The Black Angels, “Young Men Dead”

Teddy Roosevelt is known as many things, but he was perhaps most proud of the title “Colonel.” So enthusiastic was he to prove himself in war, he traded the comfort of a plush leather chair in the office of the Secretary of the Navy for cans of rotten beef in a tropical landscape that would follow him in recurring bouts of malaria for the rest of his life. But for all of its consequences, leading his Rough Riders to victory during the Spanish American War in 1898 was the event which most shaped the renowned former president; it was the event that made him a man.

Which is why Roosevelt had been sounding the call for American involvement in World War I for three solid years by the time the U.S. finally joined the Allied cause in 1917. Much to the chagrin of Woodrow Wilson, once America entered the fray…Teddy wanted in too. He begged the Secretary of War to allow him the honor of assembling a brigade to hurt the Huns, but was rejected; he was, after all, no friend of the administration in line for special favors. Although likely for the best, as his health was rapidly deteriorating, he was heartbroken, knowing his time was near its end and wanting to leave his corpse on the battlefields of Europe.

But the Roosevelt name found its way into headlines nonetheless. For such an avowed war hawk, his sons had no choice but to take their place in the first American wave to the front; Theodore, Jr., Kermit, Archie and Quentin all played their parts. While most of his sons were fit for war, young Quentin the Aviator was not. The youngest at 19, engaged to a Whitney heir and of a sweeter temperament than the rest, he felt compelled to go to war so as not to disappoint his illustrious father.

Disappoint him he did not. Shortly after his squadron was sent to the front, Quentin took two bullets to the head and his airplane dropped from the sky. Buried where he fell by the Germans who found him first, his grave became a fount of courage for Allied soldiers who made a shrine of his temporary resting place.

While he was certainly proud of his heroic progeny, Roosevelt carried the burden of Quentin’s death until his own a short few months later. Which leads one to ponder the musings of Nathaniel Hawthorne from an article titled “Chiefly About War Matters,” which ran in the Atlantic during the Civil War:

“It is a pity that old men grow unfit for war, not only by their incapacity for new ideas, but by the peaceful and unadventurous tendencies that gradually posses themselves of the once turbulent disposition, which used to snuff the battle-smoke of its congenial atmosphere. It is a pity; because it would be such an economy of human existence, if time-stricken people…could snatch from their juniors the exclusive privilege of carrying on war. In cause of death upon the battle-field, how unequal would be the comparative sacrifice! On one part, a few unenjoyable years, the little remnant of a life grown torpid; on the other, the many fervent summers of manhood in its spring and prime, with all that they include of possible benefit to mankind. Then, too, a bullet offers such a brief and easy way, such a pretty little orifice, through which the weary spirit might seize the opportunity to be exhaled!”

In a word, just what Roosevelt wanted.