Thursday, October 3, 2013

Book Review: Hunting Che

Hunting Che: How A U.S. Special Forces Team Helped Capture The World's Most Famous Revolutionary
Book Review
W. Alejandro Sanchez
Book review published in War Studies Publications
October 3, 2013
Originally published:

Reading Maurer and Weiss’s book was a pleasure, with its in-depth research, its enjoyable writing style, and spy-novel tone. Fans of Mark Bowden’s famous books Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War and Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw will enjoy the style of writing that Maurer and Weiss utilize.

The Plot
As the title entails, the book revolves around the hunt for the iconic Argentine revolutionary, Ernesto “Che” Guevara in the Bolivian highlands in 1967. Specifically, this work focuses on the role that the U.S. military (and intelligence operatives) played in aiding the Bolivian government and security forces in tracking down Che. Over the decades, there have been a plethora of conspiracy theories regarding just how involved the U.S. was in this endeavor. Investigative works as well as the release of classified documents confirm that, indeed, Washington had an important role to play: a number of U.S. Rangers trained Bolivian soldiers, transforming them, via an intensive training course, into a Ranger battalion in its own right. It is these Bolivian soldiers who were ultimately deployed to the area where Che’s guerrilla forces operated and were successful in tracking and eliminating them.
Part of what makes this book so fun to read is that it provides various points of view. This is not just a discussion of what role the U.S. had to play. The authors took the extra effort of trying to paint a picture of what Bolivia’s domestic situation was at the time of Che’s arrival, as well as delving into the contemporary state of  global geopolitics. For example, the authors explain how Bolivian President Barrientos was concerned that Che’s guerrilla movement could isolate towns and foment protests that could overthrow his government. When Barrientos went to the U.S. for aid, he related the gravity of the situation by saying that if Bolivia fell, Che’s “foco” insurgency could expand to other South American countries. For its part, the U.S. government wanted to avoid another Vietnam, but at the same time they did not want to send military personnel that would be actively fighting Che’s forces. The training of Bolivian troops was essentially a compromise.
Moreover, the book portrays differing points of views of Bolivian and American policymakers, military officers, rank-and-file troops, intelligence officers and even Bolivian peasants. The book is generally organized in a chronological order, beginning with the first ambushes Che carried out against Bolivian army patrols, the deployment of the U.S. Rangers, the training of the new Bolivian Second Ranger Batallion and Che’s ultimate defeat (and execution). However the book includes a good number of flashbacks in order to explain why a certain policymaker or soldier thought the way he did. In other words,Hunting Che provides an emphasis on the personal, not focusing on casualty statistics but instead on relating the stories of the individuals involved.
Not An Academic Book
Although Maurer and Weiss researched exhaustively, it must be stressed that this should not be regarded as a standard academic book. As previously mentioned, it reads more like a spy-action novel. For example, when discussing a shootout by Che’s guerrillas and a Bolivian army patrol, the authors write how “rounds sliced through the brush, wood slivers and mud flew upward and perfumed the air” (p. 12).
Moreover, Che is discussed throughout most of the book as almost an omnipresent and omnipotent figure, which is how he probably was viewed in 1967 Bolivia. No one (including the CIA) knew if he was in Bolivia or how many troops he had at his disposal (it was believed that he had hundreds of heavily trained guerrillas, both Bolivian and Cuban) – for some time it was not even clear if he was alive. The sporadic discussions of Che’s life throughout the book add to his omnipresence, and the iconic guerrilla only makes a grand entrance briefly towards the end of the book, when he’s captured.
Furthermore, the authors  also provide a strong background on the situation within Bolivia, Latin America and U.S. interests in the region, all placed in the wider context of the Cold War and U.S.-USSR (via Cuba) proxy wars. Nevertheless, the analysis is not put in a linear way. Moreover, there is not an introductory chapter that explains who was Che Guevara. There are paragraphs about his life and the actions he carried out during his time in Cuba scattered throughout the book, but Hunting Che almost assumes that the reader will have a general idea of who Guevara was before reading it. There is a memorable discussion between Guevara and his captors (U.S. and Bolivian) towards the end of the book (Chapters 22 and 23), but his background story does not read as easily unless the reader already knows some facts about his life (i.e. his role in the Cuban government).
Nevertheless, the authors excel when it comes to discussing Bolivian domestic issues and regional geopolitics in the 1960s, a daunting task for any historian. Maurer and Weiss correctly describe the highlights of Bolivian history, including the importance of the 1952 coup as well as the concerns for President Barrientos regarding the future of his presidency.
Moreover, while the authors try to be objective, readers will notice quickly that U.S. Rangers are slightly glorified (i.e. carrying out civic projects like rebuilding  a school besides training Bolivian soldiers, p. 96), while some U.S. diplomats are portrayed in a negative light. At the same time, the Bolivian military pre-U.S. training is constantly portrayed as backward, with its officers not being capable to adjust to a new style of war (from the traditional inter-state warfare to counterinsurgency), and its soldiers receiving poor training. Certainly, some Bolivian officers and soldiers (who were trained by the U.S. Rangers) are portrayed positively, with background stories which explained that they valued patriotism and honor, but these are exceptions to the rule.
The negative portrayal of the Bolivian military in the 1960s, while arguably true, still hints at a larger issue which the authors do not address head on: Could the Bolivian military have successfully defeated Che without having received training by the U.S. Rangers? This question would need another book to be properly answered.
 One Factual Issue
While the book is well researched, there is one issue that must be highlighted. While giving a quick overview of Bolivian military history, the authors explain that “a hundred years before, a fight with Chile […] had cost Bolivia its entire coastline. Thirty years later, Bolivia and Paraguay had sacrificed a generation of their young men in “the Chaco War.” (p. 20).
The first conflict that the authors refer to is known as the War of the Pacific, which pinned Peru and Bolivia against Chile (which had military aid from the British Empire). This war took place from 1879 to 1883. Meanwhile, the Chaco War between Bolivia and Paraguay occurred from 1932 to1935. In other words, there is actually a difference between these two conflicts of roughly fifty years, not thirty as the authors of Hunting Che explain. While this is a minor issue in the wider scope of the book, it should be noted.
Research Methods
While in graduate school, a professor once told me that the first thing a scholar should do when browsing through a new book (an academic/scholarly one), is to check its reference list in order to see what works the author(s) of the book consulted. Hunting Che has a good bibliography, which includes works by Fidel Castro, Gary Prado (a Bolivian military officer trained by the U.S. Rangers and who was ultimately responsible for capturing Che, making him a national hero) as well as one of Che’s publications.
Nevertheless, I will admit that at first glance, I was confounded as the reference list hints at works and document that are nearly all in English. However, the epilogue of Hunting Che explains how the authors interviewed individuals (Bolivian and American) who actually took part in the training of the Bolivian Rangers as well as Che’s capture. This exemplary use of both primary and secondary sources should be applauded by scholars and fans of Latin American history.

No comments:

Post a Comment