Chile From Within

Chilean military 100% voluntary

Posted in Chile military, Fuck you, Pinochet, Viva Chile by tomasdinges on May 5, 2007

A day in the newspapers

I lifted the following column from the marccooper’s blog where his readers were kindly stimulating a discussion whilst he was sick, and talking about the class nature of the military and the people who enlist and go off to die when politicians call on them.

“Which brings us to social mobility.” explains the column’s author, “My father was the son of a sharecropper, and he dropped out of high school after both of his parents and most of his siblings had died of various diseases. He lacked the polish to impress, say, a Morgan Stanley recruiter, but during World War II, the Army gave him a chance.

That meant better health care than his parents had gotten, thanks to socialized medicine. My “blue collar” friends and I went to the same doctors. The doctors weren’t all great, but I’m still alive, and we avoided one creepy thing about inequality in America today: people like me get arthroscopic surgery lest stray cartilage impede our golf swings, while low-income people, in unseen ways, die for lack of good health care.”

The essay, originally published in the NY Times select, could have been directed at the legions of knee-jerk liberals who live in bubbles where they read commentary and analysis as a substitute for having real-life experiences. They easily consume the baby-food arguments of politically correct academics and pundits seeking out the way the world “should” be, rather than discussing the boundaries of behavior in a complex world of “should be” and “is.”

The article presents a class analysis of the military to people who have zero contact with people in the military nor have an understanding of the effect of the system of “values” imposed upon them.

I think that the discussion and content of the article could serve here in Chile. Public opinions of the military and the police are still violent and reactionary after a legacy of violence and repression on a population over 18 years of military dictatorship and the psycho-social consequences in its wake. Imagine, when I first got here, I was afraid, wary, suspicious of the Carabineros, primarily because they burned Rodrigo Rojas while still alive, in 1986. His exiled mother, Veronica Denegri, Veronica DeNegrian image of permanent sadness in my memory, was part of the circle of my parent’s friends in Washington, DC. Imagine the people whose lives were most directly affected by constant police repression. My experiences amount to nothing, yet the impression was still significant.

The way that a society digests and expells an experience like a military dictatorship is now being studied academically under the canon of thick and interesting books filed under “historical memory.” An upcoming thesis on historical memory and democratic transitions has identified the military as an enclave of anti-democratic behavior during democratic transition during the 1990’s. This institution gave continuity to the dictatorship and its beliefs deep into the transition to democracy.

Greg is a visitor from Brooklyn, who after seven years of coming and going NYC to Santiago, is thinking about spending more time here. He likes provoking liberals, Chilean liberals, by telling jokes about only having kids in order to put them to work in the house or the field. Virna, his good friend, is an early thirties child-of-exile who grew up in Venezuela, raised by parents who were in the Communist leadership and came back to Chile in the early 90’s for university. She was provoked by him. She has a deep sense of social justice, privilege and work. My sense living with her is that her family lived the dictatorship and the years leading up to it very acutely, and this relationship has informed her, and her perception of the society, and specifically right-wing society (including the military) around her.

Case in point. An A-37 military plane in the Chilean Patagonia goes down in an accident and the pilots are missing. As we watch the report on the evening news Virna’s comment is something like, “good riddance,” “que se vaya no más…y a que me importa?” Alan, another roommate who has relatives who died in the Holocaust, and whose family is also on the left, reminds her that it is very possible that those members of the military were just recently born as Pinochet left power. Hmmm. What was their responsibility for the dictatorship? There are fascists in every military, not just Pinochet’s. There are also non-fascists in every military.

100% Voluntary

First off, lets consider Chile’s actual state of transition. A society which was declared democratic in the 1990’s, is beginning to act a bit more democratically in the 2000’s. The dictator even died. Freedom reigns the land, and the people make their ill-informed choices at Falabella, a popular department store with in-house credit, thus incurring what is called a Faladeuda. They purchase cheap knock-offs of European fashions which were meticulously studied (copied) by Chilean employees and sent off, made-to-order, for Chinese factories. The objects of illusory aspirations vital to a consumerist society have arrived, NOW 30% OFF. Theater companies make presentations to gas pipeline workers at 3000 meters (9000 feet) near a major border crossing with Argentina. What is the animated and easy to digest topic??…how to manage your personal credit. An hour and a half drive below, in the agricultural Valle del Aconcagua, there is a municipality whose name, Rinconada, loosely translates as Cornered. The head of the firefighters there told me, while driving his colectivo taxi at the speed limit, that he is soon off to Texas for an exchange program to learn how to best use the “Jaws of Steel”, the hydraulic metal schears used to extract people from cars mangled by accidents. The number of car accidents has jumped from something like 30 in a year to 60 in the last three months of this year. Cobblestone, dust, village drunks and horse-drawn carriages were the norm. Now, its cars financed by hard-working, but still modest, parents and driven drunk by their stupid kids or, so as not to simplify the situation, cars driven by people unfamiliar with the high speeds and swift acceleration of modern day auto transport. This is no joke. For those who have visited the area of San Felipe, Los Andes and Rinconada…it is an enclave of the rural life which characterized Chile in its recent history.

