Monthly Archives: May 2010

Memorial Day Video: Liberation of a Concentration Camp, from Band of Brothers

We hope everyone at the Neighborhood is enjoying their Memorial Day weekend.

This piece from the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers demonstrates why it is so important to celebrate holidays like this one.  It shows Easy Company, 506th Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne division as it inadvertantly liberated a concentration camp in Germany. 

Now this is obviously my opinion, but I have strong feelings about our men and women in uniform.  Say what you will about the reasoning of our wars; I will not broker disrespect of the troops in our armed forces.

Many people may question how our military is used, and the abuses it may have inflicted in its long history.  We used ragtag guerrilla tactics, genocidal ruthlessness and foreign assistance to defeat our colonial masters.  We vanquished our southern neighbor in order to seize half of its territory.  We systematically corraled the indigenous population of our continent to make way for settlement and land speculation. 

World War II, however, was our greatest hour.  The United States, attacked by surprise and unprepared, rose to defeat two aggressive powers bent on world domination.  Yet we did not conquer, we did not subjugate…on the contrary, we liberated occupied peoples and rehabilitated our former enemies. 

No army on Earth ever did that before, not in all of human history.

This is why we are American.  This is why we should honor our military personnel.  This is why we celebrate Memorial Day.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The “Matrix” of History-The problem with “America: The Story of Us”

Every basic cable channel in America can be summed up in one sentence. 

They consist of hours of reality programming punctuated by hours of reruns of popular programs that have little, if anything, to do with the stated theme of the channel.

I’ve just described Arts & Entertainment (A&E), Bravo, Music Television (MTV), VH1, The Food Network, The Travel Channel, Fine Living Channel, Discovery, Lifetime, TLC, Home and Garden Television (HGTV), and finally The History Channel.

Oh, I’m sorry, it’s now called simply History—as its original glorious programming is relegated to the ash heap of said place.

To understand how far this warhorse of a channel has fallen, look at its most popular programs: Ice Road Truckers, Modern Marvels, and Pawn Stars.  They are, in point of fact, pretty good shows.  Yet with the exception of the last one, how in the hell does any history fit into them?  Did the ice road truckers find fossils to substantiate the Land Bridge theory of Native migration some 10,000 years ago?  How exactly does American civilization benefit from knowing how a Pop-Tart is made?

Finally, how the hell is there so much 17th-19th century ordinance in Nevada?  Those guys on Pawn Stars collect enough antique guns to field a squad of minutemen against the pit bosses at the Flamingo.

The old-school history-heads like myself, who loved to watch Luftwaffe dogfights ad nauseum on the old A&E before the advent of the History Channel, felt cast off and abandoned.  Which is why we were so excited at the beginning of History’s new miniseries America: The Story of Us.

Yet even here, it seems that the whiz-bang pace of reality shows and video games have infiltrated American history.

I won’t go into detail about the number one offense of this show: the relentless parade of celebrities that have absolutely nothing to do with American history.  Let’s show the battle of Saratoga and “poof!” out comes Michael Douglas with some platitude about the American spirit.  Last night’s use of former NY Giant Michael Strahan in the 1938 Louis-Schmeling fight was particularly dreadful: the only German Strahan ever pummeled was maybe Ben Roethlisberger on a good day.

Instead, I feel the great injustice of this series is but one: the Matrix-like bullet shot.

We all are at least somewhat familiar with the Matrix series of films: a sci-fi (sort of) trilogy of films long on special effects and short on any believable plot.  The defining moment of the series is a scene where the main character, Neo (played by “cough” master thespian Keanu Reeves) dodges bullets in slow motion through an acrobatic arc of his body—probably computer generated.

Ever since, the bullet shot has become a staple in action films, either missing or hitting their targets.  America, to my chagrin, also decided that to lure the young, high-testosterone set required not one, but multiple shots of the Matrix-variety at a couple of points in our history.

