American commentators frequently style the 9-11 events as the second assault by foreign agents on America soil, the first having been the British invasion of 1812. But when they do, they overlook Mexican revolutionary Francisco “Pancho” Villa, the Osama bin Laden of a calmer age.
The attack that Villa directed wasn’t as spectacular as those of 9-11, yet the parallels signal a warning today.
About daybreak on March 9, 1916 Villa and some 500 followers invaded the little border town of Columbus, N.M. They set fire to the town’s most prominent structure, the Commercial Hotel, killing nine guests, residents and employees who couldn’t flee. As the marauders made their getaway, pursued by the cavalry, they brought down ten American boys in uniform.
Terrorism, if in a more mundane and less televised guise, came at Columbus to the United States.
Within 24 hours, the Southwest went on red alert. Guards took up posts at ports of entry and bridges, and militias formed as far away as Dallas; soldiers in San Antonio, its newspapers said, foiled a plot by Villa sympathizers to blow up a borderland Southern Pacific depot. The concept of homeland security was born.
President Wilson immediately dispatched troops to capture Villa, though his declaration did not include the phrase, “Dead or Alive.” Led by general John J. Pershing, 4,800 cavalrymen invaded Mexico, even though they had no plan to topple its government and replace its chieftan with a friendly Karzai.
For the next 11 months, Pershing and his troops pursued the wily Villa, who was rumored to be-shades of the Afghan-Pakistani frontier!-holed up in the dusty hills of Chihuahua state, just south of the Rio Grande.
The locals weren’t of much help to the expeditionary force.
“Practically every Mexican so far encountered questioned our right to be in Mexico,” Col. Frank Thompkins, a veteran of the campaign, reported in a memoir.
Pershing and his officers said that the intelligence information they got from Mexicans was sometimes false: time and again, for example, they led their occupiers-or liberators?–to graveyards where, they swore, Villa was interred.
At least once, the Associated Press reported that American officers believed that Villa had been killed in action.
But he was … hiding in a cave!
Like his Saudi successor, Villa apparently thought that if he could provoke an American occupation, he could tilt public sentiment toward his cause, overthrowing the pro-gringo government of General Venustiano Carranza.
But like bin Laden, Villa had formerly been a favorite of the United States, his insurgency supplied with guns and gold to advance the perpetual struggle against foreign tyrannies.
As a warlord, Villa proved to be almost as brutal as the men of bin Laden´s jihad. In November 1916, he and his raiders briefly took Chihuahua City, and before leaving, executed some 100 Chinese-Mexicans because their ethnic kin were suspected of selling supplies to the occupation troops.
In those days, the Soviet Evil Empire, against which bin Laden fought, had yet to be born. But in an era when saloon-wreckers-guerrilla fighters against Demon Rum– were American heroes, Villa, like bin Laden-eschewed alcohol.
Woodrow Wilson used the Mexican incursion to establish his credentials as a wartime president, to show that despite having never tasted combat, he, too, could be a man on a horse; George Bush copied the trick. But after he was re-elected in 1916, Wilson ordered Pershing´s expedition home. The president had other fish to fry, a War to Make the World Safe for Democracy.
Historians have thus far been kinder to the Virginia Democrat than to the Texan Republican, who for several reasons probably knows the rest of the story of the get-Villa affair.
In 1923, Villa was assassinated in Mexico by enemies of the cooling revolution he had helped to enflame. We should not be surprised if someday bin Laden meets a similar fate-but we cannot hope for all of it.
About a year after his burial, persons to history unknown opened Villa´s grave, in a cemetery near his ranch in the Mexican town of Parral, and made off with his skull. Nobody has been able to determine where it came to rest, and Mexican scholars have never cast aside the suspicion that it can today be found in the darkened lairs of a yanqui secret society, Yale´s Skull and Bones club, of which Bush is an alumnus.
To prevent a new outrage in the world of radical Islam, one that, like Mexico’s annoyance over Villa´s missing remains, could last for decades, if our president keeps his promise to bring bin Laden to justice, we must hope that trustworthy guards will eternally stand guard over the terrorist’s tomb.
DICK J. REAVIS is a Texas journalist who is an assistant professor of English at North Carolina State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.