The War Nerd: The Museum of Defeats
Mexico City guidebooks are always a little nervous about the National Museum of Interventions. Their queasy descriptions make it clear that most Anglo travel writers find the idea of an entire museum devoted to violations of Mexico’s sovereignty depressing, or just plain weird.
Yet they can’t ignore the Museum, because everything about it, right down to the ground it’s built on, hums with surplus geomancy. The Museum is in Churubusco, now part of the southern suburbs, but it’s had many previous incarnations, all central to Mexican history. It started out as a shrine to an Aztec god before the Spanish smashed it, walled the site and made it a convent, Santa Maria de Churubusco. Thanks to those strong walls, designed to keep nuns in and pole-vaulting lechers out, General Pedro Anaya chose to make his stand at the convent in 1847. He’d been stuck with the job of keeping the invading Yankees away from the capital city. It was one of those doomed last stands that seem to occur often in Mexican history. Anaya had 1,300 men, most of them rookie volunteers; the Americans brought a force of 5,000 stone killers who’d slashed a path all the way from Texas. Anaya’s only experienced troops were American deserters. He knew he had no chance, but held off several Yankee advances before running out of ammunition. Most Mexicans don’t remember the defeat as much as Anaya’s cool, smart-ass answer when the American officers asked where his ammunition was: “If I had any left, you wouldn’t be here.”
That was the last purely military sack of Churubusco, but other interventions, much more important to the people who live here, have never stopped. The rural convent was outlawed by anti-clerical reforms and then absorbed by the huge city. The walls are still there but the rest of the neighborhood is packed tight with food stalls, narrow houses, and even a metro stop. The station is named, of course, “General Anaya.” It’s handy for bringing trainloads of school kids to see the museum, but it’s much more important as transportation for the hundreds of people who work in the gigantic Novartis pharmaceutical plant nearby. At street level, you pass quaint stone walls, but if you look up, there are other walls, corrugated metal 20-feet high, painted in the non-colors favored by big, discreet corporations. I don’t know even know what color to call them--khaki or beige or drab--but I know it took me three tries to see that wall, and another to look past it to the block-long Novartis plant where they manufacture the drugs.
The usual take on sights like this is contrast: old meets new, warriors superseded by pill-sellers. But the people who founded this site, the Nahautl group we call Aztecs, were self-promoters, merchants, guys on the make, as much as any Novartis exec. The god they chose to worship on this site, Huitzilpochtli, exemplified the rise of his people, the Mexicas. Of the thousands of wild, creepy deities available, the Mexicas made Huitzilpochtli their special deity because he came out of nowhere, just like them.
Huitzlipochtli began as an unwanted pregnancy. His mother, a major magician, had somehow been impregnated by a ball of feathers, which was worse, in Aztec terms, than getting knocked up by a tow-truck driver. So she schemed to abort him. Huitzilopochtli dealt with that unilaterally by hacking his way out of her womb—“Heeeeere’s Huitzli!”--fully formed and fully armed. He cleaned house by killing most of his 400-odd siblings and batting his mother’s decapitated head into the sky, where it occupies the traditional place of female deities who’ve been kicked upstairs: the moon. The dead brothers and sisters had to settle for being stars—lesser lights.
He was a dynamic god, an invaders’ deity like Yahweh. He ordered the Mexicas, his Israelites, to get out of Aztlan, their home somewhere in the Northern desert, and start fighting their way south (“left”) to the city that is now named after them. When they first arrived in the valley, the Mexicas were nothing. The other Nahua peoples kicked them to the badlands on the edge of the valley. The Mexicas schemed and fought their way up the immigrant/invader ladder. By the end of the 15th century, they’d schmoozed and fought and intermarried their way to the top of the multi-tribe Nahua cartel that ran the Highlands. Life was good. The Mexicas thanked Huitzilpochtli in a way they thought a conqueror god would appreciate: with the beating hearts of P.O.W.s, as dramatized in a million movies and Doc Savage books. But their empire was no more or less a blood-fest than any other. They may have thought the obsidian knives of the priests got them to power, but it was actually generations of cunning, shoving, immigrant/invader bluster that moved them up the rankings of the Nahua confederation.
It didn’t last. It never does. This is the lesson of the Museum of Defeats: Whatever heel is grinding your face into the dirty street at the moment, don’t worry; there will be another along sooner or later—usually sooner. “One bad turn will down another, down and down the bonemeal strata,” as the poet says.
Huitzilpochtli’s people, the Mexicas, had only one generation as the rulers of Mexico. They hit their peak only around 1500. In 1519 Cortez arrived with horses, guns, plate armor and most importantly, nano-weapons, viruses that wiped out most of the Aztec population, and all of their will to fight. All that scrambling, generations of struggle, gone in a few years. It’s as if the Jews of NYC, after working and clawing their way up the endless ethnic wars of the city for generations, finally hit the big time around 1970, only to have aliens from Alpha Centauri darken the Manhattan skyline with their ships and inform Philip Roth’s classmates that they would now be required as labor in the beet fields of Eastern Europe with the motivational aid of neuro-electro-whips, and the added dramatic interest of new diseases from another star system.