At Lexington and Concord, for example, the low-velocity, non-spinning, handmade, misshapen musket ball is seen from the barrel, hurtling towards its target—the shoulder of a Massachusetts minuteman.  Fast forward to Saratoga, and a Continental sniper fires three shots, two misses and a hit, at British general Simon Fraser.  The framing, slow musket ball shots, and stop-motion zoom seem right out of a video game.  Believe me, a musket ball to the chest is not as fun.

Even more insidious is the bullet shot during the Civil War scenes.  Before the Minie ball flies out of the Model 1861 Springfield musket towards an unsuspecting Reb, there’s a shot of a Union soldier sighting his target as if he were using a fucking Norden bombsight.  Yankee soldiers on the attack rarely had the time to scope their targets with such accuracy, especially with the crappy stick sights on the muskets.

The one point of honesty in the whole process is the computer-generated X-ray footage of what a soft lead low-velocity bullet does to the human body.  The Minie ball was a little bulldozer, obliterating bone, sinew and muscle, making any real recovery impossible.  To put it in comparison, a single round from a modern M16 rifle has a steel jacket at a high speed, which slices through you like a scissor.  Neither of these are very pleasant, but chances are better you’ll recover from the latter.

(Modern sanitation, oodles of anesthesia and a pharmaceutical industry that doesn’t double as a distillery certainly help, too.)

Let’s face it, America: The Story of Us was an ambitious project attempting to show individual important events in the 400 years of American history.  It’s a big mess.  The writers can’t decide to go in depth or with a broad brush—if that brush happened to be a roller.  Even as a survey of our history, it falls flat.  Jamestown, then a quick 170 years later we’re in New York defending a British invasion, then we’re on the frontier with wagon trains, then the rails, then the skyscrapers: this was a dog that bit off more than it could chew. 

Why the celebrities, for Chrissakes?  We loved those tweedy, slightly awkward professors and historians in previous shows because not only did they provide more context, but in an interesting, fun way.  Who doesn’t love Kenneth Jackson’s Tennessee drawl on the Erie Canal, or Thomas Fleming’s Jersey wharf accent as he describes the “beautiful box” that is the siege of Yorktown.

Yet above all, America fails because it attempts to get to a younger students’ level with time, visual effects and violence.  Through use of “wicked cool” kill shots, America takes the long, often tedious process of 18th-19th Century warfare and accelerates fast enough so that you can collect enough lives to reach the next level before Mom sends you to bed.  You may think this helps kids get a better understanding of history.

In fact, it gives them the wrong impression that historical events were lightning quick, slickly edited and awesome.  There was little awesome in real history: just lots of everyday life broken up by moments of terror.

I know there’s a trend to making every subject “kid friendly” by making interactive games that move in 15-minute intervals to match the little shit’s TV-addled brain, but I’m holding the line in history.  A student has to understand what time meant to early people, and thus realize how they responded to everyday life.  That’s why we have so many brats that ask if George Washington is still alive (yes, I still get that question.)

Besides, if students are to become good historians (or good college students, for that matter), they have to interact with primary documents on their terms.  That means put down the controller, boys and girls, and actually SIT for a period of time and READ something. 

Human existence isn’t designed with a reset button and free lives.  It’s a series of one-shot chances that create a long, slow, complex narrative that must be interpreted as it is—not accelerated for quicker consumption.

History is digested slowly.  Let Mario and Luigi handle the easier stuff.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Movies for the Classroom: Triumph of the Will

If any teacher is starting, or is in the middle of, a unit about the Holocaust, you MUST include this film in your lessons.

Triumph of the Will (1935), directed by Leni Riefenstahl, is widely considered among the greatest propaganda films of all time.  Riefenstahi documents the 1934 Party Congress of the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP), or Nazi Party.  In her camera work, editing, and use of moving and close-up shots, Riefenstahi succeeds in creating a dazzling, upward movement of a people on the rise–and a leader at the forefront of that movement.

