In the late eighteenth century, many authors found the idea of a permanent military in peacetime absurd. An extension of the sovereign’s power, always ready to serve instabilities and oppressions, the permanent military corps would, in itself, be a threat to the construction of democratic societies that were beginning to emerge in Europe at that time.
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A bitter critique of a peacetime military corps was the great thinker Mary Wollstonecraft. One of the most interesting and shrewd thinkers of the time —probably of all times— is no longer known only because female philosophers were not taken seriously in the 18th century. And because Wollstonecraft challenged very essential points of Western societies, such as the separation between reason and feelings. Men must be rational, sentimental women. The big lie that forces men to hide their feelings as if they were reason and women to hide their reasons in the form of feelings.
And it is in this context that Mary Wollstonecraft analyzes that standing armies are the opposite of a society based on reason. They alternate between blind obedience and a certain admiration for flirtatiousness. Shined boots, fashion shows, well-cut hair. Futility that society over the centuries seemed to admit to men only if they were soldiers.
It is true that the smoky tanks that occupied the Esplanade this Tuesday, August 10th, were far from the tradition of military pomp and vanity. But that was the inspiration, we know, from those who wanted them there.
And the parade, beyond the smoke screen, forces us to think about the role of the Armed Forces in times of peace, as people thought more freely about the topic for more than 200 years. Considering that Brazil has not had to defend its territory from invaders for over 150 years and has had modest participation in global conflicts in recent years, it is necessary to think: what is the use of the Armed Forces when they are not fighting external enemies?
I am not going to preach a Costa Rican solution here. The small Central American country abolished its armed forces more than seven decades ago and has since become the strongest and most prosperous democracy in the region.
But one cannot pretend that thinking about the role of its Armed Forces in peacetime is not an unresolved problem for Brazil. Peace understood here as the absence of war against another country.
In our young and unstable republic, the Forces undoubtedly played a more destabilizing and undemocratic role than the other way around. His participation in attempted and consummated depositions of presidents and in the repression of citizenship are indelible marks of his history. But to understand the gravity and context of the old tanks on the Planalto, it is necessary to look carefully at their role after the 1988 Constitution.
To do this, nothing better than reading the indispensable book by journalist Natalia Viana, Collateral damage – the intervention of the military in public safety. Natalia does an archeology of the military’s return to power in the post-88 period. The first novelty is that the journalist locates, much more than in the cowardly transition of 1979, in the negotiation over the text of the Constitution itself, the origin of the rather disastrous presence of the Armed Forces in the last years of the New Republic.
The inclusion, mainly due to pressure from the then Minister of the Army, of the possibility of the Armed Forces acting in case of Law and Order Guarantee (GLO) maintained the idea of a dual role for the Forces: external enemies and disruptors of internal order.
Basically, the definition of an internal role solves an identity problem for an organization that mobilizes so many resources and, in times of peace, has no clear role. But it creates a series of others, as the Brazil of recent decades proves.
In her book, Natalia shows how the Forces used GLO operations throughout the governments of the New Republic to gain political relevance. And, during the Lula administration, the presence in Haiti also appears as another fundamental element in the construction of a public role.
It turns out that both the presence in GLOs and the role in Haiti are essentially marked by a more military than democratic logic in their performance. The democratic logic is one of constant reassessment of mistakes and successes. Whether through the press, civil society or elections, political actors are constantly subjected to public scrutiny and it is this public judgment that enables institutions to learn from their mistakes and produce better futures.
Military logic is the logic of hierarchy. As Wollstonecraft rightly said, of blind obedience and extreme vanity. Never admit to being wrong. Military honor takes offense when criticized. The ethics of democracy is precisely to recognize the fallibility of leaders.
The participation of the military in Brazilian politics is tragic. It was tragic during the dictatorship (both with regard to the country that surrendered in the 1980s and in the violence and repression used) and it was tragic in the post-1988.
Side effects reconstructs that last tragedy. It shows that the performance of the Forces for GLO, which accelerates throughout the Dilma Rousseff administrations (2011-2016) and culminates in the military intervention in Rio de Janeiro, constitutes a collection of failures, marked by absolute impunity in the case of civilian deaths ( collateral damage), expenditure opacity and outcome evaluations.
The operation in Haiti goes in the same direction: extremely criticized by the local civil society, it is treated as an absolute success by the Forces, incapable of a critical evaluation of the processes.
These failures clearly went to the head of the generation of generals who were at the center of these experiences. Commanders in Haiti, in the intervention of Rio de Janeiro and of GLOs assume key positions in the Government of the captain whose idol was not the dictators of 64-85, but their bloody basements. Reconciling the generation of management ineptitude with the worst of the dictatorship.
The militarized Bolsonaro Government is a consequence of the ill-fated experience of the military with democracy. Unable to look in the mirror except to admire their uniforms, tanks or fighter jets and submarines bought from civilian-led governments. Unable to learn from mistakes, as recognizing them goes against military honor, this group of soldiers enters the Government occupying civilian spaces in the middle of a pandemic. And, once again, they act with the expected incompetent arrogance with which they have acted when called upon to matters that, of course, should not compete with the military.
The smoky tanks that occupied the Esplanade could not be a better metaphor for the Brazilian military’s discomfort with democracy. A theater that takes place on the voting day of the vote printed in the Chamber of Deputies after repeated statements by military leaders and the President of the Republic threatening the electoral process. It would be pathetic, as military parades are, Wollstonecraft warned us. But the collateral damage to our democracy is already too serious to be treated as a mere exercise of male vanity.
Pedro Abramovay is an attorney and director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Open Society Foundations.
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