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Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014

Then and Now

Thursday, July 29, 2004

Iraq War eerily evokes the Mexican War

That "there's nothing new under the sun" has been expressed in dozens of different ways. Yet specific instances often come as a surprise.

Happening on a book about the Mexican War of 1846-48 ("Gone for Soldiers," by Jeff Shaara, author of the more recent bestseller "Gods and Generals"), the present writer was struck by the many eerie parallels between that war and the recent one in Iraq.

In both conflicts, greatly outnumbered American forces invaded a very foreign land and easily prevailed through superior technology and organization. Both enemies were dictatorships that began the fighting with bombast and hyperbole: "The father and mother of all battles" was going to obliterate the infidel invaders in 1846, just as in 2003. Mexico had its "Comical Ali's" boasting of victories even as the roof was falling about their ears.

The American forces in Mexico lacked the modern luxury (or handicap) enjoyed (or suffered) by those in Iraq, of instant communications.

Lacking sufficient troops to keep the line of communication open to the sea, the U.S. commander, Gen. Winfield Scott, anticipated Sherman in Georgia by simply severing it, forgetting communications altogether, marching into unknown country surrounded by forces many times the size of his own. This had the advantage of at least preventing his superiors back home from micromanaging his campaign!

Just as in Iraq, having blown away the organized opposition any time he encountered any, Scott found himself harassed at every turn by guerrillas. Convinced that local officials knew full well about the guerrillas' activities, he told them they could either cooperate with the Americans (who'd pay hard cash for purchased supplies) or be personally fined for guerrilla incursions. It's a good bet similar economic incentives have been quietly applied in Iraq.

The ticklish question of religion haunted American operations in Mexico much as in Iraq. The U.S. was then a heavily Protestant country, with an army to match.

The better-educated officers went out of their way to conciliate the Catholic Mexicans. But the rank-and-file often were militantly anti-Catholic, and had to be sternly restrained from showing it. Catholicism, above all as practised by the Mexicans, struck them as idolatrous superstition.

The situation was exacerbated by another factor that's had its echos in the anti-terror conflict.

Just as there were a few native-born Americans, and some naturalized American Moslems, who betrayed their country, or at the least their enlistment vows, in Mexico a whole "brigade" of Irish (mostly recent immigrants but including some native-born) scandalously deserted their comrades in mid-war and went over to the Mexicans. Their motivation was presumed to be basically religious. They decided they were Catholics first, Americans second.

Clearly, this couldn't have done much for the Protestant soldiers' opinions of the Catholics.

Some 80 of these "San Patricios" (St. Patricks) were captured. The leaders were shot, 50 others hanged. Those spared execution had "D" (for deserter) carved on their cheeks.

Religion apart, the minds of ordinary soldiers seem to have changed little since the 1840s. As in Iraq, the Mexican War was fought with volunteers. Some signed up looking for adventure, some for lack of a better job at home, some to get away from personal or family problems. Most matter-of-factly believed in their country, and in the righteousness of the war.

At the same time, they grumbled like all soldiers, and spent more time asking "When can we go home?" than in debating the merits of their being there.

Like Iraq, to the Mexicans, and to foreign critics, it may have looked like crass aggression against a foreign land. And then as now, America had its anti-war claque, centered mostly in the Northeast. But the average American firmly believed in "manifest destiny," that it was only right for the stronger, better-organized English-speaking race or culture to overspread the continent, to claim and exploit the land, and bring democratic values to its peoples.

And if one believes in "progress" it's a hard argument to counter. For instance there were three deep-water harbors in Mexican territory. America got two of them as spoils of war: two of the biggest ports in the world, San Diego and San Francisco.

The third, Topolobampo, is still the sleepy backwater it was in 1846. Flying over today's Border, one easily tells pristine, "unspoiled" Mexico from the almost miraculous maze of development that is the U.S.

However one explains American superiority, evinced in the Mexican War much as in Iraq and Afghanistan, it can hardly be denied. The U.S. army in Mexico had better cannon. But more importantly it had better cannoneers.

The Americans were better trained, better organized, better motivated. Yes, Mexico had its heroes and patriots. But they were led by strutting peacocks who paraded their massive armies, breathing fire and brimstone, and then wailed that all was lost, and led the panic flight to the rear. And the Mexican soldier had the habit of staying under cover and discharging his musket at the sky, not even looking, let alone aiming.

Santa Anna, the Mexican dictator, was a more congenial figure than Saddam Hussein, but he was his equal for brutality and perfidy. Even then, the U.S. was in the "nation-building" business.

Santa Anna had been in disgraced exile since personally losing Texas in 1836. The Americans offered him a deal: If he'd promise to settle Mexico's differences with the U.S., we'd see he got back into power in Mexico. He promised, went back, and instantly broke his promise, setting about raising an army and occupying the disputed border regions.

Traditionally, the losers of wars footed the bill. But already by the 1840s it was getting to be the other way around. The soldiers who'd so crushingly whipped Mexico expected the U.S. to annex all or much of the country, certainly Baja California and the area later acquired for cash in the Gadsden Purchase. To their disgust the civilian "clerk" sent out to negotiate drew up a treaty by which we actually paid for what we'd just won in war!

We even agreed to bail Mexico out of debt. It didn't cost us as much as Iraq; but the trend had been set.

The U.S. had to intervene in Mexico if it wanted a secure, stable border. Just as we must intervene in the Middle East if we want something besides chaos there.