The War Nerd: Land of the Flies
I love Paraguay. I’ve never been there and probably never will. But that doesn’t get in the way of loving a place. In fact, not visiting the countries you like is probably the best way to stay fond of them. One reason to like Paraguay is they don’t get any credit. If you still have old-school bound atlases at your local library, try to find Paraguay in one. It’ll always be near the back, stuck in the middle of the page so you have to put a breeze block on the book to see anything. And the part of Paraguay I’m writing about today, the Gran Chaco, is the most obscure part of the most obscure country in this hemisphere.
I’ve already written about Paraguay’s glorious defeat in the War of the Triple Alliance, when Paraguay held off the combined armies of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay for five long years until it was all but wiped out. When the survivors finally surrendered in 1870, the pre-war population of 1.3 million was reduced to 220,000.
Paraguay lost land as well as people, ending the war as a blob of territory on the right bank of the Paraguay River.
So, since June 12 is the 78th anniversary of the end of the Chaco War, Paraguay’s one great military victory, I thought I’d try to give the place a little of the credit it deserves. This one’s for you, Paraguay.
Between the end of the War of the Triple Alliance in 1870 and the beginning of the Chaco War in 1932, there’s not much to be said about Paraguay. There’s not much you can do, in a country reduced to the population of Santa Barbara (and about one-thousandth the annual income). It’s always been easy to forget Paraguay; somebody called it “an island surrounded by land,” and the land surrounding it is mostly uninviting scrub or desert. The good land was on the east bank of the river. The west bank was the beginning of a badlands called the Chaco, a flat plain made from the scree of the Andes spilled over the last few million years. These young mountain ranges make a lot of alluvial trash, but those steep young mountains make a nice rain shadow too. The eastern part of the Chaco, near the big river, gets a little rain, but the western part gets almost none. It gets drier and drier until it hits the eastern wall of the Andes, up to the Altiplano where the Bolivians enjoy that year-round cool and low oxygen.
You might think that at least deserts offer some good visuals—movie directors love deserts, you’ll notice—but the Chaco manages to miss that one attraction. Just to be annoying, it’s one of those confusing forested deserts, like the Kalahari. There’s a thick growth of dry, brushy trees in parts of the Chaco, most of them sporting excellent little collections of thorns and poison. And there’s plenty of wildlife, if you count laptop-sized spiders, leeches, mosquitoes, and resourceful little flying entrepreneurs that love to lay their eggs in any exposed portion of the human body. Plenty of warmth, too; it’s one of the hottest parts of the continent, with summer temperatures that hit 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit) even back in the 1930s, when most of the earth was nice and cool.
In other words, not even Steve Jobs come back to life in a Century 21 blazer could have found a buyer for that real estate. Then…well, you could just cue up the theme song from “Beverly Hillbillies” here: “…When up from the ground come a bubblin’ crude/Oil, that is…” At least the petrochemical giants thought so. They were already pumping oil from Eastern Bolivia, in the foothills of the Andes, and their geologists told them that the Chaco was likely to hold much more.
They were wrong, as it turned out. The Chaco seems like one of those parts of the world that’s cursed, or just plain hates people. The more you read about the place the more it seems like a big dry Amityville Horror, a landlocked Bermuda Triangle. I can see some mean geological fault muttering, “Squirt a little goo up there to the surface, fool the bastards into starting a war for the place…”
And that’s what happened. Bolivia, which had never shown any interest at all in the low, hot Chaco, suddenly claimed almost all of it, right down to the big river, as part of the national patrimony. Bolivian criollo groseros who sweated at the very thought of descending below 12,000 feet were suddenly singing patriotic songs about the glorious Quebracho trees of the Chaco.
The Bolivians had another reason to want the Chaco: They were landlocked, just like Paraguay. They were, and still are, the only landlocked countries on the continent. Paraguay always had been, but Bolivia had lost its coast in the War of the Pacific in 1883. Bolivia’s coastline wasn’t much, just a chunk of the Atacama, driest desert in the world, but there’s something about becoming landlocked that messes with people’s heads. Bolivians still get together to chant “Queremos nuestro mar!” every March to remind themselves they lost their link to the wider world.
