There are several complex diplomatic and military questions surrounding the Punitive Expedition dispatched to Mexico in 1916, so any new work on the subject brings with it the hope that some of these will be treated more thoroughly than before. Such anticipations are not realized in this work.
Herbert M. Mason, Jr. has gathered most of the elements necessary to attack these questions but instead uses his resources, along with a fine narrative style, to recount life in camp with General John J. Pershing. Beginning with Francisco Villa’s assault upon Columbus, New Mexico, in March, 1916, and moving on to the subsequent organization of a force to pursue him, and the eventual withdrawal of that force eleven months later, Mason provides an essentially anecdotal description of the campaign. His bibliography is modest and many published Spanish-language materials, primary and secondary, are omitted. The maps are good and convey terrain and troop deployment for significant encounters.
His storytelling is best in describing the role of the 1st Aero Squadron in which the aeroplane made its inauspicious debut into U.S. military history. Mason, who has flown the turbulent airspace of northern Chihuahua and who is the author of The Lafayette Escadrille (1964), focuses his understanding of flying machines and their pilots on the insurmountable problems of using our air force in Mexico. The Squadron, unable to perform the aerial reconnaissance and mapping which was expected, served actively less than six weeks with the expedition. The author’s account of the topic is valuable.
Scholarship in the last decade has dispelled many of the myths surrounding the Expedition, and it is to Mason’s credit that he does not repeat all the old refrains. He correctly explains the discrepancy between Woodrow Wilson’s public announcement that Villa would be captured and his private order to Pershing to pursue Villa until his band was dispersed.
It is with the larger issue that the author encounters difficulty. In his conclusion Mason indicates that the Expedition was a success in disbanding the villistas, but had left unfinished the task of capturing their leader. Why? It is a difficult problem and Mason appears as unfamiliar with the vagaries of diplomacy as Pershing was with the topography of Chihuahua. Mason makes no comment on the fact that by mid-June the Expedition had accomplished its goal of routing Villa’s forces and could have been withdrawn. There is no consideration of the political advantage of maintaining a military presence in Mexico, nor of Pershing’s self control in following his civilian Commander-in-Chief. Mason mentions Pershing’s promotion to Major General without considering it may have been a reward for patient service in politically and militarily hostile environs.
Oversimplifications abound, such as referring to the withdrawl of the Punitive Expedition as “Woodrow Wilson’s total political defeat at the hands of Venustiano Carranza.” Specific errors are also prevalent, many of them due to a reliance on one source for the details of an event rather than a critical comparison of all accounts.
Mason’s rugged realism illustrates the extreme deprivation of the campaign, more intense than any experienced in the European theater, but saddlesores are no substitute for scholarship. Due to its errors of omission and commission this book is of limited value to the scholar. Nevertheless, it does provide a fairly good, highly readable introduction for the general reader.