"An Arab might defeat a Frenchman in single combat," our soldiers used to say when Napoleon invaded Egypt. "Ten Arabs and 10 Frenchmen might be an even match. But put a disciplined unit of 200 Frenchmen in the field, and they could hold off almost any number of Arabs, given enough ammunition."
Arabs or Mexicans, I would have said only yesterday. What's the difference?
But now it's May 5, 1862, and I, Gen. Charles Latrille Laurencez, have lost to the Mexicans at Puebla. I can hear them cheering in their positions up on the Cerro de Guadalupe. Their commander--what's his name, Zaragoza?--will be a national hero, while I, in our camp full of groaning wounded, am writing dispatches to Paris that will leave me in disgrace.
We have lost more than 1,000 men. We must retreat to the coast, to Vera Cruz, and await reinforcements.
"What went wrong?" the Emperor Napoleon III will ask. And he will conclude: "This fool of a Laurencez is no tactician like my uncle." It's useless to reply that he, too, is only a shoddy imitation of the first Napoleon.
Still, I ask you: Should tactics have been necessary? We attacked straight up the mountainside, it's true. The Mexicans waited behind a ditch and a brick wall. A strong defense--but shouldn't they have run the moment we charged? Shouldn't our uniforms, our flags, our organization, our superior equipment, our esprit, our simple Europeanness have sufficed?
I would have thought so.
But now . . . it's strange. I seem to have dozed off from exhaustion, more than once, while outside my tent the field surgeons hack at torn limbs. Horses whinny, campfires crackle, pickets still fire an occasional shot. Strange trees thrust up their branches into an unfamiliar sky. You don't belong here, it all seems to say.
I dreamed that on our straggling path back to the coast, we met other colonial soldiers who will lose battles in far-off times, in other alien places: Algeria, Indochina.
Dien Bien Phu. What kind of name is that?
"Go home," they said. "You may win next year, but in the end you will lose."
Then I dreamed something even worse, in a way: that the Mexicans will celebrate this victory--and my defeat--forever. Even beyond Mexico itself, they and their descendants will remember. In Venice, in California, for example, on Sunday, May 2, 1993, the Penmar Recreation Center at 1341 Lake St. will have its 13th annual Cinco de Mayo Festival from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. There will be food booths, continuous music and entertainment all day. The event will be free and open to the public. Information: (310) 396-8735.
Other generals, I submit to you, have lost bigger battles than this.