Violence, military service, and the education system in Chile

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Manifestación en Santiago, Chile

Dan Contreras

In order to relate militarisation and youth in Chile, we must look to the past and recognise the hundreds of years of militarism in the history of this region. Chile has seen territorial and violent occupations by European colonists, the construction of 'homeland heroes' as the core motivational idea behind patriotism, the legalisation of mandatory military training, huge increases in military spending as compared to social spending, the incorporation of military practices within civilian schools, among many other examples. The brunt of these actions has been born by the population’s most economically vulnerable group, but potentially the strongest in political terms: the country’s boys, girls and young adults. The vulnerability of this segment of the population has allowed it to be exposed to militarisation with ease; potential pockets of resistance are neutralised.

Today, militarism is instilled in society through three different approaches:

1) by perpetrating real violence, exemplified by what is going on in the south of the country against the Mapuche people

2) by legally forcing young people to join the armed forces

3) by creating myths through the formal education system.

These three approaches, some of which are medium or long term, complement each other but also stand alone, depending on the particular objectives of the state and it armed forces.

Territorial militarisation and disproportionate violence on Mapuche territory

While this article was being written, the Santiago headquarters of the UN agency UNICEF were occupied by Mapuche women and mothers in protest against police attacks on little children during raids and interventions on indigenous territory. Thanks to mass access to information, we were able to see the bodies of boys and girls bleeding as a result of pellets fired by the security forces. Sadly, this information is not immediately transmitted via mainstream television stations, newspapers or legal radio broadcasts, but rather by the alternative - and often self-managed - media that logically reacts against prohibitive and authoritarian policies that encourage violence and militarisation.

While the Chilean state’s harassment of the Mapuche people dates back to the nineteenth century, throughout history the state has kept the spirit of conquest alive in different ways: seizing land, engaging in open warfare, and - since the end of the 1990s - raiding communities. The common thread linking all of these colonising practices has been territorial militarisation and disproportionate violence towards the Mapuche people, justified by some event or incident which the state interprets as an act of terrorism. The number of weapons and police forces deployed in southern Chile reveal what appears to be a turf war. However, we must understand that this situation was created unilaterally by the Chilean state through its refusal to acknowledge territorial claims, its failure to help protect and transmit Mapuche culture for the preservation of their ancestral identity, and the forcible removal of the Mapuche people from their land, and denial of their access to it.

All of these actions carried out by the state share the same omnipotent origin; economic power moulded according to the prevailing model. By turning the earth solely into a means of production, the imaginary elements necessary for the survival of any kind of culture and historical memory disappear. This is the constant conflict between the Mapuche people and the Chilean state: on the one hand, a people that refuses to forget its ancestors and its culture, and on the other, a state that strives to generate financial profit for the already wealthy. The two sides speak different languages, and thus the fact that they don’t comprehend each other is unsurprising. As long as they remain unequal, agreement cannot be reached. The only side capable of facilitating the conditions for dialogue is the state, by transferring its economic interests to another sector or by serving them in another way. Contrary to this hypothesis, the conflict is worsening: the state is selling off Mapuche territories to big natural resource extraction companies, and is intensifying levels of violence via the police forces.

These actions have had a negative effect not only on the Mapuche people, but also on all who live in the region. It is significant that the Aruacania region, the area we are talking about, is the poorest region in Chile, where 23% of the population lives in poverty.[1] The paradox lies in the fact that the arrival of the big forestry companies to the region was supposed to bring with it big employment opportunities, especially for people without qualifications or training. What happened? The extraction industries use modern machinery that can be operated by a minimal number of people, thus reducing employment opportunities. The state’s justifications for the use and administration of the territories are similar to the arguments of someone selling a product: that it works, that it will be beneficial for everyone, that it will be sustainable. The difference is that, upon request, the buyer can return a product with a request for a refund. In the case of the state, such requests dissipate into thin air, and in return, violence is dealt out.

While the violence has been initiated by the Chilean state, some of the young people's responses have also been violent, which has created a vicious, unfair and brutal cycle for the communities. This in turn has led to violations of human rights, some Mapuche deaths, and the arrest of community leaders, among other things.

At the same time the UNICEF headquarters were being occupied, state and police representatives gathered in the south to hold the so-called 'security summit'. It was here that the ideas of how to confront the groups, mostly comprising violent Mapuche youths, were created. It would seem that in the new strategy, old-time militarisation is still considered to be an adequate response to the conflict. There is no attempt to resolve it through such participatory politics as dialogue and discussion. The future of this region continues to look very similar to the past, entailing the suffering of both the Mapuches and Winkas (meaning Chileans in the Mapudungun language), and the writing of history in blood and fire.

Military service is mandatory

Chile has an enlistment quota, which the armed forces try to fill with voluntary recruits, and then supplements, if necessary, using mandatory draft by lottery. Most conscripts are in the army. At a certain time of year, in public places and in the media, we are inundated with propaganda for mandatory military service. The images used to advertise military service include a group of young people listening to their instructor very attentively, and a group of soldiers parachuting from a helicopter, showing how engrossing and fun it is to wear the uniform. On the radio, you will hear a dialogue between two men, one of whom is able to repair the other’s car due to the training he received during his military service. At first glance, these may not seem like very innovative advertising campaigns, but what is obvious is the significant financial investment that has gone into their production and dissemination, as well as the success among their target audience, in appealing to young people of conscription age to do their military service.

