The Stupid War

Epsilon Theory PDF Download (Subscribers Only): The Stupid War

You are now homeland, Chaco,

of the dead deep in your belly

in search of the soul that does not exist at the bottom of your wells.

Sangre de Mestizos, by Augusto Cespedes (1936)

There are proxy wars. And then there is the Chaco War.

Una guerra estupida, as Bolivian war journalist Augusto Cespedes would later call it.

And it was.

It was not a stupid war only in the way that all wars are stupid, in the way that precious few of the things we are told are worth dying for truly require us to do so. Neither was it stupid because the rights and claims of the belligerents were somehow false or illegitimate. They were not. The Chaco War was a stupid war because it was an unnecessary war, exploiting the claims of the people to further the unrelated aims of others. It was a stupid war because it exposed its participants – Paraguayans and Bolivians alike – to a breathtakingly bloody decade, all for a miserable strip of land and to satisfy stories of resistance against landlocked decline and imperialist ambition. It was a stupid war because its proximate cause – the question of whether incursions into a disputed territory constituted the violation of an agreed-upon status quo – should have been easily resolved during a subsequent 6-year period during which both countries delayed open warfare so that they could accumulate enough weaponry to make a real show of it.

Even if the stakes for most of us today are nowhere near as dire as all that, narrative missionaries haven’t given up inspiring us to fight in their stupid wars. Maybe we aren’t being called to march into a shooting war, although we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that we never will again. But we are also compelled to fight in political, cultural and social struggles. The narrative missionaries remind us of our rights and claims, then demand we defend them.

It is only later that we discover that, whatever the battlefield, the war we were fighting in defense of our claims and interests was not our own.

And yet somehow, the casualties always are.

If you have never been to Gran Chaco, the namesake of the Chaco War, you are not alone. Frankly, if you are an American and you have never heard of it, you are not alone.

In 1927, when a Bolivian unit captured a Paraguayan patrol and shot its escaping lieutenant in the shadow of a makeshift mud hut along the marshes of the stagnant Rio Pilcomayo, few Paraguayans or Bolivians had ever been there either. By the latter, the events leading up to the shooting were perceived and promoted to the public as an ordinary series of encounters linked to mutual probes of a disputed area. By the former, as the aggressive violation of a status quo agreement prohibiting such incursions. Whether the status quo agreement was real or fiction, however, all sides would reluctantly agree that the region it ostensibly covered was remote, sparsely populated and inhospitable.

In its furthest reaches to the east along the Rio Paraguay, the Chaco is tolerable enough. Certainly for agriculture, at any rate. Cattle ranches are common, as are the small towns that serve as homes for the permanent laborers that work the ranches for their typically absentee landowners back in Asunción. The same is true far to the west in the foothills of the Andes, where in some places it resembles some of the grasslands of the bordering semi-arid Pampas of north-central Argentina. There, the waters of rivers and tributaries flow regularly and the rising altitude moderates the otherwise oppressive heat.

In between, however, the rivers that visit the Chaco are slow and tend toward swampy bends and marshes that grow outward into a foul, barely traversable morass during the rainy season. During the dry season, it is well and truly dry, and the hard ground shrivels into a dustbowl that confounds all but heavily industrialized agriculture.

At least in terms of climate, there are few places in the world quite like it. Such as they are, most lie somewhere between tropical semi-arid savanna and true deserts. The northern half of the stretch of highway between Darwin and Alice Springs in the Northern Territory would feel like this. The southwest coast of Madagascar, too. That’s about it.

Filadelfia, Paraguay
An image from Filadelfia, the largest town in the Paraguayan Chaco

Its residents, as it happens, are probably not who you would expect, either.

If you enter the Chaco Boreal from the Paraguayan side today, the last city of any real size is Concepción. It sits outside the periphery of the region, and while it is stiflingly hot more or less year round like most of the Chaco, at least it rains. It is by no means a wealthy city, but the 50,000 some-odd citizens of Concepción have experienced an upswing in prosperity since Big Ag brought its clear-cutting equipment to the region some years ago.

If you were to drive 210 miles to the north and west, through the cattle ranches that the more consistent semi-arid savanna of the Rio Paraguay permits, you would enter the Chaco proper: the Paraguayan department of Boquerón. As soon as you turned right off the Transchaco highway toward the department capital of Filadelfia, you would note something peculiar about the place names.

The first barely-even-a-village on your left is called Silbertal. Then Halbstadt. Kleinstädt (yes, with an umlaut). Grünfeld. You do have a choice, however: on your way to Filadelfia, do you take the road to the west that goes through Strassberg, Hochfeld or Blumengart?

You see, both today and in the early 20th century, most of the largest settlements in the Paraguayan Chaco were actually settlements of Plautdietsch-speaking Mennonite immigrants from Northern Germany and the Netherlands, typically by way of Russia and Canada. The first of these – named Menno after that most influential of early Anabaptist writers – was founded by settlers in 1926 with the blessing of the Paraguayan parliament. And in the early 20th century (more so than today), many of the remaining settlements were small – that is to say, forced into reduction by Hispanic governments – communities of Guarani and Guaycuruan indigenous peoples.

Photo Source: Cindy Servranckx

By 1926, when the first influx of Mennonite colonists to the Chaco began in earnest, there were also early Hispano-Guarani mestizo settlers, would-be cattle ranchers and planters in what are now the eastern borders of Boquerón. But beyond what is today the town named after the Hero of the Chaco War and later President of Paraguay, José Félix Estigarribia Insaurralde, there was practically nothing but hard, thirsty ground and hard, thirsty quebracho trees for hundreds of miles.