That new isolation forced the white Bolivian elite to look east, for once, and notice that if they held the Chaco, they could use the Paraguay River to reach the Atlantic. Like the saying goes, God never grabs your Pacific coastline but he slips you a shortcut to the Atlantic. Not as good—even you easterners know that your little Atlantic isn’t much—but better than sitting up on the Altiplano trying to console yourself with coca and potatoes.
So there are our two fighters, Paraguay and Bolivia, circling each other as the Great Depression starts—both defeated, both landlocked, both dirt poor, both convinced the same Chaco that neither of them ever wanted to set foot in is now the key to a national renaissance. Both, you’ll notice, had lost to the “European” countries of the south—Bolivia beaten by the Chilean “rotos” and Paraguay ripped apart by the Argentines, who solved their native problem the simple way (outright extermination) and considered themselves more European than anybody else on the continent.
In 1927 the classic “border incidents” got underway. A Paraguayan officer was killed by Bolivian troops and instantly became a martyr. From 1928 to the big war started in 1932, there were dozens of skirmishes over the “fortins” (outposts) both countries were setting up in the Chaco. These “fortins” are still the only places of note in the Chaco. Look at a map of Paraguay today and you’ll see that west of the big river, nearly every spot marked is “Fortin” Something— partly in commemoration of the war, partly because once the war was over people realized they didn’t want to live in that Hellhole after all, so it’s as empty as ever.
South America in the 1920s was full of commercial agents, spies, and mercenaries from all over the world, so both countries had sponsors, “allies,” big backers ready to dump them if things went the other way. Standard Oil was in tight with the criollos in La Paz, so Standard was cheering for Bolivia. Shell Oil, hoping to use its Argentine/Paraguayan connections to get the rights to the Chaco fields, backed Paraguay.
Even the European powers had proxies in the war. Germany had sent “advisors” to Bolivia before WW I, and one of them, Hans Kundt, had come back to La Paz after commanding a regiment on the Eastern Front. Now I’m not one to preach, as a rule, but brethren and sistern, the story of the Bolivian elite’s child-like trust in Hans Kundt is a parable on why it’s wrong to stereotype. Yes, not just when those stereotypes are negative but also—in fact, especially—when they’re positive. Kundt was a German general; German generals are good generals. So goes the stereotype. Hans Kundt spent the entirety of the Chaco War disproving that stereotype. Like our own McClellan of evil memory, Kundt had a great rep as an organizer and trainer. His Bolivian troops loved him for the simple reason that he actually cared whether they got shoes, food, uniforms and other such fripperies that their criollo officers considered beneath their notice.
If Kundt had stayed behind the lines running logistics, the Bolivians might have won. Some of their home-grown officers were good, a lot of them veterans of the Western Front. But the ingrown elite in La Paz, convinced like every other gang of hicks that foreign is always better, put Kundt in command of the Army as it prepared to engage the Paraguayans.
The Paraguayans had two White Russian officers working for them, Ern and Belaieff. And just like Kundt these two were fighting the stereotypes, because they were actually good officers and an asset to the Paraguayans. Some Paraguayan officers had served with the French Army in the Great War, and General Estigarribia, the damned effective peasant commander of the Paraguayan forces, had trained at St. Cyr. But Paraguay’s biggest backer was Argentina, their bitter enemy in the great War of the Triple Alliance. Argentina was riding very, very high in the early 20th century. It’s hard to recall now how up-and-coming they seemed back then. Argentina won WW I the smart way: by staying out and selling meat to everybody dumb enough to get involved. Celine even mentions the Argentine beef dealers who are screwing his girlfriend in “Journey to the End of the Night.” In fact, it’s as Bardamu is sulking, waiting for her to come back from play-for-pay con los vendadores de carne that he says the single greatest line ever written: “I was a cuckold in everything — in women, in money, in ideas.”
Argentina considered Paraguay a vassal state, and backed it as far as possible while maintaining official neutrality. A good few Argentines volunteered with the Paraguayan Army. It’s thanks to one of them, Doctor Carlos de Sanctis, that you can see an excellent photographic memoir of the first campaign of the war, the Boqueron Advance of 1932.