You’d expect a lot of space in the Museum of Interventions to be devoted to all that pre-Cortez shoving and pushing. I did, at any rate. Well, I was wrong. The museum begins with the Spanish Era and ends with Pancho Villa. There’s nothing at all about the Mexicas or any of the Nahuatl until you’re about to leave the museum. Then, at last, you see in a shadowy archway a painting showing Aztec priests offering a sacrifice to Huitzilpochtli, in the Diego Rivera style where you use up all the red and orange way before you even open up any of the less outrage-tinted tubes of oil paint. It’s quite a gory little mural, not even pretending to be sympathetic to the Indios, as you’d expect of a 21st-century museum, especially one in an officially Mestizo nation with a big surplus of anti-colonial artists and intellectuals. You get the feeling whoever painted it really didn’t like those Aztecs much.
Actually, that was what I saw, to my extreme surprise, everywhere in Mexico City. No one seemed particularly interested in celebrating the pre-Conquest past except as a kind of cultural capital, a proof that the genetic base of the current population had artistic and intellectual creds to spare. That’s the picture you get in the big museum, the National Anthropology Museum in Chapultepec Park: One exhibition after another demonstrating the sophisticated arts ’n’ crafts of the Aztec, Maya, Toltec, Olmec and Mixtec peoples, as if they’d been around forever making the same souvenirs, rather than bargaining, bluffing, and fighting their way up and down in a constantly shifting ethnic tournament that used up contenders faster than the UFC.
I’ve written about my visit to the military museum on the summit of Chapultepec, which shares the Anthro Museum’s vague, distant respect for the pre-conquest peoples. But outside of these two museums, I was surprised at how little enthusiasm the city seemed to have for its indigenous past. Downtown, not far from my hotel in the Alameda, construction crews extending the new Metro found a huge pre-Conquest site now called the Templo Mayor. The general reaction to this, as far as I could tell, was irritation—“Now they’ll never get that new line finished!”—and a resigned, unenthusiastic acceptance that the site would now have to be recognized and made into something tourists could visit.
I’m not tsk-tsking this lack of interest in pre-Conquest culture. To be honest, it seemed like a good sign, proof that Mexicans have a present and future tense, as opposed to certain illustrious countries I could name that seem willing to settle for the job of curator of a past much greater than their present. “Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead,” Blake said, and if he’d lived in Mexico City he would have added, “And your metro excavators too, goddamn it, so I can get to work on time for once.”
At Churubusco you go through the big, outer stone wall, the one that enclosed the convent, the one Anaya’s men defended, and into a small ticket booth where you pay your money and give up your pen. The stern woman in uniform pointed to the pen I was holding and told me to surrender it. I squawked, in bad Spanish, that I had to make notes, and she pointed to a giant goblet full of short #2 pencils. I guess a place that gets so many high-school tours can’t afford to allow indelible writing implements.
She was stern, and that surprised me, because people in Mexico City had been so polite, cheerful and kind to me ever since I hit town. You’ll never see a rush hour Metro crowd as jolly as the ones in Mexico City. Cheerful and orderly—very, very orderly, though that quality isn’t part of the national stereotype at all—that was my impression of the city.
This was a national shrine, though, and a sterner demeanor prevailed among the women who herd visitors along the mazey corridors of the old convent. Ever alert for pen-based desecration, they follow you from one invasion/room to the next. I heard only one laugh from these ladies, and that was when I bonked my big bald head on a doorway. The conquistadores may have been tough but they weren’t tall. That was my first lesson at the museum.
The next came when I was shoo’d by another stern lady into the first exhibit, a restored dining room from the convent. As far as this museum was concerned, history started with the Spanish already in place here in the Valley of the Mexicas.
And as far as I could tell, there wasn’t even an anti-Spanish or anti-colonial tilt to this exhibit. Though god knows, it had potential as a depressant. Nuns lead grim lives anyway, but this lunchroom featured hard wooden benches, with a huge pulpit leaning over them so that the sisters could be regaled, as they chewed, with tales of damnation and woe. Too sad—my Aunt Eileen was a nun, and the sweetest of my many aunts…Agh, I should’ve gone back to Jersey City to see her before she died…
I wanted out of that room, staying only to read the captions on each artifact, reading for tone and expecting a harsh anti-clerical one but not finding it.
If there was any anti-Spanish or anti-Catholic exhibit, it was the crucifixes arranged along the staircase leading from the dining room up to the main exhibits. Huge dead bodies nailed on tree-sized crosses. Red paint, lots of it, had been daubed, dripped, or just allowed to flow freely over every sculpted surface of the victim’s bony body. Thorny crowns featured points more like railroad spikes than anything a shrub ever grew.
