Between the last decades of nineteenth century and the first of the twentieth, a wide range of military reforms swept through Latin America. After a series of deadly wars shook the region (US versus Mexico, the War of the Pacific and the War of the Triple Alliance), a new generation of statesmen deemed necessary a deep restructuring of the armed forces in order to create more “modern” armies. However, other reasons also underlay these reforms. The refashioning of the army was at the core of the elites’ nationalizing projects. A variety of racist and hygienist discourses supported the transformation of the barracks, traditionally considered immoral spaces, into privileged sites of citizen making. Mandatory military service, adopted in Argentina (1901), Bolivia (1907), Brazil (1918), Chile (1900) and Mexico (a couple of years later in 1938), conveyed long-lasting transformations in the relationship between the state, elites and subalterns. While obligatory military service helped increase the state’s power of intervention in various social realms, it also provided new scenarios for disenfranchised groups to negotiate their integration to the imagined community.
In this session, we seek to analyze various dimensions of the changes that military reforms and conscription in particular entailed for Latin American societies. We will delve into everyday aspects of barracks’ life during Porfirian rule in Mexico, where competing images of the nation revealed the challenges faced by the official attempts to create a homogeneous identity. We will discuss the legal controversies regarding conscription and military courts in Argentina and its impacts in the definition of citizenship. On a different level, we will consider the ways in which long-term discussions around health and fitness and unfitness for the service shaped racialized representations of the Argentine people and deepened class and regional inequalities. Finally, we will use the lens of military service to explore whether the 1952 Revolution significantly transformed social relationships in Bolivia or left the traditional structures of power in place.
Undoubtedly, armies were decisive agents of nation building in postcolonial Latin America. In this experimental panel, we will have four scholars who are relatively new to the field of military conscription briefly (each has agreed to limit presentations to under 12 minutes) describe their findings in order to ground our discussion of military conscription in specific case studies. Senior scholars in the field will provide comments and chair the panel, leaving at least 30 minutes for a wide-ranging discussion with the audience about conscription’s connections to citizenship, race and nationalism. We expect that the convergence of different approaches and debates around different cases will contribute to a better understanding of cultural, political and social aspects of Latin American military reforms. This panel will shed light on the processes that transformed armies into pivotal actors in the region throughout the twentieth century.