Sunday, December 17, 2006

La Noche Triste

“But I declare, that I do not know how to describe it, for neither cannon, nor muskets, nor crossbows availed, nor hand-to-hand fighting, nor killing thirty or forty of them every time we charged, for they still fought on in as close ranks and with more energy than in the beginning.”

-- Bernal Diaz del Castillo The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico

What the writer is describing was the initial foray of the Spaniards to break out of the fortress at Tenochtitlan, June 24, 1520. They fought on, all day, every single day for another three weeks. They fought through most of the nights too.

The odds were stacked hard against the Spaniards. Outnumbered on a magnitude that defyed calculation. Hemmed in by the tall buildings and narrow streets, which negated the Spanish tactics that had made them absolute dominators of every field they engaged. Only the carefully timed and managed volleys from the harquebusiers and crossbowmen, cannon fire from the walls of the citadel and the swords and lances of the mounted knights allowed the intrepid Diegode Ordaz to lead his men back behind the walls to report to Cortez that they were unable to achieve a break in the Aztec lines.

Cortez had gone back into the city against the best advice of his lieutenants, his native allies. The reasons he gives in his journals are twofold. The first was that the emporor of the Aztecs, Monteczuma and his vast, unimaginable stores of gold were in the city, and Cortez's most trusted subordinate, Pedro de Alvarado was there along with nearly one hundred of his finest horsemen.

Cortez had been on the coast, where he had put down an attempt by the governor of Cuba, Panfilo de Narvaez, to curtail his conquests. He was better armed than he had ever been in the entire campaign. More than a thousand Spanish troops. He had formed alliances with Totonacs, the Tlaxcalaan, Otomis and Cholula nations who were eager to trade Spanish domination for the murderous domination of the Aztecs.
Until this night there had been no force assembled by the natives capable of withstanding the Spanish. The “iron cornfield” squares of the “tercio” infantry, mounted lancers, muskets, cannon, crossbows, ferocious mastiffs wearing spiked collars and chainmail, toledo swords, all of these had proven to be unstoppable. Until this night.

Now they were trapped. Their cannonades which would bring down scores of Aztecs with each volley were not breaking the ranks. No matter how many of the foe were spitted on the lances of the mounted, they still kept on coming. From the rooftops rained a steady hail of rocks, tiles, anything loose at hand that was heavy and jagged, thown by women and children. Cortez sat in his study and pondered the death of his dreams. He had envisioned a new Venice. A center of learning and commerce from which he would rule as the good right hand of his king.

The trouble had really begun to brew when, in the absence of Cortez, de Alvarado had massacred thousands of the Aztec nobility and begun a campaign of unrestricted murder and violence against the civilian population. Alvarado claimed that the nobility had resumed their practice of human sacrifice and cannabalism and that he had acted under the banner of God. A more likely explanation is that he had become greedy at the sight of the gold and jewels worn by the nobility as they did their every day business in the city. It might even have partly been the exaltations of a mounted warrior as he rides through a crowd of his enemies, hacking to the right and left. The Spanish under de Alavarado killed over 8,000 in a single day. Years later Aztec survivors reported to the Franscican scribe M. Leon-Portilla that

They attacked all the celebrants, stabbing them, spearing them from behind, and these fell instantly to the ground with their entrails hanging out. Others, they beheaded: they cut off their heads, or split their heads to pieces. They struck others in the shoulders, and their arms were torn from their bodies. They wounded some in the thigh and some in the calf. They slashed others in the abdomen and their guts spilled all over the ground. Many attempted to run away but began to slip on the stones of the street which were wet and slick with blood. Many had their legs become entangled in the entrails of the fallen.

It had been a month since that night. The water had been cut off for the Spanish. What little they had remaining was brackish and full of algae. His engineers had constructed mantalets, crude wooden tanks from the looted beams of the palace. The nightly missle attacks from the neighboring rooftops had made remaining in the center of this hostile town no longer an attractive proposition.
Cortez tried one last parley with the inhabitants of the city. He brought the shackled and chained emperor to the roof of the palace. Monteczuma was stoned by the citizens he used to rule. Whether he was mortally wounded by his own citizens, or murdered in a rage of disappointment by the Spanish really didn't matter to Monteczuma anymore. He was dead.