Wounds had been carefully carved in parts of the Savior’s anatomy not mentioned in the Gospels. And these monsters were ten or fifteen feet tall, made to guilt the hung-over shirkers standing at the back of a cathedral. And here they were in my lapsed, miserable face, right after that grim refectory had reminded me of Aunt Eileen’s lonely death. I zoomed up those stairs, eager to get to nice, literal, military interventions. There are three repeat offenders among the many countries that have had a stab at invading Mexico: Spain, France, and the U.S. The exhibits focus on these three, but in very different ways. Spain has to come first, since the second floor proceeds from old to new interventions. But this museum doesn’t seem to have its heart in telling the story of Mexico’s wars of independence, maybe because it’s hard to say that Spain “invaded” or “intervened” in them. Spain tried to hold on to its colony, and the Mexicans tried to take it from them. Doesn’t really fit the museum’s theme. If you want loving, proud exhibits on these wars, go to Chapultepec. The big museum there treats Hidalgo and the Virgin of Guadelupe as male and female leads in the key chapter of Mexican history, and barely mentions the Mexican-American War of 1846-48. Chapultepec, after all, is about national pride. It’s still a Mexican Army base, and it tells a story of military victory. The Spanish were expelled, Mexico was born.
This museum has a purpose almost opposite to the one at Chapultepec. It’s devoted to Mexico’s tribulations at the hands of foreigners. And were the Spanish really foreigners? The Museum of Interventions doesn’t seem to think so, because it all but skips over the same wars of independence that take center stage at Chapultepec. Instead, this museum zeroes in on the two clearly “foreign” enemies, the French and the Americans. France’s recidivist Mexico-invading tendency would come as a shock to the ignorant Americans who buy the stupid “surrender monkeys” line. The French kept a dirty eye on Mexico for a long time, and actually invaded twice. The trouble is that both of their invasions were so ridiculous that it’s hard to make them into good exhibits. Let’s face it, it’s us, the Americans, who are the hardcore villains of this story, and therefore of this museum. The French—well, they did their best, but there was something a little silly about it. Case in point: The Pastry War, France’s first attempt to mimic Britain as the stern, just, vengeful creditor of third-world wastrel nations. As usual, it didn’t go well.
France was owed money by Mexico, and these 19th-century loan-shark powers were never shy about seeing that they got the money one way or another. After all, that’s how Britain took Burma, piece by piece, always starting with a complaint about British merchants being cheated by the locals. By 1890, that meant the Raj ruled all of Burma, a nice little annex for the Empire. That was an example of imperialist conquest done right—and so quietly that to this day you’ll have a very hard time finding any sources on the horrors of the conquest of Burma. The Pastry War, as its name suggests, was another case of France trying to play Kitchener and doing Clouseau instead. They did everything wrong, starting with their choice of pretext. A French baker claimed the Mexicans had broken up his shop in 1828, in one of their many coups and counter-coups. France waited ten years, then, in 1838, decided that this pastry chef was as crucial to the national interest as Jenkins’ ear, and started playing the tough guy. A French fleet blockaded Mexico’s Atlantic coast and sent troops ashore at Veracruz, the city whose motto should be “Welcome, New Masters!”
Then the British, the real masters of this stuff, took Louis-Phillippe, France’s soi-disant roi, into the headmaster’s office and told him to stop playing the fool. The French invasion force was ordered to get back to the ships immediately. But they couldn’t even do that right. Mexico’s own little Satan, General de Santa Ana, saw a chance to look like a hero at little real risk, and attacked the retreating French.
They weren’t the easy pickin’s he’d expected—none of this debacle can be blamed on the French army or navy—and it cost Santa Ana more than he’d planned. As he was leading his troops against the retreating invaders, his opponents unlimbered a few cannon, one of which blew Santa Ana’s leg to ribbons. After walking all night on his bloody zombie leg, Santa Ana had it amputated and buried with full military honors. He was like that, a tireless, conscience-less, brainless Tasmanian Devil in full dress uniform, and he survived, unfortunately, to “make his country weep” many times over.
The Museum of Interventions has very little to say about Santa Ana. The Pastry War is represented by some French ships, French flags taken in battle, and other souvenirs. This museum is about the foreigners, the aliens, not Mexicans—especially not Mexicans like Santa Ana, whose ferret-like savagery could blur the museum’s whole narrative.
France’s second attempt to make Mexico a colony was much more serious—just as ridiculous as the Pastry War, that is, but on a much larger scale. You probably vaguely remember the name “Maximilian,” and connect it with Mexico, and the U.S. Civil War. You probably have the impression it was some comically ridiculous French plan to take over Mexico while we were too busy shooting Confederates to get all Monroe-Doctrine.
The real story of the 1862 French Intervention in Mexico is even more crude and stupid than that. It was done, like most of the horrors of the mid-nineteenth century, in the name of free markets and democracy. Mexico’s new president, Benito Juarez, who to European usurers was like Castro, Chavez, and Guevara combined, stopped paying the exorbitant rates Britain and France were accustomed to getting on their loans to Mexico. That meant war, and 1862 seemed like a great time to start a nice one-sided colonial war with a debtor nation.
With the Confederacy not only holding its territory but crushing Federal armies, it looked to the Europeans (and the smart money stateside as well) like the U.S. was about to fall apart.
That meant that America’s loan-sharking operations in Latin America were up for grabs. France and Europe conferred like mafia families divvying up fresh turf. France would provide troops; Britain would supply the naval muscle. They would apply as much force as it took to strong-arm the money out of Mexico, then sail home with the loot.
A good, simple plan—until the French, always trying to prove themselves as good at the Victorian colonial game as the real masters, the British, announced they weren’t just going to get the money and run but remain, and make Mexico a French colony.
