Robert L. Scheina. Latin America's Wars, vol. 1: The Age of the Caudillo, 1791-1899. Washington: Brassey's, 2003. xxvii + 569 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-57488-450-0; $59.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-57488-449-4.
Reviewed by Bruce A. Castleman (Department of History, San Diego State University)
Published on H-War (November, 2003)
An Introduction to Latin America's Civil Wars
An Introduction to Latin America's Civil Wars
Latin America's Wars: The Age of the Caudillo, 1791-1899 is a compendium of essays that synthesize the events of each conflict, with each essay able to stand alone in what is apparently intended to serve as a standard reference work. This is an ambitious undertaking. Robert L. Scheina has produced thirty-eight separate chapters, each one dealing with a separate conflict or group of related conflicts, beginning with the Haitian revolution of 1791 and ending with the Spanish-American War of 1898. Each chapter analysis is structured in parallel fashion: the "spark" that began the war, the background, the opposing forces, opening strategies, the narrative of the conflict's events, followed by a section of Scheina's observations. In his preface, Scheina establishes a scheme to measure the impact of each war, including death and injury, the percentage of population lost, politics and power, territorial conquests, social change, and economic power. The subsequent introduction establishes a taxonomy to classify the conflicts as to "race war, ideology of independence, the controversy of separation versus union, boundary disputes, wars of territorial conquest, caudilloism, resource wars, intraclass struggles, interventions caused by capitalism, and religious wars" (p. xxiii). In writing a general history of Latin America's wars, Scheina intends to fill a large void in the literature of military history and of Latin American history in general. The results are uneven. In his analysis of the War of the Pacific, for example, Scheina is at his best. As is the entire book, this chapter is succinctly and engagingly written. Here, Scheina uses contemporaneous sources and recent scholarship to present the conflict over resources and territory in which Chile took Peru's southernmost provinces and also Bolivia's seacoast.
The use of sources in several other chapters, however, gives rise to concerns. In chapter 36, for example, Scheina discusses the downfall in 1891 of Chilean President Jos= Manuel Balmaceda. This chapter derives principally from contemporary sources, most of them secondary. Balmaceda's downfall is considered a watershed in Chilean history, and has been often treated in secondary literature in recent years. Historians of the "dependency school" generally view Balmaceda in a positive light, a leader who attempted to break the economic domination of his country by European industrialized nations, a view apparently not shared by Scheina. The most recent source cited in this chapter is a twenty-volume history of Chile that appeared between 1945 and 1952.
Other chapters also suffer from no apparent account being taken of recent scholarship. Scheina could have expanded and bolstered his arguments concerning Mexicans' support of the royalist cause during the 1810-1821 independence struggle with Eric Van Young's analysis of urban loyalties. No notice whatever is taken in the chapters on early-nineteenth-century conflicts between Mexico and the United States of the work of Josefina Zoraida V=squez of the Colegio de M=xico, even though one of her many works is a chapter in that institution's Historia General de M=xico, a work from which Scheina cites Liliana D=az's essay in his chapter on the 1857-1860 War of the Reforma. Scheina may very well disagree with V=squez's interpretations, but her analysis of political factors is relevant to his discussion and should be pointed out to the reader, at least in the endnotes.
Similar problems appear elsewhere. For example, in his treatment of the Cuban independence wars between 1868 and 1898, Scheina observes that Jose Mart= had been able to "suppress racial, social, and regional bias" (p. 364) and that conflicts between civilian and military leadership had largely been resolved. Recent studies by Ada Ferrer make a strong argument that racial tensions continued to divide the Cuban revolutionary leadership, and in her analysis of an important meeting of rebel leaders at La Mejorana on May 5, 1895, Aline Helg contends that it was by no means clear that Antonio Maceo had acquiesced to the idea that military leaders should not predominate during the armed struggle for independence.
In a short postscript, Scheina presents the strategic, operational, and tactical surprises that he encountered during twenty years of researching and writing this book. He notes that Latin American military operations were fought by small forces over large geographic areas as compared with nineteenth-century conflicts elsewhere in the world. The comparative importance of lances and edge weapons that stemmed from a relative shortage of firearms lent a different character to armed conflict in Latin America. The Spanish Army's refusal, out of fear of a coup d'etat, to issue modern Mauser rifles until units deployed to overseas colonies where they could not be used against Madrid is an especially fascinating bit of information.
Scheina goes on to note that civil wars in Latin America often led to martial caudillos taking presidential power only to prove to be ineffective and corrupt leaders. Students of Latin America should take account of their military prowess and personal courage and, he argues, not be astonished that a parade of such poor political leaders entered the presidential palaces of Latin America. Although I concur wholeheartedly with the notion, this observation does not seem to be a particularly new or innovative contribution to Latin American history. Scheina correctly points out that the region's armed struggles were costly in a number of ways and doubtless retarded Latin America's economic growth in some measure. Whether a more peaceful nineteenth century would have led to real economic development, however, is quite another matter, one well beyond the scope of discussion here. I do not believe that Scheina has established in this work a causal link between his essays and this particular conclusion. On more general questions of economic development in the region, suffice it to say that those matters have been the principal focus of many Latin Americanist historians for the better part of the last three decades, the bibliographies are lengthy, the debates have been contentious, and that no interpretive consensus has yet been established.
The book contains ten maps, each one clear and easy to read. They show the geographic locations of important places that appear in the various chapters. Military historians will probably be surprised to find that none of the maps has arrows and lines that show major campaign movements. Their inclusion would have helped readers to better follow the action in several cases.
The chapter on the War of the Pacific is by no means the only good one in this substantial book. On the other hand, neither are the concerns expressed above the only ones that I have about conclusions based on Scheina's frequent use of quite dated secondary sources and often not situating his own findings in an up-to-date historiographical context. Military historians will have a more difficult time compensating for this than will Latin Americanists. It is useful to have a single starting point concerning the military history of nineteenth-century Latin America, but in the end, Latin America's Wars: The Age of the Caudillo, 1791-1899 must be marked "use with caution."
. Eric Van Young, "Islands in the Storm: Quiet Cities and Violent Countrysides in the Mexican Independence Era," Past and Present, no. 118 (February 1988), reprised in The Other Rebellion: Popular Violence, Ideology, and the Mexican Struggle for Independence, 1810-1821 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001).
. Josefina Zoraida V=squez, Mexicanos y norteamericanos ante la guerra del 47 (Mexico City: Secretar=a de Educaci=n P=blica, 1972); V=squez, "Los primeros tropiezos," Historia General de M=xico, vol. 2, 4th ed. (Mexico City: El Colegio de M=xico, 1994), pp. 735-818; V=squez and Lorenzo Meyer, The United States and Mexico (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985); Lilia D=az, "El liberalismo militante," Historia General de M=xico, vol. 2, pp. 819-896.
. Ada Ferrer, "Rustic Men, Civilized Nation: Race, Culture, and Contention on the Eve of Cuban Independence," Hispanic American Historical Review 78, no. 4 (November 1998): pp. 663-686, reprised in Insurgent Cuba: Race, Nation and Resolution, 1868-1898 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999); Aline Helg, "La Mejorana Revisited: The Unresolved Debate between Antonio Maceo and Jose Mart=," Colonial Latin American Historical Review 10, no. 1 (Winter, 2001): pp. 61-89.
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Bruce A. Castleman. Review of Scheina, Robert L., Latin America's Wars, vol. 1: The Age of the Caudillo, 1791-1899.
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