From the Bolivian side, there is – and was – perhaps even less direct human connection to the region.

The northeastern extreme of Bolivian settlements included a small river port and similarly small forts bordering the intersection of the Chaco and Brazilian Pantanal along the Rio El Pimiento, a tributary to the Rio Paraguay. Founded in the late 19th century, its establishment led to further incursions that yielded a diplomatic response from the Paraguayan parliament and a somewhat less diplomatic one from a Paraguayan gunboat, but Puerto Suárez itself couldn’t be wholly unseated. Perhaps a 700 mile drive to the southwest, in the more amenable climes of the Andes foothills, was another emerging town on the frontier of the Bolivian Chaco – Villamontes. And until around 1910 or so, that was about it. In between the foothills and the Pantanal was a pure wilderness. A wilderness mostly deemed unsuitable for permanent human habitation, lest we grow too sentimental.

Around the turn of the first decade of the 20th century, Bolivia did establish a small number of military outposts in the Chaco proper, mostly on the east bank of the Rio Pilcomayo, not too far from the small current-day Argentinian town of Santa Victoria Este and San Agustin, Paraguay. They were purely minor military encampments – fortin they called them, the Spanish diminutive for fort. Other Bolivians, however, generally wanted nothing to do with the region. As Bruce Farcau wrote in The Chaco War: Bolivia and Paraguay, 1932-1935, “Bolivia…could not convince its highland Indians, fearful of the tropical diseases of the lowlands, to migrate there for love or money.”

All that is to say that if the average Paraguayan citizen’s concern for the Chaco in the early 20th Century was limited at best, that of the average Bolivian was next to nothing, excepting perhaps some agitation at the idea of Paraguay consolidating control over it. As British commercial counselor R.L. Nosworthy wrote to his superiors in London in 1932, the average Bolivian had never been anywhere near the Chaco, and had not “the slightest expectation of visiting it in the course of his life.”

Still, Villamontes had something else. Something new. Cattle ranches could exist on the periphery in both countries, to be sure (and in the Argentinian Chaco too, for that matter). And the ubiquitous quebracho throughout the region is a useful species, more than twice as hard as the standard northern red oak and high in tannins that made it useful for the leatherworking trade. On the edges of the Pantanal, rubber was a possibility. But in 1919, in Villamontes, they found something else.


Oil on the edge of a long-disputed wilderness.

If there has been a small mercy in the COVID-19 pandemic, surely it is that, for most of America, the spread of the disease has been active during the summer months.

There are about 57 million children enrolled in K-12 public and private schools in the United States. Around 39 million of them live with both parents, or at least with two cohabiting adults. Some 2 million live with someone other than a parent, like a foster family or a relative. The remaining 16 million or so live in a single-parent household. About 85% of those are single mother households.

Among two parent households with a child of school age, around 65% rely on two incomes. Households with multiple children are somewhat more likely to rely on a single income – since mothers of very young children are more likely to stay at home for some time – but it is not a large effect. Assuming that households are mostly similar regardless of the number of children, we can estimate that 41 million of the 57 million school-aged kids in the United States come from households in which every present parent is gainfully employed. If we assume that a comparable proportion of the 2 million in the care of relatives or foster families live in households where every adult works, the number is 42 million.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

There are 42 million schoolchildren in the United States living in families that depend on the income of every adult living in the house.

To be fair, some of those families are not dependent on the dual income in an existential way. It may be entirely possible for them to survive on one by making lifestyle adjustments, and these statistics do not provide any insight into that question. Likewise, some of those employed parents work shifts that do not coincide with the school day. But neither of those observations changes the reality:

The closure of schools for any amount of time would represent a nearly unfathomable disruption for tens of millions of American households. It would represent a literal impossibility for tens of millions more.

There is an understandable aversion on the part of educators and school administrators to having their work characterized as daycare. There is also often a bit of condescension in the aversion (childcare being a perfectly admirable profession), but let’s extend some grace and assume that most of those who take pride in their chosen profession do so not because they feel it makes them superior but because they happen to like it in particular. Nothing wrong with that. No matter how understandable our discomfiture may be, however, it cannot change the simple reality that we have structured our economy, household budgets, tax code, social expectations, transportation infrastructure, service amenities, consumption patterns, housing choices, families and communities around the expectation that our kids are going to be in a safe and productive environment during our working hours for most of the year.

May and June of this year taught us that Americans are resilient to some measure of disruption. Teachers and parents across the country figured out how to make it work. Many employers, whether the result of mercy, publicity or regulation, did the same. But September 2020 won’t be May and June. Office employers which instituted work-from-home policies that eased the transition to school closures are re-opening with an emphasis on masks, distancing and other procedural precautions. That accounts for 29% of American employment, give or take. Manufacturing, transportation, retail, arts, food service and other industries that survived have done so with the dramatic narrowing of their margin for error. The 71% of Americans who rely on jobs with these employers are likely to be extended far less grace than the already stretched version they may or may not have received in the late spring.

Many of the households themselves, of course, had to provide their own buffer. When furloughed, they relied on savings or the charity of others. Yet both savings and charity have their limits. Millions of households have reached the limits of savings that even the most naive of financial planning ‘experts’ think American households can manage. That means that they are acutely sensitive to disruption in their ability to go to work. It is no longer a preference. It is a life-altering problem.

That reality is taking hold for many of these families. In August, with the prospect of closed schools, it will become unavoidable. At dinner tables and in lonely showers at the end of the day, the same words will be spoken and unspoken:

What are we going to do?

