Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).
As well as trying, so far with little success, to update
an antiquated economy, President Mauricio Macri
wants to push through reforms in other areas where
reaching his goals should be a lot easier. One
such has to do with the Armed Forces. Reduced as
they have been to something you might find in a
historical theme park, they certainly need a shake-up.
After letting go of power well over 30 years ago, the Army, Navy
and Air Force were left to rot. Starved of funds, detested by
many for what they did in the “dirty war” of the 1970s against
homegrown terrorism, for losing against the British in the South
Atlantic or for failing to run the economy as they had said they
would, it is widely agreed that, in their present shape, they serve
no useful purpose (unless providing a handy punching ball for
leftists and vengeful populists counts as one).
According to specialists in military matters,
they would be hard put to resist for more than a
couple of days an invasion by an unfriendly
neighbour, such as Uruguay seemed to be a dozen
years ago when Néstor Kirchner was getting
himself worked up about those allegedly filthy
pulp mills he claimed were soiling Argentina’s
pristine coasts. Some pessimists have gone so far
as to suggest that the Navy’s dilapidated ships
would sink, the Air Force’s museum-piece planes
would crash to the ground and the Army’s tanks
would break down long before they reached any
conceivable battle front.
Being a practical man, Macri assumes that, once suitably modernised,
the Armed Forces should be given something useful to
do. Under current legislation, they must limit themselves
to confronting the conventional armies of
foreign powers but, as none has shown much interest
in trying its luck down here, this means they
have been told to just sit down and wait for what
hardly anyone thinks could possibly happen.
Macri’s proposals worry many people who, for
understandable reasons, want to make sure the
military cannot meddle again in the country’s
internal affairs, as they openly did time and time
again between 1930 and 1983. But these days
drawing a line between genuine threats coming
from abroad and those that involve the collaboration
of people living in the country is not at all
easy. As the Europeans have found out, fighting
“international terrorism” – by which is meant Islamic
Jihadism – entails rooting out local fanatics,
many of whom are not attached to organised cells,
as well as getting at their comrades in places like Syria, Iraq,
Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Much the same can be said about
drug-traffickers and cyber-warriors who, like the jihadists, see
national borders as lines on maps that are of no interest to them.
Things seemed far simpler half a century ago, when loose
talk by Brazilian military strategists about “movable frontiers”
and the bellicose nature of men like Chile’s dictator Augusto
Pinochet gave their local equivalents an excuse to go on preparing
to defend the fatherland against a conventional foreign foe
who would attack by land, thereby enabling the officers to put
to good use whatever they had learned in the classroom or by
playing war games.
However, when, for economic reasons, the latest of a long line
of military regimes found itself growing more unpopular by the
day, the “majestic” general and de facto president Leopoldo
Fortunato Galtieri, after mulling over the pros and cons of a war
with Chile, decided it would be better to take a swipe at the
effete British imperialists out there in the South Atlantic he
thought would turn the other cheek, the gambit failed miserably.
Overnight, the men in uniform became pariahs and have remained
so ever since.
The men and women who have reacted to Macri’s move by
asking whether the country really does need
Armed Forces and, if so, what they should do,
are raising questions that have troubled politicians
and, needless to say, high-ranking military
officers, for over one hundred years. Their
inability to come up with a convincing answer
contributed greatly to Argentina’s decline.
The more lucid appreciated that, thanks to
geography, which kept really fearsome military
powers such as Germany, Japan and the Soviet
Union thousands of miles away, and the knowledge
that the United States would be unwilling to
let a bellicose outsider seize a large chunk of
South America, they would be unlikely to be
called upon to fight the kind of war that would justify their existence.
Most governments, backed by public opinion, made things
worse by in effect institutionalising neutrality. Argentina would
stay out of conflicts involving unruly foreign powers.
As a result, the military chiefs had to choose between calling it
a day, as did their counterparts in Costa Rica, and thinking up a
role only they could play. They did this by telling themselves that
the Armed Forces had come into being before Argentina as such
was born and were therefore entitled to take what they said was
their creation under their wing. For many years, most politicians
went along with this. They took it for granted that, every so often,
the military would step in to restore discipline after a free-spending
populist government had run out of money but that, having endured
a few years of cheese-paring stinginess and foolish attempts
to force young men to get a proper hair-cut, keep sex at bay and
the like, the populace would want to see democracy come back.
This strange but, for many, perfectly natural arrangement was
brought to an end by the outrageous behaviour of the dictatorship
that took power – with considerable public approval and to the
relief of most politicians – in 1976, but the way of thinking behind
it still persists. Like previous Peronist governments that assumed
the only alternative to their rule was a military regime, Cristina
Fernández de Kirchner’s let the economy slide toward the brink
in the belief that, in order to sort out the mess, its successor would
be obliged to act like a military dictatorship which, by its misdeeds,
would clear the way for her to make a triumphant return. The
military may have been rendered harmless, but the same cannot
be said about the political culture they helped form.