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1898: The Conquest of Cuba : REMEMBER SANTIAGO by Douglas C. Jones (Henry Holt: $18.95; 354 pp.)

January 08, 1989|Mark Schorr | Schorr is the author of "Bully," a historical mystery featuring Theodore Roosevelt as the protagonist

War is stupid and ugly, and often fought for the basest of political reasons. The message is not new, but novelist Douglas C. Jones skillfully portrays one of our stupidest and ugliest conflicts, the Spanish-American War.

The 1898 war was to protect American business interests in Cuba and allow the United States to expand its influence beyond its shores. Spain, then a dying colonial empire, was forced to hand over Guam, the Philippines and Puerto Rico after its defeat. The conflict was also a virtual circulation war, with press barons William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer purveying accounts of exaggerated or imagined Spanish cruelty.

Against this backdrop, Jones--who has previously offered glimpses of the lives of Plains Indians, settlers in the American West, and Civil War combatants--profiles more than half a dozen soldiers and civilians caught up in the Spanish-American conflict.

The main character is Eben Pay, an Arkansas federal prosecutor who serves as a liaison-troubleshooter for the commanding general. Pay has a huge, fiercely loyal, Indian sidekick named Joe Mountain. Then there's Caroline Bessaford Newton, a young woman attached to the Red Cross and dallying with becoming attached to Eben Pay.

The players include a Swedish-born foot soldier, a Welsh-born non-commissioned officer, Gen. John Shafter, and Capt. (at least initially) John Stoval. There are no real villains to hiss at. Incompetence and disease kill far more than the bullets from Spanish Mausers. As soon as peace breaks out, the Americans find themselves drinking with the Spanish opposition. By that time, 2,000 Americans had been wounded in battle and about one-fifth of those had died. In addition, nearly 5,500 men died from malaria, dysentery, typhoid and yellow fever.

During the first 100 pages, the author takes a great deal of time introducing all his characters. There's a cast of thousands, including Rough Rider Theodore Roosevelt and Red Cross founder Clara Barton. In the first third, while taking the reader back into the late 19th Century, it sometimes seems that the author will introduce everyone up to and including the mules lugging ammo boxes on the beach.

But then the invasion begins. Like most assaults, it's not the smoothly oiled movement historians artfully portray:

"Mr. Roosevelt and his men stole a locomotive. One regiment took the wagon train of another. Fistfights broke out. A terrified mule broke from its artillery harness and ran onto the front veranda of the Plant Hotel, squealing and kicking aside the wicker chairs . . .

"A newspaperman recovering from the latest bout of conviviality was seen running down the sands toward the beach, nine miles away, waving a pencil in one hand, a magnum of champagne in the other, and shouting 'Wait! Wait!' . . .

"An Army chaplain, left completely behind, not knowing how to get to the ships nor even where they were, fell to his knees on the kitchen loading dock and prayed. A number of Mr. Plant's Cuban employees joined him, many of them smoking marijuana cigarettes."

Even when the pace is slow, the wit in Jones' writing pulls the reader through. He gracefully glides between the carnage and black comedy of war, contrasting the horror of festering wounds with the bizarre antics of off-duty soldiers.

"Young ladies dropped in each evening, wearing brightly flowered dresses cut low in the front. Some were not so young. Some were not ladies. Usually an old man came in and sat in one corner and played a 12-string guitar. Sometimes one of the ladies would sing as he played. These were always slow, sad songs. About love and death and the difficulty of getting rid of crab lice."

"Remember Santiago" is a pleasurable mix of fact and fiction, a way to get a taste of "the good old days" and be thankful that they are gone.

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