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A Wicked War by Amy S. Greenberg

The U.S. war with Mexico seems like a conflict that has been largely forgotten by the American public. Before I began my project, I couldn’t have told you one thing about it. I probably would have guessed that the Alamo was the principle battle of the war (it wasn’t), and that Sam Houston was probably involved (only on the periphery.)

I don’t remember ever learning about the war in school, and it certainly seems absent from popular culture. On one hand, it’s understandable. It falls quietly in that era betwixt the Revolution and the Civil War, two events that loom large in the American story. Its primary actors are a relatively obscure President (Polk), two relatively obscure generals (Scott and Taylor) and a pair of diplomats (Slidell and Trist.)

But I think another reason for the war’s anonymity might just be because it so significantly contradicts the story we tell ourselves about the early republic. It’s one we’d like to forget. As the title of Greenberg’s book attests, it was truly a ‘wicked’ little war, and one that leaves little to admire. Fortunately, this fascinating, highly readable account of it on the other hand, is an absolute joy.

Greenberg’s story is primarily a political one. If you’re looking for a military account of the conflict, John S.D. Eisenhower’s So Far From God still retains its status as the definitive telling. But I ended up finding a Kindle deal on A Wicked War, and then came across a perfect hardcover copy in Lexington for $3 as well, so I thought, ‘what the hell.’

And I’m so glad I did, because it really is a terrific book. Ms. Greenberg breaks her story into 4 parts. The lead-up to war, the war itself (in two parts), and its aftermath. She also weaves the lives of Henry Clay, the Polks, and, less obviously to me, Abraham Lincoln into her narrative. Clay and Polk make perfect sense for starring roles, of course. Clay was the leading voice of the Whig opposition to the war, and a critical political leader of the era. The Polks make for even more obvious protagonists as they occupied the White House during the conflict and were the primary instigators of it (Greenberg writes compellingly of Sarah Polk’s powerful influence). But Lincoln?

I initially assumed that Greenberg included his name on the cover as a ploy to sell books. I mean let’s face it, there is far more interest in anything regarding Lincoln than Polk, Clay or the Mexican War itself could ever hope to attract. But Greenberg integrates America’s 16th President slowly but surely into her storytelling in ways that not only serve to illuminate how America’s first anti-war movement began to take shape, but also to provide evidence of the critical pivot point of Lincoln’s political life.

After seeing Henry’s Clay’s famous Market Speech of 1847, in which he excoriates Polk, slavery and the war itself, it seems to transform Lincoln from an ambitious but still evolving politician mainly concerned with economic issues, into the nascent moral leader he would later become.

Greenberg takes some odd side roads as well that she still manages to pull off because of her skilled storytelling abilities, but could have possibly used some editing. For instance, after introducing U.S. representative John J. Hardin as a seemingly minor foil to Lincoln’s political aspirations, she soon warms to her subject, so much so that we experience the key battle of Buena Vista primarily through his eyes. And the story of his death and its aftermath, though powerfully told, goes on for far longer than I would have guessed (as do accounts of Clay’s grief at his son’s death in the same battle). Greenberg even, somewhat strangely, devotes her last chapter to Hardin’s daughter Ellen and her legacy as founder of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

And yet, despite these quibbles, the book never drags. Though I was sometimes left wondering where she was going with her narrative, I was swept along anyway, content to enjoy the ride, such was the quality of Greenberg’s prose.

Ultimately, it’s a sad story. The war was the first time that American journalists were embedded with the troops, exposing the travesties and brutality that no-doubt accompany most conflicts. Rape, murder, plunder and outright massacres were commonplace. Coupled with the fact that most Americans viewed the conflict as a cynical land grab, a race war, or an opportunity to either expand slavery or fulfill an ethnocentric Manifest Destiny across the continent (it was all of those things), and there’s not a lot to admire.

There is little glory in this tale, heaps of misery, and not much to applaud. Greenberg sums it up well, toward her conclusion:

The war raised fundamental questions, questions that proved too painful to answer at the time. After dismantling a neighboring republic for the sole purpose of aggrandizement, could the United States any longer make claims to altruism in international affairs? After Polk provoked a war and then lied to Congress about it, could presidents be trusted to behave honestly in matters of life and death? After annexing Mexico’s northwest, could the United States still contrast its acts with the imperialist oppression of its then-nemesis, Britain? Why had it been so easy to manipulate the American public to support a war as contrary to American principles as this one? How could the opposition party so readily surrender its objections as the Whigs did in 1846?

Throughout the book, I found myself drawing comparisons to future difficult conflicts, primarily the war in Vietnam, and the Iraq war. If we believe that history is cyclical, and those that don’t learn from it are condemned to repeat it, we find ample evidence of such within these remarkable pages.