Saturday, March 28, 2015

Book Review: The Rough Riders, by Theodore Roosevelt

It's difficult to overstate the badassery of Theodore Roosevelt. TR grew up a weak and sickly child but he built himself up into a scholar, rancher, explorer, hunter, soldier, politician and president through sheer force of will. One of the high points of TR's life was his participation in the "splendid little war" that gave birth to the American empire. Once Spain and the United States declared war upon each other, TR resigned from his position in the Navy Department and helped found the First Volunteer United States Cavalry - "The Rough Riders."

Roosevelt was 39 when the war began, an age when most of us have settled into boring careers and begun developing spare tires. Alongside his friend Colonel Leonard Wood, a future Army Chief of Staff, he recruited volunteers from all around the country. The striking thing is how many Ivy League students and graduates joined. Some of them were old friends from TR's days at Harvard, but others came from Yale and Princeton in order to serve their country and test their manhood in the heat of battle. How many Ivy Leaguers do that now? The United States had been at peace since the end of the Civil War 33 years before. One interesting anecdote Roosevelt tells is that when his regiment was traveling through the South on their way to Florida and then Cuba, elderly former Confederates told him they never expected to see the Stars and Stripes so vigorously cheered in those parts ever again. The Rough Riders were part of a cavalry division led by former Confederate General Joseph Wheeler. Wheeler purportedly called out during a battle with the Spaniards, "Let's go boys! We've got the damnyankees on the run again!"

In addition to the scions of Eastern elites, the Rough Riders were made up of cowboys, lawmen, former outlaws, ranchers, full- and half-blooded Indians from the West. Roosevelt had served in the National Guard beforehand which provided him with invaluable experience in dealing with common troopers. Fortunately, the Rough Riders didn't need much training when it came to riding and shooting. Close order drill, long derided by the pros as Mickey Mouse bullshit, does have an important purpose. It helped these men, used to independent living, to live and work as a team. Roosevelt praises them to the skies throughout his memoir, both for their soldierly qualities and their bravery in battle.

The copy I checked out from the local library has notes written in the margins from a decidedly liberal reader. He or she wrote several comments disparaging Roosevelt's racism, imperialism, machismo, and other progressive boogeymen. One thing they pointed out was that there's almost no trace of the usual meditations on war's hellish nature. Roosevelt personally enjoyed his time in Cuba to no end. To hear him tell it, his men almost made a competition out of who could be more badass. Throughout, Roosevelt says that men who suffered the most grievous wounds or who suffered from tropical diseases made no grumbles or complaints. Men had to be ordered to go see the doctor, and even then it was 50/50 whether they'd actually obey.

The only complaints Roosevelt makes are about logistical issues, confirming the old cliche that amateurs talk about strategy and tactics while professionals talk about logistics. The soldiers never wanted for ammunition but food, water, medical supplies, and baggage were subject to constant bureaucratic roadblocks. The U.S. military was still using mostly black powder ammunition, while the Spanish had switched to smokeless powder. This made it comparatively difficult for the Americans to locate Spanish snipers in the dense Cuban jungle. Roosevelt praises Spanish valor at several points, but for the snipers hidden in the trees, he ordered his men to show no quarter as those snipers often targeted Red Cross and other medical personnel.

Cliches are cliches because they're generally true. For example, it's a staple in all military literature that "Officers must take care of their men." In TR's book, he shows what it's like in practice. The officers subjected themselves to the same hardships as the men. They ate the same hardtack and pork when it was available, they slept under the stars, they carried the equipment of men who fell out of marches from wounds or sickness, and they led from the front. Roosevelt said that the men appreciated all of this, and that it was to the credit of that principle that the men refrained from all complaint.

After the Battle of San Juan/Kettle Hill, the Rough Riders were told to hold their position outside of Santiago. For several weeks they waited while unbeknownst to them peace negotiations had begun between the US and Spain. Roosevelt said this was the most trying part of the campaign because the weather and widespread malaria and yellow fever made it difficult to find things to keep the men occupied. Men go to pieces if they don't have a mission to perform or duties to fulfill. The same held for the return trip to the United States when the transport ships were too crowded to make drill or exercise practicable.

Theodore Roosevelt is one of my favorite presidents. His short memoir of the Spanish-American War provides many excellent lessons in leadership and manhood: lead by example, take care of those under you, fulfill your duty no matter the cost, don't complain, keep yourself busy, and don't trust the bureaucrats. 5/5, would read again.

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