At this point the British bowed out, sent their ships home, and left the French, aka les amateurs foutus, to learn the hard way that this clumsy, loud aggression would not stand.
It took a while for the French to learn this hard lesson, because, like many colonial armies, they won a lot of victories. Their troops did a lot of marching around Mexico, taking cities, crushing resistance and sending home glowing dispatches. There were plenty of medals to be won by dashing lieutenants, and for Victorian armies that was a very important motive in its own right.
But they weren’t winning the war. Mexico is three times the size of France, and Juarez’s uppity populist government simply fled to the deserts along the U.S. border, which is how Ciudad Juarez got its name. It’s one of the bad jokes of history that a place named after the only unsullied ruler the country ever had was wasted on a city as creepy as Juarez, but that was where he took refuge.
While Juarez waited for the US to finish off the Confederacy in the North, Bazaine’s invading army marched all over Mexico, losing hearts and minds every time they stomped through the peasants’ cornfields. Mexico has a Central Highlands like a certain other country you might remember, and like many of the troops who tromped over Kontum, French troops started to wonder what exactly they were doing ruining the lives of people on the other side of the world. A Mexican/French historian named Jean Meyer has put together a book about French soldiers in Mexico, “Yo El Frances.” Many of them ended up deeply sympathetic to the Mexicans, and a few defected.
By 1864 the invasion was going bad. The Confederacy was clearly going to lose, and when it did the US would reassert its turf rights as mafia boss of Latin America. That meant the French and their collaborator friends had to set up some kind of legitimacy for their colony before the fenetre d’opportunite closed on their necks. (Little Reign of Terror joke there; in the early 1790s the Parisian mob called guillotining “putting your head on the windowsill.”)
The collabo brain trust decided that what Mexico needed was an imported Euro-Emperor. And that’s how poor Maximilian ended up against that ol’ pockmarked wall. Max wasn’t a bad man. He was a decent D-list Austro-Hungarian royal with fine sideburns and a progressive tilt. The Mexican barons thought they were importing a good, cruel Habsburg, while poor dreamy Maximilian imagined himself as the constitutional monarch of a revamped bourgeois Mexico.
Maximilian accepted the job offer in April 1864, just as Sherman was firming up the investment of Atlanta. Those two timelines—Maximilian’s reign and the collapse of the Confederacy—run parallel from this point on. Maximilian ended up outliving the Confederacy by only 26 months.
Maximilian started out with great new ideas for Mexico, but when he introduced them to the ultra-Catholic Creole vampires who’d imported him, they were not amused. Things were going very badly, and nobody was in the mood for progressive talk.
When Lee surrendered in April 1865, the smart colonists started making plans to head back to Europe. With American-supplied weapons, Juarez’s resistance forces started winning. The US asked France—politely but very firmly—to withdraw, and in 1866, the French agreed. French regular troops marched out of Mexico City in February 1867.
Maximilian could have left with them, but by this time he actually considered himself Emperor of Mexico. He issued commands to a tiny group of mostly Austrian diehard loyalists, like Aguirre ordering the spider monkeys around on his jungle raft. He holed up in Queretaro, then tried to run. He was sentenced to death according to a wartime rule he himself had signed that made all rebels subject to the death penalty—a little insurgent irony there. The idea of shooting a king, even a sitcom king like Maximilian, upset Victorian Europe so much that a list of big progressive celebrities like Garibaldi asked the Mexicans to spare him. To their eternal glory, the Mexicans didn’t listen to a word of this nonsense and on June 19 1867 stood Maximilian against a wall and shot him and two of his last remaining cronies dead.
That was such a big deal to Europe that every art student made a painting of it. You can’t beat a firing squad for graphic possibilities. Edouard Manet painted it as a tidy European scene, with a regulation squad of six crisply uniformed white soldiers shooting Maximilian and his two companions.
Manet’s painting puts Maximilian in the center, like Christ on the cross between the two thieves. Manet makes Maximilian very pale but in a huge sombrero—pale to show his blue-blood European background, and the sombrero to show his loyalty to Mexico. After all, Maximilian did die shouting “Viva Mexico,” which must have had the firing squad scratching their heads once their job was done.
On either side of the emperor Manet shows the two Mexicans in white shirts—the better to emphasize their dark brown complexions and to give the European audience a sense of the horror of dying among wogs. Actually, one of the two Mexican officers who died with Maximilian was Miguel Miramon, who was from a pure French family settled in Mexico City, and as pale as the Emperor. And Maximilian wasn’t in the center, no matter how wrong that would feel to a European painter. In fact the execution didn’t look much like Manet’s version at all. There were three firing squads in one long line, each squad assigned one target. And it was Miramon who had the center, with Maximilian off to one side. The men who shot the Emperor were photographed later, and they’re nothing like the tidy European soldiers in Manet’s painting either, but tough, short Indios who look a lot like Juarez himself.