The flip-side of the cars driven drunk by their stupid kids are the tennis shoes purchased by hard-working mothers and promptly sold by their 17-year old kids who are addicted to pasta base. A recent late-night television show on the Catholic station, channel 13, which is modelled after Judge Judy and other televised court shows, featured this case, with the mother explaining that, “I tried to send him to the military, but they told me that there were no more spaces.”

After one year of making military service voluntary, the 15,000 spaces in the Chilean military is now 100% filled by volunteers, according to La Tercera newspaper and probably lots of other sources, and for the first time, has filled all of its positions, eliminating the need for a draft.

A well done BBC World piece describes it this way:

“Programas de capacitación, oportunidades para terminar los estudios, cobertura de salud, visita de familiares y la posibilidad de continuar una carrera en las instituciones armadas, son algunas de las iniciativas para atraer a jóvenes reclutas.”

Plus the added benefits of reduced hazing rituals. Some of the training programs include how to be a chef of international cuisine.

“Alejandra Arriaza, abogada de la Corporación de Derechos Ciudadanos, dijo a BBC Mundo que “generalmente son los pobres de este país los que adquieren esta cultura en el ejército.

Muchos jóvenes lo ven como la posibilidad de salir de un estado de marginalidad o de poder mejorar las condiciones económicas de su familia”.

El subsecretario de Guerra, Gonzalo García, salió al paso de las críticas.

“Los jóvenes vienen de muy diversos niveles sociales. Yo diría que claramente obedecen a segmentos sociales medios y bajos, pero no es sólo el servicio militar del segmento popular. Éste no es un voluntario obligado por las circunstancias sociales, es un voluntario de verdad”, dijo a BBC Mundo.”

Sure. These people come here for basic opportunity or if they really want to go into the military, they choose the army because they lack the last name, personal connections, money…and lastly, preparation, to enter one of the officer schools Escuela Militar, Escuela Naval…Once in (like in the police training schools) personal contacts determine privileges and ascension in rank.

For a translation go here. To learn Spanish go here.

Now is a time in the transition to democracy where people can trust the military or police…maybe…and begin to see them as legitimate… if you are aren’t for example, a radical Catholic, you know…Peace, like Coleman McCarthy, a rock star in his own right.

Two anecdotes

In the mid 1970’s woman, organized around Mujeres de la Paz, and others related to non-violent church groups, protested against the detained, dissappeared, assasinated, tortured, etc. etc., etc. (They were all deserving of their crimes, right. And should have known better..or alternatively, knew what they were getting into, because of the severity of their actions, and thus, also deserved punishment.)

These women, chains of thirty or forty, had their hands and arms were locked together, and they sang a song by Miguel Rios, an adaptation of the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony which includes the Ode to Joy. In Spanish its is known as the Himno a la Alegria. Interviews with women like María Inés Salgado, who works at Serpaj Chile, as part of the documentary Following the Ninth, tell a story.

The cops facing them off called on the radio to their superiors, “What do we do, we have taken away their signs, and all they are doing is singing.” TAKE THEM AWAY is the command, and they all go to jail, kicking shins, despite their pacifist principles, below the protective shields of the cops, as they are shuffled into the police vans.

Once in prison, surprisingly, the cops share their meals and converse with the protesters. At that point, María Inés, also known as Mané, recognizes how ordinary and normal these men are, and how their existence is a function of a hierarchy high above which dictates their behavior.

In blind, irresponsible speculation, maybe there was onda with a good-looking cop, even.

Anecdote Two:

I go skiing with Henry Purcell, the owner of Portillo Ski Resort, because he was a fly fishing guide in the 1960’s on my grandfather’s property in Panguipulli. I know how to ski, but haven’t done it since I left college, when I was still close to the financial coattails of my parents.

It is THE decadent sport. Riding the lift I am accompanied by a young looking soldier dressed in military fatigures, combat boots and old randoneé skis from the nearby High Mountain Training School (Escuela de Alta Montaña) to my immediate left. To the far left is an image of U2’s Bono, with strikingly curved sunglasses (made out of glass!), a ski suit and new skis, which made me think that his outfit alone was worth, well I don’t know, almost everything I owned. He was decadent and a supporter of Pinochet…or a supporter of Pinochet and decadent. As you wish. Because I look like an American, and am an American, you know, cultured, he struck up conversation in English..what do I do, where, what, how, for who..I work at Siete Más 7..a notable left wing magazine, whose editor is Mónica Gonzalez…and I cover the secret bank accounts of former General Augusto Pinochet (RIP).

