Smooth-talking Generals

News of torture, death squads, arbitary imprisonment and assassinations in Latin America's growing list of military dictatorships quite reasonably can convey the impression that these regimes are crude and barbarian - and grasping power for power's sake alone. On the contrary, however, they are quite sophisticated and only too ready to offer a smooth and coherent rationale for their actions and goals.

Latin American military leaders in all sincerity see themselves as the 'chosen few', the only ones in whose hands can be trusted the job of helping the people to avoid the pitfalls which lay before them. Humanity, they will argue, is in a constant state of war. 'Peace' in their language, is the conventional term for warfare by non-military means.

The war, they reason, involves everyone and is total and permanent. The main enemy is communism - represented externally by Russia and internally by Marxist-inspired revolutionary groups. As men of destiny, their role is to save western civilisation from destruction; a job civilians are neither fit nor equipped to handle.

Their reasoning may be logical but only when it is based on a narrow and distorted understanding of human nature. The starting point for such a philosophy is to be found in seventeenth century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes' master work Leviathan. Hobbes' view of man, sadly, was limited to the darker side of human nature, and totally ignored its capacity for honesty and trust. The political theory of Latin American elites - the prototype of which emerged when the generals took over government in Brazil in 1964 - has come to be known as the'ideology of national security'. Geopolitics and strategy are its basic sciences. (Geopolitics is the use of geography to rationalise a political programme in pursuit of maximum power for the state. Strategy, which concerns the art of war, helps to determine the means by which the programme can be implemented.)

Much of the inspiration for their ideology can be traced to American involvement in Latin America during the bitter years of the Cold War fifties and to Swedish political scientist Rudolf Kjellen who coined and defined the term 'geopolitics' just before World War 1. The Third Reich reduced geopolitics to a propaganda tool to justify German territorial conquest. Since World War Two it has been adapted extensively in states preoccupied with power and expansion. Brazil's General Golbery do Couto e Silva and Chile's General Agusto Pinochet have each written books on geopolitics.

A combination of Hobbes and geopolitics and strategy produces a viewpoint which has little in common with the traditional values of western democracies. Because the state is regarded as an organism which will die without sustenance, economic growth takes priority over all else; personal freedoms become subject to the whim of the state.

What is good for growth becomes the ultimate measure of what is right and wrong. Citizens are willed to collaborate in this growth process - and are rewarded accordingly. Those who do not collaborate are coerced or punished. Some can be sacrificed but the military elite know that the citizens must not be pushed too far; by abolishing all liberties the people would becomes slaves - and slaves do not make good soldiers.

There's nothing apologetic about the way the military takes charge in Latin America. Listen to the Chilean junta's declaration of 1974, for example: 'The Armed Order Forces will not set any term to their government control, because the task of morally, institutionally and materially rebuilding thecountry calls for a profound and continuous action. Finally it is important to change Chileans' mentality ... opening the road for the future generations, formed in the school of healthy civic customs.'

Nor are these braided elites without God - at least not when they have a use for Him. The way of life their governments pretend to defend is supposedly based on science, democracy and Christianity, the key elements they believe are necessary, in the evolution of western civilisation.

They see science in terms of a technological development of the state; democracy purely as an ideal they are working towards; and Christianity to be supported only so far as it instils values that coincide with those laid down by the state. 'Christianity' is particularly useful in unifying the people through one cultural system.

Science no longer at the service of all citizens, democracy pursued via totalitarian dictatorship, and Christianity reduced to a handy cultural and ideological prop, add up to the partial truth which is the basis for the national security state. Only a philosophy which considers both the noble and base in human nature can challenge the 'national security' ideology at its roots.

Peter Woodruff is a Roman Catholic father who has spent several years working in South America.

New Internationalist issue 093 magazine cover This article is from the November 1980 issue of New Internationalist.
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