Cortez convened a council of his officers and men. They said that they saw but two options. They could flee empty handed or stay and die with the gold. Cortez chose neither option. He would attempt a night retreat in force under the cover of the fog and the darkness. They had constructed a moveable bridge unit to cross the canals. Golden bars were loaded upon horses, the men were allowed to enter the storerooms and take whatever they wished to carry with them. A survivor of that night, Francisco Lopez de Gomara, wrote
Among our men, those who were most encumbered with clothing, gold, and jewels were the first to die, and those who were saved were those who carried the least and forged fearlessly ahead. So those who died, died rich, and their gold killed them.

There was no moon visible through the clouds that night. There was a gentle, steady warm rain falling. The Spanish almost made it. They had crossed over three of the canals that bisected the causeway leading to the shore of the lake to Tlacopan where their native allies were waiting. As they were crossing their fourth canal a woman who was fetching water saw them and sounded the alarm “Mexica! Come quickly, our enemies are leaving!” Within minutes the canal's water was full of war canoes. The streets and the causeway were packed with angry men. Now,

When the Spanish reached the Canal of the Toltecs, the Tlatecayohuican, they hurled themselves headlong into the water, as if they were jumping from a cliff. They all came to the brink and plunged over it. The canal was soon choked with the bodies of men and horses; they filled the gap in the causeway with their own drowned bodies. Those who followed crossed to the other side by walking on the corpses.

M. Leon-Portilla

The vangaurd of the unit reached the far shore of the lake. Once there, Cortez rallied five of his best and most audacious horsemen, Avila, Gonzalo, Morla, Olid, and the stalwart Sandoval to plunge back into the city to carve out a pathway for the rest of his men. At least once during this action Cortez was nearly captured and bound. Once he was pulled from the clutches of the Aztecs by the suicidal courage of his colonels Olea and Quinones.

Pedro de Alvarado had been fighting the rear guard action. He might have been arrogant, he might have been cruel and greedy, but he was one fighting son of a bitch. Refusing to move himself until he was assured of the safety and escape of his squadron he found himself stranded on the far side of the canal. He seized a lance from the grip of a fallen knight. Plunging it into the bodies of the drowned and wounded in the canal he vaulted across.

More than half of the Spaniards died that night. There was never an accounting of the losses of their native allies. Cortez rallied what was left of his little band and led them into the night, putting as much distance as he could between himself and the Aztecs. Once he felt they were in relative safety he dismounted. He took a few steps and collapsed sobbing. La Noche Triste was over.

Substitute the Aztec citadel for the Green Zone. Change the name of the city from Tenochtitlan to Bagdhad. Think about the eight miles of highway, the most dangerous road in the world right now between the American fort and the airport. Think about nearly eight hundred miles of a single highway to get to the relative safety of Kuwait or Saudi Arabia. Remember that the last time the Prime Minister of Iraq appeared before his citizens he was pelted with stones. As much as I want this war to be over, I don't think that a graceful exit is something in the realm of possiblity. I don't believe that history really does repeat itself. I agree with Mark Twain who said “it rhymes.” This is not a poem I want to recite.



Blogger Pogo said...

So it is true - history does indeed repeat itself. Good grief.

MB, your truffles were outrageous. I shared with Mrs. P, little Prince P, and Mrs P's 2 secretaries (one of whome bears a triking resemblance to Kate Hudson). Everyone raved. I can't imagine how you would have any trouble making money selling handcrafted truffles. In the words of Gomer, "Thank you, thank you, thank you."

7:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As I read last summer at the end of a National Geographic article on oil & our consumption of it,

The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.

- oddjob

9:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My brother has emailed me in part to say his three children say they must send me a "double thank you" for the truffles - they are so good.

- oddjob

9:08 AM  
Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

i am very proud of my truffles. thank you very much for your kind appreciation. that's the stuff that makes all the drudgery worthwhile.

10:08 AM  
Anonymous shades of blue said...

Wow, that was really well written.
Nice tie in at the end.
I didn't see it coming.

Made me awfully sad though.
Wonder if my kids will see a better world come to be.

