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  • “The barracks receives spoiled children and returns men”: Debating Military Service, Masculinity and Nation-Building in Argentina, 1901–1930
  • Jonathan D. Ablard (bio)

In 1918 an anonymous conscript writing to La Protesta, an anarchist paper known for its anti-militarism, complained about life in the Argentine navy. The military was a “school of vice” where everyone was reduced to a number and was subject to the most cruel and random subordination. The conscript fumed, “You even lose control of your hair.”1

The young man’s description of the humiliations to body and psyche reflected widely held beliefs, especially among the urban working classes, about obligatory military service. Such views, however, ran contrary to those of government officials, the bourgeois press, and the middle class and elites, who since the late nineteenth century had embraced military service, alongside national education, the promotion of national holidays and symbols, and later, obligatory voting, as crucial instruments to contain, guide, and instruct what they viewed as an unruly and unassimilated mass of foreign and native-born men.2 Argentina’s state reformers envisioned conscription as a crucial tool, [End Page 299] not only for military defense but also for the geographic, social, and political integration of the republic.3

This essay explores how military conscription functioned in Argentina and how different sectors of society accepted, interpreted, and debated it during the first three decades of the twentieth century.4 Massive immigration that commenced in the 1880s drove policy makers to take quick action to modernize conscription (systems of both obligatory and voluntary military service had existed since colonial times) into a tool to integrate the sons and grandsons of immigrants into the national fabric by fostering a common social and political understanding of what it meant to be Argentine (argentinidad).5 Extremely low rates of naturalization by immigrants, around 2 percent in 1914, and the parallel rise of anarcho-syndicalism as an essential feature of working-class life, added urgency to this project.6 Indeed, as Omar Acha notes, the golden years of anarchism coincided with the “unfolding of a nationalizing strategy by the state.”7

The 1901 conscription law, rendered more effective by 1911 registration legislation, developed into one of Argentina’s most vivid, widespread, and concrete manifestations of nation-building. It envisioned an inextricable connection between body, psyche, sexuality, morality, normative gender roles, and the family as building blocks of the nation. The goal of conscription was to nationalize the male population through policies, practices, and propaganda that bound national identity and patriotism to a specific definition of normative masculinity that celebrated the “principles of order and hierarchy.”8 Conscription fit into [End Page 300] a larger pattern of both formal state projects and non-state endeavors, which by the late nineteenth century had recognized that “the definition of the male was decisive to establishing the representative type of the Argentine nationality.”9 Notably, this vast array of projects, stimulated by massive immigration, unfolded during a period in which “the construction of the ‘tipo argentino’ was still developing.”10 Similarly, as historian Pablo Ben has noted for Buenos Aires, many elites were anxious that the constant arrival of foreigners had disrupted plebian masculinity’s connection to family and kinship, and that the popular classes were impervious to the influence of bourgeois norms.11

For state functionaries and their allies, a modern and efficient conscription system would promote loyalty to the social, political, and economic order, in part through a compelling rhetoric of hegemonic masculinity in which men of low social status were promised domination over women in exchange for fealty to the state and the social order.12 Argentine officers, civilian functionaries, and elected officials recognized, as Judith Allen has observed, that “modern masculinity symbolized virtue, order, and the hopes and ideals of society.”13 The project to reshape men complemented a parallel set of practices and policies, overwhelmingly coercive and predicated on “tradition,” to contain and control women’s bodies, behaviors, and economic activity.14 The post-1901 conscription project also represented one of the most comprehensive efforts in Argentina to deploy the theories of race betterment and eugenics to the general population, but especially to men.15 [End Page...


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pp. 299-329
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