With Maximilian’s death, the tone of the Museum changes, toward victory. The Battle of Puebla, the reason Cinco de Mayo is a holiday, gets a lot of space in the museum—and in the U.S. I expected it’d be big in Mexico City, but everybody there wanted me to know that May fifth is Puebla’s day, not theirs. They were downright fierce about it. One of the people who most wanted me to understand the contemptible insignificance of the Battle of Puebla, and in fact of Puebla as a city, was the woman who was fixing my broken front teeth. It was the low price of restorative dentistry that drew me to Mexico City in the first place. I happened to tell her, as she drilled away, that I was visiting military sites in the city and somehow brought up Puebla and the Cinco de Mayo. She stopped drilling instantly—thank God—and told me almost angrily that Mexican Independence Day, the true holiday, is celebrated on September 27, the date of Hidalgo’s Grito de Dolores, when he roared from the pulpit that it was time for the congregation to take arms against the Spanish. That was the national day, not the May date favored by those people in Puebla. She was still holding that damn drill when she said this, and it seemed to be a big deal, so I did a lot of nodding. You never want to fight with your dentist until the mouth-work is totally, definitely finished.
The city slickers in the D. F. kind of have a point about Puebla, anyway. It was a strange battle, a series of miscommunications more than a great confrontation of armies. The French did everything wrong; the Mexican general, Zaragosa, did everything right; and all it did was delay the French advance by 12 days, from the glorious victory of Cinco de Mayo to the unglorious retreat of diecisiete de Mayo.
There’s that, but there’s also, from what I saw, not a lot of surplus love between Mexico City and Puebla. I guess Dolores, the site of Hidalgo’s grito, is acceptable to the capital because it’s so small and so remote that it’s not a credible rival. Puebla, a highland town not far away—not far enough, anyway—is close enough to need putting in its place.
There’s also the issue of which wars created and sustained Mexico. The capital city chooses to remember Hidalgo, the hero of the revolt against Spain; the people of Puebla, and the Mexican community in the U.S., prefer to celebrate a battle to repel the French. It’s the same difference in emphasis you see in the two big historical museums, the one on the summit of Chapultepec and the Museum of Interventions. Up there atop Chapultepec, Hidalgo is the country’s greatest hero, and the struggle to shake off the Spaniards it the central narrative; out here on the southern edge of town, it’s Mexico’s struggle to keep its independence against endless foreign interventions that matters.
These are two very different stories, with very different tones and attitudes about past and future. If the War of Independence is the central tale, which it seems to be for most successful people in Mexico City, then the war is won. It’s a one-time threat with a happy ending.
If the post-Independence struggle to fight off a never-ending succession of covetous foreigners is the real story, you have much less reason to feel confident. It seems natural that Mexicans who’ve relocated to the U.S., the most dangerous and destructive invader of all, choose to see May fifth, anniversary of a victory over foreign interlopers, as the true Mexican holiday. And it’s no surprise that the upper class of the capital, considering themselves the rightful leaders of an independent Mexico, think of the fight to establish that independence as the key moment.
And in that light, it’s a lot easier to understand why the Chapultepec Museum and the Museum of Interventions treat the original owners of this valley, the Mexicas themselves, so totally differently. Up there on the summit of Chapultepec, shrine of a successful, independent nation, the Mexicas are the subject of the first exhibits, their dress, religion and customs treated with great reverence. That surprised me, because this is a triumphalist museum for the Mestizo/Creole elite of the capital, a militarist museum. But Chapultepec can afford to make the Aztecs good guys of a sort, because the bad guys are the Spanish. The story goes Aztecs/Spanish/Mexicans, a sort of thesis/antithesis/synthesis narrative in which the antithesis is the villain. Hidalgo, the hero of the overall story, is the man who united Mestizo and Indio against the Spanish and successfully synthesized the first Mexicans. In the Museum of Interventions, a very different story is portrayed. The Spanish are part of a gloomy, oddly Irish-seeming tribe of locals, forever threatened by the raids of more dynamic outsiders. After all, the most famous Irish-language version of Irish history was called “The Book of Invasions,” not so different from “The Museum of Interventions.” That’s why this museum gives so little space to the wars against the Spanish, who were, after all, kinfolk of sorts, and so much to the French and Americans.
Of these two truly alien invaders, the French are just the first act, the comic relief. It’s no accident their first try is remembered as The Pastry War. Not that they were bad soldiers—that’s a myth we’ve bought from the Brits, who are better than NFL cornerbacks at remembering their victories and forgetting their defeats at the hands of French armies—but because France never had its heart in the Mexican project.
And if the French are a light pastry dessert on the invasion menu, we all know god damn well what flag is on the main course. Everybody who comes through the museum’s doors knows that it was the Americans who really tore Mexico apart, again and again. And of all our interventions, the most lethal and effective imperial adventure was the 1846 Invasion.
The guards at the museum demand a special solemnity when they show you into the long room devoted to the Battle of Churubusco that took place on the site of the museum. The attendant assigned to this room is a very unusual woman, a small, stern, short-haired disciplinarian. She gestures toward the exhibit like the Ghost of Xmas Future showing Scrooge his headstone. The visitors share her solemnity; they’re much quieter than they are in the exhibits devoted to those goofy French visitors. Those Puebla provincials can have their Cinco de Mayo, their equivocal victory over the irrelevant French. This is Mexico City’s tragedy.
