read a longer version of my interviews with him, including one about Sec. Gates’ slow-mo plan for repeal. The money quote, to me:

If Obama had to live by (DADT) regulations, he couldn’t. He couldn’t mention Michelle, the girls. She couldn’t live at the White House, she would get no benefits, and he couldn’t have pictures of them at his desk. He can’t live like that: why the hell does he think we can?

Mixner was less convincing, I thought, when asked about the vexing nexus of pacifism and GI rights. Perhaps he should come to the next GI Rights Network conference this spring. and talk to others for whom that dance is important.

For black soldiers, the wound goes that far back

The photo is of Sgt. Major Lewis H. Douglass, survivor of the battle of Fort Wagner, who never complained about  his pension but did observe,long before he became outspoken against the next war, that the supposed unity of the “Grand Army of the Republic” —given the differing treatment of black and white veterans groups — existed only on paper. I thought of him when he read this:

A pension system established to support Civil War soldiers did not provide equally for black and white veterans. A newly published study from Brigham Young University concludes discrimination faced by black soldiers during the war was in part to blame for the discrimination they suffered for decades afterward.

You almost don’t want to read the next paragraph, which goes on to say that essentially, that was just the beginning. Good on the BYU researchers for finding it, and the Salt Lake Trib for including it on its military site.  I guess past really is prologue.