 In many classrooms, students have at least a cursory understanding of the horrors of the Holocaust.  However, many teachers, due to either ignorance, lack of content knowledge, etc., paint the tragedy as a simplistic moral tale: innocents slaughtered by heartless, unfeeling monsters.  Here’s an experiment I do that proves this otherwise.

Play the film for the students–and make sure you don’t tell the children any more than its a movie from the 1930s.  Watch and note how many times the children tap or play along to the marching music, cheer, give a Nazi salute, etc. 

I then ask, “Class, you know about Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, right?”  Most of my kids will probably respond about the Holocaust, about starting wars, hating Jews, or at the very least “he’s a bad guy.”

Then comes my response: “…then why did you enjoy the film so much?”

Most of the class would sit, stunned.  One year, a girl started to cry.  For the students, the realization that they became immersed in Nazi propaganda is a frightening experience.  Its an experience that’s absolutely necessary in order to understand the Holocaust.

The slaughter of millions of people was not done by mere monsters.  As shown in Triumph of the Will, an entire nation of regular people–people just like you and me–was seduced by the call of a return to glory and happiness.  

Little did they realize then the horrible cost of that seduction.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Mr. D’s History Bookshelf # 6: Can’t You Make Them Behave, King George?

A persistent problem in history instruction is the demonization of the “losers” of history.

The British were bloodthirsty savages bent on wanton destruction.

The Germans were bloodthirsty savages bent on wanton destruction.

The 1974-1976 Philadelphia Flyers were bloodthirsty savages bent on wanton destruction. (That last one may be true.)

It’s a common trap for educators.  Because of our emphasis on literacy, especially elements of fiction, we tend to view historical events through the prism of the fiction story: plot, setting, protagonists and especially antagonists.  Kids might not grasp the nuance of British soldiers assisting native tribes from encroachment by American colonists.  They do get, however, a pack of British redcoats unloading their muskets on a group of 70 minutemen “peaceably” gathering on Lexington common. 

Good guys and bad guys make a natural narrative that’s clear, convenient and memorable.  It also makes for bad history.

This has been especially true of the American Revolution, one of my favorite subjects.  I’ll be studying the revolution at UCLA at a Gilder Lehrman Summer Seminar in July, and the old “bad British” mentality does not fly in academia.  Scholars of late have attempted to rectify the prevailing narrative with research on the Iroquois campaigns of 1778-1779, the gruesome guerrilla wars between Patriot and Tory gangs in the Carolinas, and the fate of Loyalists after the war was over.

In classrooms, we are slowly coming into contact with such material.  For example, George Vs. George attempts to give a balanced account of the revolution from the two most famous “Georges”, George Washington and King George III. 

Yet my favorite of these works is an old warhorse by Jean Fritz, a master of historical narrative for children.  Can’t You Make Them Behave, King George? is an entertaining, balanced account of the trials of the British monarch from boyhood through the end of the revolution.

As in other books about Franklin, Columbus, Sam Adams, etc., Fritz uses historical facts and the events of the period to provide a very human, and surprising linear, portrait of complicated people.  George III is shown as an awkward, troublesome boy who accidentally ends up heir to the British throne.  Once in power, George endeavors to be a good king: in manners, in style, in government, and especially with his rambunctious subjects in America.

The conflict in the colonies is shown as a distant affair, a master stroke by Fritz to add realism.  Remember that the revolution was occurring 3,000 miles across the ocean.  Unless your family had someone in the army serving in America, most British subjects had the revolution in the distant background.  Fritz shows how George fit the American war in the context of his numerous duties: very important, yet not always at the forefront of his mind.  

Although a disservice to true aficionados of the period, George’s “madness” is rarely mentioned.  The audience of Fritz’ work would probably not understand George’s porphyria, his well-documented mental illness.  Thus, George is shown becoming more eccentric as the revolution progresses, when in reality those nervous tics were always part of his persona.