In August 1847, Winfield Scott came up from Veracruz, “Mexico’s Gateway to Invasions,” and arrived at Churubusco with 9,000 veterans. The regular U.S. army of the time was a tiny force by European standards, but a grimly efficient one. The Mexican commanders ordered to defend the convent, Rincon and Anaya, had only 3,000, most of them absolute beginners at war. Given the hopeless odds, the Mexicans fought well, holding off several American charges and killing 140 Yankee soldiers before their cannon barrels melted, their ammunition ran out, and they were overwhelmed.
What happened after the battle was much more interesting than the battle itself. You can see this in the way the Museum treats its Churubusco exhibit. There’s a little table with lights that flash to show which tiny toy soldiers did what during the battle, but that’s not the real focus. The highlight of the room is on the walls, where Anaya, the general whose witticism made for a kind of moral victory, is shown in a dozen portraits, and in the stone tablet engraved with the names of 70 men from the Batalion San Patricio, deserters from the US Army who fought with the Mexicans at Churubusco.
The Saint Patrick’s Battalion is a legend most Irish Americans vaguely recall with discreet pride. Sure, they betrayed the American army but hey, we won anyway, and there’s something touching about the way the Irish instinct for a losing cause triumphed over the chance to…well, triumph. Tom Berenger, that meathead, made a movie about it, which I haven’t seen and don’t plan to see.
What people don’t realize is what it meant to be a Catholic peasant in 1847. First-worlders these days think of the poor nations as fecund—too fecund, in fact. It wasn’t like that in 1847. In the nineteenth century, poor children died at a much higher rate than rich ones, so the poor, excluded peoples of the world seemed to be dying out. Mexico was a classic example of the demographics of these “dying peoples.” Mexico, which stretched from the Oregon border to Guatemala, had a population of seven million people. Most of Mexico was empty, and the few populated areas were continually hit by civil wars, famine and epidemics. The country had been very effectively stripped of easily recoverable precious metals by the Spaniards, who had also done an excellent job of disemboweling the local aboriginal cultures. Mexico was a classic Victorian “dying nation,” and the thriving Anglos, who fully expected to occupy the entire planet in a few generations, didn’t bother to hide their delight at the demise of such indolent Papists. To be a Mexican facing the Yankee hordes was very much like being a human in the years after Skynet decided it didn’t like people in “The Terminator.”
If there was one group of Catholic peasants who would not only have understood how Mexico felt, but had themselves experienced an even more horrific prospect of extinction, it was the Irish Catholic peasantry. If you want to stump your pedant friends, ask them how many people lived in Ireland in 1845. They’ll never guess anything like the real figure: nine million people. Ireland in 1845 was like Java now, a densely populated but largely rural island. For hundreds of years, the population ratio between the two islands, Britain and Ireland, held steady at 3:1. Then the Famine—THE Famine as opposed to all the other famines—hit, and the Irish peasantry was wiped out. By the end of the nineteenth century, Ireland’s population was only four million, less than half the 1845 figure, while Britain’s had increased to 35 million. This ratio of 9:1 has held ever since. This is one of the greatest demographic anomalies in the history of Europe. One might almost consider it to have been intentional. That’s because it was, and was understood to be so at the time, by both perpetrators and victims. The civil servant assigned to organize famine relief, Sir Charles Trevelyan, wrote that the famine was to be understood as an “effective mechanism for reducing surplus population” and a “judgment of God” on the “selfish, perverse, and turbulent” Irish. You couldn’t ask for a finer expression of the intersection of free-market savagery reinforcing ancient ethnic and sectarian hatred. And luckily for Britain and the free market, Trevelyan was in a perfect position to see that no aid reached those Papist vermin.
The Great Famine is usually imagined as having struck Ireland, stripping it of all foodstuffs. Not at all. The island continued to produce huge surpluses of grain while a million surplus peasants died. This famine was much more like the one Stalin inflicted on another “selfish and turbulent” peasantry—the Ukranian “kulaks” who were potential irridentists. In both cases, peasants were allowed only tiny plots for their own support, while alien collectives controlled virtually all the arable land. Stalin called them “kolkhozes,” and Trevelyan’s friends called them “estates,” but they worked equally well at extirpating troublesome demographic groups. In both cases huge quantities of grain were exported while the local population went virtually extinct—and, in both cases, informed opinion throughout the civilized world looked on with approval at this latest manifestation of progress.
Imagine stumbling half-dead out of that nightmare, courtesy of ethnic hatred and the free market, and into the U.S., enlisting in an army entirely officered by Anglo-Saxon Protestants who hate your kind, and finding yourself participating in the invasion of a rural, Catholic nation which is already under-populated and is now being absorbed, digested, by the same civilization machine that just ate your homeland.
It really was the end of the world for those men. No one had any idea that the demographic trend would change in the second half of the next century, when cheap antibiotics and Cold War rivalry meant that the children of formerly “dying” nations would be kept more or less alive. As far as informed opinion in London and Boston knew in 1847, the Irish and the Mexicans were leaving the world together, and the world would be a more efficient, industrious place when they were gone.
One of the saddest things about this planet is that most of the time, people from groups selected for extinction accept, even endorse, their fate. That was the case in Ireland in 1847. English travelers approvingly quoted walking skeletons as saying that all they asked was to be allowed a decent burial. It’s exceptional when a member of a dying race, whatever that race happens to be, realizes that what’s going on is not actually justified.