Standard Oil Company hauling equipment up a narrow mountain road near Villamontes, Bolivia

The ownership of the oil fields around Villamontes and Camiri was never very much in doubt.

Villamontes and the Andes foothills were Bolivian patrimony, land to be defended until there were no more poor people from the mountains left to die for it. Even Paraguay’s most aggressive claims on the disputed Chaco territory only extended so far as the Rio Parapeti, well east of the fields that Standard Oil of New Jersey had begun to develop. Its wagons and machinery were driven through the mountains almost immediately after the discoveries of 1919 and 1920, just as soon as the company we now know as Exxon had inked its 1922 agreement with the Bolivian state.

By the time that Paraguayan lieutenant was shot 60 miles southwest of the current Mennonite colony of Hochstadt in 1927, Standard Oil had a small but active operation far to the west. Its practical distance was even greater than measured, because in almost no season was the muddy mess that is the Rio Pilcomayo at this point reliably navigable by large craft. S.O. had producing wells at the Bermejo, Camiri, Catamindi and Sanadita fields, all well within the shadow of the Andes. A few years later, in 1931, still before the formal start of hostilities, they had built refineries near the Camiri and Sanadita fields, too.

With so much oil so near to the Andes foothills, it stood to reason that the Chaco must be teeming with the stuff. And if Bolivia’s claim on the Chaco Boreal was marginally less weighty than Paraguay’s, it was still legitimate. Bolivia pressed its claim based on uti possidetis juris – the idea that new states should by default be understood to retain the existing borders of the predecessor departments from which they were formed. Most of the Chaco Boreal indeed fell within the Spanish colonial territories of Moxos and Chiquitos from which Bolivia was formed.

Sort of. Inconveniently for everyone, the Spanish colonial entity that gave birth to Bolivia, the Audiencia de Charcas, was demarcated in a way that was not designed to function with any realistic capacity as an international border.

As with most such disputes, especially in post-revolutionary South America, it was a mess. Thanks a lot, Pope Julius II.

Beyond its legal claims, there can be no contention that Bolivia did not have interests in the Chaco. Yes, of course there is the oil they were so certain would be quickly found throughout the region, but there were other interests as well. For Bolivia was not always landlocked. Until it lost it to Chile in 1884, Bolivia had de facto control of the Pacific province of Litoral and a port called Cobija, about 80 miles north of what is now the modern city of Antofagasta, Chile. A port which itself had been destroyed less than a decade before by a brutal earthquake in yet another stroke of bad fortune.

Bolivia needed access to the ocean, and if not the Pacific, then the Atlantic would have to do. It also needed a way to send its oil somewhere other than Argentina, as the prospect of building a pipeline through the Andes was almost too daunting to consider.

On the eve of the second quarter of the 20th century, Bolivia had both a justifiable claim on the Chaco and was justifiably desperate. With the loss of its coastal territory and more, it had lost its potential place on the world stage. It had finally fallen into the good fortune of an oil find, even if a minor one, but had practically no way to transport it for sale. What pipelines existed through Argentina were already the subject of suspected collaboration between Standard Oil and Bolivia’s neighbor to the south. If you were a Bolivian official of any measure of authority, one question would have been constantly on the tip of your tongue:

What are we going to do?

In the spirit of the Mennonite colonies of the Chaco Boreal, let us undertake a brief Gedankenexperiment. Let us say that we wished to create the optimal ‘human petri dish’ for the national spread of an aerosol- and droplet-propagated coronavirus like COVID-19. Never you mind why. What would it look like?

  • Obviously, you would want to store the subjects indoors in an enclosed space that limited practical social distancing to less than 6 feet on average;
  • You would preferably ensure that the individuals were in fixed, non-moving positions for as long as possible to maximize the potential of aerosol transmission and reduce the reliance on near-distance droplet transmission;
  • If possible, the facility would have constant budgetary limitations that made it a near impossibility to guarantee the provision of protective equipment or proper sanitation;
  • You would desire HVAC systems with archaic or non-existent filtration capabilities;
  • You would want the subjects to have preternatural disposition to resist the use of protective equipment, exercise horrifying personal hygiene and demonstrate underdeveloped habits for limiting the projection of coughs, sneezes and other bodily functions;
  • In a perfect scenario, you would be able to ensure that the presumed host individuals that would occupy the space would be members of a demographic most likely to remain asymptomatic as long as possible while infected;
  • At this point we are dealing with perhaps unrealistic requirements, but if you could make it legally compulsory for subjects to be in the room every day for several hours, that would be an extraordinary feature;
  • In a similarly perfect case, to maximize community spread you would want the individuals to come from households that were geographically close enough to facilitate the development of a medical resource-straining hotspot, but preferably go home on a daily basis to different households in that close geographic area so as not to waste any disease-spreading potential; and
  • If there were a demographic trait of subjects that would ensure that it was unavoidable that the potentially infected individuals would come into close physical contact with other family members on a daily basis, that, too, would be optimal.

It’s a school. We invented an American public school.

This will not be a sentimental appeal.

You see, it happens that in most cases, the public school setting probably does not create extraordinary individual risk for the 57 million students and 4 million or so educators and school support personnel who would otherwise occupy that setting. Why? Because those individuals are probably subjected to less individual risk than many others whose labor we have also deemed essential.

Grocery store clerks, factory workers, restaurant servers and food service employees, for example, are all generally exposed to a greater number of different individuals. Over a one- or two-day period, the concentrated nature of school-setting contact and the arm’s length nature of most food service interactions, for example, probably makes the cumulative risk to the teacher and students higher. Over a week or a month, however, the inherently rotating cast of characters encountered by public-facing workers would begin to overwhelm the effect of all those contributing factors in our Gedankenexperiment, all of which wildly skew the conditional probability of subsequent infections within the classroom once someone has contracted COVID-19, and none of which really does much to change the probability of a static universe of individuals bringing the infection into the room in the first place.

