Like the Army of Northern Virginia, the Paraguayans held the invaders at bay longer than any sane military man could have predicted. For two years, from 1866-1868, the Paraguayan forts at the junction of the Paraguay and Parana, the two big rivers, kept the foreigners out. But like Lee or, say, Phyrrus, the Paraguayans, with a total population of maybe 1.5 million, couldn’t afford this kind of bravery. It was national suicide: at the battle of Tuyuti in 1866, they not only lost control of the field but lost more men in a few hours than they’ve been able to replace in a century.
There was plenty of room for Paraguay to show how heroic it was, in brave last stands nobody has ever heard of, like—let’s see if I can even spell this right—Curupaity, where a small garrison held off a force of 25,000 Argentines and Brazilians, killing an incredible 5000 attackers in one day.
But like the Union, the Brazilians were slowly learning to dump their incompetent commanders and develop a decent health service and supply corps. Over time, that made sure they’d win, especially with naval control of the rivers. The Paraguayans still fought smart, but sometimes the new breed of Brazilian commanders fought smart now too. Like the way the new Brazilian general Caxias, who’d been ordered to attack 18,000 Paraguayans who’d fortified Piquissiri, bypassed the strong point, mopped up the territory it was meant to block off from the enemy, then took it from the rear.
By 1869 it was as hard to find an able-bodied Paraguayan male as it was to find a white Virginian who could walk without crutches. The Brazilian/Argentine/Uruguayan army occupied the Paraguayan capital, Asuncion, and in a real smart, 20th-c. style move, set up a puppet local government. Lopez, the Paraguayan leader, fled to the hills. He still had the support of the people, and tried to start a guerrilla war…but the Brazilians showed they understood Maoist theory before Mao was even born. Mao said the people are the water, and the guerrillas are the fish who swim in it. The Brazilians just drained the pond the old-fashioned way: by killing every Paraguayan they came across. This is the phase of war where even lousy troops can look good: bayoneting kids and burning houses. And this is when Paraguay’s children proved themselves in a useless cause, like those Hitlerjugend junior high kids who actually held off the Red Army outside Berlin for a few weeks. At the battle—if you can call it that—of Acosta Nu, a force of 3500 Paraguayan children and a few women fought against 20,000-- yes, twenty thousand!—invaders… until they were overwhelmed.
But here again, war doesn’t necessarily reward bravery, especially bravery in a lost cause. Paraguay ended the war a total ruin, destroyed more thoroughly than the Confederacy, post-Hitler Germany, or Japan. If you try to give an estimate of the death toll among Paraguayans, you just wind up starting another war—an online war. But the estimates start at about half the population. Half. Paraguay went from a contender, a little crazy brave Spanish-speaking Prussia, to a punchline. Worse yet, the country that benefited the most was… Argentina. I mean, damn.