I guess I’m losing the argument in mid-air and we are arriving to the top of the lift. Bono pats the back of the military kid in the middle, appealing to some mythical bond with the the omniscient, omnipresent greatness of the military man which theoretically was Augusto Pinochet, this rich, right wing, jackass and this soldier from Los Andes. Our political argument had begun to revolve around this kid in the middle who had a military uniform and was clearly not as informed, ideologically nor factually, as we were. He said not a word, and I hated Bono.

What is the point, if you have gotten to the end of this article?

“You can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” -Abraham Lincoln

Don’t hate the people in the military just for being in the military.


  1. reg Says:
    April 3rd, 2007 at 6:50 am This is a no-no, reprinting most of a Times column from behind their “Select” wall, but since Marc is recooperating, it might stimulate some discussion. I’d be interested in hearing vets like MB and rlc comment on this.My Life in the Army
    Published: April 3, 2007(My father was an army officer.)…Growing up in, or at least amid, the Army helped make me a liberal — not because I reacted against my environment, but because I absorbed its values. If all of America were more like the Army, it would be a better country.People think of the Army as hierarchical, but compared with the private sector it’s a bastion of egalitarianism.Yes, the Army’s “blue-collar workers” — privates, corporals, sergeants — defer to its “white-collar workers,” the officers. That happens in corporations, too. But on an Army base you don’t send the white-collar kids to good public schools and the blue-collar kids to bad public schools.We all went to school together — either on the base or at a public school near it. My claim to fame is having played basketball at the same high school, on Fort Sam Houston, where Shaquille O’Neal, son of a sergeant, later played. (I encountered O’Neal in a hotel lobby a few years ago, and it turns out he’s less fascinated than I am by our intertwined histories. Puzzling.)I had friends from the Army’s biggest minority constituencies, blacks and Hispanics. Among soldiers, too, exposure to diversity, along with the practical need to live with it, could be benign. My father grew up in Texas in the 1920s, amid common use of the n-word, and I never heard him use it.Which brings us to social mobility. My father was the son of a sharecropper, and he dropped out of high school after both of his parents and most of his siblings had died of various diseases. He lacked the polish to impress, say, a Morgan Stanley recruiter, but during World War II, the Army gave him a chance.That meant better health care than his parents had gotten, thanks to socialized medicine. My “blue collar” friends and I went to the same doctors. The doctors weren’t all great, but I’m still alive, and we avoided one creepy thing about inequality in America today: people like me get arthroscopic surgery lest stray cartilage impede our golf swings, while low-income people, in unseen ways, die for lack of good health care.My father said Army people were as fine a group as you would ever meet, and the evidence was on his side. They were conscientious and unpretentious. And they can be surprisingly soft. Good commanders have a commitment to their troops that borders on love, a feeling that in the corporate world doesn’t generally emanate from the executive suite downward. (I said love, not lust.)That’s partly because in the Army, the stakes are so high. Sending people into battle isn’t something a good person does with detachment. Before the Iraq war, when the Army chief of staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki, testified that the postwar occupation would require hundreds of thousands of troops, he was showing not just prudence but devotion. He didn’t want his soldiers needlessly imperiled.As a reward for his devotion, General Shinseki was disparaged by Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz. Rumsfeld wanted to show how cheap war can be, and now our soldiers are paying the price. I wish some people on the left had a deeper respect for the military, but lately the left isn’t where the most consequential disrespect has come from.The crowning indignity was Abu Ghraib, an outrage that was initiated by civilians high in the Bush administration and has stained the U.S. military’s hard-earned honor, strengthening stereotypes that I know are wrong.My father, Col. Raymond J. Wright, retired…having given three decades to an institution he loved. He died in 1987. There are lots of things I wish he had lived to see, but the way the Army’s been treated recently isn’t one of them.Robert Wright, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, runs the Web site He is a guest columnist this month.

2 Responses

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  1. Chileno said, on May 10, 2007 at 7:59 pm

    Dude, you forgot to talk about Teletón, the Chilean reality show that’s about Boot Camp, where all the young actors where Lider (nat’l supermarket chain) logos on their shirts and scale climbing walls with a big “f” for falabela, faladeuda.

    Pretty damn boring, like most Chilean TV. (Although I do like some Chilean TV, the news commentary is pretty interesting). Anyway, you should talk about Peletón because I suspect it’s got something to do with maintaining robust military volunteerism. Or not? Either way, needs to be talked about. Thanks.

  2. Randy Paul said, on May 11, 2007 at 2:14 am

    We had Veronica de Negri speak for the Human Rights Day Celebration in NYC that AI sponsored in December 1987. Not a dry eye to be found at the Ethical Culture Society that day.

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