But it doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter if the grocery store worker, Uber driver or school teacher has a slightly higher or lower cumulative probability of contracting COVID-19 over some period. In a region with community spread, each of those individuals has a legitimate claim on fear that their work subjects them to unusually high risks relative to those of us fortunate enough to be able to work from home or an adequately socially distanced office. Each of them also has a legitimate claim on fear that their particular working environments provide them with little defense against the actions of others. It may furthermore be worth considering that the elementary school teacher with a recurring chalk, pencils and paper delivery order from Amazon on a personal credit card is not being unreasonable in suspecting that their local school district may not invest a great deal in resources to adequately protect the classroom environment.

Even if you still want to compete in the “who has got it worse” Olympics and say that factory line workers, or bus drivers, or coffee shop baristas being forced back are subject to greater individual risk, it still doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter because an environment with conditional infection probabilities approaching 1 is a super-spreader environment. The American public school classroom environment is a super-spreader environment. That means that even if the cumulative probability of a single individual school teacher or student contracting COVID-19 is not substantially higher than that of individuals pursuing many other daily activities we have collectively deemed an ‘acceptable risk’, the probability that any infection will lead to deep, rapid community spread that induces strain on local health care resources IS higher. Much higher.

Around the country through the rest of July into August, this is the thought that will occupy the minds of educators, administrators, city governments, counties, school boards and medical professionals. The very next thought will typically be the same:

What are we going to do?

Because they were based on legal succession, Bolivia’s claims on the disputed Chaco territory were rather more expansive, even if it rarely pressed them. It claimed the territory extending all the way to the confluence of the Rio Pilcomayo and Rio Paraguay, which is to say “everything up to the capital of Asunción.”

For decades prior, however, the de facto ownership of lands hundreds of miles to the north and west of that point had been established by predominantly Hispano-Guarani mestizo settlers, ranchers and planters, which is a fancy way of saying Paraguayans. Similarly, if less legally binding, these settlers felt some obvious kinship with the Guarani-speaking indigenous peoples who continued to live in various pockets of even the western reaches of the Chaco just inside of the Rio Parapeti into the early 20th century. The aforementioned Mennonite settlers were sponsored and sanctioned by the Paraguayan government, too, and had settled in some cases north and west of the minor encampments the Bolivians had begun setting up along the Pilcomayo in the 1920s.

Whereas the Bolivian claim was largely based on legal succession of borders, Paraguay’s was therefore mostly – but not entirely – a de facto claim. In other words, they said they owned it because they were already doing the things that you did when you owned something, like building houses, roads and lumber yards on it. It also relied in part on one surprisingly favorable outcome of its otherwise devastating war with Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay in the 1860s. As it happened, the belligerents consented to arbitration by US President Rutherford Hayes over the disposition of claims on the Chaco. The arbitration awarded much of the Chaco Boreal to Paraguay at this time. Problematically for Paraguay’s arguments against Bolivia, however, Hayes did not admit Bolivia’s claims to the discussion. That meant that while Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil’s claims on this part of the Chaco had been resolved, the legal matter between Paraguay and Bolivia remained under dispute.

Again, thanks a lot, Pope Julius II.

The favorable treatment by Hayes notwithstanding, in the same way that Bolivia’s wars following independence had neutered it and isolated it from the world stage both figuratively and literally, Paraguay’s defeat in that war was incalculably devastating. Estimates and records vary wildly, but it is possible that as much as 50% of the country’s pre-war population had died of war and disease by 1870. It lost territory on all sides to its neighbors, and crippling reparations to each of its three foes forced it to sell land along the Rio Paraguay to ranchers and financial speculators, mostly Argentinians, but some Europeans and Americans as well.

Paraguay, too, had legitimate interests in the Chaco that went beyond its simple legal or de facto claims. For one, it already had a meaningful number of settlements and colonies in the territory which looked to the Paraguayan government for protection. It was entirely reasonable to view the establishment of Bolivian fortin deep into the region in the 1920s as a legitimate threat to those settlements. Paraguay was also dependent on the Rio Paraguay as its sole means for navigable access to the Atlantic, although its interest was the protection of its route through the Chaco from molestation by hostile forces rather than seizing it in the first place.

And yes, like Bolivia, Paraguay had an interest in the hypothetical presence of oil in the Chaco. Even if it never claimed anything so far as the fields around Villamontes, Paraguay had every expectation that it and the associated discovery by Royal Dutch Shell elsewhere in the Chaco were indicative of a resource-rich territory that could sweeten a quickly souring set of circumstances for the country.

In Asunción, governors and leaders remembered yearly the cost of their defeat at the hands of the now nearly hegemonic Argentinians and Brazilians through crippling debt payments. They accessed the Atlantic through the Rio de la Plata only by the forbearance of multiple nations. Their closest national rival, many times larger and made newly fortunate by the discovery of oil, had begun regular incursions into territory and established military camps where Paraguayan citizens and charges had already settled. In coffee houses, state houses and private houses alike, the same thoughts would have been running through every mind and flitting on the edge of every tongue:

What are we going to do?

When two desperate parties with legitimate and competing claims ask “what are we going to do?”, for the rest of the world there are two ways to respond:

We figure out how to bridge the impasse.

We figure out how we can benefit from the fight.

