Evan Thomas is a fine journalist and historian, and I am as big a TR fan as you could hope to find. So I was hoping The War Lovers would be a great read. My reaction, however, is decidedly mixed.
Thomas analyzes the Spanish-American War, and the apparent need of certain leading Americans - Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, William Randolph Hearst - to engender a war with Spain to prove the nation's manhood. It's good if unspectacular as a primer on the Spanish-American War, and is worth reading on that score. Thomas's writing style is a bit clipped but he makes these hoary (if widely-forgotten) events interesting and compelling - even if he spends a bit too much time on the build-up to the conflict.
The most compelling sections, though, are his accounts of the war itself. Many other books have covered the same ground, but Thomas takes through the haphazard organization of the Army, its chaotic trip to Cuba, and the bumbling battles of Las Guasimas and San Juan Hill with admirable verve and detail. The only drawback is his glossing over the Filipino-American War, a topic where his connections to current events are more pertinent (as Stanley Karnow's In Our Image demonstrates).
However, I have serious reservations with Thomas's two biggest premises: his psychological explanations of TR and company's motivations for provoking conflict, and to compare it to the War in Iraq.
For the first, Thomas tries to peruse Roosevelt, Lodge and Hearst's correspondence and private letters to answer his main question. He engages in half-assed psychological profiling, ultimately coming up short in his inexpert analysis and musings. His depiction of TR as needing to prove his manhood by fighting a conflict is half-convincing, but extending this personal obsession to the nation at large is dubious. His argument that humanity intrinsically *needs* war is wholly unconvincing, sub-Robert Ardery pontification, and Thomas doesn't do much to support this claim. More interesting avenues - say, American trying to heal its Civil War wounds once and for all - are skimmed over or dropped. His answer to the question of why isn't wholly fleshed-out or convincing, especially in his portrayal of his individual subjects.
Thomas's portrayal of his protagonists is equally flawed. He's very harsh on Roosevelt in particular, focusing on his jingoism and racial views, which is harsh but not unfair. I would say, however, it's an incomplete portrait of a complex man. He does a better job with Hearst, but Lodge and the anti-war counterparts - Harvard Professor William James, Speaker of the House John Reed - seem lightweight ciphers. Thomas wants a dramatic balance between them but Roosevelt, and to a lesser extent Hearst, completely dominate the proceedings.
On the second score - the Iraq comparison - Thomas provides hardly anything to support this premise, stressed in the introduction but immediately dropped. There are some loose parallels - an arguably-unprovoked conflict, liberating a tyrannized people only to become their de facto colonizers, use of torture - but Thomas is really grasping at straws and does little to support his argument. In a bit that reminded me uncomfortably of Pat Buchanan's idiotic opus on WWII, the book ends with Scooter Libby staring at a portrait of TR in his office. Give me a break. I remember a History Channel special several years ago in which Thomas gave an interview stressing the same comparison. This may be a personal hobby-horse of his, but if so it's not a very productive one.
Don't misunderstand: We can (and should) learn a lot from our past. But making parallels with contemporary events has its own pitfalls, and often comes off as posturing to seem relevant. In books and articles I've read in just the last year, Iraq has been compared to the American Revolution (Patriot Battles by Michael Stephenson), World War II (Pat Buchanan's Churchill, Hitler and the Unnecessary War) and the Algerian War for Independence (a Thomas E. Ricks review of A Savage War of Peace). And now the Spanish-American War. There are too many variables for these direct comparisons to succeed, and all of these gentlemen, whatever the other merits of their work, can't make a convincing case why Iraq and x-conflict should be conflated.
So, as an account of the Spanish-American War, The War Lovers is reasonably successful, and Thomas does a good job depicting America's delirious and alarming desire for conflict. But his key question - the *why* - isn't sufficiently answered, making for a disappointing read.