Older students should definitely couple this book with Alan Bennett’s play The Madness of George III, as well as its excellent screen adaptation, The Madness of King George.

Finally, the book debunks the myth created by our Founding Fathers that George III was a hardhearted monster.  On the contrary, George was in fact an incredibly involved monarch who was careful to look after the needs of his people.  Yet for any government, let alone a king, ruling a vast overseas empire is incredibly hard work, and involves leaving decisions to subordinates that may not be in the best interests of everyone.  And boy, did George have some doozies of subalterns: Lord North, Charles Townshend, Lord Grenville, William Pitt the Elder (and Younger), Lord Rockingham, Lord Bute, Charles Edward Fox, and so on.

Fritz goes a long way in showing just how difficult it is to lead the British Empire. Challenge your students to see what they would do if they were in King George’s shoes.  You may be surprised at the answers.

As for me, I’ll cut George III some slack. 

Bobby Clarke, on the other hand, has a special place in hell reserved for him.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

You say you want a revolution…the Cuba Chronicles, Epilogue

One of many gratuitous shots of old cars in Cuba scattered throughout this post.

“What did we ever do to deserve the embargo?”

Our tour guide asked us this question in a small group on the bus one day.  Since I was the resident capitalist, everyone was waiting to hear what I had to say.  Sitting and squirming, my response was less than stellar.  It was some sad-sack tome on the value of individual achievement and the market system and how the embargo is the most un-capitalist of measures that hurt everyone.  Everyone nodded in acknowledgement of my answer.

This was not what I wanted to say.

 I think he deserves a better answer.  That answer can also say a lot about post-Castro Cuba—and what can, or will, happen when there is no Castro in power (Fidel, Raul or otherwise).

First of all, the question he asked is the wrong question.  No one in their right mind would ever say that anyone, let alone the Cuban people, DESERVE to have their market freedom, their economy, their resources strangled by an embargo.  It’s a straw-man argument that forces cheap sympathy yet does little to resolve the conflict.

This should be the better question to ask: “To whose benefit is it to keep the embargo going?”

In both Cuba and here in the States, this is a far more troublesome question, as it often brings the conflicting needs and ideologies of disparate groups into greater focus.  A whole list of culprits comes to mind: US business, US military, the Cuban exiles, the Cuban government, the Cuban Communist Party, the Castros, the European corporations in cahoots with the Cuban government. 

None of them are completely blameless.

The US and the Exiles

Let’s start with our homegrown suspects—and none have beaten a dead horse for as long as the US military. 

For half a century, the US has enforced an economic embargo on the island in a futile attempt to “starve” Cuba into regime change.  Even after an ever-flexible authoritarian apparatus and a flood of European companies filling the void, the powers-that-be still insist that this is the best way. 

Contrary to what the left thinks, the great American capitalists are NOT pleased with this arrangement.  Cuba is the largest market in the Caribbean, and the great US companies are shut out of that action.  Granted, their Cuban infrastructure was confiscated during the Revolution, which leaves a bad taste.  Yet 50 years later, after European companies managed a foothold in Cuba, shouldn’t some Yankee firms go in and play ball with the Commies if that gives them the future “advanced market entry”?

We’ve been in the embargo business since 1807, and almost all have been unmitigated disasters.  Our CIA’s attempts to assassinate Castro—all 638 of them—prove that a Skulls and Bones secret handshake and a Brooks Brothers bow tie make shitty hired  killers.  So why has the US government not taken the hint?  Why have not changed course and forged a new direction in foreign policy?

According to many, especially on the left, much of the reason lies with the powerful, and often troublesome, bloc of Cuban exiles that have come to the United States since the 1960s. 

Now, I’m not going to knock the exiles.  I have friends who are either exiles themselves or the children of exiles.  Most of these people came here for legitimate reasons: escaping political repression, economic opportunity (largely based on the lack of economic opportunity in post-revolutionary Cuba), etc.  It would be hypocritical of me to smack down another group of immigrants when I (like most Americans) come from foreign stock as well.