The Chaco War was first exploited for others’ benefit in the world of narrative – through the transformation of what the war was about.

It started in Paraguay, where newspapers took the lead in whipping up the people’s sentiment and appetite for conflict and sacrifice. They did so using the most powerful meme available in early 20th century South America: assertions that a foe was the puppet of imperialist influence from Europe or America. It was powerful because it was integral to the story of every generation in every nation in the region. It was powerful because it was very often true.

So it was that Paraguayan newspapers asserted that the true underlying cause of ‘Bolivian Aggression’ was the imperialist aims of the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey. Beginning in 1932 and throughout much of 1933 and 1934, the claims would be repeated daily in most newspapers. It was a largely local phenomenon for much of that time. That is, until American Senator Huey Long – a man who combined the political sensibilities of Bernie Sanders with the unmistakable political style of Donald Trump – saw a means to advance his long campaign against the Rockefeller empire by asserting the same in a extraordinarily long filibuster speech delivered to the senate on May 30, 1934.

It was a marvelous piece of narrative creation, aided by the truth that Standard Oil had agreed to sell refined products produced at its Bolivian facilities to the country for use by its army to prosecute the war, and by the fact that it was circumstantially true that Bolivia’s aims would probably work to Standard’s benefit. But the plight of Paraguay was a sideshow to Long’s real target.

The domestic usefulness of the war for Long did not end with Rockefeller.

The result was almost instantaneous, first in Paraguayan media. On July 1st, 1934, El Diario in Asunción published the entire speech on three pages of its Sunday edition under the headline “Sensational Speech of Mr. Long in the Senate of the United States.” Then it took hold in Paraguayan government. The US envoy to Paraguay Meredith Nicholson sent a dispatch to the Secretary of State noting that “recent utterances of Senator Huey Long with reference to the Standard Oil Company and its relations with Bolivia have not been without effect on the President [of Paraguay].”

If there is evidence that Standard Oil provoked, caused or funded the Chaco War beyond its willingness to supply the fuels it was producing locally, it is either lost or destroyed. In the end, Standard Oil saw little benefit from whatever support it did provide. Its assets became a case study for future expropriation events when Bolivia nationalized its oil and gas industries only a few years later.

In narrative world, however, the senator’s entry into the fray was huge. Huey Long’s profile rose, especially after a hapless Bolivian diplomat gave him an opening to deliver yet another scathing speech on July 7th. It was exceedingly light on what Senator Long wanted to do to help Paraguay, and powerfully heavy on calling Standard Oil executives all sorts of things. Domestic murderers! Foreign murderers! International conspirators! Rapacious thieves and robbers!

If the first speech was a novelty, the second proved to be a phenomenon. In Asunción, El Diario printed it in its entirety three times, calling Long “a beautiful spirit”, a sentiment Louisianans of the time might have a bone or two to pick with. It was later joined by every other major newspaper in Asunción. La Tribuna beatified him in elegant portraits. El Orden called him “Defender of the Right.” El Liberal called him “a citizen without any other motive than that of justice.”

But this time it didn’t stop in the newsrooms of Asunción. Long’s speeches and editorials supporting their contentions were carried in Ecuador, Costa Rica, Chile and Argentina. It became not only the story of the war, not only the story of the many travails experienced by Paraguay (which were many), but the story of South American resistance to imperialistic foreign intervention in its affairs. And it quickly became common knowledge. As historian Michael Gillette put it, “Even the most intelligent persons were either convinced of the truth of the sensational charges against the oil company or were fearful to express an opinion contrary to popular prejudice.”

Chilean poet-cum-statesman Pablo Neruda was among them.

Standard oil awakens them,
clothes them in uniforms, designates
which brother is the enemy,
and the Paraguayan fights its war
and the Bolivian wastes away in the jungle
with its machine gun.

Standard Oil Co., by Pablo Neruda

Bolivian and Paraguayan peasants alike died in the muck of the Rio Pilcomayo while foreign governments, thinkers and editorial pages cheered on the holy cause they had created for them.

Yet if Standard Oil’s complicity in promoting or funding the conflict lacks any real evidence, we have no such problem identifying any number of outside institutions that actively sought out how to benefit from the competing claims of two desperate parties.

Argentina, for example, saw a great deal it could gain from a war between its neighbors. Like Brazil, it was a major power on the continent and saw an industrializing Bolivia as a threat. It jumped at the opportunity to observe a quasi-vassal state like Paraguay blunt the ambitions of an emerging regional rival like Bolivia without taking much risk itself. They provided military counsel. They provided free or extremely low cost access to and transportation of materiel along Argentinian riverways, rails and ports. They provided access to some equipment and ammunition from armories. They positioned their neutral armies on the east bank of the Pilcomayo to deny the Bolivians a protected right flank. The British air attache even claimed that Argentinian pilots were flying for Paraguay. The war that was “about” justice against imperialist powers was also “about” weakening potential future foes of Argentina.

Britain, on the other hand, knew early and on a first-hand basis of the intent behind Bolivia’s military buildup. Coordinated and reported heavily by British diplomats and envoys, Bolivia acquired nearly all of its war materiel from British arms manufacturer Vickers-Armstrongs beginning in the late 1920s. Vickers was thrilled to negotiate a $9 million contract that would (er, theoretically) deliver perhaps as many as 200 artillery pieces, 12-15 warplanes, tens of thousands of small arms, and hundreds of the Vickers machine guns made so famous in the first world war, along with millions of rounds of ammunition to accompany each. Vickers brought Bolivian officers and mechanics to Britain to train them in the use of each. Throughout the pre-war period Bolivia requested and by all indications the British Foreign Office consented to putting diplomatic pressure on Chile and Argentina to permit the transport of these arms. It worked. Sometimes.