Dr. de Sanctis was a decent, ordinary, cultured young man of good family. You can see him in his portrait as an Argentine soldier, squinting nearsightedly in his Prussian-style spiked helmet. He admits that he had an interest in military matters, like every other nearsighted nerd ever born, but he also considered the Paraguayan claim to the Chaco “a just cause.” So did most Argentines, since the newspapers were running up a classic 20th-century war fever. So he enrolled as a medical officer in the Paraguayan force heading north. They headed up the Paraguay River, a four-day trip, and got off at Puerto Casado, due east of their objective, “Fortin Boqueron,” an outpost that had been stormed by the Bolivians before the official start of the war. From Puerto Casado they rode what looks like a small-guage train to Km 145, got off and started heading southwest toward Fortin Boqueron.
Doctor de Sanctis and his fellow soldiers started off riding in a fleet of cars, trucks, and buses. Paraguay, which has always been a united, enthusiastic little country, had nationalized every motor vehicle in the cities, including school buses. But the Chaco soon took care of them. They broke down, and were instantly cannibalized for parts. Then the cannibals broke down too, and there were no spares. For the rest of the war, there were two modes of land transport in the Chaco: feet and mules. And even mules were difficult to keep alive in that horrible wooded desert. There wasn’t enough water for the troops, let alone horses. Horses take a huge amount of water. That’s why Saharan armies never used them in war. To carry enough water for one horse, you need three camels. Better to go into battle on the camel.
What you learn from Dr. de Sanctis’s incredible photo journal is that for him, the war was only very occasionally about meeting the enemy. It was about the misery of daily life in the fuckin’ army (only he’d never say that because they had manners in them days). And most of all, the misery of life in the Chaco.
He hates the Chaco, and after you’ve finished his journal you will too. I kind of want to go there now, just to hate it up close and personal. It’s got to be one of the weirdest Hellholes on the planet. Take butterflies. Nice, purty li’l butterflies. In the Chaco, they’re a nightmare. I had to look up the word “oruga,” which he uses over and over to describe some nightmare creature of the Chaco. Turns out it means “caterpillar,” and these butterfly larvae swarm over every campsite. They’re about two or three inches long, “very warm and soft,” he says, and pop at the lightest touch, smearing you with worm goo. He actually marks with a cross every horrible caterpillar that shows up on photos of his ad hoc operating tables in the bush, so you can see how the nasty little critters were trying to crawl up onto the body of the man he was trying to save. In another photo, he places his boot in a mound of them, millions making a little hillock.
When they pupate, they emerge as white butterflies that look like white hail in some of his photos. Then there are the huge bird-eating spiders. Well, something has to eat the nice butterflies, but God, does it have to look like this? He shows one of these spiders with the caption, “Here she is attacking the stick which has annoyed her.” Don’t annoy the bird-eating spiders, please.
Then there are the ants, who build giant nests every few feet of the way. And the worms that infest the puddles the men have to drink from—and, as Dr. de Sanctis explains, there was no other water and no time to boil this filthy stuff on the march, so you drank it or died of thirst. A lot of the soldiers did, in fact, die of thirst. This war is still remembered in Paraguay as “La Guerra de la Sed”—“The Thirst War.”
Ever been thirsty? I have, a couple of times, trying to walk in those hot California hills. I’m not claiming that was anywhere near what these poor guys went through, just that in my tiny little experience of it, thirst is a million times worse than hunger. There was an interesting story a while back in Arizona: two guys, pals from high school, driving across the country, decided to take a day hike in Arizona. Pulled off the road, wandered around, headed back—couldn’t find the car. No water. A ranger found them next day, but after one afternoon of real thirst, one of the two guys had been in so much misery that he begged his friend to stab him to death. Which the friend did.
The troops on both sides lived in that misery every day for the duration. Belly wounds weren’t even treated. As de Sanctis explains, abdominal wounds weren’t always fatal in civilian life, but in the Chaco, if your peritoneum was ruptured, you were going to die. If you had a kindly doctor, he might speed you along with an OD. de Sanctis has a photograph of a corpse surrounded by 20 vials of Morphine: A Bolivian medical officer who was so sick of the flies and the heat and the thirst and amputating legs without even a bone saw that he shot himself up again and again til he died. (Though the Doctor doesn’t say so, I kinda think that if it took 20 vials to kill him, this Bolivian doctor had been dulling the pain on a pretty regular basis for a while. Hope he didn’t inject water into screaming casualties to save the good stuff for himself.)
