The Martial Spirit

[Houghton Mifflin, $4.00]
MR. MILLIS must have had a gorgeous time writing this book. It is the most amusing one I have read in a long time, and dates very distinctly from our present decade. An attack on the Spanish War written before the World War would have assumed a high moral seriousness; written in the first decade after that later struggle, it would have assumed an amoral bitterness; written in 1931, it is broad farce. Irony is too delicate an instrument for these slapdash days, and we Americans have never been very adept in its use. Mr. Millis attempts it, but continually slips from the ironical to the farcical, and as farce his book is an unqualified success. He wields a slapstick rather than a rapier, but he wields it with an approach to Chaplinesque art.
Probably no other episode in our entire history so compellingly offers itself to such treatment, and the author has rendered a valuable service in so treating it, though he is unlikely to receive the thanks of Congress, It would be unfair to pick out any of the particular incidents to give examples of Mr. Millis’s treatment of his theme. We shall leave the reader’s full amusement unblemished by quotations, but we may point to the injured dignity of Senator Lodge when trying to bring the war on, the Barnum-like performances of the war correspondents, the successful failure of Hobson, the manœuvres of generals and naval commanders to win points against each other rather than victories against the enemy, the rocking-chair period and the embarkation at Tampa, the rise of Roosevelt, as high spots in the Several acts. A few days before I read the book I happened to be talking with a newspaper correspondent who had taken part in the ‘Gussie expedition,’and his account was even funnier than Mr. Millis’s.
Mr. Millis was fourteen when civilization abruptly shifted in 1914. He is a journalist. These facts have determined to some extent his handling of his topic. On meditating over this ‘study of our war with Spain’ one comes to feel that his chief aim has been to produce a certain effect determined upon in advance. In one of its aspects, the Spanish War was funny, uproariously funny. There is no doubt of that. It is this aspect that Millis has chosen to stress. It had its other aspects, among them that of national tragedy. These he has chosen almost wholly to neglect. He does, indeed, note occasionally the voices raised in protest, but of the very real and deep protest on the part of many against the whole business of the war, and, especially, the subsequent annexations, he gives hardly any indication whatever. Of this and of the corroding moral effects of military and political victory, the reader of The Martial Spirit will learn but little. If I mention certain lacks in Mr. Millis’s book it is to guard the casual, and in this day too often presumably unhistorical, reader against taking The Martial Spirit as portraying the spirit of America as a whole at what the author properly terms a turning point in our national history and outlook.
What Mr. Millis attempted to do he has done extraordinarily well. His book is a fine piece of work in demonstrating how a war and change of destiny may be brought about. In many ways this ‘splendid little war,’ as John Hay called it, is as perfect a laboratory test of how a people can be led and thwarted by politicians and newspapers as any that has ever occurred. Many of the greater ones have been so complex as to obscure the issues. In the Spanish War most of these complexities were absent. In its few short, months, greed, journalism at its worst, political ambition and chicanery, military ambition and inefficiency, propaganda, moral collapse in the face of business opportunity, all stalked undraped save by the soiled folds of the flag.
It is to be hoped that the book will secure a wide public. If is no unimportant measure, perhaps, of the advance of America in the past thirty years to contrast The Martial Spirit with Senator Lodge’s atrocious War with Spain. Different nations win to wisdom by different roads. The Greeks chose tragedy; the Americans seem to prefer humor.