Thursday, August 16, 2007

Today In History: Enough to put you off your feed.

Today is Children's Day in Paraguay. Sweet, isn't it? Nice, wholesome holiday...

Do you know why today is Children's Day in Paraguay? Gather 'round, children; Auntie Tam has a story to tell.

In the early 1860's, Paraguay was a little, insular, paranoid country ruled by a little, insular, paranoid dictator named Solano Lopez. Lopez was a forward thinking guy and, during a time when most of the world was reveling in the free-wheeling days of Victorian laissez-faire, he instituted mandatory conscription, with state-run factories to arm the troops, state-run railroads to transport them, and state-run telegraphs to send them orders. He even set up a state-run shipyard for constructing naval vessels. When someone pointed out that Paraguay was landlocked and had no seaports, he took his army (which had been largely trained by advisors from his ally, Brazil) and set out to steal a Brazilian seaport by marching through Uruguay, which was currently under attack by Brazil.

Uruguay's new leader decided that maybe Brazil wasn't all bad, and the two nations united against Paraguay. In an attempt to outflank them, Lopez asked permission from Argentina to move troops through Argentinian territory. When permission was refused, Mad Dog Lopez declared war on Buenos Aires and did it anyway. Now little Paraguay was at war with the Triple Alliance, including the two largest nations on the continent. The outcome was sort of a foregone conclusion.

By late 1868, the Paraguayan army had been handed a stomping and the fighting was entirely on Paraguayan territory. In December, the Alliance occupied the Paraguayan capital and sent a surrender demand to Lopez, who instead bolted for the hills. The Brazilian commander, Caxias, sent a note home to the emperor pointing out that, since they had occupied Asunción, run Lopez out of town, and killed pretty much every adult Paraguayan male of military age, the war was technically won and could they please come home now? But Pedro II wanted Lopez's head on a pike and Caxias resigned his command for "health reasons" and was replaced by the emperor's son-in-law who continued to chase Lopez into the mountains.

The Paraguayan forces, by now consisting largely of boys too young for military service, were brought to bay at Campo Grande on the 16th of August in the battle of Acosta Nũ. Twenty thousand hardened veterans from Argentina and Brazil faced some 6,000 little boys and old men, including a "Children's Battalion" of kids ranging in age from six to fifteen, and killed over two thousand, capturing 1,200 more. The Alliance forces somehow suffered 26 KIA during the lopsided butchery. Seven months later, Lopez was finally run to ground and killed, marking the end of the war. The country he had led into war had a population of over half a million. By 1871, there were barely over 220,000 people left in Paraguay. Ninety percent of the male population had died in the conflict, and it would be generations before the nation was even partially recovered from the devastation.

And that's why August 16th is Children's Day in Paraguay.

6 comments:

Cybrludite said...

"Ninety percent of the male population had died in the conflict"

Geeze, and I thought those of us on the proper side of the "Youse-Y'all" line took a stomping in the War Of Yankee Agression... Heck, those numbers are almost the reverse of being at a sci-fi convention.

Tam said...

It was estimated that there were about 28,000 males left in the whole of the country in 1871.

Jack Gordon said...

What an excellent summary of the war. I had a Paraguayan friend once who told me all about it, and the historical facts surrounding this conflict are mind-boggling -- furthermore, the effects it had on the concept of "marriage" in Paraguay are as interesting as anything else. Marrying a man following the conflict was a very selfish thing to do in Paraguay.

skywriter said...

Tam - if you read much - pick up "At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig" by John Gimlette. Paraguay is one of those countries that have been so cursed by their own history that they don't show up in the travel brochures of any but the hardiest travelers. Like, say . . "hey. . let's vacation in Haiti, or how about Albania, or the Sudan! start packing!" But for whatever reason, Gilmette, a writer of bread and butter travel books, took it on and crafted something much more than a travel guide. His recounting of the rise and fall of the Lopez dynasty in the 19th century is priceless. (and where the title of the book came from)

The utter fatuity and senselessness of Paraguay's wars is beyond sanity or the abilility to describe. You've got a tiny landlocked country simultaneously declaring war on all its more powerful neighbors simultaneously -- that's real smart. Then they follow it up with the stupid Chaco War with Bolivia. . Another rousing move. Paraguay may have been a comic-opera state during most of its history, but the apparent willingness of its people to fight bravely and die in huge numbers for no reason of merit is beyond my comprehension. I keep thinking of Haiti's Toussaint L'Ouverture ordering a regiment to march off a cliff to impress a foreign visitor.

In any event, the book is a worthy read - alternatively grotesque and humorous.

doubletrouble said...

Well, at least it was "for the children"...

Don Meaker said...

The Brazilian/Uruguaian/Argentinian occupation forces did their duty. After a few years, the population had doubled...