- Wars of Latin America, 1899-1941
From the turn of the twentieth century to 1941 Latin America experienced a large number of international and internal wars ranging from Cuba to Mexico, Central America, Colombia, the backlands of the Amazon, and the Gran Chaco. While most have been adequately analyzed in the political and social sense, the actual combat, problems of logistics, military technology, change of tactics, available manpower, problems of mobility, the challenge of forbidding terrain, and the conduct of officers and men have often been ignored or slighted. This work rectifies that neglect and emphasizes the evolution of warfare from traditional nineteenth century conflicts such as the War of the Thousand Days in Colombia (1899-1902) to the utilization of twentieth-century weaponry and logistical support in the Chaco War (1932-1935) and Peru's rapid defeat of Ecuador in 1941.
With its greater firepower and range, the introduction of the Mauser rifle revolutionized warfare in Latin America. However, its greater expenditure of ammunition also imposed a heavier economic burden—so much so that operations were often predicated on available cartridges and the cost of their purchase and importation. Machine guns and artillery were seen in small numbers, but their cost was even more prohibitive. Even so, by the last decade of the era some Latin American countries utilized machine guns, artillery, radio, and even some armor and air power in their wars.
Not until the 1930s, particularly in the Chaco War between Paraguay and Bolivia, was motorized transport significant in the mobilization and deployment of troops. Armies still utilized nineteenth century technology— railroads, river steamboats, and the telegraph— for the movement of troops and for communications. The Mexican Revolution was often a railroad war, but in the vast expanses of northern Mexico cavalry was important. In the far reaches of the Upper Amazon, steam power was essential for the control of rivers as well as for the transport of troops. Rarely could soldiers in that terrible environment find or create accessible land access to mount effective campaigns.
New weaponry and technology presented problems for commanders. Some responded well; others simply did not have the expertise to meld the old and new effectively. Cost of training, traditional civil-military structure, societal differences—all posed obstacles in the creation of an effective command structure. Foreign military missions did not guarantee significant improvement in the officer corps. Such was the case in Bolivia where a competent long-term German mission could do nothing in face of ingrained weaknesses in the Bolivian army. And on the other side in the Chaco War, General José Félix Estigarribia's attachment to French doctrine inhibited effective pursuit after the smashing [End Page 592] Paraguayan victories won by the aggressive tactics of medium level officers and a very effective infantry.
The greatest attention is rightly paid to the wars of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1930). Of all the commanders in this revolutionary period, the author credits General Alvaro Obregón as the only one who had a national vision of the military aspect of the Revolution (as opposed to Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata whom the author terms provincial warlords). Obregón became a master of old technology (the railroads) as well as the new. Indeed, he is presented as the most competent Latin American army commander of the early twentieth century.
This is well-written, well-researched, judicious work, and is dominated by a cold-eyed realism that all too often is missing from the treatment of these wars by nationalistic historians. Provocative interpretations abound and many will undoubtedly be hotly debated. In any case, however, it cannot be neglected in any future discussion of warfare in Latin America. As a welcome bonus, maps aid the reader in understanding the course of these wars.