restricted access Blood and Debt: War and the Nation State in Latin America (review)
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Hispanic American Historical Review 84.2 (2004) 327-328



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Blood and Debt: War and the Nation State in Latin America. By Miguel Angel Centeno. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002. Map. Tables. Figures. Bibliography. Index. xiv, 329 pp. Cloth, $45.00.

The idea of a "peace dividend" is such common currency in contemporary political and economic parlance that it has the ring of common sense. In an intriguing work of historical sociology, Miguel Centeno proposes what might be called a "war dividend" that Latin American states never collected during the period crucial to his study, the nineteenth century. Many scholars have linked the rise of powerful central governments to states' ability to create effective armies and extract resources from civilians to pay for warfare: the "bellicist" school of state formation. Centeno largely agrees with the suggestion that war making ultimately strengthened the appeal of nationalist sentiments and the capacities of public institutions in the North Atlantic. Common citizens also benefited through the expansion of the franchise and other individual and collective rights. Centeno cites William McNeill's colorful claim (which echoed those of nineteenth-century positivists) that military service is "the ball and chain of political privilege" (p. 243), but he points out that the price of this dividend was so high that only extremists would recommend this path for nations who failed to take it earlier. The legacy of industrialized slaughter, genocide, and ethnic hatred that enabled the conquest of these rights in the North Atlantic did not exist in most of Latin America. Centeno argues that most Latin American wars were limited in scale and did not create strong central states; rather, they increased national debts, since governments financed them through foreign loans and not through internal revenue. Foreign intervention aimed at protecting British and U.S. trade and investment interests limited the scale of these conflicts. Instead of increasing state autonomy, these limited wars created new dependencies that ultimately thwarted the establishment of strong central governments. Furthermore, Latin America's complicated domestic conditions—divisions within the ruling elites, postcolonial instability, and race and caste divides—stymied the type of reform carried out in the North Atlantic (p. 23). For Centeno, the United States was saved from the same fate by its massive Civil War. Martyrs like Abraham Lincoln became symbols in a nationalist liturgy that helped smooth over racial tensions and the legacy of black disenfranchisement. The United States also differed from most Latin American republics in excluding or eradicating its indigenous population. [End Page 327]

Centeno supports his case by measuring the ability of a national government to collect taxes, raise troops, and establish effective bureaucracies, as well as to stir nationalist sentiments and disseminate a "coherent concept of nation." North Atlantic nations outstripped their Latin American counterparts in their ability to tax, raise troops, and send millions to die fighting wars. Similarly, he measures the less tangible connections between states, their militaries, and broader civic patriotism by looking at the percentage of streets, currency, postage, and monuments dedicated to military heroes in Latin America in comparative perspective. Despite the militarist stereotypes of the region, Latin America comes up short in this area as well.

Even though, as Centeno rightly notes, Latin American militaries remained "small and affected the lives of a relatively small percentage of any country's population" (p. 237), one must remember there were no other national institutional entities that rivaled the military's institutional capacity and reach into the lives of ordinary citizens. Centeno's study suggests that we need to address the question of institutional fit or the timing and depth of institutional reform in Latin America and elsewhere more clearly, before large-scale comparison can advance much further. In short, what did Latin American states chose to reform and expand first (militaries, schools, poor houses, penitentiaries, etc.) and why?

To his credit, the author notes some important exceptions to his generalizations. Such hemispheric comparisons make specialists uneasy, and Centeno's willingness to break so many eggs to make his giant omelet demonstrates an admirable...


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