The Prestige: Some Thoughts on an Arcane Subject

[Note:  This post was originally written on February 17, 2010, and gives some insight on the research I undertook in my master’s degree studies in military history at Norwich University.]

As I have just turned in my final draft for my “capstone paper” for my second master’s degree, I thought it would be nice to share with my friends some of the interesting and odd revelations that I discovered during the process of researching for the paper. My paper is called “The Puzzle of Chilean Prussianization” and deals with what is an arcane subject even by my obscure standards, which is the military reforms Chile made in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s to essentially copy the German army in its weapons, songs, uniforms, and organizational structure. However obscure this subject is, there are a lot of aspects of the subject that I hope are less obscure and more interesting to a general audience.
To summarize my paper briefly, I examined three aspects of these military reforms. First, I looked at some reasons why Chile decided to scrap their existing (and successful) military. Then, I examined the reasons why Chile copied Germany’s army, as well as what other nations were copying Germany’s army at the time. Third, I examined the way in which these reforms could be judged either as a success or as a failure. After this I examined ways in which Chile’s history in the late 1800’s deserves further study by English-language historians, as the subject has been largely ignored.
As I researched the subject of Chile’s history in the late 1800’s, it came to light that Chile had a lot of reasons to reform their army. For one, their existing army, though successful, had failed to deter two attacks by the combined armies of Peru and Bolivia in the 1800’s. Both times Chile had managed to successfully defeat those combined forces and expand their territory to the north, but as Chile was outnumbered by both Peru and Bolivia, each of whom had larger armies and larger populations, clearly war was not a preferable option. For some reason, Chile’s native military tradition (which I call Portalean, after the person responsible for setting up Chile’s 19th century political and military system, a fellow by the name of Portales) simply did not awe Chile’s neighbors into peace. Considering that Chile had taken over nitrate-rich territories of both Peru and Bolivia by war, and taken over Bolivia’s only port on the Pacific, something had to be done. Additionally, Chile had simultaneous imperial rivalries with both the United States and Argentina. Chile sought to expand across the Andes into Patagonia, while Argentina sought to expand to the Pacific while both nations were engaged in a naval arms race, factors which led to numerous war scares between the two nations. Also, the US and Chile themselves engaged in very heated diplomatic contests that nearly led to war between the two nations in the 1890’s. Chile had taken over Easter Island in part to stop America’s spread in the Pacific Ocean and sought to defend Columbia’s rule over Panama to prevent the construction of the Panama Canal, and an incident between American sailors and local townspeople in Valparaiso nearly led to open warfare. It is an incident that is nearly entirely absent in American histories—and believe me, I have looked.
At the same time all of this foreign drama was going on for Chile, there were also internal difficulties in the nation. A serious quarrel between the Chilean president Balmaceda and the Chilean Parliament led to a civli war in 1891, and a German military adviser named Korner decided to treacherously join the side of the Congressionalists (as the side supporting Parliament was called). When the Congressionalists won, they fired the officers in Chile’s army who had supported Balmaceda, and then Korner (who soon became the official agent in Chile for Krupp, Germany’s biggest arms manufacturer) got the chance to remake Chile’s army in the image of Germany’s army. Corruption ran rife in the army as Korner and his cronies in Chile’s regime made a lot of money off of substandard arms, uniforms, shoes, horse feed, and other military equipment. After a couple of decades, though, the military leadership became disenchanted with the corruption and ineffectiveness of Chile’s political leadership, and they thought they could do a better job themselves. This happened again in the 1970’s as well, with tragic results. Nonetheless, it is notable that despite all of Chile’s rivals and unfriendly neighbors, that Chile has managed to preserve its borders and remain at peace since 1884, an impressive achievement.
It was fascinating as well to study the ways in which Chile’s frontier history mirrored that of the United States, though Chile’s history is not nearly so well-researched. For one, the US declared the frontier closed in 1890, and Chile’s frontier was closed at the same time in the final defeat of the Mapuche, who had resisted the Chileans for centuries in bloody frontier warfare. Chile’s frontier history, and its influence on Chilean national identity, deserves to be studied with that of other frontier nations like the United States, Canada, South Africa, Argentina, and Australia, all of whom had roughly simultaneous frontier struggles between European colonists (and their descendants) and fierce native peoples who wished to preserve their homelands and failed.
