Asymmetric-warfare models

The conquest of Mexico

The conquest of Mexico (February 1519 – August 1521) is a model of asymmetric warfare. The correlation of forces seemed overwhelmingly in favor of the Aztecs. At no point in the eighteen months of conquest were there ever more than two thousand Spaniards in Mexico, whereas their adversaries were likely in the hundreds of thousands.

Hernán Cortés landed with eleven ships, about a hundred sailors, five hundred and eight soldiers, sixteen horses, and fourteen artillery pieces. He had left Cuba in a hurry despite the opposition of the island’s governor, and some of his troops were partisans of the latter. From the start, he avoided rousing antagonism among the coastal populations. After a few contacts, some of which were lethal, he was fortunate to find a Spaniard who had survived a shipwreck several years earlier and spoke the language of the Indians of the coast. This man became all the more invaluable that the young Indian who had served as a sort of interpreter had deserted the Spaniards and advised the Indians to attack them.

Like all conquerors, the Spaniards came as predators, but also as subjects of their sovereign king and as proselytes of the Christian faith symbolized by the pope. They were sure they were in the right, and their incentive was to find gold, glory, and honors.

Thanks to Cortés’s diplomatic skills, relations with some of the indigenous communities were cordial and, as a token of peace, the Spaniards were given a score of Indian slaves. One of these, Malintzin (later christened Marina), would play a key role in the conquest.

The singular arrival of these intruders from the sea intrigued and worried the Aztec sovereign Moctezuma II, who dispatched emissaries to learn more about them.

Four worlds had preceded that in which the Aztecs lived, and each had been destroyed by a cataclysm. The fifth, like the preceding ones, was condemned to disappear at a date that had already been set. According to the Aztec calendar, the Spaniards had arrived in the year ce Acatl, or “1 Reed,” the same year in which the god Quetzalcoatl had been born and the year when he had later disappeared. A disconcerting coincidence, which had in fact been heralded by disastrous omens. Were these men come-from-the sea actually gods?
Moctezuma’s emissaries—who communicated thanks to the shipwrecked Spaniard and Malintzin, who, an Aztec herself, spoke Nahuatl—were vividly impressed by the strangers’ appearance, their weapons and their horses—animals unknown to them—and the sound and the effect of the cannon, a demonstration of which they were given. They were both confused and dismayed.

The foreigners expressed their desire to meet with the Aztec sovereign; the request would be repeated several times, and each time, Moctezuma would evade it and try to dissuade those come-from-the-sea from meeting with him in Tenochtitlan, present-day Mexico City.
Malintzin, Cortés’s interpreter and lover (she would bear him a son, whom he would recognize as his), quickly learned Spanish, and gradually, thanks to her, Cortés and his companions would discover the Aztecs’ thinking, and conception of the world, whereas the Aztecs would learn virtually nothing about the Spaniards except that they were mortal and liked gold.

In the first days of August 1519, the ships were dismasted to prevent the governor’s partisans from going back to Cuba and to make it clear that there was no other option than to forge ahead. The Spaniards began marching toward Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital. In six months, they lost forty-five men, mostly to disease or gangrene.

As they went forward, after winning a few armed clashes, the Spaniards realized that the Indian peoples under the Aztec yoke were suffering badly from Aztec tyranny. The Tlaxcaltecs, for instance, were forced to deliver hostages for a sacrificial holocaust in which their blood would nourish the sun. In the mid-twentieth century, Jacques Soustelle would write that out of death, the Aztecs generated life.1 And this came with a toll.

In his march toward the empire’s capital, Cortés had three hundred and sixty men and sixteen horses (he had left a garrison in Villa Rica de la Santa Cruz, a coastal city built by the conquistadors). The Spaniards emerged unscathed from an ambush in Cholula, within sight of the capital. Moctezuma received them with honors and in fear. Built on a marsh in the middle of a lake, the imposing city could only be entered by three roads that could be easily blocked. To make sure they would be safe, Cortés made the bold move of going first to Moctezuma with a small party, which through Malintzin, made the sovereign understand that he was to follow them to reside in their quarters. Moctezuma protested, but in vain. He was forced to yield to their demand, and the Spaniards were able to secure their way, albeit precariously.

The news then came that nearly a thousand men had landed on the coast, sent by the governor of Cuba to capture Cortés and his soldiers. (This was the expedition that brought smallpox onto the continent, and the epidemic would decimate the Indian populations.) Cortés rode out to meet them and managed, with a combination of diplomacy and coercion, to neutralize them and bring them around by luring them with the promise of the spoils of the conquest. The last week of August 1520, Cortés returned to Tenochtitlan with thirteen hundred soldiers and ninety-six horses. He found the city plunged into a bloodbath. The Spaniards who had remained there were facing a general uprising. Soon Moctezuma, who was seeking to parley with his people, was killed by a stone projectile. The Spaniards who were besieged in the city had no other choice but to escape, which they attempted to do on the night of June 30. This was the “noche triste” (sad night), when the Spanish lost half of their troops, three-fourths of their horses and all of their cannons. Cortés, his lieutenants, and Malintzin were safe.

The Spaniards had one last, very unfavorable battle to wage, but they managed to kill the chief of the Indian forces, which then had to give up fighting. Those who escaped took refuge among the Tlaxcaltecs.

The Aztecs were in the habit of fighting violent but short battles with few casualties, as their goal was not to kill but to take prisoners who would be used for human sacrifice. Their weapons were made of obsidian, so were very sharp but fragile. For the Spaniards, wars were quite a different story. No one was spared on the battlefield; the point was to destroy and crush the enemy, no compromise possible. War to the death it was; you either conquered or you died. On the Indian side, only the first rank fought and there was little discipline. The Spanish, on their side, led surprise attacks, fought by night, and used terror. Above all, their horses gave them impact power previously unknown to the Indians. Once they are struck at the top, highly vertical societies such as the Aztecs’—or the Incas’ in Peru—go to shambles.

