The Paraguayan War

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.

You crazy bastard

Beach reading

Some thoughts on a couple of books that I read while relaxing at Rehoboth Beach last week. I also read To Kill A Mockingbird for the first time, which was just as great as advertised — but I don’t want to tread old ground too much.

The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns, Sasha Issenberg

Issenberg, a political writer at Slate, has written an engaging history of new techniques used to win campaigns. Generally speaking, these techniques are driven by the ability to collect large amounts of data on the electorate and a new willingness to conduct experiments with all this data — culminating in the 2008 and 2012 Obama re-election campaigns. While I’m skeptical of a lot of trends in political science (an overreliance on jargon, an tendency to simplify complex political decisions to fit neat proclamations), it seems that voting behavior is much more fertile terrain. Particularly when, as Issenberg points out, many of the assumptions of campaign operatives and consultants is based on little more than “gut feeling” or how it’s been done in the past. Some of the discussion on data management was of special interest to me, having been on the other side of it working with the database on Beau Biden’s reelection campaign in 2010.

Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics, Jonathan Wilson

I bought this book in England around the middle of April. (It’s football in the European sense, not the American one — though that’s a book I’d also like to read.) The fact that I’m just finishing it now is a testament to (a) how hectic my life has been over the past month and a half and (b) how difficult it is to make the history of football tactics engrossing. The book is deeply researched, integrating contemporary accounts from newspapers (aka my favorite thing about history) and personal stories to demonstrate how observers and participants reacted to the slow yet vibrant history of tactical innovations in football. Wilson is at his most entertaining when he assaults proponents of “direct football” — punting the ball long downfield at every possible opportunity — for elementary errors of math in their analysis. And even when the tactical talk gets a bit dry the book remains a very effective introduction into the footballing histories of about ten nations. Between this and Soccernomics, which I read in March, a good few months for investigating the sport.

London, week one; or, where did the sun go?

Hello, people of the “Inter Net.” I finally have a few moments to update you all, particularly those on the other side of the Atlantic, about my first week here in England. Here’s some of what I’ve observed or been up to:

  • One of the interesting things in any foreign country is the food, and the UK is no different. London is filled with lots of little sandwich shops (which is nice) except that the sandwiches tend to come pre-made in plastic bags (not so nice). There are approximately 14 trillion “Pret A Manger” locations in the city, which is a French phrase that means “Ubiquitous Sandwiches.” I have also sampled some Indian food, which is one of my favorite types of food, and hope to get more over the next few months. I’ve also visited several pubs, largely for the purpose of eating though also for the purpose of relaxing after much walking. (Europeans are very fond of hard cider and there seems to be a nice selection here.) Of course I have also eaten some traditional British food: beef and ale pie, traditional English breakfast, English breakfast tea, a cornish pasty, etc. And there’s a can of custard in my cupboard waiting for the opportune moment to be cooked.

nom nom nom

Here’s Sunday’s breakfast.

  • Eating is not the only thing they do in Britain, though! This country is also very fond of history—as am I—and they sure do have a lot of it. Much of Thursday through Saturday was spent exploring, including a walk from my location near Victoria Station in SW London to UCL’s campus in Bloomsbury (about three miles). Among the sights seen so far: Buckingham Palace (no Queen, though), Trafalgar Square, the West End, Westminster Abbey (from the outside only), Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, the Eye, the Globe Theatre, the Millennium Bridge, and St. Paul’s Cathedral.

not named after ben franklin

I went to Big Ben. Ever heard of it?

  • Transportation has been heavily by foot, but I have also made many journeys on the Tube (a necessity to get up to UCL’s campus). The Tube is great and ought to make NYCers even more ashamed of the MTA—it comes every two minutes, is clean and functional, lacks rats, and seems to be everywhere. The only downside is that it is not 24/7 (I would characterize it as more of an 18/7) which is a bit of a nuisance. I’ve also been on buses and the Southern train service, both of which were excellent.

no bombs here

St. Paul’s Cathedral at dusk (3:45 pm)

  • As for the actual school I’m attending, I’m quite excited. The main difference here seems to be that there’s a lot less class time and a lot more focus on independent reading and writing, which is perfectly fine by me. I get the sense that some of the other Americans are finding the whole thing a bit baffling, though. As well they might—it’s a lot tougher to construct your schedule because of a bevy of restrictions. (The university is more decentralized, so each department has a lot more control over their students and courses.) I’m excited about my classes, where hopefully I’ll be able to learn a lot while relatively unpressured (each class is assessed by two papers, no sit down finals, and we have a luxurious amount of time to write each one—all of my “classes” are actually done on March 22, then we have a month of break before Term 3, which is just preparing for exams or writing papers). I’m taking:
  • Europe in the Early Middle Ages (400-1000), Mon 9-10 lecture and Tues 10-11 seminar
  • International Development and Public Policy, Mon 2-3 lecture and 3-4 seminar
  • London Architecture, which is taught at buildings around the city, Tues 2-4 and
  • History of Parliament, Wed 9-11. So, four-day weekends!

why doesn't it say anything about king's college? well this is ucl not columbia! also I think we hate king's because they hate secularism or something

UCL—feels a lot like Low Library!

  • Finally, I was excited to see my Aunt Joan yesterday, who lives in Sutton just south of the city. She seems to be quite happy and healthy for an 88 year old, and it was good to learn a bit about my family history. She attended UCL during the War and spent much of that time in Wales, a fate I hope to avoid in these travels… Visits to Chiswick in West London, where my grandfather was born, and to Norwich on the Anglian coast, where Stephen and Frances Andrews (my great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents) were married in 1745, will come in due time.

Anyway, that’s all for now from me, I think. Time to make dinner, do some reading, and get some sleep (which has been in incredibly short supply). Hopefully the sun comes out tomorrow, though I’m learning not to be optimistic on that count.

Feel free to leave a comment in the comment section below! I promise I will read it. Also my mailing address and e-mails are available under the “About” tab at the top of this web zone.