Monday, March 21, 2016

The Chaco War: Part 1 - Introduction

I mentioned earlier that this year I wanted to run a long series on this peculiar little conflict, perhaps one of South America's most destructive (and least profitable) wars.
The Chaco War also intrigues me for its position in the evolution of modern warfare. Fought with many of the weapons of the First World War it included some of the techniques and tactics of the Second. It also serves as a reminder that the most common lesson learned from war is that often nobody learns the lessons of war; eighteen years after learning the hard way that human flesh cannot overrun machinegun fire no matter how determined the humans both sides in the Chaco repeatedly threw infantrymen into machinegun kill zones.

The other revelation of the war is how the composition and construction of the polities that fought it affected and, in some cases, were amplified by the fighting in the Gran Chaco.

In this post I'd like to briefly discuss the the territory that was fought over, the geopolitical situation, including the history that led up to the war, and the two sides that did the fighting.

First the basics. What we call "The Chaco War", Guerra del Chaco, took place primarily between 1932 and 1935 - although small-scale fighting began as early as February 1927 - between the nations of Bolivia and Paraguay. Both nations were small, both were landlocked, and both were relatively under-developed and either predominantly agricultural (Paraguay) or dependent on a single export (Bolivia, with tin being the export material).

The Chaco Boreal

The land of the war that began in 1932 is only a portion of what is called the Gran Chaco, one of South America's biogeographic regions. This, in turn, forms a part of a series of grasslands or savannahs that march across South America from southwest to northeast.

There's a good website supported by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization that discusses the biology and geography of the Chaco here (Riveros, 2002).

In it the Chaco - which, as noted, is a "...corridor of xeric (a climate that is characterized by mild, wet winters and warm, dry summers) vegetation extending from the caatinga in NE Brazil to the chaco in Argentina, via the cerrado savannahs..." of central Brazil - is the southwesternmost portion as well as the most arid, the westernmost portions being in the driest rain-shadow of the Andes Mountains.

The Gran Chaco itself is described in Riveros (2002) as:
"...located approximately between latitude 17° and 33° South and between longitude 65° and 60° West, is a vast plain that extends through northern Argentina, southeastern Bolivia, northwestern Paraguay and into a small area of southwestern Brazil. It stretches for about 1 500 km from north to south, and about 700 km from east to west, without any important physical barriers intervening."
While the portion of the Chaco that was fought over in the Thirties - the Chaco Boreal - is often described as a "desert" climatically it's not a true desert but ranges from fairly temperate near the eastern edge along the Paraguay River through a transition zone to semi-arid lands along the western edge near Bolivia.

Mind you, to those who fought in it it might as well have been a fucking desert. Here's the description of the Chaco contained in English (2007):
"The Gran one of the most unattractive places on earth. The Chaco Boreal, the northern portion of this unwholesome place, consists of a roughly triangular region of scrub desert lying between the Parapiti, Paraguay, and Pilcomayo rivers and is about 127,000 square miles (324,000km3) in area. The scrub is punctuated by open areas of tropical grass-land and isolated clumps of stunted trees, known respectively as cañadones and islas.

Daytime temperatures rising to over 40C can fall to below freezing at night. In Summer, the Chaco is a dusty, waterless hell-hole. During the rainy season (usually December to March) the all-permeating dust turns to a sea of mud. Inhabited only by a few small groups of nomandic Indians, it is otherwise the haunt of the Chaco Fox and the Jaguar, plus myriad stinging insects and poisonous reptiles."
So clearly not a tourist mecca, at least according to Mr. English.

The logical question the arises from this unflattering portrayal of the Chaco Boreal is, then, who their right minds would fight and kill over this shithole?

The Reasons Why


I'm not sure there's a simple answer. I can say this; the war was NOT about blood for oil.

I want to say that up front because the idea that the Chaco War was between Shell Oil and Paraguay versus Standard Oil and Bolivia is very widespread. Indeed, here's the very first sentence of the Wiki entry for "Chaco War": "The Chaco War (1932–1935) (Spanish: Guerra del Chaco, Guarani: Cháko Ñorairõ[9]) was fought between Bolivia and Paraguay over control of the northern part of the Gran Chaco region (known in Spanish as Chaco Boreal) of South America, which was thought to be rich in oil."

In the "Origins" paragraph the Wiki goes even further, saying: "The origin of the war is commonly attributed to a conflict between the oil companies Royal Dutch Shell backing Paraguay and Standard Oil supporting Bolivia.[10][need quotation to verify]"
This is not to say that oil interests weren't involved, or that the possession of potential petroleum deposits wasn't a consideration. But the two countries had been feuding over the Chaco almost since they had fought loose from Spain and needed no other encouragement to fight over it.

Bolivia, in particular, squawked every time Paraguay made a claim in or around the Chaco. In 1852 the Bolivians bitched about a navigation and commerce treaty between Argentina and Paraguay. A boundary treaty between Brazil and Paraguay in 1858 brought forth more pissing and moaning from Bolivia.

The real foundations for the war seem to have been laid largely between the 1870s, when Paraguay got hammered in the War of the Triple Alliance and Bolivia lost its Pacific coastline in the Pacific War against Chile.

The Bolivians now needed - or believed they needed, which is the same thing - a river port with access to the Atlantic. This meant in practice a Bolivian claim on the Paraguay River, and the tussling for position in the Chaco began in the 1880s and continued into the Twentieth Century.

