Fear & Memory in the Brazilian Army & Society, 1889-1954


SHAWN C. SMALLMAN

 

The army exerted an enduringinfluence in Brazilian politics from the second half of the 19thcentury to the early 1980s. The range and scope of militaryintervention has been the subject of extensive academic debates, mostof which aimed at explaining the military coup of 1964 and the 21years of "bureaucratic authoritarian" dictatorship thatfollowed it. The roots of military intervention have been sought inmany aspects of the institution's life, in class alliances and itsrelationship with civilian allies.

The internal and informalarrangements that determined to a large degree the officers' behaviorhave not been a central issue for historians of the militaryinstitution, and the book in question tries to fill this lacuna.Shawn C. Smallman's Fear & Memory relies on newmanuscript sources and personal interviews to emphasize the roleplayed by the informal structures that shaped both the army'spolitical behavior and the institutional version of its history. Theauthor defines these structures as "the unwritten rules,organizations, and beliefs that shape power without official sanctionor government funding" (5).

The book analyses the genesis andconsolidation of the informal structures in the period from1889to1954. Springing from a secondary position during most of themonarchical period, the army was able to overthrow the regime andproclaim a Republic in the name of order and progress. In spite ofits proactive role in the 1889 coup, for decades the army lacked aclear program to unify the different factions around some basicdemands, making the struggle for hierarchical control over privates,non-commissioned and rebel officers much more violent and personalthan it is normally assumed. In fact, the lack of a clear militaryideology, external influences, personal strife, and politicaldivisions constantly undermined formal procedures, making the armyvulnerable to instability. In response to this vulnerability, thoseat the top constantly employed violence, torture and bribery tocontrol the institution.

The ways in which the hierarchy wasable to forge its own version of the army's institutional memoryrelied fundamentally on fear and practices of omission. Many episodesof violence, as well as accusations of corruption, were erased fromthe official story. Other episodes, such as the revolt of 1935, wereconveniently distorted in order to justify the brutal means by whichthe defeated were punished. Yet others, such as the systematicrepression of the members of the nationalist party, disappeared fromthe records.

The book makes clear the extent ofracial prejudice in the military institution. From the 1920s, theopportunities for non-commissioned promotion were few. In addition,Blacks, Jews and other minorities were progressively discriminatedagainst in the selection processes for officer positions. Theevidence presented contradicts the historical institutionaldiscourse, which sees the army as an oasis of good relations amongBrazilians of all classes, colors and creeds.

Another good point is the emphasis onthe role of personal relationships as a fundamental factor in theconstruction of alliances and the formation of political groups. Thisaspect is particularly well illustrated by the description of theprocess in which the hierarchy shifted from a state-led position to amore internationalist approach during the1940s (chaps. 3 and 4). Witha solid base in rich primary and secondary sources, Smallmandemonstrates that pragmatism and personal alliances were much moreimportant in the formation of factions than adherence to an ideologyor a system of beliefs. Army officers were less dependent on theirpolitical connections than civilians, but that was not an antidotefor a high level of endogenous clientelism.

The book also highlights the stronglinks established through corruption between the high echelons of thehierarchy, its cadres, and business interests. Corruption was alwaystolerated by civilian elites as a necessary weakness for maintainingthe army's subordination. However, the promotion of officers tostrategic positions in State enterprises increased the scale ofcorruption, reinforcing the links between these officers and varioussectors of the business community. Special courts and violence oftenparalyzed any investigation, making corruption a safe endeavor forthose at the top. In this particular respect, the book could havediscussed more the relationship between factional cadres and thepolitical parties established during the 1946 regime. Maybe it wasnot the author's purpose to establish connections with externalstructures, but the military did not function in a vacuum and alittle more contextualization would not have damaged his point. Moreattention to national politics would have reinforced particularinformal aspects of the institution during those crucial years. Whatwas the role of party politicization in the internal disputes betweennationalists and internationalists?

Fear and Memory provides adetailed description of the military institution and its motivations.The archeology of the informal structures looks at internalrealignments to explain military action, showing that collectiveamnesia has remained the army's official policy for years. The signsof military discontent are traced from the Paraguayan War to theinvolvement in the authoritarian modernization and the ferociousanticommunism of the forties and fifties. It is worth asking whetherthe research should have delved so far into the past if the aim wasto concentrate on the 1940s and 1950s. The emphasis in the longuedurée is not always compatible with the analysisof the structure of personal alliances and individual opportunism sooften emphasized by the author. In spite of these remarks, the bookpresents new perspectives for the study of many internal aspects ofthe military institution, showing that the complexity of events canbe traced, many times, to the passions and motivations ofpersonalities. Indeed, the book signals the convenience of abandoninga stereotyped vision when analyzing the obstacles that thisbureaucracy established in order to hamper a full exercise ofdemocracy.

Vitor Izecksohn Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro




© 2017 Tel Aviv University