It was suicidal. What I thought was so interesting about Spain was that in the end, all it had was pride. So they raised their best flags and put on their best uniforms and they polished their ships bright and they went out to be burned to death by the Americans.
Can you imagine something like that happening today?
Not in the United States, fortunately, because we’re a long way from Spain. But foolish pride drives an awful lot of people. Pride can be very, very perverse. And I’m not referring to Spain when I say this. Consider the whole suicide bomber thing, that death is so glorious especially if you kill a bunch of civilians. I don’t know, it’s a complex thing, but the primitive dehumanizing nature of war can overwhelm human psyches and turn otherwise humane people into suicide bombers.

Do you have a favorite figure in the book, someone who really touched you?
Yes, I think Thomas Brackett Reed, who’s a figure who’s lost to history. He was a really brilliant and funny man and he was oddly immune to war fever. He just couldn’t understand why everyone was in a fury to race off and liberate Cuba when there were so many problems at home that needed to be dealt with. He also feared that we would impose our will on peoples who weren’t ready to be imposed upon, and he wasn’t wrong about that.

Did  the fact that he came from rural Maine -- as opposed to more cosmopolitan Boston and New York -- influence him?
It could be. There was sort of a plain-spoken, honest virtue about Reed. He didn’t take on airs, he didn’t have grand pretensions. However, he was very smart, he wrote his diary in French. But there was a plain-speaking and a salt-of-the-earth quality about him which is characteristic of hardy, Maine lobsterman of whom his father was one.

So many of the ruling class figures you discuss in this book are dedicated, to varying degrees, to proving their physical courage under fire. That’s something you don’t find in American society these days, at least in the upper reaches. Why is that?
There was a flip-flop. Harvard at the turn of the 19th to the 20th Centuries was all about recapturing the marshal virtues. As Roosevelt put it, ”The wolf rising in the heart.” Soldier's field, where they play football to this day, was a monument to Civil War courage. What happened was Vietnam. That turned the upper classes, who were getting drafted, against that war, and in some ways against all wars. It’s revealing to me if you go into the Harvard Chapel, on one wall there are about 300 names of Harvard students and faculty who died in WWII, on the other wall there are only 22 names of Harvard men, I guess they’re all men, who died in Vietnam. Harvard just turned against war. The academy is pretty liberal. And there has never been a turn back in the other direction.

After lunch last week, on our way out of the restaurant, you remarked that in many ways you are the last of the re-write men. You were referring to your role at Newsweek. A few days later, the Washington Post announced that it was putting Newsweek up for sale. How does this news impact your conception of yourself as one of the last working in a certain professional tradition?
Well, it makes me a little sad, of course. But I’m also teaching and the young people that I’m teaching are going to come along and invent something better.

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Related: Book Review: The Tin Drum, 2009: The year in books, Interview: Raj Patel, More more >
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