It's no wonder that we're doomed to repeat history, because there's just so much we don't remember. In The Detonators, ESPN Magazine reporter-editor Chad Millman digs into an act of World War I treachery rarely mentioned in textbooks, where the flashier sinking of the Lusitania gets all the headlines. In 1915 and '16, before the U.S. entered the war, a band of German saboteurs busied themselves exploding munitions factories and chemical plants across the country. Their weapons? Tiny incendiary pipe bombs, not unlike the ones that were reportedly part of the recent terror plot against trans-Atlantic flights. Their ultimate target? New York's Black Tom Island, where the explosion they set off demolished buildings throughout lower Manhattan.
Millman divides the story into two parts. The first third of The Detonators dives deep into the culture of the 20th century's mid-teens, when Europe was ripping itself apart and America—a nation of immigrants with divided loyalties—was debating its place in global affairs. Even with the handy flow charts and cast list that open the book, it can be difficult to keep Millman's players straight, and his artless organization and straight-ahead prose style are little help. But The Detonators improves in its second segment, as the last two-thirds of the book become a courtroom drama. After World War I, a joint American and German commission was set up to settle claims by Americans against the German government, and while most cases were dispatched quickly and amicably, the Black Tom case stretched on from 1924 to 1939, eventually offending the pride of Germany's new controlling party, the Nazis.
Millman spends a fair amount of time delineating the way times have changed, and the rules of war along with them. Prior to World War I, the use of spies, codebreakers, and U-boats was considered unsporting, and America preferred to give outlaw foreign agents free run of the country rather than betraying neutrality by arresting or deporting them. But what's most fascinating about The Detonators is how much it shows the last century mirroring this one. Who knew that after the sinking of the Lusitania, some cafeterias renamed sauerkraut "liberty cabbage" and hamburgers "liberty sandwiches"? Apparently, nothing is new.