In this sense, John Riley, the man who created the San Patricio Brigade, was an exceptional man. He was born in Galway, part of the Irish-speaking peasantry that would become extinct during the Famine. He was enlisted in a U.S. infantry unit before war was officially declared on Mexico, a technicality that would save his life after the battle for the convent.
Life in the U.S. Army for an Irish Catholic was designed to enrage, then break, Papist recruits. Sect was everything in the Victorian world, as it is now in most of the Muslim countries. To think of sect as “a matter of religion” is a huge mistake; it was family, honor, language, land—everything that matters. And the U.S. Army, the armed wing of the Scots-Irish ascendancy on the west bank of the Atlantic, had even less finesse than its older cousins on the other side of the pond when it came to humiliating members of the alien sect. There were no Catholic chaplains. All enlisted men were required to visit Protestant preachers, who took special delight in telling those from the dying race that every member of their sect was doomed in this world and the next.
At some point, as the U.S. Army prepared to invade the dying Papist people to the south, Riley made the connection and decided he was fighting for the wrong side—fighting for the machines, if you think of the Terminator analogy. And the Anglos were like machines at that time, with a special affinity for non-living things, merciless and unstoppable.
Riley defected and made his way to the Mexican authorities, such as they were. They had the sense to put him in charge of recruiting other Papist defectors. He was surprisingly good at it; by the time the Anglo machine had ground through Monterrey, Riley had something like 700 men in his unit. The Mexicans called them “los Colorados” for their red hair. But they weren’t all gingers; there were German Catholics as well, and a number of African-American defectors who got sick of fighting for people who despised them.
The San Patricios were good artillerists and operated as an almost independent force, using infantry and artillery in close coordination. Their best moment came at Buena Vista, when they were placed on high ground and, on their own, isolated, bombarded, and then assaulted an American artillery unit, bayoneting the surviving crews and carrying back their pieces. U.S. cavalry assigned to overrun their position was decimated, and they covered the retreat of the Mexican Army virtually on their own.
It was a tactical victory that meant nothing in the strategic picture, which was an unstoppable American advance toward the capital. The bulk of the San Patricios were assigned to the suicidal defense of the convent of Churubusco, an easily surrounded fortress on flat plains. When it fell, as it inevitably would, Mexican officers and men might expect to be allowed to surrender (though some American units, especially the vicious Texans, were unreliable in accepting surrender). The San Patricios knew they would not be accepted as P.O.W.s. They were officially traitors, to be hanged on the battlefield. That wasn’t even a matter of prejudice; that was simple, clear law of war, and applied, at least in theory, to defectors of any sect.
Anaya was a good commander, who tried to extend the defense beyond the death-trap of the convent walls by digging trenches out from the Coyoacan Road, with a strongpoint on the road itself. He put the San Patricios, with four cannon, right there in the center, astride the road to the convent.
The Americans attacked the strongpoint, charging into the San Patricios’ cannon, and were blasted back again and again, until the militia in the trenches at either side of the position pleaded lack of ammunition and started streaming back to the convent. The San Patricios stayed—they had ammunition, whether that was because (as Mexican sources claimed later) the only available rounds only fit in the San Patricios’ pieces or because they knew they were fighting to the death. Sometime later in the afternoon, after realizing that the trenches supporting them were empty, they dragged their cannon back the half-kilometer to the convent.
Now came the droll portion of the day’s entertainment, as the San Patricios used their last hours to carry out a very direct form of class warfare. They knew what American officers looked like, and they killed as many of them as they could—with grapeshot, with musket fire, with shot. American casualties were over 1,000, the highest of any battle in the war, and officers made up a disproportionate number of the dead.
The Mexican militia, having done more than amateur soldiers could be expected, was ready to surrender after a few hours in the convent, but there was a glitch, in that everyone who attempted to raise a white flag over the convent kept getting shot dead by the San Patricios, who wanted to prolong their lives a few more minutes, and, most of all, take some of their hated superior officers with them before putting their own heads in the noose. The militia decided to fight on, either re-inspired or just more scared of the zombie Colorados than the gringos outside. Only after vicious bayonet duels inside the walls did Anaya order a surrender.
The Americans were not calm, by all accounts. They weren’t used to casualties on the scale they suffered at Churubusco, and they held the defectors responsible. The sectarian implications are clear in one American vet’s memory of the aftermath: American soldiers, he said, “vented their Saxon expletives on the lovely sons of Saint Patrick.” There weren’t all that many of these sons left, after the battle. Thirty-five San Patricios were killed in the fighting, with only 85 captured. Everyone expected them to be swinging from a handy local tree within minutes of the surrender.
But in one of the many humorous sidelights on the American Invasion, these representatives of a dying race weren’t going to be permitted to die just yet. They had inflicted enough damage that some of them were reserved for a show hanging, part of a choreographed triumphal entry into the Mexican capital.
