Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Chaco War

A little noted but dramatic, and locally consequential, war in South America in the 1930's is covered in the Summer 2009 edition of Military History Quarterly. I have seen allusions to this war a number of times over the years but don't think I have ever seen more than a two paragraph explication. I knew that it was over a large area of land of no known value and involved a horrific casualty rate for both belligerents, Paraguay and Bolivia. The article, Battle in the Barrens, is not yet posted on the internet but eventually should show up here.

The Chaco War (1932-1935) involved Bolivia's aspiration to gain access to the sea by acquiring an area of scrub land constituting half of Paraguay, which would give it a port on a river to the South Atlantic. Bolivia was twice the size of Paraguay in terms of population and much richer in terms of industry, mines, agriculture and general wealth. It spent much of the 1920's acquiring weapons and developing its army with the explicit goal of being able to take over the Chaco Region from Paraguay. Not unlike Spain, arms merchants from all over Europe were happy to provide the weapons of choice. Unlike Spain, this long running war never attracted political or military obervers or volunteers. In fact, it was scarcely reported at all despite the high human toll, and the use of many tactics and weapons that presaged World War II.

Despite it's wealth, the size of its army, the modern weaponry it had acquired, and generalship from a German World War I veteran, Bolivia's invasion was ultimately defeated by brilliant leadership on the part of Paraguay's top generals and by the raw courage and patriotism of the line soldier. But at a tremendous cost. Nearly 10% of the adult male population was killed or wounded in the war, a casualty rate hardly ever met in any other modern conflict.

President Salamanca, President of Bolivia, commenting on the performance of his military's leadership, "I have given them everything they asked for. But I could not give them brains."

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