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Studying Latin American Military History

Why study Latin America’s military institutions? John Bawden, author of Latin American Soldiers: Armed Forces in the Region’s History, explains how armed forces reflect and reveal society.

Studying a country’s armed forces means studying society, not just what happens on the battlefield. Who gets recruited and trained for the officer corps? Who serves among the rank-and-file? In this respect, armies constitute important avenues for the analysis of race, class, and gender. In colonial Latin America, the Spanish and Portuguese Crowns excluded native people from royal armies and organized regional militias by racial caste. Women, it should be noted, followed armies on military campaigns; Mexico’s soldaderas being one noteworthy example. In modern Latin America, the military offered stunning social mobility to capable men from non-elite backgrounds.

The countries which make up Latin America today vary widely due to differences in geography, demography, and economy, and yet they all share the historical experience of Hispanic colonialism. From that common denominator, Latin American countries inherited military traditions forged during the centuries-long Christian Reconquest of lands formerly under Muslim control in what is today Spain and Portugal.

Such knowledge is essential for understanding the initial encounters between Europeans and indigenous peoples throughout the Americas. Iberians came to the Americas with a militant, crusading faith and patterns of conquest forged over centuries. These traditions influenced Latin America’s nineteenth century armies. Similarly, guerrilla traditions can be traced back to the encounters between Indians and Europeans and early forms of resistance to colonialism. During the twentieth century, guerrilla fighters enjoyed success in Mexico and Cuba in part because they were drawing from longstanding traditions of local resistance as well as rugged terrain that protected revolutionary forces. Pancho Villa, Fidel Castro, and Che Guevara, are just three well-known examples of this tradition.

In the classroom, I have found that warfare sparks the interest of undergraduates who are fascinated by the Spanish Conquest (also known as the European Invasion of the Americas). Students are surprised to learn that large numbers of native people aligned with the Spanish while other indigenous groups successfully retained their independence, notably the Apache of North America and Mapuche of South America. Furthermore, scholars do not agree on the relative importance of the factors that shaped key historical outcomes during this fateful collision of worlds.

Following the achievement of independence from Spain and Portugal, the nineteenth century’s inter-state wars transformed the region’s boundaries and fashioned the modern countries of Latin America through events such as the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) and the War of the Pacific (1879-1884). Across the region, civilian leaders frequently lacked control over the military. Some countries (Argentina, Brazil, Chile) went through a process of military modernization before others (Cuba, Mexico, Guatemala) in which the upper classes ceased to dominate the military and the armed forces attained new levels of autonomy and professional expertise. This modernization process coincided with increased connections and relationships to more powerful arms exporting states such as Britain, Germany, the United States, and the Soviet Union. The Cold War struggle, which brought a terrible wave of violence to Latin America in the second half of the twentieth century, must be understood in view of this historical process.

In short, studying a country’s armed forces sheds light on that society’s social stratification, ideological divisions, and relationships to the world system.

Featured Book

  • Latin American Soldiers

    Armed Forces in the Region's History, 1st Edition

    By John R. Bawden

    In this accessible volume, John R. Bawden introduces readers to the study of armed forces in Latin American history through vivid narratives about four very different countries: Mexico, Cuba, Brazil, and Chile. Latin America has faced many of the challenges common to postcolonial states such as…

    Paperback – 2019-08-06
    Latin American Tópicos

About the Author

John R. Bawden is an associate professor of history at the University of Montevallo. He is the author of The Pinochet Generation: The Chilean Military in the Twentieth Century (2016).

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