If you’re good with numbers, you may be wondering how a war fought between fairly small forces like these could come close to the US Civil War in total death toll. The answer’s simple: the war started out semi-clean, but it didn’t stay that way, and most of the dead were Paraguayan civvies.
Paraguay’s men fought like jaguars while they lasted, and when they were all dead, Paraguay’s women and children fought on. Until they were dead, too. Total war doesn’t always start out no-mercy, kill-em-all; but when you’re fighting a small, tough country that just won’t give up, sooner or later you’re either going to either give up or resort to massacre.
That’s what Sherman was saying with that “War is Hell” comment that’s always being misquoted. He meant it SHOULD be, and he proceeded to show Georgia and the Carolinas how it’s done. He figured it was the only way to slap a country as tough and crazy as the Confederacy into surrender. You may remember we had a similar problem with a little place called Imperial Japan, and had to slap them around a little rough, too. Of course the official story with Sherman is that he burned houses and crops but didn’t actually take it to mass rape and murder. Me, I’ve always had my doubts about that. You take a bunch of young male chimps, put ’em in uniform, and tell them it’s open season on the enemy, I can’t really see them settling for the livestock when the lady of the house is so durn cute with that s’uthin drawl an’ awl. And once they’re done with her, it’s standard practice to quiet her up, her and anybody else in the house, with bayonets.
But then that’s me and people are always telling me I’m “cynical,” whatever that means. (I mean, either you’re right or you’re wrong; and if you’re right, how is that “cynical”?) So let’s say for the moment that Sherman’s boys didn’t massacre. Well, they were the exception, because that’s how total war is done, and that’s sure as hell how it was done in the later stages of the war against Paraguay.
|No respecto: The Rodney Dangerfield of Latin America|
Before we get down to the details, I want a moment of respect, or maybe “cynical” chuckles, at how hard it must be to be a Paraguayan. All that suffering and heroic exploits and slaughtered ancestors and nobody except a few nationalist fanatics in Brazil and Argentina even know about it. Paraguay has to win as the Rodrigo Dangerfield of heroic countries: no respecto.
Well, I’m here to fix that. Paraguay struck first, declaring war on Brazil in December 1864—countries used to do that, you know, “declare war”—one of those quaint old customs like high collars—and to prove they meant it, Lopez himself led the Paraguayan Army north into the Mato Grosso. This was a nasty tract of Brazil even by Brazilian standards, a low-rent jungle northeast of Paraguay. You don’t have to be a genius on the Subotai or Belisarius level to figure that isolation is an advantage on defense but a huge liability on offense, so the Paraguayans were more brave than smart to start with an invasion. But that’s them all over: as brave and stupid as a pitbull on the freeway.
They were lucky to be invading Brazil, because Brazil had nothing whatsoever in the area. This was one of the most remote parts of the country, and it took months to get troops down from the populated parts of Brazil to face the Paraguayans. And when the Brazilians did drag their sorry asses into battle, they made fools of themselves. Brazil has always been one of those places that specialize in internal security rather than nation-vs-nation fighting. If you want some annoying shoeshine kid or street urchin shot and dumped in a swamp, hire a Brazilian cop. Job’s as good as done. But actual fighting, against people who are armed and expecting trouble? That ain’t the Brazilian way.