Saturday, March 23, 2013

A Glorious Defeat: a very short review

Somewhat unexpectedly, Timothy Henderson's A Glorious Defeat: Mexico and Its War with the United States found its way to my nightstand.

Henderson's book is history, but with a different technique, as Henderson isn't interested in the usual approach to a history book about a great war:

even though the book ostensibly is about "war," it spends relatively little time detailing military maneuvering, focusing instead on political and diplomatic maneuvering. This is not to suggest that the mechanics of warfare were irrelevant; it is, rather, to suggest that an examination of how and why Mexico and the United States went to war sheds light on the conflict's real significance.

The other aspect of Henderson's approach is to try to look as deeply into Mexico's side of the conflict as the United States's side. As my mother used to remind me, "it takes two to fight," and one of the fascinating questions is why this war occurred, when there were so many ways that the conflict could have been resolved otherwise.

As Henderson explains, Mexico's behavior can be understood both culturally and politically, once you reflect on the dynamics of the United States at the time (expansionism and a looming conflict over slavery), and once you spend more time understanding the internal complexities of Mexican society in the years leading up to the war:

the rational strategy was unacceptable for two reasons: it would have been tantamount to recognizing the right of the United States to expand its boundaries almost at will, imposing its racist vision everywhere; and it would have necessitated compromise with political opponents. Given those realities, the desperate glory of death on the battlefield seemed preferable to the ignominy of compromise and surrender.
Thus does Henderson term the result a "Glorious Defeat."

One of my favorite parts of the book was the color Henderson brings to the story. Both sides were full of larger-than-life characters, and the stories of the U.S. principals have become legend: Sam Houston, Stephen F. Austin, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses Grant, Zachary Taylor, etc.

But the characters on the Mexican side were just as fascinating, or even more so, and Henderson does a wonderful job of bringing them to life.

One of the most significant, of course, was Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, who played many roles in Mexican society of the time: military leader, politician, banker, rebel. Santa Anna, at various times, found himself on almost every side of every issue; amazingly, he was President of Mexico eleven separate times. Henderson fills his book with the rich tales of Santa Anna's escapades; it's fun just to look at the index entries for Santa Anna at the end of the book:

Santa Anna, Antonio Lopez de
  • amputated leg of
  • in battles
  • character of
  • in exile or retirement
  • heroic status of
  • Jackson's meeting with
  • as Mexican president
  • in political rebellions
  • Trist's bribery of
  • wealth and estates of

Just reading through that list should give you a great idea of how this book flows, and how compelling a story-teller Henderson is.

If you're a history buff (or even if you're not), and you're interested in one of the most important stories in the modern history of North America, you should pick up this book. I think you'll enjoy it, and you'll come away enlightened and more knowledgeable, which is just what a history book should achieve.

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