Fighting For The Other Side

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“Rat!” screamed the tabloid headlines when John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban,” was hauled out of a prison basement in Afghanistan and into the public limelight. Media commentators had a field day projecting their obsessions onto Mr. Lindh. The conservative critic Shelby Steele attributed his defection to “a certain cultural liberalism” to be found in California, and one right-wing pundit called for his execution “in order to physically intimidate liberals.” The New York Times pointedly contrasted Lindh’s childhood with that of John Spann, the young CIA agent killed in Afghanistan and raised in Georgia.

This is silly, of course, implying as it does that geographical location in the United States can be weighed in terms of virtue or vice. To associate character with birthplace is to denigrate the personal heroism Spann displayed in laying down his life for his country, and it turns out that Lindh spent half his childhood in Maryland. In any case, his Internet rants against rock music and Western cultural decadence were hardly indicative of Marin County.

John Lindh’s fate is in the hands of the court, and the furor surrounding his case has died down, at least for the moment. Yet we should keep in mind just how absurd it is to determine who a “real” American is by place of birth. In another time, in another conflict, this sort of politically driven opportunism came close to jeopardizing our entire war effort and may have cost us the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of American soldiers. It also led one American not only to fight for the other side but to form a whole battalion of fellow deserters to join him, and he is still remembered in some quarters as a hero for doing so.

The Mexican War has nearly vanished from our collective consciousness now but it was a critical event in the building of the American nation. The war added 529,000 square miles to the physical territory of the United States and divided the nation along fault lines that presaged the Civil War. No war in our history would witness more brilliant feats of American arms; no war would provoke such wholesale dissent, desertion, and even treason.

The military history of the war reads like a boys’ adventure novel, full of epic marches over gruesome terrain, followed by astonishing victories against overwhelming odds. The tiny American Regular Army and thousands of volunteer militiamen fought with unsurpassed valor, under the brilliant leadership of Gens. Winfield Scott and Zachary Taylor and a veritable “dream team” of Civil War legends to be.

At the same time, as Robert Ryal Miller relates in his book Shamrock and Sword , many Americans viewed the whole conflict as an ill-concealed effort by President Polk and his fellow Southerners to slap thousands of new miles of slave territory onto the map. This was, after all, the war that led Henry David Thoreau to write his essay Civil Disobedience , and a congressional freshman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln to claim it had been started by “the sheerest deception.”

A more serious dissension grew in the ranks. Out of nearly 41,000 Regular soldiers who served in Mexico, no fewer than 5,331, or nearly 13 percent, deserted, a figure that had never been approached in the U.S. armed forces. What was going on? There were, of course, the usual privations of Army life: bad food, poor shelter, boredom, disease. But two additional factors loomed large: religion and ethnicity.

A substantial number of the American forces and of the deserters were immigrants born in Germany or, especially, Ireland. According to Peter F. Stevens, in his meticulously researched history The Rogue’s March: John Riley and the St. Patrick’s Battalion , out of some 5,000 “Irishmen” in the ranks, nearly 1,000 went over the hill, along with 445 Germans and 457 men born in other European countries.

Many of the Irish could barely have considered themselves Americans, having walked straight off the “coffin ships” from their famine-ravaged homeland and into the Army. They also walked straight into the rising nativist, anti-immigrant tide of the late 1840s. Citing numerous letters, memoirs, and court-martial records, Stevens shows that the deserters were bitterly resentful over what they saw as a double standard of military justice. European-born troops were routinely cursed as “foreigners” by nativist, “American” officers. They were also whipped, beaten, branded, chained, and subjected to such evocatively named punishments as “riding the horse,” the “barrel top,” and the “buck-and-gag” for the smallest infractions or mistakes in drill. Feelings between some of the officers and men deteriorated to where officers were attacked. Braxton Bragg, then a brilliant but particularly harsh commander of artillery, survived two separate attempts by his men to kill him by rolling a lit shell into his tent as he slept.

IN MEXICO, 13 PERCENT OF THE REGULARS DESERTED, A FIGURE THAT HAD NEVER BEEN APPROACHED IN THE U.S. ARMED FORCES.

Hundreds of soldiers began to desert even before war was officially declared, diving into the Rio Grande and swimming over to the Mexican army in Matamoros. They were lured by a series of clever propaganda pamphlets that promised them better pay, higher ranks, acres of land, and the chance for American Catholic troops not to fight an unjust war against their fellow believers.