It is remarkable how little has been written in the English language about Chile’s history. A single historian, by the name of William Sater is responsible (either alone or in collaboration with other historians) for a majority of the work in print about Chile’s military history in the English language. There simply are not very many books about Chile’s history in English. In fact, I own almost all of them, and they sit in a small pile beside my bed. Included in that pile are a couple of books about the Pacific War (one written by Sater, the written by a 19th century American historian named Clements Markham who said Chile’s invasion of Peru was worse than Pizarro’s). Also included are three books of general Chilean history, one by Sater with another historian (Simon Collier), a book in the Palgrave MacMillan series by John Rector, and a book from the 1940’s. There is also one book about Chile’s imperial rivalry with the United States (written by Sater, unsurprisingly), one book about Chile’s Prussianization effort (written by Sater with a historian named Herwig), and another book that is a collection of essays about Chilean political-military relations, written by a historian named Frederick Nunn. Not all of these books are even in print anymore, but they are just about all that has been written about the entire subject. Clearly, Chilean history is not of great interest to people in the United States. Thankfully, I was able to supplement this very meager collection of work with some books I found in Chile (a memoir by a Chilean officer named J. Arturo Olid), and some books on the myths of Chilean democracy by Felipe Portales. My friend Cony was able to provide a few more general histories that showed the Chilean perspective of the War of the Pacific and the Revolution of 1891. This material required some translation on my part, but proved very useful, simply because there was hardly anything else available.
There are, though, two observations I made from my research that I found most important to a more general public. First, it was striking to me just how important it was for nations to copy the most prestigious militaries they saw around the world. Though we in the United States are used to thinking of the US as a powerful and prestigious military, this was not the case in the 1800’s. In the early 1800’s, Winfield Scott and others translated French military texts into English for the fledgling United States military to use, in order to give our military a bit of class. Additionally, after the American Civil War an officer named Emory Upton sought to reform the US Army after the German army (once Prussia’s forces had defeated Denmark, Austria, and France within a decade). These reforms failed because they were politically unacceptable—they would have removed the military from strict civilian control. In despair, and struggling from an unknown brain ailment, Upton killed himself (suicide runs through a lot of this history, sadly). Additionally, Japan also copied Germany’s army, and then decided that it wanted to become a Pacific Empire, eventually leading to the Pacific War in World War II, where Japan lost its empire and became the only nation in the world (so far) to ever suffer nuclear warfare. Like Chile, the United States and Japan had successful militaries, but it was more prestigious to copy European models than it was to develop in line with one’s own socio-political system and according to one’s own history. In many ways, this remains true. Militaries are like status symbols—it’s better to show off a flashy foreign sports car than it is to drive a much more sensible and practical model.
The second aspect of general interest is that one cannot look at a military on its own apart from a larger context. A military is designed in order to protect a state from attack by other nations, and is often designed as well with a focus on preserving internal security. However, in situations where the political leadership is corrupt and where the military has a high degree of confidence in its professional competence (and a low opinion of the civilian leadership of a nation), the risk of a violent coup cannot be underestimated. Additionally, a military works best as a deterrent if it is combined with an able diplomatic corps. An army that appears to be strong (but which may be largely untested) can deter foreign aggression if it is backed with reasonable and skilled diplomats who avoid causing offense and are able to smooth over disagreements with a smile and a handshake. Militaries are therefore part of systems and should not be viewed in isolation. A nation like Chile that has for more than a century sought defensive aims—the preservation of its territory—has been able to do so peacefully because its military was strong enough to deter foreign aggression and because it possessed skillful diplomats able to make reasonable demands (namely, preservation of the status quo). This is a skill that can be practiced by other nations—who would complain about less warfare while preserving our interests worldwide?
So, these are some of the observations I made while studying and writing my paper on the Prussianization of Chile’s army. I hope the subject is not too arcane that it cannot serve as a broader context for the understanding of history. It is curious how prestige, rather than effectiveness, plays such a large role in decisions made about militaries. It is also curious how poorly researched Chilean history has been in the English language, and how much remains to be analyzed and compared with the history of better-known areas. I would be curious as well to hear some comments or questions about what I have said, as it is perhaps an area that others may wish to study themselves.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Graduate School, History, Military History, Musings and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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