Perhaps the most iconic and terrible image of the Mexican Revolution is that of the fusilamiento - death by firing squad.
These summary executions were employed extensively by almost every side, functioning as a powerful instrument of psychological warfare and propaganda.
The fusilamiento was eventually abolished during the presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–1940). Some historians argue this was the moment the revolutionary period truly came to end as it demonstrated the government’s ability to control the republic without the use of summary executions.
A Huertista was a soldier fighting under, and in support of, Victoriano Huerta, the revolutionary general responsible for the arrest and shooting of Francisco Madero in 1913. After the deposition of Madero, Huerta served as president of Mexico until July 1914 when he was forced to resign and fled the country.
He spent a year and half in exile before dying of cirrhosis in a Texan prison.
Huerta is still vilified by modern-day Mexicans, who generally refer to him as El Chacal ('The Jackal’).
The German captain Wirtz who sucks out the eyeballs of the rebel soldier is an interesting one. McCarthy may have been partly inspired by Heinrich Hartmann Wirz (better known as Henry Wirz), the Swiss-born Confederate officer tried and executed in the aftermath of the American Civil War for mistreatment of Union soldiers during his command of the Andersonville prison camp.
Besides the similarity in their names and cruelty towards prisoners, both men were foreigners occupying positions of power in a country not of their birth, and both multilingual (the fictional Wirtz 'spoke Spanish well for all he spoke it with a German accent', while Wirz was fluent in English, German and Dutch).
Warning: The embedded video contains some disturbing images.
In this highly evocative image McCarthy appears to combine the Medieval depiction of Death in the Danse Macabre with the Mexican tradition of the calaca.
Known in Spanish as la Danza de la Muerte, the dance-with-death allegory emerged in Medieval Europe around the time of the Black Death to remind people of the universality and inevitability of death. The Danse Macabre was often depicted in short verse dialogue between Death and his victims. Death in the form of a skeleton is shown summoning his chosen victims to dance while the summoned moan about their impending deaths.
During the Mexican Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations, one of the traditions is the use of calacas (skeletons) as decoration, including papier-mâché skull masks and small figurines. Skeleton suits are also popularly worn.
Durango fell to the rebels on June 18th, 1913, when a coalition of 8,000 revolutionary troops under the command of Tomas Urbina stormed and sacked the city.
Although allied with Villa’s División del Norte, Urbina was the leader of an army in his own right, and the taking of Durango was followed by the widescale murder and pillage which characterised his command. Urbina had ridden with Villa during his bandit days, and essentially remained a bandit throughout the Revolution, motivated more by financial gain than by any revolutionary ideals.
Increasingly implicated in plundering and the execution of real and imaginary enemies, Villa eventually gave in to pressure from the other revolutionary leaders of the north and ordered the execution of his former friend in 1915.
A howitzer is a type of field gun, characterised by a relatively short barrel and used to fire heavy shells at high trajectories with a steep angle of descent.
They were typically employed against fortifications.
At first the philosophy underpinning the soldier’s tale seems, like much of the philosophical ruminations on illusion and reality running through The Crossing, to owe a great deal to Plato’s parable of the cave. However, while Plato believed we could eventually come to a truer vision of the world through a strengthening of our intellectual faculties, McCarthy’s vision is less optimistic. In this regard, it owes less to Plato than it does to Hermann Melville, a writer (alongside Faulkner and Hemingway) McCarthy is often compared to.
Compare McCarthy's 'entertainments to keep the world at bay' to this passage from the famous 'Whiteness of the Whale' chapter in Moby Dick (incidently, McCarthy's favourite novel):
all other earthly hues – every stately or lovely emblazoning – the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtile deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within...
Whiteness and darkness are the same side of the coin, both represent the abyss Nietzche warned us from staring into. Unlike Ahab and his nihilistic desire to pierce the pasteboard mask of things that assures his destruction, the blind soldier, already intimate with darkness, has come ‘to fear that darkness for he believed the world held more than it revealed’ [p.289].
The existence of some deeper world beyond our temporal and material grasp is a running theme throughout The Border Trilogy, and The Crossing especially.
Spanish for miracle, a milagro is a small charm.
Milagros can be found in many areas of Latin America, especially Mexico and Peru, where they are used by the people to petition saints for help or protection.