Continental Europe wouldn’t miss its opportunity to make this little tête-à-tête about them, either. While not an explicit measure of German support, Bolivia’s army was led in the early war by a (woefully outdated) former German general and expatriate. Czechoslovakia, far more formally, sent a military mission to aid the Bolivians. In retrospect, this made some sense given that the Brno Arms Works was probably the second largest supplier of arms to the country after Vickers. About 15% of the vz.24 bolt-action rifles that were ever manufactured were sold to the Bolivian Army.

The Paraguayans had their European advisers, missions and suppliers, too. As with German General Kundt, their participation was not a formal expression of support by any country, but the Paraguayan officer corps included as many as 80 Cossacks who had fought with the Whites only a few years before. More importantly, Paraguay was happily assisted by the Italians, who sent advisors, training staff and modern (and expensive) 5-7 Fiat CR.20 aircraft. It was also Italian shipyards who built and sold to Paraguay its two rivergoing monitors – the Cañonero Paraguay and Cañonero Humaitá.

A photograph of Paraguayan Fiat CR.20 aircraft supplied by Italy

If it feels as if any one country is being singled out or omitted here, disabuse yourself of the notion. During the obvious buildup that followed the initial border skirmishes of 1927 through 1933, Paraguay spent somewhere between 30-60% of its national income acquiring arms from nearly every country capable of manufacturing them. As compiled by military historian Matthew Hughes, its purchases included, among many others:

  • Thousands of Mauser rifles from Fábrica Nacional de Oviedo in Spain;
  • Cavalry sabres from Jules Fonson of Brussels;
  • Hundreds of machine guns from Dansk Rekylriffel Syndicat in Denmark;
  • Hundreds of Browning pistols and millions of 7.62mm rounds from Fabrique Nationale d’Armes de Guerre of Liège;
  • Thousands of new uniforms from the Spanish, very clearly intended to match the color scheme of the Chaco, years in advance of any hostilities;
  • Artillery spotting equipment from Nederlandsche Instrumenten Compagnie of Venlo; and
  • Cavalry saddles and tack from Germany;

And America? Our companies (and Britain’s too, for that matter) sold to both sides. Colt sold arms to Paraguay. Remington and Curtiss-Wright sold arms to Bolivia. Following a US Senate investigation, it also became clear that American arms manufacturers began widespread smuggling of their arms through Argentinian and Brazilian ports even after President Roosevelt enacted an embargo on such sales in 1934.

If there was any doubt that these companies both (1) knew that the conflict would die without their participation and (2) wished for the war to continue, the Senate record should eliminate any doubt. Simply listen to the words of Frank Jonas, from Remington Arms, who described selling arms to Bolivia as “one hell of a business”, and added, “it would be a terrible state of affairs if my conscience started to bother me now.” Or to C.K. Travis of Curtiss-Wright, who noted that Bolivia was “a small country, but they have come across with nearly half a million dollars in the past years, and are good for quite a bit more if the war lasts.”

While politicians and narrative missionaries cheered on the Chaco War as a war that was about their anti-imperialist narratives, across the western world governments and corporations alike cheered on the Chaco War as a war that was about their opportunity to produce new sales, new influence and new notoriety on the world stage.

And not simply in the distastefully banal manner of all arms sales.

No, from beginning to end, each of these institutions knew that this desperate war between landlocked countries with no domestic arms industries or modern military training was entirely reliant on their participation. Each of these institutions knew that they had meaningful influence over whether the slaughter could continue.

And each of them decided that if it might yield them some benefit, it was in their interest to encourage these desperate, proud people to fight.

There are a lot of people and institutions who have decided it is in their interest to encourage a fight between those consumed by the justifiable fears that schools will close and upend the slim control they have over their household, and those consumed by the justifiable fears of viral spread with schools that open in the midst of emerging hotspots with little preparation and little protection for educators, students and communities alike.

As always, there are war profiteers looking for ways to profit from and encourage that fight. Only in a cultural war about an ongoing pandemic, the profiteers aren’t companies like Remington, but for-profit education support companies promoting manipulative narratives about “the Covid Slide.” Based on standard academic research into the impact of school breaks (especially in summer), it is a term that has been co-opted by companies like Huntington Learning Center to deepen and profit from the fears of parents who are already worried about schools being closed.

In videos like this one:

As always, there are those actively trying to abstract the legitimate claims and interests of those involved into grander social narratives and battles. And why wouldn’t they?

After all, it is immensely pleasurable, cathartic and popular (within the right circles) to abstract others’ fear about the consequences of closing schools into Trumpiness. It is another opportunity to chest-pound about how right we were about masks, and how wrong they are again. It is another opportunity to take the preening moral high ground about the inhumanity and indifference they must have in their hearts to carry and be motivated by those concerns.

After all, it is mutually encouraging to recognize you are among those few who realize how broad and far-reaching the desire to thwart the sitting president goes, even when it comes at the cost of our children’s futures. It is another opportunity to shout “hypocrite!” at those who are afraid to do their jobs but aren’t afraid to go to restaurants or grocery stores and ask those people to do theirs. It is another opportunity to talk about how media and social media elites are demonstrating how they have no idea what most Americans’ lives are like.

After all, it is wise-sounding and circumspect to abstract the discussion into one about the lies, failures and miscues that have gotten us to where we are today.

Having written just a little bit about those failures, I hope you will hear me when I say this: none of that matters one bit to this discussion.

