Synopses & Reviews
Over the course of the twentieth century, the military drove politics and served as the most prominent face of the state to Bolivians across the national territory. The liberal administrations in the early twentieth century, the military rulers on the right and left in the 1940s, and the reformists who took power after Bolivia's 1952 revolution all expressed profound faith in the power of military conscription to shape and educate the population. Venturing inside the barracks thus provides new understandings of the meanings of nationalism and citizenship to both those who controlled the state and the ordinary Bolivians, who, living in mining communities, urban areas, and the countryside, occupied the many categories between indigenous and white. Drawing on a body of internal military records never before used by scholars, Conscript Nation is the first comprehensive history of the military's role in Bolivian state formation. It unpacks the seemingly paradoxical embrace of obligatory military service by Bolivians, explaining why men became invested in an assimilationist and deeply coercive institution.
Military service in Bolivia has long been compulsory for young men. This service plays an important role in defining identity, citizenship, masculinity, state formation, and civil-military relations in twentieth-century Bolivia. The project of obligatory military service originated as part of an attempt to restrict the power of indigenous communities after the 1899 civil war. During the following century, administrations (from oligarchic to revolutionary) expressed faith in the power of the barracks to assimilate, shape, and educate the population. Drawing on a body of internal military records never before used by scholars, Elizabeth Shesko argues that conscription evolved into a pact between the state and society. It not only was imposed from above but was also embraced from below because it provided a space for Bolivians across divides of education, ethnicity, and social class to negotiate their relationships with each other and with the state. Shesko contends that state formation built around military service has been characterized in Bolivia by multiple layers of negotiation and accommodation. The resulting nation-state was and is still hierarchical and divided by profound differences, but it never was simply an assimilatory project. It instead reflected a dialectical process to define the state and its relationships.