Yet as I look at the organizations and politicians that represent the Cuban community, something troubles me.  One is the lack of realistic expectations—and often for nefarious reasons.  Though not true of most groups, it’s safe to say that an “embargo industry” has arisen among the myriad groups that represent Cuban exiles.  From the benign to the militant, they see the embargo not only as necessary for regime change in their homeland, but also a raison d’etre for their own existence. 

Complicating this is the expectations of a post-Castro Cuba: a Cuba where the clock is turned back.  This has taken form in two ways: calls for repatriation of confiscated property and nostalgia for the Batista years before 1959. 

Here, I’ll be blunt.   Cuba will never, and I mean never, return to the days before 1959.  Too much has happened, and besides, that era had enough ill will and official malfeasance to negate any misty-eyed feelings in Miami.  Whatever happens after the Castros will have to deal with the institutional remains of the Cuban Revolution, not sweep them clean.

That said, reclaiming property and businesses lost in the confiscations of 1959-1962 is a pipe dream.  The return of state-run enterprises to private entities will be a slow and painful process in it of itself.  50 years later, I have serious doubts that the absentee former landlords of these properties will be welcomed back to Cuba with open arms.

Below is a Dutch documentary about how Cuban groups are preparing for a post-Castro Cuba. 

There are extensive plans over what the government and society of Cuba will look like in the next phase.  Yet many exiles see themselves as coming back to “govern” Cuba when the change occurs.  While some Cubans may welcome them (Cubans in the US provide millions in aid to their compatriots on the island, after all), there will undoubtedly be resentment among native Cubans towards exiles who invariably had resources to leave the island, instead of suffering the consequences of the revolution as they did. 

After half a century, these exiles could be seen as merely another foreign interloper.  It isn’t certain, but the exiles may be more of a hindrance than a help to post-Castro Cuba.

The Cuban community, before it sets foot on its homeland again, needs to really consider what it can, and what it cannot bring to the table.  This involves the inevitable conclusion that not every exile may want to go back.

The biggest assumption about the exile community, and one that has changed over time, is its homogeneity.  We are now at least two generations removed from the first generation of exiles in the 1960s, and at least one generation removed from the Marielitos of the 1980s.  Younger Cuban-Americans, with little, if any, firsthand knowledge of the island, must have developed attitudes and opinions that have altered the proscribed course of the “exile” mentality. 

The embargo, US-Cuban relations, and other issues have divided, rather than united, Cubans of all ages to the point that they will probably no longer be the solid Republican voting bloc that politicians hoped—turning Cubans into (‘gasp!’) just another Hispanic group pandered to by Democrats ad nauseum.  In fact, Cuban-Americans, over time, may possibly cease to even call themselves “exiles,” reflecting the reality of living in another country for half a century.

If less and less people want to go back, what incentive is there to open an embargo that gives your group identity, legitimacy and government funding?

The Castros, the PCC and the Euros that Love Them

So as much as there are people that want the embargo to go away (capitalists, leftists, some politicians and some Cuban exiles), there are others that benefit from the blockage (other conservatives, military establishment, most of the Cuban-American contingent in Congress and other Cuban exiles). 

Yet before the Venceremos brigade and the editorial board of Mother Jones starts cheering that I’ve joined the barricades, there’s plenty of blame to spread on the other side.  In fact, a lions’ share of the blame goes to the dynamic duo that started this whole mess—the Castro brothers.

It is now common knowledge that the US embargo is a huge reason—perhaps the only reason—that the Castros have remained in power for half a century.  With an economic embargo, Fidel and company can blame any and all shortcomings of the regime on American aggression.  Regardless of the ineptitude of the government, the embargo stands as the great Yankee bogeyman that keeps Cubans, on the surface, loyal to the Communists in general and Fidel in particular.

