FRESNO, CA — Name a country that lost at least two thirds of its male population fighting three countries at once, and nearly managed to beat all three before being ground down and damn near wiped out. Second clue: this happened during the second-bloodiest war ever fought in the Western Hemisphere.
Whatever country you nominated, I bet it wasn’t Paraguay during the War of the Triple Alliance, 1864-1870. To most war buffs the War of the Triple Alliance rates a big shrug, and Paraguay is more like a punchline than a country, a tiny landlocked South American sweatbox full of Nazi escapees creaking around cursing arthritis and the T-34. Paraguay is like a country by Mel Brooks.
But Paraguay is the correct answer, and I’m here to give the place its long overdue due. By the way, if you’re wondering what the first-bloodiest war in the Americas was, shame on you! Blue and Gray ring any bells? Gettysburg? America’s still got #1 all locked up, thanks to the Civil War, just possibly the greatest war ever. More than 600,000 dead, and most of them soldiers who died honorably, in open battle. Until you’ve been studying real war for a few years, you don’t realize how rare that kind of high, clean body count is. Like I’ve said before, most conflict is massacre and counter-massacre. Battles are rare.
And that reminds me, I have to quibble with these rankings, even though I feel dirty saying anything that could lower the ranking of our Civil War. What worries me is nobody seems to count the Spanish-vs-Aztec or Spanish-vs-Inca wars in the rankings. Nobody’s very sure how many people died in Mexico, but the simplest answer is “Most of ’em,” and since the Inca have been fighting the Spanish for 500 years at last count, they deserve an entry in the numbers game too.
But let’s say we rule out those conquistador wars, and stick to more standard nation-vs-nation fights; you still have to wonder why this amazing War of the Triple Alliance doesn’t get any publicity. Basically the answer is because the whole thing is a downer. The countries that fought it are downers: Who wants to think about Argentina if they don’t have to? And Uruguay, I had to do a report on Uruguay in fifth grade, picked it because nobody else was going to, started out rooting for it as El Underdog, but by the end I decided it deserved to be just Uruguay. I mean, being a suburb of Argentina, the East St. Louis to Buenos Aires—what could be more pathetic? If only I’d picked the other Guay! Then I’d have changed my whole take on the continent a lot sooner.
Then there’s the fact that it was a real stupid war. One of the best accounts of the whole thing is titled “El Guerro el Mas Stupido.” Which is why I’m not going to waste much time on how it got started. The official reason is that Brazil and Argentina were messing with Uruguayan politics and when the Uruguayan minority party, the Blancos, asked their Paraguay comrades upriver for help, and Paraguay was too macho to say no. The real reason it got started is a lot simpler: because 19th-century nations pumped more testosterone than all the steroid casualties at your gym put together, and when dudes like that spent money on cute Zouave uniforms and horses (cavalry was incredibly expensive) and flags, they wanted their money’s worth. 19th-century war junkies—and that was every man who could read in those better days—weren’t as lame as us 21st-century. taxpayers who don’t even demand that SAC vaporize Tehran just so we can see that those H-bombs we paid for actually work. Your average Victorian newspaper junkie wanted flowery detailed battle reports about their friends and relatives getting filled full of glorious grapeshot. And plenty of illustrations of hussars being shot out of the saddle. It’s the same answer as the old joke about why dogs lick their own balls: “Because they can.”