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Hispanic American Historical Review 83.4 (2003) 774-775
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A Short, Offhand, Killing Affair: Soldiers and Social Conflict during the Mexican-American War . By Paul Foos. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. Photographs. Illustrations. Map. Tables. Notes. Bibliography. Index. 223 pp. Cloth, $49.95. Paper, $18.95.
Paul Foos's Short, Offhand, Killing Affair explores American social conflict against the backdrop of the Mexican-American War. Foos directs his attention to American enlisted soldiers, employing "alternative perspectives" gleaned from their experiences and words to shed light on the broader issues of Jacksonian politics and patronage, Herrenvolk democracy, racial relations, and emergent capitalism (p. 4). In doing so, Foos aims to reassert the often overlooked working-class viewpoints of the common soldier. He finds that many soldiers believed themselves cheated by recruiters' and politicians' hollow promises of land, riches, and power to be had in the newly won territories. They chafed under what they considered the arbitrary and unjust imposition of military discipline and often lashed out against the army and against Mexican civilians. According to Foos, the "war of 1846-48 provided Americans with a venue to confront their own internal conflicts as they fought a war . . . in the name of white, Anglo-Saxon supremacy" (p. 4).
The rank and file of the army's regular and volunteer regiments were as varied in their motives for enlistment as they were in their forms of service. Many, as Foos [End Page 774] points out, enlisted out of hope for land and the political or economic opportunities that might be carved out of Mexico's conquered provinces. Others signed on for adventure or for revenge against Mexico. Still others, it seems, may have been coerced to resolve economic difficulties or to avoid jail. Their varied motives notwithstanding, they shared the belief that they had not surrendered their individual rights as men or citizens and that they would be treated with individual dignity.
The picture that emerges in A Short, Offhand, Killing Affair is of a discontented and put-upon soldiery—cheated, abused, and disillusioned at every turn. Instead of glory and gain, the citizen-soldier discovered that he was little more than an armed and uniformed wage laborer. Despite recruiters' and politicians' invocations of the volunteer ethic, the soldier had become a cipher whose independent status and identity were "subsumed to bourgeois values" and who had "lost the romantic luster of [the] freebooter," profiting by his martial exertions (p. 174). Rather than accept the broken promises of Manifest Destiny, many soldiers exacted their own wages through theft and the atrocities they visited upon Mexican citizens.
This book is well researched, and the author's arguments are frequently compelling. It helps fill an important niche between key works like James M. McCaffrey's Army of Manifest Destiny: The American Soldier in the Mexican War, 1846-1848 (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1992) and Richard Bruce Winders's Mr. Polk's Army: The American Military Experience in the Mexican War (College Station: Texas A&M Univ. Press, 1997). The ambitious scope and breadth, however, coupled with its short length (178 pages of text) sometimes make for a turgid read. Because of this, readers unfamiliar with some of the finer details of Manifest Destiny, the Mexican-American War, or the nineteenth-century U.S. Army, or those looking for a more accessible work, may have a difficult time with this book.
Mount Union College