This summer, I’m working with professors at Columbia on a couple of research projects; thus far, the one I have been most engaged with is a political science study on the effects of interventions. Basically, an intervention is any time one country invades another in order to place itself between the second state’s government and its people (a clear-cut case: Iraq War, 2003). My role involves going back through the last two centuries of wars and classifying their outcomes (e.g. did the intervened-in country become more autocratic or democratic?).
However, this does mean that I’m learning a little bit about almost every military conflict since 1800 — and because history is endlessly fascinating and complicated and frankly a little absurd, some of these conflicts are both obscure and worth learning about.
So I want to talk for a second about the Paraguayan War (also known as “the War of the Triple Alliance”). Fought between 1864 and 1870, Clodfelter’s Encyclopedia of Warfare and Armed Conflicts notes in its typically dry fashion that “in terms of bloodshed and suffering meted out and endured, [this war was] the greatest conflict between the nations of the western hemisphere.”
Here’s my highly paraphrased and abridged summary of the war. Essentially, Paraguay had a dictator — Francisco Solano Lopez — with major delusions of grandeur. So he stuck some troops in the middle of a civil war in Uruguay, drawing the ire of Brazil (who backed the other side), Argentina, and (later, once the Brazilian faction was victorious in civil war) Uruguay, which soon expanded into a wider conflict. To put the relative populations of these nations in contemporary terms, this is roughly like Wilmington, Delaware and its suburbs going to war with the whole of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.
Lopez believed that Paraguay was destined for greatness. So, even though hopelessly outmanned, Lopez chose an aggressive war of conquest, spending six years invading the surrounding nations — except for one minor victory, every battle for six years ending in a vicious defeat. In one battle in 1866, 5000 Paraguayans were killed and another 8000 were injured. The slow destruction of his army was compounded by the periodic, paranoid purges of his top generals — Lopez was Stalin before Stalin was even born. The war only ended once Lopez himself was killed on March 1, 1870 — the dictator and his last 400 followers were cornered by 8000 men of the triple alliance, and Lopez was stabbed to death with a lance.
In six years, a country of 450,000 people had its population reduced by more than 50%. Paraguay’s three opponents lost only 50 to 100,000 dead, while Paraguay lost over 220,000.
What blows me away about the Paraguayan War was that this was not a defensive war, where stronger powers devastated Paraguay because there was something they wanted. Thucyidides wrote, of relations between states, that “the strong do as they can and the weak suffer what they must.” But, in this case, the weak seemed to believe that they were the strong despite years and years of evidence to the contrary.
We often assume in “political science” that humans (and, by extension, states) are perfectly rational actors. But history never fails to remind us that humans are often far from rational, driven by greed or power or sex or undiagnosed mental illness or the afterlife or a lack of air conditioning. And often the results are inexplicable.
Sometimes, it’s too much to comprehend — but we suffer what we must.