SO FAR FROM GOD: THE U.S. WAR WITH MEXICO 1846-1848 by John S.D. Eisenhower, New York: Random House, 436 pp., illustrated, $24.95 THE Rio Grande isn't just a river; it's a memory hole. Too many Americans are aware of Mexico only in times of crisis, such as that precipitated by the current immigration and debt imbroglios. This Yankee amnesia applies not least to the war waged between the neighboring countries from 1846 to '48. (By contrast, the defeat - a severe blow to the young republic - still looms large in Mexico's national consciousness.)
The indifference north of the border to the war that brought the United States its great Southwest, including California, is attributable partly to the blinding glare of the far more cataclysmic Civil War, which broke out just 13 years after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed. But it's also due to Americans' continued uneasiness about the war. Many still regard it as a shameful land grab - Manifest Destiny run amok.
Retired Army Gen. John S.D. Eisenhower doesn't try in this splendid book to resolve the moral issue, which has divided historians and politicians since the outbreak of hostilities. What he does, with clarity and 'elan, is lift the war's military and political events out of the shrouding mists of time into the bright light of vivid detail, perceptively conveyed.
The drama featured a colorful cast. On the American side there was President James K. Polk, dry, humorless, secretive, a fanatic for detail, disliked by many of his contemporaries but elevated by history into the top ranks of US presidents; Gen. Zachary (Old Rough and Ready) Taylor, the hero of the first phase of the war, who was elected president in 1848; and the 6-foot, 5-inch military genius Gen. Winfield (Old Fuss and Feathers) Scott, who led the decisive, battle-punctuated drive from Veracruz to Chapultepec, culminating in the occupation of Mexico City. (Scott was the Whig candidate for president in 1852, but was defeated by his wartime subordinate, Franklin Pierce.) On the Mexican side, the dominating figure was the flamboyant, mercurial, on-again, off-again president, Antonio L'opez de Santa Anna, conqueror of the Alamo but eventual loser of the Texas war of independence in 1836.
Not surprisingly, the author's main interest is military strategy and operations. His set-piece battle descriptions are the backbone of the book. Aided by useful, uncluttered maps, the battle accounts can be readily followed by nonspecialists. The 16 months of combat saw an unbroken succession of US victories at places with names like Palo Alto, Monterrey, Buena Vista, Cerro Gordo, and Churubusco. But Eisenhower, quoting Wellington after Waterloo, notes that some of the clashes were ``a near run thing.''
The Yankees' task was made harder by the fact that in almost every battle, they were attacking Mexican troops behind well-fortified positions. The Mexican soldiers generally fought stubbornly, but in their political and military leadership they were ill served. Eisenhower concludes that the US artillery arm, which he judges to have been as good as any in the world at the time, made the difference. Still, more than in any 20th-century war, much of the killing was done at close quarters: by bayonet. (As in all 19th-century wars, though, the real killer - by a factor of 8 to 1 - was disease.)
As much as in their fighting prowess, the US troops distinguished themselves in their ability to drag kits, cannon, and 300-wagon supply trains over hundreds of miles of desolate terrain, with little water for the men or forage for the animals. They were, as the author writes, ``rough men in a rough age.''
Eisenhower sketches deftly, though in less detail, the political side of the war. It was unpopular with many Americans, including Whigs opposed to expansion by force and abolitionists concerned about the addition of new slave-holding territory. But public support never neared the snapping point, and when Polk left office in 1849, broken by overwork (he died within a few months), he had achieved his goal of extending the United States to the California coast.
The debate will go on over whether the Mexican War was reprehensible imperialism or merely hastened the inevitable. But as a feat of US arms, the conflict deserves better than to sink back into the historical mists, as this engaging book demonstrates.
More important, the author dedicates the book to ``a better understanding between Mexico and the United States.'' One wishes it Godspeed in accomplishing that goal.