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“Memory” has become a major theme in academics of late. Champions of such studies argue that the ways in which states and nations remember and utilize the pivotal episodes of their past reveal much about their culture. The study of memory requires skill, for historians must be comfortable not only with the events being remembered but must also consider how shifting interpretations correlate with developments in the nation doing the remembering. They must also have a feel for the varied places in which memory is recorded, such as literature, historiography, art, film, drama, music, and legislation. Michael Scott Van Wagenen accepts an additional challenge by attempting to survey evolving memories of a war in two very different countries over the course of a century and a half.
Van Wagenen’s chapters proceed chronologically, alternating between the United States and Mexico. His study is impressively eclectic. In the United States, he looks at historiography, iconography, the fate of soldiers’ remains, the fate of Santa Anna’s prosthetic leg, [End Page 248] the naming of towns, veterans clubs, pension struggles, monument building, battlefield parks, Hollywood movies, the Chicano movement, advertising, and television documentaries. He finds that the key contrast between the way the conflict has been remembered in the United States and in Mexico is that the memorializing of the war in the United States is diffuse and diverse, the province of private groups rather than a function of the state. Citizens have used the memory of the war for a variety of purposes, from promoting white supremacy to crusading for minority rights.
In Mexico, the story is quite different. According to Van Wagenen, the Mexican state early on commandeered the memory of the war for its own ends. Mexico, which suffered a humiliating defeat, has ironically chosen to keep alive the memory of the conflict to a far greater degree than its victorious neighbor. Commemorations of the war have tended to focus on the climactic battle of Chapultepec and the defense of the capital by cadets at the military academy—especially the famed “Boy Heroes.” The tale of the six young men who sacrificed their lives for the fatherland—including one who allegedly wrapped himself in the Mexican flag and leapt to his death—quickly became a fixture in Mexican patriotic mythology. The myth has served the objectives of several regimes. Porfirio Díaz found it helpful in boosting support for the military academy, while postrevolutionary governments have marketed the story to schoolchildren in hopes of instilling in them an attitude of unquestioning obedience to the state. The feverish rhetoric that surrounded the supposed excavation of the Boy Heroes’ remains in 1947 foreshadowed the still-more-heated rhetoric surrounding the supposed excavation of the remains of the Aztec emperor Cuauhtémoc two years later. The apparent desperation with which the authoritarian state of Mexico promoted nationalist myths is striking, as is the shrillness of their popular reception.
The book has some weaknesses, some of which no doubt go with the territory. In the absence of detailed survey data, it is difficult to know what items had a genuine impact on the culture and which were barely noticed. Van Wagenen unearths a number of items that [End Page 249] are so obscure that one must question their inclusion, such as the 1998 movie One Man’s Hero, which seems to have passed through this world largely unseen. He spends an inordinate amount of ink recounting the memory of the Mormon Battalion, an infantry march from Missouri to California in 1846 which had no perceptible impact on the course of the war. And one cannot help wishing that he had trimmed some of the detail generally, for the minutiae of things like, say, pension fights can quickly wear a reader down.
Despite such quibbles, Van Wagenen’s book is a thoroughly researched and insightful contribution to the literature on a war which, if not exactly “forgotten,” is scandalously underappreciated.