- The Dead March: A History of the Mexican-American War by Peter Guardino
This important book delves into the social history of the U.S.-Mexican War from the perspectives of both participants. The "social" in this history concentrates mostly on the two militaries, which each consisted of regular and volunteer forces of starkly different character. Through a detailed and nuanced look at these forces, Guardino concludes that, in all but material terms, the sides were surprisingly evenly matched and fought with comparable fervor. This leads Guardino to his main thesis, which refutes the notion that Mexico suffered a lopsided defeat due to its insufficiently evolved nationhood. To the contrary, Mexicans rose bravely and patriotically to defend their invaded nation. According to Guardino, historians have understated Mexico's national cohesion while overstating that of the United States. Mexico's lack of national sentiment did not seal its fate, writes Guardino; Mexico was undone by its poverty.
Guardino's research is impressive, his writing masterful, and his central thesis provocative without being entirely convincing. While his book is a useful corrective to any tendency to laud the United States and belittle Mexico, the argument is sometimes undercut by Guardino's own evidence. For instance, Guardino tries valiantly to explain away two infamous episodes that are often cited as evidence of Mexicans' inchoate nationalism. In December 1845, with the war crisis fast unfolding, General Mariano Paredes used his forces to overthrow the Mexican president rather than to oppose a potential U.S. invasion, possibly dealing a fatal blow to the Mexican war effort in the north. And in February 1847, some National Guard units in Mexico were ordered to counter the American invasion from the east, but instead launched a rebellion aimed, once again, at overthrowing the government. While Guardino's account of these and other events is sophisticated, nuanced, and fascinating, it nonetheless seems clear that the protagonists were wealthy conservatives more determined to [End Page 116] defend their wealth and privilege than their nation, to the nation's peril.
Guardino may also be guilty of beating up straw men. It seems reasonable to suggest that most historians of the war are not as fixated on a single explanation for Mexico's defeat—lack of nationalism—as Guardino charges, but rather see multiple causes at work. Few would disagree that Mexico's poverty was a major factor, since it was unable to supply its troops with adequate weapons, clothing, or, most importantly, food. Mexico's poverty was both a cause and effect of its political instability. Guardino notes that the United States also suffered from class and ethnic tensions, regionalism, ineffective government, and heated political conflict, but he also notes that the United States managed to channel its conflicts through reasonably stable institutions, while in Mexico political disputes were played out in coups, countercoups, and civil wars. This chronic instability took a toll on the military, where advancement had much to do with factionalism and cronyism and where officers were sometimes unwilling to cooperate with political rivals. While it would be folly to overstate the unity of the United States, it is surely an exaggeration to say, as Guardino does, that "the U.S. nation-state was hardly more unified and stable than Mexico" (p. 364).
Still, it would be wrong to dismiss or ignore Guardino's argument. Guardino provides harrowing descriptions of the abuses suffered by Mexico's poor, especially those drafted into the regular army, and the hazards they faced with little hope of reward. This, he notes, makes it all the more remarkable that so many Mexicans from all regions and social strata sacrificed so much and risked everything to fight the invaders. This is a crucial point, and one that will surely inform future discussion of the war. [End Page 117]
TIMOTHY HENDERSON teaches Latin American history at Auburn University at Montgomery. His books include A Glorious Defeat: Mexico and its War with the United States (2007).