Don’t just take my word for it.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently stated that the Castros “do not want to see an end to the embargo and do not want to see normalization with the United States, because they would then lose all their excuses for what hasn’t happened in Cuba in the last 50 years.”  Former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, wrote in his 2005 book Portraits and Profiles that Castro would be out of power within three months if the embargo was lifted.  Aznar’s words carry an interesting weight, considering that Spanish companies have worked extensively with the Cuban government, particularly in tourism.

Along with the Castros, the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) and its apparatus of terror also benefit from economic closure.  With an economic embargo comes an embargo of information, the perfect mix for paramilitary thugs to exact fear into the populace.  The Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs) and the Rapid Response Brigades function because the Cuban people have no independent access to information about any alternative to the status quo.

End the embargo, and the whole house of cards will come tumbling down.  Woe to the government spies, snitches and CDR block captains that day.  Old scores will be settled, neighbors may turn on each other, and the bloodshed may be too much to comprehend.

However, another wrinkle was added to this tale recently.  In order to collect hard currency to maintain their power, Fidel and Raul threw the Communist Manifesto out the window and opened limited investment in Cuba to foreign, non-US companies agreeing to joint ventures with the Cuban government.  Companies such as Spanish resort conglomerate Melia and Italian telecommunications giant Telecom Italia snaked into the Cuban economy, creating businesses and infrastructure to pump tourist cash into government coffers.  How happy would they be to have an embargo lifted, and Hilton Hotels, Coca-Cola and Verizon nipping at their heels? 

The Post-Castro Cuba, more questions than answers

Needless to say, lifting the embargo will be but one element in a process leading to what is widely considered a post-revolutionary Cuba.  

The next step involves supplanting the Castro regime.  All outside efforts to do so have failed, and the internal opposition is relatively rudderless, divided into factions that seldom work together.  An interesting article in the Journal of Democracy highlights the difficulties in creating regime change, even with the lifting of an embargo.

Even with a regime change, however, the massive volume of questions that need to be answered—in a relatively short time—would confound even our founding fathers.  Here is but a sampling:

  • Would the government maintain its current structure or change to something more in line with new ideologies? 
  • How would elections and political campaigns work? 
  • How would political parties organize? 
  • What would happen to the old PCC?  Would it be outlawed, like the Nazi party in Germany, or will it be reorganized as one political party among many? 
  • Would the PCC have to dismantle its apparatus of intimidation, the CDRs, Rapid Response Brigades, etc., in order to participate in democratic politics?
  • What is to become of former officers of the old regime, particularly ones considered “criminals”?
  • Would institutions of civil order and public maintenance be maintained?
  • What would be the military’s role in this new system?
  • How would Cuba re-define its relationship to the United States?
  • How would Cuba re-define its relationship to allies of the former government, such as Venezuela, Bolivia and Brazil?
  • How can the Cuban economy be changed to a capitalist model?  Should it be changed at all, or should there be a hybrid of capitalist and socialist elements?
  • If government businesses are to revert to private ownership, how will that process work?  Will former party leaders suddenly become billionaires as in Russia?  Will workers get first crack at shares in new corporations, with full voting rights to boards of directors as well as executive management?
  • What is to become of the business relationships made before the regime change?
  • How will services like education and health care—cornerstones of the propaganda of the previous regime—continue in the new system?
  • How will taxation work?
  • Will “full employment” continue to be the goal, or will the process of job creation and unemployment change?
  • How open is “open”?  Will information be open and accessible, or will some form of censorship exist?
  • What protections for basic rights will exist?
  • How will crime, law enforcement and incarceration be affected?
  • What is to be done about the “legacy” of the Cuban Revolution?  Should it be written out like a Stalinist purge, denounced loudly and openly, or integrated into the narrative of Cuban history, focusing both on accomplishments and failures?

