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a gallant little army

23 july 2008

Timothy D. Johnson's Gallant Little Army is a neatly circumscribed, well-told narrative of the Mexico City campaign. In 1847, U.S. forces led by General Winfield Scott landed at Veracruz, marched inland, and occupied the Mexican capital after a brief but fierce series of battles. Johnson, a biographer of Scott, gives him glowing marks for military strategy and civilian policy, defending him against all critics. This bias makes A Gallant Little Army somewhat less than the definitive objective study of the campaign that it aims to be. On the other hand, one must conclude that Scott did a lot of things right. His army moved swiftly to attain its military and diplomatic objectives. Despite its obvious unpopularity among the locals, Scott's army was not bogged down in guerrilla fighting. They achieved their objective, paid for what they commandeered, and forced the signing of a peace treaty. You cannot ask for better military service, though you might have asked for a nobler motive.

Aside from commending Scott's pacification of the Mexican populace, Johnson isn't interested in the big-picture politics of the U.S.-Mexican War. A Gallant Little Army is a study of operations. This is a military history of an invading army skating through a culture that it neither needs nor wants to understand. Indeed, some norteamericano observers assumed that the Mexican culture would dwindle much as so many Native North American cultures had in the aftermath of Anglo occupation. U.S. officers and men were not much interested in doing ethnographies of a way of life they thought would soon cease to exist.

But Johnson is explicit about his premises, and one should not demand of a book that it be something else than it sets out to be. A Gallant Little Army succeeds as pure military narrative. One could have wished for more and better maps (the University Press of Kansas should have invested in an illustrator to draw some maps expressly for this volume). But Johnson conveys the feel of mid-19th-century combat well. And he conveys as well the improbability of Scott's achievement. A relatively small army, vastly outnumbered not just by its opponent but by the surrounding population, fought its way across hostile territory, abandoning its supply line, and ultimately caused a government to evacuate their capital city.

One has to marvel at Scott's technical achievement. In fact, Johnson's history inspires reflective comparison to other American military ventures, especially the current occupation of Iraq. When John McCain blithely allowed as how a century of American military presence in Iraq would be OK with him, he had in mind the situation in Korea, where a small and largely welcome American force has protected an ally from an enemy for well over half a century. But reading A Gallant Little Army might raise the kinds of larger questions that history poses for the present. American forces really have been in Mexico for much more than a century now, including McCain's home state of Arizona, won from the Mexican government by Scott's campaign. The relatively simple feat of seizing an enemy capital has led to 160 years of ferociously complicated, mutually interdependent histories.

In dismembering Mexico, Americans were neither occupying a tabula rasa nor executing a surgically precise regime change. They became enmeshed in another culture, with all the benefits and tragedies that such enmeshing brings. Woe to the victor who thinks that, like a board game, a war goes back into its box once the castle is captured.

Johnson, Timothy D. A Gallant Little Army: The Mexico City campaign. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2007.