We are where we are.

Americans who fear the consequences of opening OR closing schools deserve our grace, our patience and our willingness not to abstract their intent into any narrative we wish to promote simply because it makes it easier for us to dismiss their concerns.

No, more than that. They deserve our help, which means now is an urgent time to consider: What can we do to make classrooms safer? What can we do to ease the childcare burden of workers who simply can’t endure more missed work? Perhaps your mind goes to top-down policies, and I won’t argue against that being part of potential solutions. But if we live in a place where schools may be cancelled, for example, and we have the ability to step in as part of the childcare solution for those who require it, now may be the time to make our bottom-up contribution to our pack.

The sooner we offer those things, the better, because the efforts to push these two sides into a prolonged, politically tinged fight are working. The idea that parents wondering what they’re going to do and teachers wondering what they’re going to do ought to be at war – are already at war – has already permeated our memes, our misappropriated satire and our everyday discussions. The idea that the other side’s concerns are really about bad political views and the other side’s blind obedience to them is crystallizing.

Friends, this is a song we MUST refuse to sing.

We must refuse to sing it because it will further sunder us from our fellow citizens.

We must refuse to sing it because it will distract us from making sound, fact-based, risk-conscious (if not risk-less) decisions for our children, our communities and one of the most critical groups of citizens to our future – our educators.

We must refuse to sing it because those who seek to manipulate us into fighting over this don’t deserve our attention, much less our compliance.

We must refuse to sing it because you and I know something they don’t about the first 80 years or so that followed the end of the war:

They didn’t find oil in the Chaco.

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  1. Thank you Rusty, I truly appreciate your insights and encouragement to avoid taking sides. Instead, looking for ways to help and not blame.

    To this, Epsilon Theory has helped me to “see” better, given context and dare I say, greater wisdom than I have had in the past.

  2. Rusty

    I find this to be your best essay in the short time ( 10 months) that I have been aware of and subscribed to ET. Thank you so very much.

    My niece teaches art in the Santa Barbara School District in Southern California which has been either notified that they will not open or possibly will not open based upon state decree.

    The adjoining Goleta School District, which is under the same decree, has laid off all the art teachers and some other categories of teachers with what I understand is the reasoning that their curriculum is not conducive to distance learning and the need for the district to save money.

    No point to made here other than my 100% agreement that it is important for all of us to help others thru this time to the best of our abilities.

  3. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    I’ve been reading Rusty’s work for a long time (5 years), and I agree … this is his best essay yet.

  4. No PDF download or am I not too bright…?

    One thread in this that’s interesting - the idea that the groundwork for the conflict was related to the Treaty of Tordesillas (the Pope Julius-thing) - the drawing of an artificial border without regard to the future inhabitants of these places (and maybe I’m reaching here) - but specifically, the Papal ratification of the treaty which lent it a moral authority beyond the mere expediency of a 15th century legal claim. If we look at the “demarcations” of American social life in regards to public education (and more broadly at the entire ethos of modern American consumerism/capitalism) what top down claims have we impelled upon American citizens which we are feeling the burdens of now? Public education and taxation and teachers unions and standardization and school lunches and education-as-childcare are emergent expressions of what we have collectively viewed as “important” in American life and codified and sanctified like Julius II’s Papal Bull. That is to say, these divisions we have over this subject are both “exploitable” and tribal because of decisions and paths taken long ago (not enough of an expert on the history American education to say so definitively, but this is what I suspect).

    The point of this ranting is: what so much of this current crisis/disaster and the other “problems” of American life push me toward is the idea of radically revising what appear to be the ingrained social attitudes of our culture about what is important to us. A monumental task it would seem that first requires the rejection of old authorities, which have so much of their appeal in inflaming our cultural divisions. Deprogramming our immediate and insensate and comfortable left vs. right divisions maybe should be what we try to do? Beyond helping our neighbors, of course. Or is the solution to reject it entirely and JUST focus on helping our neighbors? I don’t know.

  5. There will be a PDF! Just haven’t gotten it up yet.

    The connection you’re making with the moral authority of Tordesillas is such a lovely one that I wish I had, too. Yes, the moral loading of our “arbitrary” structures, which could have gone very differently with different ordering of historical events, is a part of what we are adjudicating. It is a thoughtful parallel.

    As to your last proposition, the answer is yes AND yes, because I don’t see these as mutually exclusive any more than I see Clear Eyes and Full Hearts as exclusive. Revolution of a kind on some of these dimensions does seem necessary (clear eyes), but the best way to get there is together, with grace and mercy for the path that others need to follow to get there (full hearts).

  6. I am heartbroken over some of what is happening to the arts and arts education in particular through this process, so I wasn’t heartened to hear that. But I am grateful that you found value in reading this and appreciate your kind words.

  7. Peter, I am glad to hear that we have been helpful. We are grateful that you are here, too.

  8. Gotcha, didn’t mean to rush on PDF, my father is a bit of an aficionado (oddly enough) of BOTH the 19th Century wars of South America and of early 20th Century Louisiana politics - so I wanted him to see this. Thanks for taking the time to respond.

  9. I’ve spent the last thirty years trying to end my love affair with the moral high ground. I had a good two decades of success, but during these last 3+ years my lover has returned with unmatched persistence, and the makeup sex is oh-so-gratifying…

    I admire your ability to keep searching for grace. Thank you for reminding and encouraging me to do the same.

  10. Hah! Kim, if ever there were a three year period where relapse was tempting all of us, it has been this one. I have good days and bad days, too.

