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The General and The Jaguar    by Eileen Welsome order for
General and The Jaguar
by Eileen Welsome
Order:  USA  Can
Little, Brown & Co., 2006 (2006)

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* *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

In the early years of the twentieth century, Mexico convulsed in the turbulence of political coups and wide-spread civil wars. And during those years one of the most notorious warlords was Pancho Villa.

Born as Doroteo Arango, Villa had been a bandit in northern Mexico. In 1910, however, he led rebel forces and fought first for President Madero and later against opportunistic usurpers General Huerta and Venusitano Carranza. Fiercely and violently opposed to any Mexican regime that would further take advantage of the dispossessed poor, Villa was also for the most part - at least until an incident in 1915 - benignly indifferent and even occasionally beneficent towards Americans and the United States government.

On the first days of November, 1915, however, more than 200 of Villa's revolutionary forces were killed by forces loyal to the despotic President Carranza at a small border town called Agua Prieta. Villa was convinced - with justification - that American forces had aided the Carrancistas.

In retaliation for the Agua Prieta betrayal, the Villistas attacked and slaughtered seventeen people (including Americans) on a train at Chihuahua City; Villa steadfastly and persuasively denied any involvement by his forces on the train, but later evidence would confirm their responsibility. Clearly, as evident at Chihuahua City, Villa's attitude to Americans had changed. And he was not quite finished reacting to the incident at Agua Prieta.

In the early morning hours of March 9, 1916, Villa boldly led his band of marauders into the tiny bordertown of Columbus, Mexico. Eighteen American civilians and soldiers were killed, and more than ten others were wounded. Villa and his men, satisfied in their vengeful raid, triumphantly returned to Mexico.

The American government in Washington, although very much preoccupied with the inevitability of American involvement in a European war, responded quickly to the Villa crisis. General John 'Black Jack' Pershing, once an admirer of Villa's resourcefulness and tactical ingenuity, was the commander at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas. Pershing was ordered by the federal government to assemble a force of soldiers, head into Mexico, and get Villa - dead or alive. Quickly putting together an expeditionary force of impressive numbers (and involving incredible logical arrangements), Pershing began the manhunt to remove an international menace at noon on March 15, 1916. With 192 officers, 4800 men, 4175 animals, and a bewildering assortment of combat and support vehicles (including a small squadron of airplanes), Pershing began an ill-fated odyssey that would last 10 months and 3 weeks. As the last hurrah for the United States Cavalry, the expedition would descend into a nightmare. Spies and snipers, scorching deserts and snowy mountains, and a hostile population would combine to make Pershing's mission a brutal failure.

Villa - the man who would eventually become a national hero of Mexico, and the man who was allegedly responsible for 43,000 deaths during his reign of terror - would escape Pershing's forces and survive until many years later. In fact, on the morning of July 20, 1923, almost exactly three years after he had laid down his arms and retired in order to spend more time with his children from his many wives, Villa was gunned down by a small band of Mexican assassins. Finally, neither the Mexican nor the United States governments had any more concerns about Pancho Villa.

The General and The Jaguar, as briefly outlined above, is the superb study of an important moment in history as well as an excellent profile of two fiercely determined tactical geniuses, Villa and Pershing. The richly detailed book also proves the important point: there is much to be learned from history. In fact, Eileen Welsome's exemplary study is one of those narrative histories that ought to be required reading for anyone who remains unconvinced by the foregoing assertion.

The General and The Jaguar explores the volatile issues of nationalism, patriotism, and revolutionary fervor. It also looks at the dangers of one country sending a military expedition - in pursuit of a presumed, singular threat to national security - into another hostile, foreign country for the purposes of removing a menace who has terrorized citizens. It also, by the way, examines the ways in which militarization of a border can cause unanticipated problems. Yes, Welsome has written brilliantly about an incident that occurred in the early twentieth century. But The General and The Jaguar seems strangely relevant to the early twenty-first century. See what you think.

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