Saturday, November 10, 2012

Book Review: The Rough Riders, by Theodore Roosevelt

Rough Riders, Battle of San Juan, 1898 (Wikimedia Commons)
A stereotype of the American man exists: a man of purity with a simple, straightforward manner of supporting right and opposing wrong with bravery and fortitude. There is also another side to that stereotype: a man whose simple perspective of right and wrong minimizes minorities and significant perspectives just because they don't fit into that simple world view.

I think Theodore Roosevelt and his era fit both sides of that stereotype of the American man, good and bad.

In 1898 the American government allowed for the raising of a volunteer fighting unit to assist the army during the Spanish-American War. Theodore Roosevelt was a key player in the raising and fighting of that unit, specifically of the 1st United States Volunteer Calvary. Three regiments were raised, but only the 1st actually went to Cuba and fought.

Roosevelt's The Rough Riders is his account of that fight, and it is written with Roosevelt's usual straightforward, highly readable prose style. Stated in an unemotional and "I was there" objective style, Roosevelt's account includes the sweep of history and also the nuts and bolts of the military campaign to whip the Spaniards in Cuba. The account begins with the raising of the regiments, their training, and their transport to Cuba. It describes the campaign with an eye focused on detail, events, and all the interesting and colorful men who volunteered and fought.

As with his book Through the Brazilian Wilderness, Roosevelt matter-of-factly depicts the great suffering contained within the events with words that describe the facts but eschew the emotions. That is to say, there is enough of a naturalist and journalist in him to describe in full what happened, but you aren't going to hear him whining about the horrendous nature of the circumstances.

When I wrote book reviews of Roosevelt's Through the Brazilian Wilderness and Candice Millard's chronicle The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey, two accounts of the same event, one personal and the other scholarly, I discovered Roosevelt's penchant for baldly stating a difficult circumstance in his account--and then when reading Millard's account, discovering the great amount of detail that was left out by Roosevelt because he felt it would be too close to the emotional bone and might have been construed as whining or complaining. (Roosevelt mentions his disregard for whiners several times in The Rough Riders.)

Without whining, Roosevelt catalogs the United States' unpreparedness for the military campaign in Cuba.
  • Lack of adequate transportation, resulting in the suffering of troops and inadequate materiel.
  • Front line shortages of food, medicine, clothing and shelter--almost everything but ammunition.
  • Older weapons that smoked when fired, allowing Spain to fire upon gun placements with their placements that couldn't be located because of smokeless powder.
However, the Americans prevailed, and Roosevelt describes the brave and selfless actions of his men and also of the regular army. He praises men educated and uneducated, men of different races and ethnic backgrounds. He looks upon them as individuals, and as the book progresses, we see that his judgment of the men as individuals earns him their respect. Even though Roosevelt writes this about himself, based on what I've read about him, I believe it to be true.

As we read about events written about from over a hundred years ago--as we read from an era when a Black American president has just been re-elected--we see that paradox of men who fought side by side, men of all races and backgrounds--men who judged one another on their individual manly qualities, and yet men who still were affected by and unconsciously promulgated the biases of the era.

Roosevelt praises the fighting abilities of the Black regular soldiers, yet the regulars were in a segregated regiment and led by white officers. He states that he was surprised that the Blacks were just as susceptible to malaria as whites; I assume his thinking was that since Blacks had come from Africa that there would be a genetic resistance to the disease. Roosevelt mentions casually all the officers who had been to the big schools in America--the Good Old Boy network--as just the way things were.

All these inequities are subsumed in the reality that these men of the Rough Riders lived and fought side by side in appalling conditions: fought, were wounded, and died with equal respect for bravery and perseverance, and with equal understanding that some men broke under the pressure and stress of the circumstances.

The Rough Riders paints a fascinating picture of a past time, a first-hand account written by a fascinating American. I downloaded my free eBook of The Rough Riders through the Kindle Store, but it is also available through Project Gutenberg

Copyright 2012 by Thomas L. Kepler, all rights reserved


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