  11. Not at all! PDF should be up and available now.

  12. Avatar for FFWA FFWA says:

    Interesting history. But maybe a little histrionic. Might want to take this down a knotch, Rusty…

  13. To be fair, if anything gets the blood pumping like a detailed account of the establishment of Mennonite colonies and an itemized list of several years of arms purchases, surely it is a recounting of the demographics of American families.

  14. Rusty, great article, but I think the COVID/schools issue may even go a little deeper. I understand why teachers and parents are all concerned and conflicted, which doesn’t encourage dispassionate decision-making. But I think your assessment of schools as being a perfect super-spreader environment may in fact be off-target. There’s considerable evidence that transmission between kids, or from kids to adults, is pretty negligible (see one Swiss immunologist’s assessment at Given that the risk to and via kids is minimal, the next-level question might be, where is the narrative of incredibly risky schools coming from?

  15. Thanks, Barry! You could be right - and I hope that you are! Although I’ll reiterate that the risk is, I think, concentration risk rather than cumulative individual risk, and it’s an important distinction. All you need for the latter is to believe that the individual transmission risk is roughly the same as observed in adults and that epidemiologists are right about the droplet and aerosol transmission mechanisms.

    The article you sent is ostensibly taking issue with the first claim…but it doesn’t, really. The implications in the Swiss article are from early surveys that fed this more detailed study, I believe. Both indicate a lower rate for kids 9 and below, but the same or higher rates of transmission as adults for kids 10 and above - that’s why the Swiss article keeps sneaking in the “below age 10” qualifier. Because it cohorts the entire group of “below age 10”, I think it also raises the question as to how that would differ if we actually looked at, say, 7, 8 and 9 year-olds, which you would think would fall somewhere between the two cohort averages on the continuum (although that may not necessarily be true).

    I think the most optimistic prior we could adopt from this data is that approximately 33-40% of schoolchildren (the ones enrolled in PK through 3rd or 4th grade) might have as LOW as 1/3 the risk of transmission as adults, and 67% of kids would have a comparable level or higher. Bear in mind, of course, that this is Korea, not the United States, and that the baseline probability of initial infection and transmission rates are likely to differ…and if the US at large is any indication, maybe by a lot.

    Maybe that means we can be less conservative about reopening for K-3 or K-4, maybe even “Elementary Schools” more broadly. I think it’s worthy of a conversation. For what it’s worth, generally speaking I favor opening schools in my area and I think that they should be opening in most places around the country with our support (in terms of hygiene, PPE and funding for and commitment to testing). I do think that the superspreader environment observation remains true, however, and that concerns about that are something we should all respect as fair and legitimate, even if that doesn’t mean that we agree to close down schools as a result of it.

  16. Seeing as I can’t seem to keep a piece under 7,000 words, I probably vomit out enough for both of us, DY.

  17. Certainly agree that deploying protective equipment and so on makes a ton of sense, just on a risk/reward basis. And it looks like we’ll have some experimental data before too long, as European schools open up.

  18. I think so, too! Although I obviously worry (narratives being what they are) that half of America will ignore optimistic signs from that data and that the other half will ignore any adverse data from our own openings.

  19. Unfortunately, I think that’s a pretty safe bet.

  20. New subscriber off the back of this piece - truly feel better off having read this. Thank you Rusty.

    I spoke to my father on this over the weekend. A recently retired primary school teacher from Northern Ireland, and in my biased opinion, a practitioner of Clear Eyes and Open Heart. His sentiments matched yours in terms of “We are where we are” with schools. In his case he drew comparisons with his time in the 90’s / 00’s as the North wrangled with the troubles and finding some route to “peace”.

    These inevitably included discussions on integrating education in segregated areas. Holding civil discussions when so many are reeling from decades of hurt was obviously difficult. Naturally, the narratives were drawn on this topic and horrifying incidents played out outside Holy Cross Primary school.

    Last week his local school met with the members of the community (the pack) to discuss pragmatic solutions for the education through 2021. Fingers crossed for this time round.

  21. Craig, I’m so encouraged to hear that. When people with both clear eyes and full hearts meet in good faith, good things can happen. Crossing my fingers, too.

  22. Avatar for Kevin Kevin says:

    Rusty, as a parent of a 2 year old and a 3 month old, I found this a great read. We’re a family with 2 working parents and our 2 year old (3 in November) is due to start preschool this September. Only one month away…

    But this wasn’t just a great read because I could relate to the message about being a working family with kids during covid. It was also a really interesting history lesson about Paraguay and Bolivia. And by referring to Google Maps to understand the locations you wrote about it was a geography lesson, too!

    You’ve written a couple of other strong allegorical articles this year. “The Elton/Hootie Line” made a great point while teaching me something about music I’d never known or thought about.

    “A New Gilded Age” taught me the history of Tuxedo Park, which I never knew. I grew up (and still live) in Stamford, CT, and I’ve been going to the Rennaissance Faire in Tuxedo, NY, for the past 20 years. So that essay felt close to home and was an eye opener on how completely ignorant I am of local history.

    So a strong kudos for writing articles which are both generally informative and also relevant to the clear eyes / full hearts approach. Also a nod to the fact that you have such wide reaching knowledge! But seriously, how the heck do you casually know so much about the history of Paraguay and Bolivia?!? :slight_smile:

  23. Avatar for Tanya Tanya says:

    This is definitely very profound and riveting. However, as someone who knew at 18 years old I never wanted to have a child, I do have a difficult time relating to an issue concerned with parents, teachers, and the education system aside from the “from a distance” desire to support children and our future generations. I desperately want to help, but, honestly from my heart, what can someone in my position do to help?

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