The Mexican War, by Otis A Singletary
It is fascinating, at least a little bit, that this book markets itself as part of a series about the Chicago History of American Civilization. And while I am still not completely sure about what makes the Chicago school of history significant, this book does offer a biting and frequently pointed discussion of the Mexican-American war in a way that puts it in the context of European (and American) thinking about war as well as the larger relationship between war and society in the United States and Mexico. I happen to enjoy these discussions of why it is that Americans are so nearly always unprepared at the start of wars and how it is that the regular-volunteer divide is such a powerful one in American history and military culture. Whether or not the reader is interested in the connection between war and politics as well as war and diplomacy will determine whether or not this book is as enjoyable to you as it is to me. If political ambition is a subject you find intriguing and the tragic relationship of peasants and officers in the Mexican army with immense mutual hostility is a subject that moves you in any way, there is much to appreciate here.
This book is a bit more than 150 pages and it is topically organized. The book begins with a prologue that sets the context for the Mexican-American War and its results for the United States in increased territory as well as the assimilation of new peoples and the souring of relations with America’s southern neighbor. After that the author looks at the coming of the war and how both sides were rather ferocious about starting it (1). This leads to a discussion of Taylor’s successful leading of the invasion of Northern Mexico to secure Texas (2). There is a discussion of the thrust to the Pacific with Kearney’s column, and the discussion of the troubled interservice relationships between army and navy in California (3). After that the author looks at the successful invasion of the heartland of Mexico that culminated in the conquest of Mexico’s capital (4). Later chapters then deal with the troubled relationship between politicians and generals over electoral politics as it worked in the American political tradition (5). The author then looks at the hidden wars that existed between different aspects of the armies, such as between regulars and volunteers and between the peasants and elites of Mexico’s doomed armies (6). The book then ends with a discussion of the diplomacy of war (7), after which there are important dates, suggested readings, acknowledgements, and an index.
When reading a book like this, the information itself about the war is only the first of many layers of enjoyment that a reader can find. For one, the author is witty and discusses the history of the Mexican-American War with a certain degree of humanity as well as good-natured humor. He points out that the conflict has largely gone down the memory hole rather than becoming a national epic because it was an aggressive war in which there may be a bit of guilt about how it was fought. The author also is very shrewd in connecting the Mexican-American war to larger trends about how it is that presidents are elected as successful war leaders who then retire from active duty to lead as civilians, how the war itself and how it was prosecuted fit many of the trends of American wars like being unprepared, using logistical superiority to win, and finding that people are willing to support a war only as long as it is going well, after which the side that started the war gets punished electorally. These are all trends we will notice in later American wars, so it is interesting to see them here as well.