The battle for Fortin Boqueron had turned into a siege. A siege, in the Chaco. That would be excellent training for Hell, sweating and digging out the fly larvae that were always burrowing into every bit of exposed skin. The Paraguayans investing the outpost had to bring water from their HQ at Isla Poi, 20 miles away. In the Chaco, “Isla” means a hummock where trees and brush grows. It stands out above the scrabby grasslands, but in it’s on the “Isla” that you get water, not the sea of grass around it. Water carried by man or mule in that heat, in an old leather or metal bag…it just don’t bear thinkin’ about.
But the Bolivians were in worse shape. Their well had been contaminated with corpses, human and otherwise. They drank a kind of meat soup made out of their former comrades and beasts of burden. The Bolivian Air Force, which was (like a lot of South American Air Forces, e.g. the Argentine AF in the Falklands War) a very professional outfit, tried to drop supplies, but water was too heavy, so they stuck to food and ammunition. The net results were: a bag of bread (just what you’d want when you were dying of thirst), some cartridges, and dried meat. Nice’n’salty.
On September 12, five days after the siege began, the Paraguayans defeated a relief column. From then on, it was just who could stand the most pain. The Paraguayans finally ran completely out of water and their commander ordered an attack, probably figuring his men were in no mood to mind dying. The Bolivians surrendered on September 29.
The war ground on until 1935, but the Paraguayans held a fairly steady advantage. They were lowland people, used to the heat, unlike the Bolivians. The short, barrel-chested Quechua and Aymara men who filled the Bolivian ranks couldn’t bear the heat and thirst. Of course, the fact that the Bolivian Army had sent them in wool uniforms didn’t help.
The fact that the Bolivian army consisted of criollo officers ordering Indian privates to charge into machine guns didn’t help either. It’s a pity they didn’t frag a few of their officers instead of firing at the enemy. The Paraguayans were, and are, a different story: the whole country is Mestizo except for the 20th-century Mennonites and other assorted Germans, and Paraguayans are proud to speak Guarani as well as Spanish. There was an entire nursing unit staffed with the debutante elite of Asuncion, who volunteered in keeping with a vow they’d made years before at a restaurant in Paris. You didn’t find the debutantes of La Paz coming down from their cool mansions to tie off arteries in the Chaco.
And then there was General Kundt, who was like McClellan in all ways but one: Instead of running from the enemy, he believed in direct charges over open fields into the Vickers guns that both sides had in big numbers. Doctor de Sanctis supplies photographs of the killing fields that resulted, with his orderly little X’s marking where Bolivian corpses were found.
Kundt ordered a general advance in January 1933, right into the multi-layered defenses the Paraguayans had built up around their Fortin Nanawa outpost. They had tree platforms for snipers and machinegunners, triple trench lines, wire, the lot. It was 18 years since Pancho Villa had learned the hard way, at Celaya, that the lessons of WW I held on this side of the Atlantic too: Infantry can’t charge machine guns and barbed wire. The first attack failed completely; Kundt, thinking like a real Army of the Potomac commander, decided the problem was that he hadn’t piled up enough surplus artillery, planes and troops. He massed an even bigger, fancier force, attacked again — and lost 2000 men. Even the Criollos in La Paz were starting to realize that not all German generals know their arseloch from ein loch im boden.
The Paraguayans had learned the basics of later Great War tactics, if Kundt hadn’t. They counterattacked, using the classic pincers to cut off the big Bolivian strongpoint at Fortin Alihuata. The Bolivians were trapped. 2,500 died in failed breakouts, and in December 1933 8,000 Bolivian soldiers, with their rifles, artillery and even a couple of useless tanks surrendered.
The war didn’t formally end for another two years, but it was obvious to everyone that Paraguay — a country with the population of San Francisco — had defeated Bolivia, a country twice its size, with a much better-equipped air force and armor. Pretty damned amazing.
And yet, the more I looked over Doctor de Sanctis’s photo journal, the less easy it was to make this the celebration of Paraguayan valor I’d intended. More like a nature-documentary scripted by Schopenhauer or Lovecraft. I’m sure the real winner was that Evil Dead Chaco, the landscape itself, and those caterpillars, and those meat-eating flies.