6:02 PM  
Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

we always hope for that. i was one of those who became a soldier and went to war so that my son could have a chance to become a poet or something else. i'm glad he shows no interest in joining up. we wanted to give our kids a better world when i was growing up in the 50's and 60's. it appears that we failed. when the war in viet nam was stopped too many us felt that our work was done and slacked off. now things have come around again. and around they have come with a vengance.

9:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wrought by those who "had better things to do" when it was their turn to serve...........

Unfortunately I suspect it has always been the way of the world that those who fight do so in no small part so that their children will not have to "learn war anymore" (as the Bible puts it), and yet they (or their grandchildren) learn it anyway.

- oddjob (who recognizes that warrior cultures exist, but suspects that most humans would prefer to live in peace, provided it was one in which they didn't feel their lives were meaningfully compromised)

9:50 PM  
Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

the warrior culture of the apache is an example. most of our warrior societies are ceremonial and community service oriented now, but there remains at their core the idea that in time of war, this is where you go, and this is what you do. we too, prefer peace. it's far better business. one of the things that had to be done before war or retribution raids would be approved is that a council of grandmothers must approve. our president only has to go through a lap dog congress. imagine if he had to face a council of grandmothers to commit troops. i like that idea.

9:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So do I!!!!!!!!

- oddjob

12:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why couldn't they move north to Kurdistan, and so leave via Turkey?

- oddjob

11:30 AM  
Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

that's a distinct possibility, but it would expose the retreating flanks to attack from al-anbar province. the turks have always, always, been reluctant to aid our efforts in Iraq. they refused both overflight and supply routes before, and during the invasion. what would we have to give them? we probably lost our best bargaining chip when they were again refused entry into the european union. the french ambassador put it bluntly, "what if we told america to make mexico a state because it was in the interest of france?" the turks are also mightly afraid of a de jure kurdish state. they have big problems with the de facto establishment that is already there. they have taken incursions and violence from the iraqi kurds without unmeasured action on their part. they would also have the problem of having to remain, and live in that region once we are gone. allowing us to retreat, under arms, through turkey is not something that can easily be worked out. the terrain sucks too, brutal desert, bad mountains, it's just not the most attractive way out. the only one that sucks worse is to go through the russian "stans" or armenia. there's also the possibility of the iranians shutting down the gulf of hormuz. one real possibility would be to have saudi, iranian, turkish, and even syrian troops go in to cover our backs as we leave. but, once there, with boots on the ground near all that oil, well, it's not going to be pretty. one of the most maddening things about this situation is that there is no attractive solution. there's not even a clearly least bad. it's (to borrow a phrase of saddam's) the mother of all clusterfucks

2:33 PM  
Anonymous greenbarn said...

There is of course one solution that no-one wants to consider; that is we pull our troops out of the cities into defensive blocks, multiple Green Zones, and let the primitives kill each other off, since they will do this no matter what, with or without us. They truly are hellbent on self destruction. Has anyone else noticed that there are NO ATTEMPTS WHATSOEVER by Sunni or Shiite clerics to meet with each other and negotiate? Once these relegious nitwits kill most of each other off, we could then move in to help whoever was left standing. Let's not pretend that we or any other country doesen't act in it's own self interest. They will have to sell the oil to someone, and at the end of the day it doesen't matter who the seller is or even the buyer, as the oil being sold will contribute to the world market supply.

6:56 PM  
Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

there would be a lot of different problems with that. as a matter of fact, forting up really hasn't been the brightest move a force can make since the invention of cannon. mortars, rockets, and other forms of artillery would make that a not so brilliant way to go without even beginning to factor in the problems of supplying the troops in those "green zones." and once in those positions, what exactly would they do? sit there and videotape the carnage exploding all around? stand around and deal with the eventual winners? i'm sure they would be so bloody happy to see us that they would break out the sweets and flowers they have been hiding from cheney. sorry, i can't really see that as a viable option. not even for cynical soulless motherfuckers like our president. this situation is going to get worse before it levels off at shitty, maybe. the eventual "winner" of a protracted intercine conflict (which by the way might require those guys to fort up for six or seven years) would probably be psychotic along the lines of pol pot. who, by the way, was the ultimate winner after cambodia tried to follow that very same policy of pretended neutrality, followed by shameless sucking up to the winners.

8:04 PM  
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11:16 PM  

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