Beaten but not defeated, Cortés prepared a second campaign. He had thirteen brigantines built, about fifteen meters long, with sails and oars and a twenty-five-to-thirty-man capacity. The vessels were carried in parts by their Tlaxcaltec allies then assembled and shipped along a canal a little more than a mile long and thirteen feet wide. This was aimed to establish a naval blockade, and on the ground, the Spaniards advanced on foot or on horse along the three entry roads.

The Spanish forces were made up of some nine hundred men, including ninety horsemen and one hundred and twenty harquebusiers and crossbowmen, plus thirty large artillery pieces and fifteen small ones. Sixty-two Spanish soldiers were sacrificed on the pyramids. In all, of the Spanish forces disembarked in Mexico between 1519 and 1521, sixty percent died either from disease or in combat. Indian losses were considerable but difficult to quantify. Probably more than a hundred thousand. After a three-month siege, thousands of Tlaxcaltec warriors joined in the combat. The city’s freshwater aqueduct was destroyed. The blockade was meant to starve the city, which was also being devastated by smallpox. After the new monarch was captured, the Aztecs surrendered.

The asymmetry inherent to the conquest of Mexico was also found in that, more complex, of Peru.

The conquest of Peru

When Francisco Pizarro landed on the coast of Peru in 1532, it was his third expedition and he hoped that this would be the one to succeed. He was about fifty years old, the age of a veteran. With him, he had less than a hundred and sixty men, including sixty-two horsemen. The Spaniards climbing the Andes were unaware that they were lucky to intervene when a civil war was raging. The two sons of the Inca had been disputing the empire. One of them, Atahualpa, had just won; he knew about the Spaniards and of their small numbers.

The Spaniards’ arrival in Peru, like in Mexico, is said to have been preceded by omens of disaster. Most of all, the god Viracocha was supposed to have announced the end of the Inca world and the destruction of the empire under the rule of the twelfth Inca, and the eleventh sovereign was the father of Atahualpa and his brother.

These omens and predictions may have also been invented ex post facto to explain the cataclysm …

On November 16, 1532, the Spaniards, after having climbed the Andes, found themselves in the town of Cajamarca, where they designed one of the most daring ambushes in history. They would soon capture the Inca alive when he was standing in the middle of the town plaza surrounded by his warriors. Indeed, the day before, a small party of Spanish horsemen with an interpreter had invited the Inca to meet in peace, to exchange words and presents. The Spaniards had been waiting all night in a state of extreme tension.

The Cajamarca plaza lent itself to the plan. Three of its sides were flanked with low buildings that had many exits onto the plaza. The first two sheltered horses and riders. The third was occupied by Pizarro and some of his infantrymen.

On the fourth side of the plaza stood a tower where four small pieces of artillery were dissimulated, along with ten harquebuses and the rest of the infantrymen. All firing and attacks were to wait for Pizarro’s orders.

The Inca, carried in a palanquin and surrounded by dignitaries and warriors, entered the plaza where Pizarro, the priest of the expedition, and a young Indian interpreter stood. The priest spoke and was probably trying to communicate the message of the Bible that he held in his hand. The Inca asked for the book, opened it, put it up to his ear in vain, shook it, and disdainfully threw it on the ground.

At that moment, Pizarro gave the agreed-upon signal, and the Spaniards charged on horseback after two cannons had ravaged the tight formations. The Indians’ surprise turned to panic. While they were trying to flee, Pizarro and two dozen battle-hardened infantrymen attempted to seize the Inca. They turned over his litter and killed his escort. Pizarro commanded that the Inca not be struck, while the horsemen chased those who were fleeing and massacred them.

The plaza was now strewn with nothing but dead bodies. The Indians’ rout was complete. Those fleeing did not stop to try to gather and fight back.

In just one blow and without knowing it yet, this handful of Spaniards had just overthrown an empire divided by a civil war, the victor of which they held at their mercy.

The Spaniards counted themselves and not one had been killed. How could they not believe that the grace of God had helped them to triumph? Later, when the Incas reorganized, they would seek to be done with the Spaniards. It would be too late. None of the uprisings would succeed.

The wars of conquest of the American continent in the first part of the sixteenth century were, without the slightest of doubts, models of asymmetrical wars. They show a clash of civilizations where the major weakness of the defeated lies in their worldviews, which are about the spirit. While the Aztecs were fearing the end of the world, they were facing conquerors sure of their faith and of their sovereign’s grandeur. The God of the Christians, contrary to the gods of the Aztecs, could not be defeated, even if Spanish troops might be. The Spaniards’ world did not carry concern for the future, contrary to that of the Aztecs, who saw an omen of disaster in the arrival “come from afar.”

Added to this are the two previously mentioned major facts: the Spaniards, thanks to their interpreters (particularly Malintzin), knew what their adversaries were thinking while the latter would learn practically nothing about the Spaniards if not that they were mortal and that they liked gold. Moreover, the very concept of warfare was completely different on either side: mostly ritualized warfare for the Aztecs (the point was to take prisoners), and warfare that spared no one for the Spaniards. In Peru, Pizarro had learned the lessons of the conquest of Mexico: you need to seize the emperor, whose fall will precipitate that of a highly centralized pyramidal society. Later, when Westerners would attack other, less elaborate indigenous societies that did not have at their head a quasi-deified sovereign, resistance would be longer.


  1. Soustelle, Jacques (1961), Daily Life of the Aztecs on the Eve of the Spanish Conquest, Stanford University Press, Stanford.