A Tribute of Blood: Army, Race, and Nation in Brazil, 1865-1945


PETER M. BEATTIE:  Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001.

How did Brazil manage to build a fighting force in the nineteenth century to defend its borders and police its population? How did the Brazilian elite articulate a campaign to reform an army composed of impressed criminals, vagabonds, and the unprotected poor in the wake of the army's less than glorious record in the Paraguayan War (1864-70)? How did politicians, officers, and military boosters reshape the army and, in turn, notions of the Brazilian nation through implementing conscription in the early twentieth century? Peter M. Beattie addresses these and many other questions related to the consolidation of a modern army in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In doing so, he challenges students of Brazilian history to rethink the relationship of the armed forces to the process of nation building.

Throughout the nineteenth century, intractable citizens, the jobless poor, and those without patronage protection were subjected to arbitrary dragooning. Forcibly recruited troops faced long work hours, inadequate health care, and minimal nutrition serving in an institution equipped with inadequate supplies. The army served as a source of cheap labor for public works projects and as a means to supervise convicted criminals. Yet in a nation with widespread poverty, the military also offered minimal upward mobility for many former slaves and members of the lower classes. Impressment meant that the Brazilian government had the manpower to supplement its police force and staff its prisons, poor houses and orphanages, disciplining the working masses through an institution that did much more than merely protect the country's borders. In the popular imagination, Brazilian enlisted men represented the dregs of society, and the army rank and file hardly offered an image of an honorable military defending the nation from internal and external threats.

Mobilization for the Paraguayan War merely exacerbated this situation. Although the imperial government established special volunteer battalions that offered added benefits for those who willingly took up arms, ultimately they only represented forty percent of the military forces, requiring the government to fall back on forced recruitment, including convicted convicts, to fill the army's ranks. Political cartoons and newspaper editorials confirmed the widespread perception that the government relied on a less than enthusiastic military force to engage the Paraguayans. In spite of Brazil's victory, the public continued to hold the impression that the army was a disreputable and dishonorable institution.

Post-Paraguayan War political debates regarding military service pitted those favoring an all-volunteer army against those defending limited conscription. To mitigate ongoing public disdain for the institution, the army implemented a series of reforms that included reducing the practice of flogging as a disciplining mechanism. However, traditional patterns of social privilege in which patronage relations protected and exempted certain social sectors undercut attempts at establishing "universal" male conscription. National registration campaigns met with popular resistance, official feet dragging, and avoidance.

The demise of the monarchy in 1889 did little to change the low esteem afforded the lower ranks of the military. During early Republican years, traditional racial and social hierarchy in the military remained unaltered. By the first decade of the twentieth century, new models of manhood, race, and militarism began to reshape attitudes toward the armed forces. Sporting associations, gun clubs, the Boy Scouts, and even Teddy Roosevelt's 1913 Amazon adventure with General Rondon, emphasized a virile manliness that would aid in strengthening the nation. The increasing popularity of eugenics as a means of "improving" the Brazilian race likewise pointed to military service as a means of scientifically upgrading the recruits' health. Reformists pushed for universal conscription to reposition Brazil as a modern nation with a modern army. Recruitment was reframed as positive and honorable and the barracks were recast as alternative homes for Brazil's sons serving their country.

The 1916 Conscription Lottery, the product of a political alliance between army officers and reform politicians, ultimately restructured the military. Figures such as Ol?vo Bilac, the patriotic poet, pushed relentlessly for a new army that represented a new nationalism. Ironically, the drive for a professional army that would focus on military matters and upgrade public perceptions of men in uniform played out differently. With a new varnish on the image of the soldier, young officers gained confidence in their role as political players in national development. From the military revolts of the 1920s to the army's participation in World War II through a military force deployed to Italy, lower-ranking officers developed a decided stake in issues of development, political reform, and the future of the nation.

Beattie has uncovered a marvelous array of sources to shape his story, ranging from political cartoons and parliamentary debates to a voluminous assortment of army documents, and his meticulous research should be unconditionally lauded. An alternative means of presenting this material might have been to begin the volume with section two, which documents the lives of soldiers and the army's institutional roles. In this way, the reader would become more thoroughly aware of the everyday life of the rank-and-file soldier prior to a discussion of the politics of impressments. Additionally, the meta-argument of this book relies on a discussion of honor as a means of explaining why nineteenth-century soldiers avoided service, and how the recasting of the armed forces through universal conscription created a more familiar life in the barracks. To make this point, Beattie in part argues that political discourses used the language of honor to mobilize popular support for the institution. He also documents popular resistance within the framework of the working poor's notions of honor and respectability as a means to distinguish themselves from slaves, the unemployed, and criminals. Yet, it seems that this discursive employment of the concept of honor to justify or avoid military conscription really hides more fundamental issues that had little to do with the term. As Beattie so carefully pointed out in this book, for so many Brazilians living on the economic edge, military service could mean pushing a family into abject poverty. Likewise, the elites desired a strong military force for internal stability, yet had no intentions of allowing their own sons to serve. However, they used the trope of honor as a strategy to mobilize popular sentiment in favor of universal service. While honor may have been a useful strategic term put forward to deflect or encourage military service, it remains unclear, at least to this reviewer, if the notion had a more intrinsic meaning to those who employed it as a shield or as a battle cry.

 

James N. Green California State University,
Long Beach

 





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