Some, including Riley, were spared on technicalities; some were considered only worthy of branding on the face. That left 30 men to be hanged at the moment of maximum dramatic impact, and these 30 were treated like valuable theatrical props—or Aztec captives, carefully preserved until the moment of sacrifice. Scott put them in the care of Colonel William Harney, to be guarded at all costs until that moment.
Harney is one of those wild Yankees, those insane Victorians, who, like Ahab, hath their humanities. There’s something appealing about the bloody bastard, and he was capable of transcending local prejudice in an impressive way—on other days, in other places. In his later career on the Plains, Harney was known for his decency to the Indians even when it got him into trouble with the army.
But Harney was not in a forgiving mood in 1847. To be honest, I doubt I would’ve been either, if I’d seen my friends blasted with grapeshot by ungrateful traitors. In fact, Harney’s toughest job was to keep these 30 Papist deserters alive until the exact moment when the American flag was raised over the citadel of Chapultepec, the last fortress guarding the capital. That was Scott’s grand theatrical plan. At the moment Chapultepec fell, the city would belong to the Yankees, and at the very moment it changed hands—just as the flag went up—the Irishmen would go down, as it were, all hanged at exactly the perfect moment. You have to admit, the man had a director’s touch, not to mention the confidence of Babe Ruth, planning his mass hanging with perfect assurance that the battle would go as planned.
It did. At about 9:30 on the morning of September 13, 1847, two weeks after they were captured at Churubusco, the defectors were lined up, trussed and standing on carts, at the base of the steep stone “Hill of Grasshoppers,” Chapultepec. This was the last citadel on the western edge of the city. When it fell, the city would be doomed. Harney was diligent nonetheless. Scott had ordered him to hang 30 men at Chapultepec, but one of his lieutenants told him that there was a problem. One of the 30, Francis O’Connor, had been wounded at Churubusco and American Army surgeons had just amputated both his legs in order to keep him alive, as ordered, until he could do his part in the grand pageant. Harney wasn’t interested in Mr. O’Connor’s medical problems. His reaction is a classic of military comedy: “Bring the goddamn son of a bitch out here! My order was to hang 30 and by God I’ll hang 30!” (The army was the one place where gentlemen were supposed, nay expected, to swear in that more courteous era.)
The orderlies hoisted O’Connor, bleeding stumps and all, into position as the squad waited at the base of the hill for the Mexican flag to go down. But something remarkable happened, a counter-sacrifice, a gesture the Aztecs would have understood in their bones. And that gesture out-echoed the American mass hanging, in the memory of Mexico, to this day, turning the fall of Chapultepec into a moral victory, of the Catholic/Shia variety that Anglos still seem to have a hard time understanding. What happened was simple: Juan Escutia, a romantic teenage cadet from the Mexican military academy taking part in the last-ditch defense of the summit, saw that the fall of Chapultepec was inevitable, wrapped the Mexican flag around himself and jumped off the cliff. A very papist thing to do; it’s no accident that “wrap the green flag round me” is an ironic tag for surplus martyrdom in Irish slang. Five of his friends—Juan de la Barrera, Francisco Marquez, Agustin Melgar, Fernando Montes de Oca, and Vicente Suarez, all in their teens, jumped off the vertical slopes of Chapultepec with him rather than be captured by the invaders.
Harney, fuming at being left to hang prisoners rather than assault the citadel, probably had no idea that this counter-sacrifice had neutralized the magical effect of the mass hanging in his charge. Not that he would have hesitated even if he had known. Harney had no problem whatsoever hanging the sons-of-bitches assigned to his care. He was just waiting for the stars and stripes to be raised on the summit. He saw it starting to go up and made sure all was ready-- a quick head count, no doubt making sure that Francis O’Connor, the malingering double amputee, was in place, dripping onto the floor of the cart assigned to him. Some would say they were premature, and hanged the wrong Frank O’Connor, but Harney, ignorant of what the mama’s boy of Irish literature would do generations later, settled happily for the one at hand. As Donald Rumsfeld might have said, you don’t hang the ideal Frank O’Connor, you hang the Frank O’Connor you’ve got.
The six cadets who jumped from the summit now lay at the base, unnoticed by the gringos, but already beginning to radiate a necrophiliac power very familiar to all the dead of the Valley of Mexico. The 30 San Patricios stood on their carts, with the apathy you see in those who know they’re going to die in the next few minutes. At about 9:30 on the morning of September 13, as the victors’ flag went up, Harney gave the sign and the drovers whacked the cart horses. The 30 men were now standing in mid-air. (O’Connor must have made a strange sight, a legless trunk hanging there.)
Magical deaths, magical geography. All very familiar stuff, especially to the original landlord of Churubusco, Huitzilpochtli. He would have understood both sacrifices, that of the six Niños Heroes and Scott’s mass execution—but he’d have grasped instantly that the Niños’ sacrifice would be the stronger. In the end, both were successfully claimed by the tribe which seemed to have been defeated. The Niños Heroes are celebrated in a huge fountain at the base of Chapultepec, a site of picnic pilgrimages for Mexico City families every day. And the 30 San Patricios are claimed too by their papist kin among the ex-dying races. The Museum of Defeats lists every one of their names on a carved stone plaque, and there’s even a Mexican bagpipe band in their name—the ultimate sacrifice, from a people with a sensitive ear.