Sunday, November 08, 2009

When Revisionism Swings Too Far to the Other Side: A New Book on the War of the Triple Alliance

While this book has the potential to be interesting, this review raises my eyebrows immediately. There is no doubt that the War of the Triple Alliance was an absolute bloodbath; Paraguay did in fact lose 90% of its male population, something which (unsurprisingly) took its toll for generations. Still (and this is only based on the review, which may itself be problematic), I have a lot of problems with the way it seems to characterize events and take sides. Certainly, Lynch's role has been overstated in popular culture and earlier histories of the war - no doubt, she was much more complicated than simple villification makes her out to be. And her reputation as the "whore" who fueled the war may still exist among popular culture in Brazil (though I never saw any books or heard anybody talking about her in discussions on the war, of which I did have some).

However, I have never seen a historical work in the last 30 years that focused on Lynch, or even really gave her much credence, other than to acknowledge that, at the time of the war, she was a convenient scapegoat. Most histories of the war focus on the fact that the war was brutal for both sides (though because Paraguay's population was smaller, it naturally suffered more, as Brazil could simply outlast it). They document how there was plenty of blame to go around in the start of the war, and that there were multiple diplomatic and military aggressors, including Brazil and Paraguay. Additionally, these histories do a good job of detailing atrocities on both sides, not just in terms of battles, but in terms of racist propaganda. Brazil portrayed Paraguay as a backward mix of indigenous peoples and Spanish, while Paraguay portrayed Brazil as a degenerate slave society (with racial implications as well). Additionally, the Paraguayan people and troops were extremely devoted to Solano Lopez, and the fact that he did not ever surrender did play a role in the casualties; as long as he fought, Paraguayans seemed ready to follow him. By simply saying, "It wasn't Lynch's fault - Brazil was genocidal!" really ignores the complexities of the causes and events of the war.

Perhaps most egregious in this reassigning of blame, though, is the overlooking of the causes of deaths. Nearly two-thirds of those on both sides who died in the War of the Triple Alliance died from disease and malnutrition, and cholera ravaged both armies. While war exacerbates these conditions, it's kind of hard to take seriously claims that Brazil (or Paraguay) actively committed "genocide" against the troops and people. And to be clear, I'm not saying this out of defense of Brazil - it certainly did commit atrocities during the war, as did Paraguay. However, the review makes it seem that this biography completely overlooks these complexities and facts, all in the name of rehabilitating somebody who at this point has really fallen to the margins of the narratives and analyses of the War of the Triple Alliance.

I still may try to check out the book sometime; it's quite possible that the review is overlooking many complexities within the book by focusing on the revival of Lynch's reputation. Still, at least based on the review (not to mention the fact that two Irishmen are writing a revisionist history of an Irish woman, not exactly the most apolitical move), this smacks of writers swinging too far to the other side in the telling of a story, simply switching out its villains (in this case, Lynch for Brazil at large), and that's the worst kind of revisionism possible. If you really want to learn about the war and its effects in Brazil, I'd stick to Peter M. Beattie's excellent work, and leave the revisionist biographies on the shelf.