Pancho Villa's Skull

Steve Bartholomew


In the days following the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, there was this statement repeated numerous times in the media:  "This is the first time since the War of 1812 that enemy forces have attacked the Continental United States." That assertion must have come as a surprise to the residents of Columbus, New Mexico, who still recall Pancho Villa?s raid on March 9, 1916.  In fact, there is a State park named after Villa.  Passage of time changes viewpoint.  We are not yet ready to name a park after Osama bin Laden.

Villa's raid, of course, pales in comparison to "9/11."  Villa managed to kill only 17 Americans, while his own men endured over 200 casualties.  Yet the Villa affair was like a rehearsal for what was to come nearly a century later. 

After the raid, America was outraged.  Young men from all over the country volunteered for military service.  A punitive expedition was mounted, led by General John ?Blackjack? Pershing.  This was an opportunity for the U.S. Army to try out its latest hi-tech equipment, such as motorized vehicles and airplanes.  Pershing announced that this was going to be good training.  For the following nine months, he pursued Villa relentlessly through the deserts and wilds of Mexico. Pershing never did find Villa. 

Does any of this sound at all familiar? 

Eventually, much later, Pancho Villa was assassinated by a rival Mexican gang.  His raid on New Mexico had resulted in mobilization of America?s military and preparation for entry into a wider war: World War I, known at the time as the War to End Wars.  Osama bin Laden?s raid resulted in mobilization of America?s military and preparation for entry into a wider war: the War on Terrorism.

When I first perceived these parallels, I remembered the oft-quoted saying of Unamuno that those who do not read history are doomed to relive it.  Then I modified the saying:  "History repeats, but no one seems to notice." 

Then, out of curiosity, I began to pursue the matter of Francisco "Pancho" Villa more deeply.  The closer I looked, the more coincidences and parallels began to appear.  I soon realized that they amount to more than curiosity.  In fact, the historical similarities here are what might be termed a phenomenon.  It is as if the script of an old Broadway play has been updated and newly produced for the benefit of a modern audience.  In the following pages, my aim is to prove only that this phenomenon exists.  I leave interpretation to philosophers and others.

A good place to begin is with the character of Villa himself.  Villa was a guerilla fighter with a great popular following, who attacked the United States because he had come to hate Americans.  But he was not always like this. 

Unlike  Osama bin Laden, Villa was born to a poor family.  His birthday was June 5, but it's uncertain whether he was born in 1877, 1878 or 1879.  I was surprised  to  learn that his real name was Dorothy. Well, actually Doroteo, which is an acceptable male Hispanic name.  He changed his name from Doroteo Arango to Francisco Villa when, as a teenager, he found it necessary to avoid the Police after having murdered a wealthy landowner for raping his sister.  Villa began fighting oppression at a young age. 

He was later to develop into a complex and contradictory character, at once a folk hero and revolutionary as well as a gangster and stone-cold killer.

The previous sentence might apply equally as well to Osama bin Laden. However, before I get to our modern-day villains, I wish to make a few more observations on Villa and his times. 

Perhaps, after all, there is something to this idea of reincarnation. Perhaps all the major players in this tragedy were here before and now are reenacting the same roles, stuck permanently in their bad karma.

Unfortunately, it is a karma shared by the world around them, whichseems never to learn the old lessons. Francisco Villa in Mexico has the air of a folk hero, a modern Robin Hood, who stole from the rich and gave to the poor.  In fact, he often did that.  The legend is true as far as it goes. 

Mexico around the turn of the 19th century in many ways resembled Afghanistan at the turn of the 20th.  Different regions were prone to fall under control of local warlords, at war with each other and with outsiders.  The high stakes were oil and land.

Villa came to prominence during the revolt against Porfirio Diaz, a tyrant nearly as oppressive as the Taliban.  Francisco Madero, an honest and genuinely saintly man, ran against him in a National election and lost.  The election was obviously rigged, Madero receiving only 10% of the vote.

The Mexican people have never had much patience with tyranny.  In 1910 they rose up in arms against Diaz.  Villa went to war on Madero's side. 

Some of the biographies of Villa describe him as having run a "butcher shop"  before the revolution.  In reality, he was dealing in stolen cattle.  Northern Mexico had vast herds of range cattle, and there was a good market for them across the border.  If Villa had lived in Chicago, he might have been another Al Capone.  There are numerous stories of his having people killed on a whim, and of using torture on particular enemies.  Be that as it may, Villa already had a small army organized at the outbreak of revolution.  He was willing to ride into battle at the head of his troops, and his men demonstrated a fierce loyalty to him.

Madero won the revolution and began to implement a progressive and humane program of government.  If he had survived, history would no doubt have been quite different.  But he governed for only two years; one of his own generals, reluctant to surrender his power to the Mexican people, had him assassinated and took control.  This was Victoriano Huerta, who shares a number of qualities with Saddam Hussein.  He stole the government of Mexico from the people in 1913, and then sought diplomatic recognition from the United States.

The U.S. meanwhile was governed by President Woodrow Wilson.  Wilson was the George W. Bush of his time.  They share many things in common, but I don't wish to imply that President Bush was as completely evil as Wilson.