Wednesday, November 28, 2007


Now that the presidential election is actually, sort-of, in a way, beginning for real now (primaries begin in a few weeks), I think we'll hear even more use of quagmire in the news. Popular opinion seems to be in agreement that the war in Iraq is something less than a brilliant success. Being historically minded, I wonder where in the spectrum of military operations this conflict will come to rest. I don't think it's a WWII, the now uniformly admired "Good War" (if such a term is even applicable for such a thing). I don't think it is even a Spanish-American War (Add two cups Manifest Destiny, one cup Declining Old World Monarchy, and dash of International Incident; cook over fire of Yellow Journalism. Serves one regiment of Rough Riders). But does it hit the bottom of the barrel?

I don't think so. Because the bottom is so very, very low. The biggest, most pointless disaster of a war, for my money, is the War of the Triple Alliance. Never heard of it?

In 1864, Paraguay managed to get into a war against Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina. Take a moment and consult your atlas; Paraguay started the war almost surrounded. The only neighbor it wasn't at war with was Bolivia, which lay on the far side of the region known as the Gran Chaco, which is somewhat desolate even today.

It was not as bad as it sounds, though. At the time, Paraguay's army and navy outnumbered the combined totals of the Triple Alliance. But over the course of the next 6 years, Paraguay was beaten like few nations ever are. The navy was routed at the Battle of Riachuelo, losing control of the River Plate which was the only connection to the outside world, and gave the Triple Alliance free access to the most populated sections of Paraguay.

Records are incomplete, and there is great disagreement on the actual casualties. The Paraguayan people were very devoted to their president, and the war. So they "stayed the course" like no one else has before or since. One conservative estimate says that of a pre-war population of more than half a million, only 221,000 were left alive. Only about 28,000 men survived. This was beyond decimation - this was 9 times as bad as decimation. Demographically, the nation would not recover for generations. Meanwhile, even the victors were in difficult straits, with massive debt, significant losses of their own, and internecine squabbles over spoils and territory.

I find this war instructive for a number of reasons. First, it helps us to understand just how bad war can be, which is something no one should ever forget. Second, it serves as an anchor for one end of the spectrum of military failures and successes. And lastly, it illustrates what can happen when a nation "throws good money after bad" and continues a conflict beyond the point of reasonable hope.

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