Che


My son always held the kids who wore Che Guevara t-shirts to his high school in complete contempt. He viewed them as weak, empty-headed, knee-jerk liberals -- a pretty accurate assessment, in my view.

But my son, who actually knows his military history, said something interesting to me the other day: "Che wasn't the type of guy who would have worn a Che t-shirt."

The image most of us have had of him was of a particularly noble-looking mestizo peasant who rose up against his oppressors, Fulgencio Batista and United Fruit, fighting side by side with Fidel in the mountains of Cuba.

The truth is more complex. Che -- real name Ernesto Guevara Lynch -- grew up in a well-to-do Argentinian family. He was of Spanish, Basque, and Irish (!) descent. This son of the sod enjoyed swimming, golf, soccer, shooting, cycling, and rugby. He also competed in chess tournaments from the age of 12. According to Wikipedia:

He was passionate about poetry, especially that of Pablo Neruda, John Keats, Antonio Machado, Federico Garcia Lorca, Gabriela Mistral, Cesar Vallejo, and Walt Whitman. He could also recite Rudyard Kipling's "If --" and Jose Hernandez's "Martin Fierro" from memory. The Guevara home contained more than 3,000 books, which allowed Guevara to be an enthusiastic and eclectic reader, with interests including Karl Marx, William Faulkner, Andre Gide, Emilio Salgari, and Jules Verne. Additionally, he enjoyed the works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, Vladimir Lenin, and John-Paul Sartre; as well as Anatole France, Friedrich Engels, H.G. Wells, and Robert Frost.

He cataloged in his own handwritten notebooks of concepts, definitions, and philosophies of influential intellectuals including...analytical sketches of Buddha and Aristotle, along with examining Bertrand Russell on love and patriotism, Jack London on society, and Nietzsche on the idea of death. Sigmund Freud's ideas fascinated him as he quoted him on a variety of topics from dreams and libido to narcissism and the oedipus complex. His favorite subjects in school included philosophy, mathematics, engineering, political science, sociology, history, and archaeology

Years later, a February 13, 1958, declassified CIA 'biographical and personality report' would make note of Guevara’s wide range of academic interests and intellect, describing him as "quite well read" while adding that "Che is fairly intellectual for a Latino."

(Sure sounds to me as if he was intellectual by any standards.) I have to wonder if his interests really ranged that widely; if they did, his knowledge was probably broad but shallow.


In any case, he wasn't exactly a poor, uneducated campesino trying to overthrow the landowners who had exploited him. 

At age 22, Che took his famous motorcycle journey throughout South America, during which he witnessed many instances of poverty and injustice. This sowed the seeds for his lifelong support for socialism.

It would be easy to dismiss Che as a rich dilettante and naive idealist; but, as with all of us, his political outlook was shaped by his time and his environment. He didn't have the benefit of our hindsight, getting to watch the Soviet empire collapse under its own weight, etc.

After meeting Fidel Castro in Mexico City, Che joined his movement to overthrow Batista in Cuba. (Che later characterized Mexicans as "a band of illiterate Indians.")

Although he had planned to become a combat medic, Che showed talent in every aspect of his military training. After they started their guerilla war in Cuba, Castro quickly gave him command of the second column of the army. 

In the battle of Santa Clara, Che was surrounded by Batista's soldiers, outgunned, and outmanned 10 to 1, but still managed to pull out a victory. For that, and for his strategy in many other battles, he was later described by military historians as a brilliant tactician.

Che was also extremely courageous. He was always in the front lines, and sometimes recklessly risked his own life to help fallen comrades. On one occasion it was reported that Batista's soldiers actually held their fire because they were so impressed that Che had run into the field of fire in order to rescue one of his soldiers.

At the same time, Che was also known for his brutality. During the Cuban Revolution he was known to hunt down deserters from his army and execute them on the spot, without benefit of a trial.


After the revolution, Che later became head of the war crimes tribunal and Finance Minister in Cuba. He tried to export his revolution to the Congo, but was unable to effect any change.

Che later said of this experience, "Given the prevailing lack of discipline, it would have been impossible to use Congolese machine-gunners to defend the base from air attack: they did not know how to handle their weapons and did not want to learn."

Unlike those who wear his t-shirts, Guevara -- or Lynch, if you prefer -- was not exactly politically correct. At one point (before he went to Africa), he wrote in his diary:

"The black is indolent and fanciful, he spends his money on frivolity and drink; the European comes from a tradition of working and saving."

He was also known to have said, "We're going to do for blacks exactly what blacks did for the revolution. By which I mean: nothing."

But at the same time Che was expressing his own opinions about race, he was also inveighing against Jim Crow in the United States.

Che's downfall came when he tried to export his revolution to Bolivia. After waging a brief guerilla war in the mountains there, he was captured and executed by Bolivian authorities.

Che's main legacy, in this country at least, seems to be as a t-shirt vendor. But the man himself was far more well-rounded -- and complicated -- than is generally known.

(After doing this research, I have to admit, I'm almost tempted to wear a Che t-shit myself.)