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Pershing's Hunt for Pancho Villa
By Charles Matthews
San Jose Mercury News, 2006


A Review of "The General and the Jaguar" by Eileen Welsome


Generals die in bed, they say. It was true of Gen. John J. "Black Jack" Pershing, who died in Walter Reed Hospital in 1948 at the age of 87. Pershing was the only person other than George Washington to be given the rank of General of the Armies of the United States. Washington's honor was posthumously bestowed during the Bicentennial hoopla of 1976; Pershing received his in 1919 in recognition of his command of the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I.

The jaguar, Pancho Villa, wasn't so fortunate. He was gunned down by assassins in 1923. "Two and a half years later," Eileen Welsome writes, "someone opened Villa's grave and cut off his head. Neither the perpetrator nor the head was ever found." (See here for a few additional examples of weird stuff happening to dead people.)

Welsome's book, "The General and the Jaguar," is a well-paced narrative of the military expedition into Mexico led by Pershing after Villa and his troops crossed the border into the United States and, on the morning of March 9, 1916, attacked the "exceedingly ugly" little town of Columbus, N.M. They killed 10 townspeople and eight soldiers from Camp Furlong, a cavalry encampment adjacent to the town.

Villa is a more vivid figure than Pershing, carrying as he does the romantic aura that has surrounded daring rebels from Spartacus to Che Guevara. Welsome isn't out to debunk this image, but she wants to make us aware of Villa's flaws, including his cruelty. For example, heading back into Mexico after the raid, he stopped at a ranch owned by a cartel of American investors, where he ordered the members of the Mexican family who managed the ranch to supply him with fresh horses. When he was told there were none, he had the family brought before him and "ordered the men stripped and beaten with wet ropes. Then he ordered his soldiers to hang them, saying 'they were too damned American to live.'" The men were hanged until they lost consciousness, revived and interrogated, and then lined up against the wall and shot. But he spared the youngest member of the family, telling his mother she should thank him for doing so. "It was a gesture typical of Villa – a small, courtly courtesy after an unthinkable act of violence," Welsome comments.

By contrast, Pershing comes off as what he was: a stern, chilly, somewhat aloof, intensely self-disciplined officer. His distinguished service in the Spanish-American War and in the Philippines sped his rise to brigadier general, the rank he held during the hunt for Villa. He endured a crippling loss only a few months before the Mexican campaign when a fire in his house in the Presidio of San Francisco killed his wife and three daughters, sparing only his 5-year-old son. Stationed at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Pershing received the news by telegram. Emerging from his grief, Pershing assumed command of the expedition into Mexico, starting out on horseback but switching to "a low-slung Dodge touring car with an American flag on one bumper and his brigadier general's guidon flying from the other. Riding in the car with him were his orderly and his personal cook."

Villa had no such equipage, only a band of ragged loyalists and some conscripts gathered along the way. When one of the conscripts took a shot at him and wounded him in the leg, Villa was carried in a litter that couldn't travel more than two miles an hour. The jouncing added to the pain, which he tried to dull with gin. He cried out for someone to shoot him, and at one point dropped poison pills in the gin and drank it. He survived, probably because he hadn't let the pills dissolve. (Perhaps intentionally – Villa was not above manipulating his image of invincibility.)

Luck and cunning were on Villa's side. He successfully eluded the American forces, though their pursuit of him might have continued if the war in Europe hadn't loomed. On Feb. 5, 1917, less than a year after it started, the so-called Punitive Expedition ended, with Villa still on the loose. Two months later the United States declared war on Germany.

Welsome gives us nuanced portraits of both Pershing and Villa, but the strength of her book lies in its large supporting cast: the soldiers on both sides, the townspeople caught in the raid, the politicians inciting and capitalizing on the conflict, and many others. Among them is Maud Wright, who along with her husband was abducted by Villa's forces from their farm in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. Ed Wright was executed by the troops, but Maud rode with them as they moved north toward the attack; she was released just before it began. This tough survivor left behind a close-up account of the Villistas that's revealing and even a little sympathetic.

And then there's Pershing's later-to-be-famous aide, George S. Patton, well on his way to earning his nickname of "Old Blood and Guts." After he shot the horse out from under a Villista and then shot the man, Patton wrote to his wife: "You are probably wondering if my conscience hurts me for killing a man. It does not. I feel about it just as I did when I got my swordfish, surprised at my luck."

Welsome, a Pulitzer Prize-winner for her Albuquerque Tribune series on the government's secret radiation experiments, is a meticulous reporter who marshals facts well and keeps the story moving swiftly. Occasionally a purple haze wafts over her prose, as when she writes of "the political victims of the firing squads, who spun on their heels in the liquid light, the bullets turning them round and round until they collapsed in front of adobe walls stained dark with old blood." At other times she limps into cliché: A big ranch is inevitably described as "sprawling" and the reporters covering the campaign are, of course, "hard-drinking." But there are moments of felicity, too, such as her description of the airplanes, the Curtiss JN-3 "Jennies," that got their pioneering use as military vehicles: "Flimsy as negligees," she calls them.

What Welsome also does, to her credit, is resist the temptation to labor over the obvious parallels between the Punitive Expedition and later military campaigns in which technologically superior forces have tried to deal with insurgents and guerrillas on their own turf. Woodrow Wilson, she notes, "knew the presence of the U.S. troops in Mexico was destabilizing his presidency," but also that "there was no way that the troops could be withdrawn. National honor was at stake." Welsome lets the story - of an attack by foreign forces on U.S. soil, the racial and political turmoil it caused, the expense it necessitated, and the frustration it provoked - tell itself. It's a good story, even if it sounds painfully familiar.

-The End-

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