This is but a fraction of the problems that will exist in the post-Castro island.  Few of them will be resolved right away, and with all regime changes comes some measure of bloodshed—some more than others.  My hope is that the process of transition will be as painless as possible. 

However, do not expect a Singapore or a Taiwan overnight: the socialist system will probably be  weaned slowly from Cuban society, rather than risking a massive revolution with potentially catastrophic side effects.

Finally, I wanted to get back to the original question about the embargo.  The tensions between Cuba and the United States, apart from strict ideology, also amount to a crisis of irrationality.  Embargos have a tendency to entrench longstanding hatreds and prejudices, and Cuba is no exception. 

The voices of reason and pragmatism, however, have been drowned out in the din of obstructionist rhetoric and ideological saber-rattling. 

The need for regime change is evident, at least in my eyes.  But I’m not naïve enough to say that a quick insurrection will make things great again.  The first step is normalization between the two countries.  Let reason and rationality prevail, utilizing points of political and economic convergence, and we the openings can happen sooner rather than later.

For the sake of Cuba and the United States, let’s hope and pray that reason can prevail.

And for all the Cubans in Miami and Union City, time to end with a little nostalgia.  Here’s a 1932 travel film about Havana.  Note the “newly” constructed Capitol building, as well as the snappy straw hats on the Prado.  Enjoy.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Videos for the (VERY mature) classroom: Drunk History featuring Nikola Tesla

CollegeHumor’s Drunk History series is now part of HBO Comedy’s Funny or Die troupe.  Nikola Tesla is featured, starring John C. Reilly, with Crispin Glover as Thomas Edison.  How electric! 

Okay, I really deserve a beating for such a lame last line.

Maybe to make amends, I shold make a Drunk History of my own.  Sometime in the near future, I’ll be doing a Drunk History of (surprise, surprise) the Cuban Revolution.  Fidel would be proud.  Anyone who wants to help, let me know. 

No, you can’t be the drunk…I’ll take care of that.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

This Day in History 5/5: The Battle of Puebla and “Cinco de Mayo”

Let’s be perfectly clear, once and for all.

Cinco de Mayo is NOT Mexico’s independence day.  That would be September 16, the day Mexico declared its independence from Spain.

And it was not an invention Corona and Jose Cuervo, either…despite what the marketing at happy hour tells you.

In 1861, Benito Juarez, president of Mexico, stopped all interest payments to Mexican loans from European countries.  Most countries wished to occupy the port of Veracruz until the debt was paid.  The French, however, tried their hand at occupation.

A 6,000 strong French army reached the town of Puebla, near Mexico City, in 1862.  They were the cream of France’s military, including Chasseurs d’Afrique (Hunters of Africa), feared colonial troops, Zouaves, and the French Foreign Legion.  The Mexican army totaled 4,500-4,600, mostly veterans of the Reform Wars, a civil war that swept through Mexico a decade earlier.  Though not exactly the ragtag army of legend, the Mexicans were perceived as outmatched.

Yet the French made a grave miscalculation.  They thought the local population would be friendly to the French invaders, since they were on the wrong side of the Reform Wars.  Those old animosities didn’t matter anymore.  After wasting their ammunition and a bad turn in the weather, the French were beaten back by the solid defense of the Mexican veterans. 

462 French soldiers died, with over 300 wounded and 8 taken prisoner.  The Mexicans lost only 83, with 131 wounded.  It would be the last time a European army would formally (emphasis on formally) attack a country in the Western Hemisphere.

Suprisingly, even though Benito Juarez declared a national holiday for May 5, it is not considered a federal holiday in Mexico today.  On this side of the border, Cinco de Mayo has degenerated further, from a celebration of Mexican culture to an excuse to get sloshed on bad margaritas and buckets of Corona.

So tonight, as you tie one on with your umpteenth tequila shot, remember why we celebrate today.  The video attached, while a little crude, gives most of the important details.

The Epilogue of the Cuba Chronicles will return next time.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized