A topic that is not discussed often, the Mexican-American War is considered to be a forgotten war despite the context of the war driving the United States to the brink to its own Civil War. Paul Foos’ book, A Short, Offhand, Killing Affair, examines the Mexican-American War through the lens of the soldiers. He uses primary source documents from journals, eyewitnesses and newspapers to describe the social, economic, and cultural conflicts that plagued the United States in the nineteenth century and how it shaped the war. While many would write off the Mexican-American War as another war in the attempt for Manifest Destiny, Foos provides an alternative viewpoint that portrays the war as a catalyst for the racial division and class struggle that was emerging in a growing industrial society.
Foos’ objective is two-fold. First, he tries to show that perspectives on the war differed between each soldier. Second, he tries to relate the war to the broader context in which it played out, from the wholesale of the ideology of Manifest Destiny by political elites and military recruiters to the development of systems of class domination that was forming in the United States and the status of soldiers. In completing this objective, Foos hopes to prove his thesis that the Mexican-American War highlighted the issues that left the US Army divided and in need of correction.
Foos begins his book by exploring the socioeconomics of the United States and being a soldier in the nineteenth century leading up to the war. He asserts that the relationship between the government and the soldier was that of a wage worker deprived of an actual wage. In the years after 1837, wages for citizens had dropped by more than half as a result of a depression, however, even then the wage was still double that of a common soldier, (p. 15). He goes on to explain that while wage work put people at the bottom of society, being a regular soldier was an occupation that remained a “static and inferior position in society” (p. 24). Even within the army, class demarcated one soldier from another. During the depression years following 1837, army recruitment was still low despite lost wages from other wage-working job. As a result, the army took to the recruitment of marginalized immigrants, like the Irish and Germans, that continued to be marginalized the duration of their enlistment (pp. 24-25).
Foos’ examination of the mobilization for war, focuses on this idea that Herrenvolk (German for “Master Race”) had become the new form of political and economic democracy amongst military hierarchy, which seemed to become the new sales pitch for recruiters in getting people to join the military by falsely promising the chance for plunder, equality for whites and the privilege of “personal dominance over inferiors” (pp. 5, 58). Foos attempts to distinguish the regulars from the volunteers in order to show the animosity between the units. He asserts regulars despised volunteers because the pay was the same harder despite enlistment contracts that kept regulars enlisted for 5 years often resulting in regulars deserting, (pp 23-24). As for the volunteers, they were differentiated by the volunteers’ crueler behavior towards Mexican citizens, (p. 113). However, after this point, Foos’ argument falls flat. In an attempt to distinguish the two sides of the US Army, Foos inadvertently creates a common ground in which these soldiers found themselves. It is clear that every soldier, regular or volunteer, had been disillusioned by the ideology of Herrenvolk and Manifest Destiny. For the regulars, desertion (even to the enemy) and pillaging of Mexican citizens came in response to oppressive leadership, degrading servitude and lack of pay. The volunteers committed crimes not out of retaliation to harsh punishment or severe discipline but from expectations of plunder and reward that was derived from their ideas of Manifest Destiny and prejudiced nationalism, (pp. 113-114). Overall, Foos believes that the Mexican-American War allowed for soldier communities to form loose confederations to achieve “state-sponsored” murder in pursuit of US nationalism, (p. 116).
The evidence presented depicts, as Foos calls it, “wars within wars” that produced the ironic dilemma of Herrenvolk ideology, an expansion towards racial and class dominance, (p. 59). However, the people instrumental (Germans and Irish) for the Americans in this war were the same people pressured by racial and class dominance. The achievement of the United States’ goals relied on the continued resistance of Mexican common people when Mexico ceased its state-sponsored resistance. While the best strategy to winning this war relied on the discipline of US troops to pacify the Mexican resistance, Foos argues that Americans presented quite the opposite. Due to the lack of discipline, insubordination, and desertion of enlisted men over frustrations with higher echelons of the military, it only fueled popular nationalism amongst Mexican citizens, that made it impossible to accommodate “the Anglo conquerors and the Mexican gentry” (p.139). In the end, neither part of the Army obtained what they thought they were getting. The regular army hoped for recognition as heroes, the Irish and Germans hoped to be one wrung higher on the social ladder, and the southern volunteers hoped that newly conquered territory would find its way into southern hands.
While Foos offers a unique perspective on the Mexican-American War, the product seems rushed and unequivocally lacking pertinent evidence. The volunteer regiments he mentioned in his book all came from the large cities of New Orleans, New York, and Boston which only served to limit his scope and disregard the social conflicts that existed outside of city-centers. In his attempts to question the motives of soldiers who participated in the war, he disregards some of the other implications this war had on American government and the structure of the military. His book seemingly revolves around the issues of having a regular force and a volunteer force and while the evidence may suggest the answer to such a dilemma, he does not try to attempt to answer the question that was on the minds of so many politicians of the time: Does the government need an established standing army or could it rely on the aid of raised volunteer militias? It could be argued that Foos was trying to push the Winfield Scott approach to military, however his depiction of the military as a whole being the antagonist of the war only renders the young republic that is the United States undeserving and irresponsible to have a functioning military.
In conclusion, A Short, Offhand, Killing Affair is an admirable approach to discovering a more balanced view of the Mexican-American War. However, his implementations of only negatively viewed accounts of the war only makes this book merely an objectification of the entirety of the war, in the same fashion as if he were to only showcase heroic accounts of the war. The breadth of the topic also leaves much to be desired from this book. It is likely that other readers will find that their knowledge entering this book is lacking and Foos does not seem to rectify the situation. This work seems to be an expansion on his thesis paper, which is critically acclaimed, yet Foos does not cite that paper in the book. Paul Foos should be admired for his attempt in this book to provide an alternate view of the war, but he should be admonished in his approach to the topic.