Beyond the Battlefield: Labor and Military Service in Twentieth-Century Latin America and the Caribbean

AHA Session 19
Conference on Latin American History 3
Thursday, January 6, 2011: 3:00 PM-5:00 PM
Room 104 (Hynes Convention Center)
Elizabeth M. Shesko, Duke University
Peter M. Beattie, Michigan State University

Session Abstract

Studying soldiers around the world, practitioners of “New Military History” have begun to explore military service as an important interaction between the state and its residents that critically shapes understandings of the nation, belonging, honor, race, and masculinity. Although soldiers were often treated as the embodiment of the state, they must also be seen as individual bodies interacting with the state. This new approach considers how state agents used military service to incorporate and discipline soldiers in a way that would bring these actors into the nation while simultaneously reinforcing social hierarchies. A developing literature has depicted military service as a contract for citizenship rights between the state and ethnic or racial groups in places such as Russia, colonial Africa, and the Middle East (e.g. Altinay 2004, Mann 2006; Sanborn 2003). Others have studied the effect of military service on racialized bodies and hierarchies in Latin America and the Caribbean (e.g. Beattie 2001; Brown and Morgan 2006; Howe 2002; Vinson 2001).

While fruitful work is being done in these areas, the actual labor performed by soldiers, especially off of the battlefield, has been left virtually unexplored. As the field of labor history has repeatedly shown, the careful exploration of work routines and the relations of authority in the workplace can provide important revelations about politics, society, and culture. Just as most historians of the military have yet to study soldiers' work, labor historians have overlooked soldiers as a group of public workers.

This panel examines the laboring experience of soldiers and sailors in twentieth-century Latin America and the Caribbean, through rich case studies from Brazil, Paraguay, Bolivia, and the British Caribbean. Our aim is to shed light on the complex work cultures of the modern military, while also interrogating the relationship between martial and non-martial labor. Soldiers' labor has included fighting internal and external wars, the repression of fellow citizens, domestic service, agricultural labor, road building, and other development projects. Performed in a space usually closed to women, military labor often ruptures gender norms as non-commissioned officers teach conscripts to perform labor traditionally gendered as female, like sewing, cleaning, and food preparation. Yet men in this rigidly hierarchical labor force could not be unionized, and attempts to alter labor conditions were portrayed as threats to national security.

Our studies suggest that hierarchies of gender, ethnicity, race, and class profoundly shaped military work cultures. In his reassessment of the “Revolt of the Whip,” Álvaro Nascimento highlights the moral economy and work routines of rank-and-file sailors in the Brazilian Navy before and during the upheaval. Turning the First World War, Reena Goldthree chronicles the military experiences of Afro-Caribbean soldiers who, despite volunteering for the empire's army, were mainly limited to laboring roles. René Harder Horst uncovers the pivotal role of indigenous laborers, who served as guides, trench diggers, and spies in the Chaco War. In the final paper, Elizabeth Shesko considers how Bolivian elites mobilized military conscripts for national development projects, while framing military labor through the discourse of the patria.

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