At least three treaties disposing of the Chaco came and went between the 1880s and the 1900s with no resolution. Both sides wanted the Chaco and both sides wanted it all, as much for national pride and what they saw as the "national interests" as for any amount of oil or grazing rights or croplands.

The Combatants

Bolivia was generally considered the larger and stronger of the two nations, although it's hard to justify using the term "large" or strong" for either country. Hughes (2005) notes that:
"It had three times Paraguay’s population, an army three times as big and a rich minerals base with which it could sustain itself and earn foreign currency to buy arms. By contrast, Paraguay was extremely poor, had a very weak economy and the British War Office was not alone in concluding that ‘unless the Argentine takes a hand, Bolivia should win’ in any war against a pre-war 2400-strong Paraguayan army equipped with outdated weapons and one that the British did not consider to be a ‘very serious fighting force."
There were about 2.5 million Bolivians in 1932 and about 7 out of 10 of them were farmers, mostly living on the Altiplano, the high steppes above 10,000 feet. English (2007) notes that "(t)he population was highly stratified with little social cohesion or interactions between the three major racial elements..." which consisted of about 60% more-or-less pure native Aymara- and Quechua-speakers, 30% mestizo, and 10% more-or-less pure Spanish "...who regarded each other with a suspicion bordering on outright hostility."

English (2007) emphasizes that among the native majority who would come to make up the rank-and-file of the Bolivian troops in the Chaco "(t)here was no feeling of national identity...who spoke two different and mutually unintelligible languages...and few of whom even spoke Spanish...with any fluency."

Compared to this perhaps the single greatest strength of Paraguay was social. "Almost uniquely in American history..." English (2007) notes "...native and colonist mingled peacefully from the outset, possibly because the lack of mineral wealth ensured that the country attracted relatively few of the latter."

The result was a relatively homogeneous population, 95% or so of mixed Spanish and Guarani heritage that spoke both languages relatively fluently.

Both nations were, relative to the giants of South America like Brazil and Argentina, poor, agricultural, and backward. Paraguay had a fair transport network based on river traffic but in both countries roads typically ranged from poor to nonexistent. Bolivian railways were concentrated in the southwest while Paraguay had only a single main line that ran southeast from the capital to the Argentine frontier.

Neither country had anything like an industrial base, let alone a domestic arms industry; all war materials would have to be procured from the outside.

Both countries were politically volatile to put it mildly. During the seven-year reign of strongman Manuel Isidoro Belzú Humérez Bolivia endured 42 attempted coups. Paraguay's history was just as bad, or worse. The relatively tranquil presidency of Carlos Antonio Lopez was succeeded by that of his son, Francisco Solano who, as English (2007) delightfully puts it; "...was unfortunately an unbalanced megalomanic who embarked on a suicidal five-year-long conflict against the Triple Alliance of Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay."

This conflict, by the way, may be the only war in South America outside the Chaco that made less sense. Paraguay never had a hope and was effectively destroyed; something like half of all the original half-million-odd Paraguayans died, including all but about 30,000 men. England (2007) coyly suggests that the Brazilian army of occupation "sired a new generation" of Paraguayans and adds that the remainder of the Nineteenth Century Paraguay's history was "...punctuated by...abortive rebellions, revolutions, and full-scale civil wars..."

In short, neither polity was well-prepared, or well-positioned, to spend blood and treasure on a war over some insalubrious scrubland.

Which, as history has proved, has never stopped any group of people from going to war when they really wanted to.

The Sources

One of the most difficult aspects of the Chaco War is that it is extremely poorly covered in English, and even the Spanish-language sources are not extensive. The two most commonly used English-language references are Adrian English's 2007 The Green Hell: A Concise History of the Chaco War between Bolivia and Paraguay, 1932–1935 and Bruce Farcau's 1996 The Chaco War: Bolivia and Paraguay, 1932–1935.

The English work concentrates more on the purely military, while the Farcau book is more of a general history. Unfortunately English (2007) is not particularly readable and its maps - critical for a work of military history - are pretty awful. The Osprey company has issued a volume covering the war which is almost solely valuable for its pictures and uniform plates; the text is sparse and tends to complicate rather than explain the military operations it purports to cover.

A useful little work is Matthew Hughes' 2005 Logistics and the Chaco War: Bolivia vs. Paraguay, 1932–1935 originally published in The Journal of Military History, Volume 69, pp. 411–437 but available online here.

Online the situation is similar; the sources are there, but sparse.

The website The Gran Chaco War 1928-1935 presents an excellent overview of the conflict, especially the air war.

Although the text is in Spanish the Naval History and Archaeology website's archive of the memoirs of Paraguayan combat surgeon Carlos de Sanctis is an trove of photographs from the good doctor's wartime experiences. Be warned that Doc de Sanctis didn't censor his photos, and there's some pretty grim stuff there.
Gary Brecher has his own unique take as The War Nerd, of course.

So that's the where, the when, the who and to some extent the why. Next time we'll talk about the "how" the two opposing forces that met in the nastiest battleground on Earth.


Leon said...

Glad you keep finding interesting content. Looking forward to the rest.

Ael said...

Leon: I agree.

Chief: Please continue.

FDChief said...

I've been thinking about this one for a while; having a hard time getting the references together for it, tho...

Stay tuned. Much more to come.

Don Franscisco said...

looking forward to next installment chief

Brian Train said...

Thanks for this Chief; looking forward to the next instalment. I was out of town last week so didn't see this right away.