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Reviewed by:
  • Soldiers of the Pátria: A History of the Brazilian Army, 1889–1937
  • Richard Downes
Soldiers of the Pátria: A History of the Brazilian Army, 1889–1937. By Frank D. McCann. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-8047-3222-1. Maps. Tables. Notes. Select bibliography. Index. Pp. xxvi, 593. $75.00.

Veteran Brazilianist Frank McCann seeks to present a solid historical foundation for understanding the military's role in Brazil's national development by explaining how it defended its institutional identity between 1889 and 1937. During this period, Brazil experimented with a decentralized republic after having deposed the monarchy and then imposed, in 1937, a short-lived civilian-led dictatorship. The military, and especially the Army, played a crucial role in these and most other critical political events throughout the period. McCann's extensive archival research and review of the growing volume of secondary literature leads him to conclude that the military's defense of national unity—the concept of "Pátria" or "motherland"—earns it the distinction of being the only truly national institution during this period.

McCann supports this argument by recounting in detail how the Army matured institutionally while honoring its commitment to Brazilian unity. It dutifully responded to a series of armed challenges to the agrarian-oriented regional elites whose effectiveness in governing decreased progressively in the face of growing urbanism and industrialism. With officers largely from the urban middle or lower middle classes, and soldiers and sailors often impressed off the street, the military struggled to assert the central government's authority in Brazil's vast hinterland. Although eventually victorious, its disastrous battlefield experiences—the product of poor leadership, inadequate planning, and, especially, logistical deficiencies—and then contact with German and French military experts engendered a spirit of reform. This generated core institutional values and a desire for national industrial self-sufficiency. By 1937, the Army's institutional strength made it the nation's foremost national political broker, supporting the onset of Getúlio Vargas's dictatorship in exchange for his commitments to the military's short-term rearmament and the nation's long-term industrialization.

Along the way, McCann's account also serves as a traditional institutional history imbued with personal histories of prominent officers and of institutional tensions produced by pressures for reform from both within and outside of Brazil. He delivers detailed accounts of the critical battles of Canudos, the War of the Contestado, and the 1922 uprising at Copacabana, as well as of minor uprisings that attested to the proclivity of troops at all levels [End Page 257] to engage in political activism. He shows how the military struggled to improve its education, training, and armament even while hamstrung by a tradition of lax discipline and an unworkable conscription system.

This work deserves serious consideration by military historians and scholars of Brazil and civil-military relations in Latin America. McCann contributes to the debate on the Brazilian state's development by arguing that only in the 1930s did the military's institutional development endow it with the capabilities to perform a "moderating role" in society, and not earlier. McCann also disputes the argument that only after the 1964 coup did the military shift its focus from external threats to internal development. The post-1964 military professionally defended its institutional interests just as it had done during the period of McCann's study. Finally, he implies that the burdens of military government and then the adoption of the Constitution of 1988 have forced the military to redefine its role—finally relegating to society as a whole its role of defending the Pátria.

Richard Downes
Downes Technology Consulting
Miami, Florida


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pp. 257-258
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2010
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