Histories of Mexico tend to give a broad brush to the army of Porfirio Díaz. The details of daily life in the army have been missing. Stephen Neufeld, who is on faculty at California State University, Fullerton, spent years researching and writing this imaginative study. His task was to understand the army during the Porfiriato (1876–1911). Easier said than done.

The portrait that he presents is sharp and explains a lot about Mexico during those years. Recruitment was forced and random. Young men, often those without local standing or protection, were literally grabbed from village lanes, chained together, and marched off to distant barracks where they were beaten into submissive ranks. The new soldiers were less recruits than captives. The barracks reflected their dishonored status. Many, such as the one at Tlatelolco in the capital, were former convents built around a central...

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