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The Strenuous Life (Moral Equivalent of War - 1/2)

Updated: Oct 24, 2023

Can over-civilized men protect a nation? In the late 19th Century, Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressives said No. Then they started a war to save American manhood.

Last week, I described weary soldiers suffering at Verdun. Within two years of that horrific battle, the First World War ended and many traumatized veterans began asking themselves, “was it worth it?” A few of those vets even wrote antiwar novels about their experiences. Books like All Quiet on the Western Front, A Farwell to Arms, Three Soldiers, and Johnny Got His Gun all echoed the disillusion many broken veterans felt about their time in the trenches.

Despite the antiwar message of these books, they still reveal the inherent virtues of men at war – the vigor, the courage, and the fellowship. After all, there are positives to war and military life. Nearly every combat veteran I know remembers their time in uniform with fondness, including (and even especially) their time in combat. For most vets, I’d argue, the pros of their military experience far outweigh the cons. (That said, I can never ask the dead.)

Maybe their favorable impressions are because military service is a full-on life experience. You lose friends and gain friends. You sleep cold, hike wet, and fight tired. And perhaps most of all, military life is not a lonely one; nearly every experience is shared with others who care about you.

This dichotomy between the pros and cons of war leaves me with this question:

Is there a way to gain the pros of war (vigor, courage, and fellowship) while purging the obvious cons (death, destruction, and suffering)?

In the late nineteenth century, many writers and political figures began to ask this very question because they felt America’s middle- and upper-class young men had turned “soft” with the nation’s growing prosperity. By the 1890s, the country had changed. More young men attended college, worked at desks, and rode in trains spiderwebbed across the country. Electricity lit their offices and oil heated their homes. The frontier was gone and the call of the wild was nearly gone. Yet, the call to comfort and profit was everywhere. The Gilded Age had begun.

All this wealth, automation, and civility, caused many older Americans – including Civil War veterans - to worry that these “over-civilized” men were not fit to fight in a war and protect the nation. They saw America’s rugged soul rotting away. Something needed to be done.

In walked their savior: Teddy Roosevelt. By the late 1890s, the Bull Moose himself was accusing America’s middle- and upper-class men of becoming over-civilized, which he insisted was a dire threat to national security.

The Strenuous Life

In his now famous 1899 speech, The Strenuous Life, Roosevelt announced that for America to stay strong and protect its democracy from cultural rot and foreign invasion, American men should not seek “the life of ease,” but instead, seek “the life of strenuous endeavor.” If not, he warned, “bolder and stronger peoples will pass us by, and will win for themselves the domination of the world.”

Roosevelt’s statement is classic Social Darwinism, a popular ideology of the time. According to historian Even Thomas, Social Darwinism is an “offshoot belief (of Darwin) that the strongest races were bound to triumph over the weak ones.” During the late 19th Century, Evans continues, Social Darwinism “was becoming an article of faith amongst the educated classes." And no one was a more true believer in the Darwinian faith than Roosevelt, who preached its tenets every chance he could.

In The Strenuous Life speech, Roosevelt praised civil war veterans, citing men like General Grant, who prioritized their “duties to the nation and duties to the race.” The solution to the softening of the Anglo-Saxon race in America, Roosevelt would later add, “would come from tapping into more primitive instincts, the kind brought out by war.”

Saving American Manhood

War would be Roosevelt’s cure for for America's over-civilized men. “I should welcome almost any war,” he declared, “for I think this country needs one.”

For capital-P Progressive politicians of the time like Roosevelt, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, and President McKinley, according to historian Kristin Hoganson, “the greatest legacy of the Civil War had been manhood itself.” Thus, their theory went, by saving American manhood, they were saving American democracy. Because, they believed, democracy could only be protected by rough men who liked a good fight. In short, Hoganson concludes, “American manhood was [now] a national security issue.”

When powerful men in government, media, education, and business want a war, history shows they often get one. And in 1898, when the USS Maine exploded (likely from an onboard fire igniting an ammunition magazine) in Havana Harbor, these men got their war. Immediately, America’s elites blamed Imperial Spain (Cuba’s colonizing power) for the Maine’s destruction. And newspapers across the country printed “Remember the Maine!” on their headlines, calling for vengeance.

With support from Social Darwinists, Progressives, imperialists, the media, and gruff civil war vets (now senior members in Congress), America declared war on Spain. And not just one war, a few years later we got another one – this time against Philippine Guerillas. From 1898 to 1902, America was at war and America’s violent occupation of the Philippines continued through the decade.

In accordance with their Social Darwinist tendencies, Kristin Hoganson explains in Fighting for American Manhood, Roosevelt and other jingoists believed that “warring against such physically powerful savages [in the Philippines] would build the ‘savage virtues’ in over-civilized [American] men.” These “savage virtues,” the jingoists believed, would reinvigorate the Anglo-Saxon race in America, save American manhood, and preserve American democracy.

Did Roosevelt have a Point?

Going to war to save American manhood seems crazy because it is. But that’s what happened. Saving American manhood is the bat-shit crazy reason we fought the Spanish-American and Philippine-American wars. Sure there were other convenient reasons for those wars, like helping American business and catapulting America as a global power on the world’s stage. But the deep and emotional reason for those wars, I believe, was to save American manhood from going soft.

If you still disagree with me, look at Spain -- a third-rate power with a decaying empire and zero threat to America’s national security. And look at the Philippines; I don’t think nationalist Philippine Gorillas were ever going to disrupt America’s global trade in the Pacific.

Yet, I must painfully admit that Roosevelt and his Darwinian disciples are right about one thing: the military and war toughens men. Military service gives them an identity, a tribe, and the pride that they did something hard – and that matters for a nation. Because the pros of military life like vigor and fellowship, I’d argue, makes men better citizens, husbands, and fathers. It also makes them happier and more fulfilled in a modern society sick with obesity, anxiety, and loneliness.

That said, I don’t want to die (or see others die) for social theories or because electricity makes a Civil War veteran think America’s gone soft. Fighting a war should be the absolute last resort and based on real threats to our national sovereignty.

The Moral Equivalent of War

So I’ll return to my question: Can we extract the pros of war and purge the obvious cons? According to the great William James, the answer is yes and I’ll address that in Part-2 next week.


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