BOOK REVIEW: ‘Yankee Come Home ’ by William Craig

Chuck Leddy reviews YANKEE COME HOME: On the Road From San Juan Hill to Guantánamo by William Craig (Walker, $28) in this article for Boston’s Globe.

For William Craig, the whole thing started with a crisis of faith.

When the United States launched its global war on terror in the aftermath of 9/11, Craig felt angry and cheated. Like many Americans, the Vermont journalist understood the grim necessity of heading to Afghanistan, but when that expanded into “an axiomatic endless ‘war on terror,’ ’’ he threw up his hands.

He grew furious over what he viewed as the Bush administration’s “preposterous fabrications, from Iraq-Al Qaeda links to WMDs’’ and the news media’s blindness to it all. And he had a personal stake in all of it.

First, he had a Marine stepson who was being sent into harm’s way for a conflict he considered illegitimate. Moreover he came to believe that the Global War on Terror was just the latest in a string of US imperial misadventures dating back to the Spanish-American War and America’s involvement in Cuba, a military effort Craig’s great-grandfather “Papa” O’Brien bragged about being part of.

Craig becomes convinced that the answer lies in Cuba, and “Yankee Come Home’’ chronicles his travels in the island nation in an attempt to understand the beginnings and present realities of US imperialism, from Santiago’s San Juan Hill to Guantánamo Bay’s infamous US detention center, and to come to terms with America’s history and his own.

In order to circumvent the US embargo, Craig enters Cuba under the guise of a Christian missionary. As he travels the country, he clearly comes to love and respect the Cuban people, their breathtaking mixture of cultures, and their brave endurance over the course of a long history of brutal colonialism and communist totalitarianism.

Craig brings readers the sights, sounds, and smells of Santiago, where he climbs San Juan Hill to recall when the United States promised to support the Cuban uprising against colonizer Spain. He reminds us of America’s broken promise to leave the Caribbean nation to self-rule at the war’s end, making Cuba the place where “we ditched our republican ideals for the charms of empire.”

The contemporary Cuba that Craig describes is awash in history, a place where the heroes of the Cuban Revolution, like Che Guevara and Oscar Lucero Moya, are alive in the national memory. With his own powerful sense of the ironies and deep tragedies of Cuban-American history, Craig seems right at home here.

Although Craig’s personal politics are apparent, he’s also open about the shocking inefficiencies and brutality of the present Cuban regime. He regales readers with accounts of food rationing, endless lines, and bureaucratic mazes. And after being interrogated for hours by a Ministry of the Interior official about why he wants to visit Guantánamo Bay (his request is denied), Craig is filled with a sense of how precarious are the everyday lives of Cubans. “The communist system doesn’t work,” he observes.

History and politics loom large here, but the heart of this book is personal. A major subplot involves his great-grandfather and a story that he told, which eventually proves false, about his charge up San Juan Hill. He details what he does know about the man: about Papa’s drinking, his difficulty keeping jobs, and the family problems. So he begins to do some research and quickly discovers large gaps in what the family knows about this man, omissions that become a cautionary tale: “Papa died a mystery.  . . . As a great-grandfather, he taught me the cost of self-invention. What happens when we choose to forget our history. What kinds of hurts do we inflict — on ourselves, on generations to come — when we insist that we aren’t who we are?’’

“Yankee Come Home” is a wonder-filled act of excavation and an indictment of our nation’s foreign policy. And the corrective? Craig comes to believe that the only way to reexamine our role in the world is by doing what he did: going out and looking at how others view us.

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