“The Promised War”, Part 4
President Mora could not and did not bother to hide the feeling of relief caused by the presence of Cañas. More than a brother-in-law, he was his brother, closer to him than José Joaquín himself, to whom he had entrusted the leadership of the army.
As a soldier, Cañas had shown himself to be the bravest and most charismatic of the officers. As a human being, he was the most sincere and caring person he knew. For a long time he was his friend and confidant.
Seeing him enter he went to meet him and twisted him into a long hug, with an intensely repressed desire to burst into tears on his shoulder. There were no words at that moment. Then Cañas gave him a complete account of what had been the tortuous journey of return, of the irrepressible mortality, the riots, the desertions, the fear unleashed among the troops.
The president sent for the members of the General Staff and in a closed room, by the light of languid candles, the last decisions of that military campaign were made.
“As much as panic would have been unleashed, what has happened has no justification,” said General José Joaquín Mora. “The point is that there was a revolt. We have the names of various ringleaders and I intend to pursue them and bring them back to make them pay for their crimes.”
“It is exactly what seems appropriate to me,” said Colonel Barillier. “An army without discipline is not an army.”
“What army?” Salazar asked. “Have you been able to take a look at what’s out there? Is that an army?”
“That is at least what it should be,” said General Mora.
“But it isn’t,” said Cañas categorically. “They are brave soldiers who were willing to give their lives for their country, fighting against a tangible enemy. But before that, and in essence, they are peasants. And they are being decimated by an invisible enemy, a plague from hell against which their bayonets can do nothing. What can you expect from them?”
“So what do you propose?” Barillier said in an almost threatening tone.
Cañas thought for a few seconds before answering, as if trying to articulate his ideas. He knew that his proposal would have a devastating effect on the spirits of many of the officers and he did not know how far he would have the support of the President.
“There are soldiers who have survived cholera,” he explained, which means that their organism is strong and they will surely not be attacked again by the disease. There are others who have not become ill and there are also soldiers who are native to the area and will be willing to stay. Let’s integrate with all of them a special battalion in charge of repelling an eventual attack. That will give us peace of mind for a while, as we try to rebuild our forces in San José.”
“What about the rest?” Joaquín asked.
“With the rest, I propose that we officially do what is actually happening, that we drop them from service and recommend that they return to their homes in small separate groups. Maybe that will help stop the spread.”
Cañas words caused a powder keg. Welcoming this initiative was equivalent to accepting a truth that everyone, to different degrees, resisted: the national army had ceased to exist. The military victories obtained against the filibusters could be lost.
The country was more defenseless than ever. But, also, once in the capital, it would be necessary to give an account. Certainly, no one could be blamed for the harmfulness of the plague, but other facts could be attributed to the incompetence of the military leaders, such as not having been able to maintain the discipline and unity of the troops, to the point of having to dissolve it. The entire country would be pointing an accusing finger at them.
Juan Rafael Mora had listened in silence and in the depths of his conscience he shared Cañas’s vision, but he also understood the anguished resistance of the others, which was also his.
“This is an extremely difficult decision,” he argued, “but we cannot just fold our arms and let the army continue to disintegrate before our eyes. Punishing some soldiers to teach others might help contain the unrest a bit, but not all”. Desertions would follow sooner rather than later. But I am also concerned about contagion. It is obvious that the crowds are helping the epidemic to spread. Therefore, I do not see a better way out than the one proposed by General Cañas. My decision is to disband the army today and order the men to return to their respective villages separately or in very small groups. We still have a few pesos in cash, enough to give each one a small sum to guarantee a trip with minimal security. I don’t want anyone else to commit to this decision. I take full responsibility, with the country and with history. “
To be continued…PART V