To Make War on One Man: A Communications Lesson for Policymakers Turns 100

By: Rick Chersicla, Guest Contributor

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Today marks the centenary of America’s entry into the First World War, and journals, magazines and television will likely be filled with special pieces commemorating our entry into The Great War. What will likely be overlooked, however, is the operation that immediately preceded American entry into World War I—the Punitive Expedition. That campaign, which lasted from 1916-1917 and ranged over hundreds of miles of territory in Northern Mexico, is often relegated to a historical footnote. The general unfamiliarity with the Punitive Expedition is partly due to the scale and influence of the war in Europe, and the formative effect that operations in France had on the US military.

The Punitive Expedition, when it is does surface in popular memory, is often remembered as a failure—Pershing failed to catch Pancho Villa and his outlaw band, and the United States was embarrassed as a result. This narrative, however, is misleading. The expedition did achieve its mission, according to the orders it received from Washington. Why then, is it so frequently viewed as a failure? The answer to that question concerns an incident involving a neophyte Secretary of War and a communications error, which would teach a harsh lesson on the importance of the narrative in political and military affairs.

During the early morning hours of March 9th, 1916, a band of over 400 followers of the outlaw Pancho Villa (often called “Villistas”) attacked the border town of Columbus, New Mexico and its adjacent military encampment, Camp Furlong. The raid resulted in the deaths of eight civilians and ten soldiers, and the American public demanded a response.[i] Once news of the raid broke, the public demand for retribution was loud, and immediate. A warning order was telegraphed from Washington, D.C. to San Antonio, where it was received by the Commander of the Southern Division, Major General Frederick Funston.[ii] The message, which was released to the press, stated that the “President has directed that an armed force be sent into Mexico with the sole object of capturing Villa and preventing further raids by his band, with scrupulous regard to the soverignty of Mexico.”[iii] At about the same time as the telegram was sent to General Funston, approximately six o’clock on the evening of March 10th, the State Department issued a brief statement to the press, stating in part that “An adequate force will be sent at once in pursuit of Villa with the single object of capturing him and putting a stop to his forays.”[iv]

The phrasing of both the telegram and the statement of the State Department was intended to reassure the Mexican government that the impending mission would be strictly punitive in nature—the goal was the punishment of the Columbus raiders, not an invasion of Mexico. The intent of the Wilson administration was not clearly articulated in the rush to demonstrate a strong, resolute response.

An exchange between the freshman Secretary of War, Newton D. Baker, and the Army Chief of Staff, General Hugh Scott, as recalled by General Scott, is illuminating as a lesson in both the advisory role of senior military officers to senior civilian officials, and the role of strategic communications in military affairs. Secretary Baker, whose first official act as Secretary of War was to attend the Cabinet meeting that had been called to determine the response to the Villistas, had no military background.[v] Immediately following the Cabinet meeting, Baker went to General Scott’s office, and told him that he wanted the General “…to start an expedition into Mexico to catch Villa.” General Scott replied “Mr. Secretary, do you want the United States to make war on one man? Suppose he should get onto a train and go to Guatemala, Yucatan, or South America; are you going to go after him?”[vi] During their exchange, it became clear that the goal of the punitive mission would not be the capture of Pancho Villa, but rather, the disruption of his bands.[vii] The actual order for the mission held no mention of the physical capture of Villa. Pershing’s instructions, as drawn up by General Scott and sent the same day as the warning order, indicated that the mission would be considered complete when Villa’s band, or bands, were known to be broken up.[viii] The released telegram and the State Department’s evening remarks, however, had already sealed the narrative in the minds of the American people. The headlines of newspapers across the country would echo that of the New York American: “FUNSTON TOLD TO GET VILLA-DEAD OR ALIVE”[ix] Before the first troops had even crossed the border as part of Pershing’s expedition, the expectations of the public were set on the capture of Villa, despite the actual policy objective.

The Legacy and Relevance of the Expedition

While Villa was not brought back in irons, the expedition was successful in achieving its stated objectives. Pershing and his men did not capture Villa, but the Punitive Expedition successfully disbursed his band, and by the 31st of July 1916, they had already killed at least 248 and captured 19 of the original 485 raiders.[x] Skirmishes and isolated incidents would continue along the Mexican-American border for several years, but the raid on Columbus proved to be the high water mark of the cross-border attacks.

Perceptions of failure tend to color the collective memory of the Punitive Expedition. The popular notion that the expedition was a failure because the United States did not “get its man” may unintentionally impact the desire, or recognition of the need for its further study. While the campaign is deserving of study based on the historical experiences alone—the early use of airplanes for reconnaissance, the first motorized convoys, etc.—the learning point for today’s policymakers is more likely to be that of the importance of communicating a clear endstate for military operations.

Given the 24-hour news cycle, social media, and mass communications, both the demand for official statements, and the urge to issue them quickly, is strong. For Secretary Baker and his Generals, the situation was resolved, and the field commander understood President Wilson’s intent—but the narrative was lost. February 5th marked 100 years since the last man of the Punitive Expedition crossed the border back into the United States, ending the campaign.[xi] While much has changed since 1917, some things are striking in their similarities: Americans are operating abroad, fighting violent non-state actors. As challenges arise, it should be asked—has a viable endstate been clearly articulated to the electorate? The ability to win the “battle of the narrative,” may depend on it. Secretary Baker’s hard-learned lesson, the adage that “perception is reality,” still applies.

Rick Chersicla is a master’s degree candidate in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program (SSP).  The views expressed in this article are his, and do not reflect the those of the United States Army, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government.

[i] Max Boot, The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power (Basic Books: New York, 2002), 182-185.

[ii] James W. Hurst, Pancho Villa and Blackjack Pershing: The Punitive Expedition in Mexico (Praeger: Westport, CT, 2008), 41.

[iii] Clarence C. Clendenen, Blood on the Border: The United States Army and the Mexican Irregulars (The Macmillan Company: London, 1969),, 213

[iv] Clarence C. Clendenen, The United States and Pancho Villa: A Study in Unconventional Diplomacy (Kennikat Press: Port Washington, N.Y. 1961), 251.

[v] Clendenen, Blood on the Border, 214.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Clendenen, Pancho Villa and the U.S., 251.

[ix] Hurst, Pancho Villa and Blackjack, 41.

[x] Roger Miller, A Preliminary to War: The 1st Aero Squadron and the Mexican Punitive Expedition of 1916 (Air Force History and Museums Program: Washington, D..C, 2003), 49.

[xi] Clendenen, Blood on the Border, 338.

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