Military service in Chile was formalised in the early twentieth century. With this came the creation of a regular body of men who were available should any armed conflict against an external or internal enemy arise - who had basic knowledge of handling weapons and the workings of the military system. There is no doubt whom the state regarded as the internal enemy during the Pinochet takeover in 1973 and at the beginning of the 1980s. The need for a civil body with some kind of military training quantitatively increases the number of people involved in conflict, while decreasing the chances of fatalities among those with more military training or who are higher up the army ranks. Compulsory military service originated at the time when the landowners deliberately sent their peasants to serve in the armed forces. In this way, the landowners gained a disciplined workforce trained in skills, including the use of arms to defend their property.

Nowadays, subjugation is of a different kind. The social conditions inherent in the capitalist system and the neo-liberal model have moulded young people from the lower rungs of society. The lack of employment opportunities and social exclusion resulting from the Chilean educational system have given rise to circumstances that have greatly benefited the armed forces by creating an ‘imaginary world’ full of opportunity - for example, the ability to finish secondary studies or vocational training and move swiftly on to the world of civilian work. Considering that a significant percentage of young people in Chile do not complete their secondary education and that youth unemployment is high, young people see compulsory military service as a real opportunity for advancement.

What is the reality? First and foremost, military service is intended for young people aged 17 to 18, in other words, those in the middle of their education. Secondary education in Chile is compulsory according to the constitution, therefore, the armed forces are under legal obligation to offer young people lessons at their bases. This is not done as a favour. Vocational training in the armed forces means necessary routine jobs at whichever barrack has to be fit for visits from high-ranking army officials and for day-to-day maintenance, for example gardening and watering the lawns at the base, cutting conscripted soldiers' hair, and cooking for those living on the premises. We could compile a long list proving that training is a way to reduce the budget by avoiding employing people externally to carry out these tasks, relying on the recruited troops to do them. With regard to entry into the world of civilian work, we don’t have exact figures or previous cases, but subjective perception and anecdotal information tells us that this promise isn’t kept and that the armed forces justifies themselves by suggesting that nowadays a career in the military is easier to follow for those who have done military service (they are prioritised when applying for military school).

Military service in Chile has been characterised by two important elements. The first, compulsory service, dates back a long time. The second, to professionalise the armed forces, appeared in recent decades. It is noteworthy that when the economic and political situation in Chile was standardised to that of other countries, these other countries made military service voluntary, or simply did away with it in pursuit of the new figure of the professional soldier. Since 2000, the armed forces in Chile have focused their efforts on creating this figure. However, the fact that military service is compulsory is totally apposite to professionalism. In other words, the choice the Chilean state has made is to continue to have a uniform and mandatory body instead of a voluntary and specialised force. It has chosen this, principally, in our opinion, because the benefits of having conscription continue to outweigh those of having professional soldiers.

Nowadays, the compulsory nature of military service isn’t perceived at first glance since enrolment is automatic. That is to say, the military has the right to register young men, as the legislation allows the personal information of potential recruits to be passed from the Civil Register of National Identification to the armed forces. This has been going on since 2006. There are currently 21,000 young volunteers, of whom 11,000 are serving this year, meaning that the lottery system doesn't need to be implemented.

We don’t have the means to contradict these figures, but we can point out that the dates of voluntary enlistment for military service among men in the last two years have been modified to extend the deadlines. The armed forces had to resort to this measure and carried out a second high-profile propaganda campaign so that volunteer quotas were met. Why did this happen? It wasn’t down to direct action taken against military service, but rather to the movement of secondary school students who put the Chilean government in a difficult position. The students’ reaction against market education provoked their reflection on other actions which infringe upon young peoples’ freedom, such as involuntary military service.

The issue of compulsory military service has not been a priority within national debate for some years, but the emergence of youth protests against the infringements of basic rights has meant that the institution of the military is being questioned. We will see how local anti-military and conscientious objectors groups react to the military's new propaganda campaign.

Military indoctrination in schools

In the syllabuses provided by the ministry of education, a specific dichotomy is expressed. On the one hand, the system is designed to reinforce civic education and draw attention to questionable acts of armed forces in history, for example, the Nazi Holocaust, and the dropping of atomic bombs by the USA. On the other hand, it doesn’t criticise local militarism. On the contrary, Chilean military heroes are praised and the country’s military ‘victories’ are focused on, encouraging patriotism and xenophobia. It is believed to be probable that all modern states were built through military conflict. The troops are forgotten about and a few individuals are heralded as heroes. This has nothing to do with whether the country is developed or part of the developing world, but rather with the construction of the figure of the state. Therefore the figures who came to power must be maintained in order to continue justifying the state's existence and the existence of its institutions. Thus we can conclude that militarisation goes beyond weapons and barracks for the purpose of national defence: it is also the birthplace of figures who justify other institutions and cultural constructions.

Portraying the military as something natural and unquestionable means that children and young people see military intervention as ‘normal’, and that the discourse sustaining it is correct. A clear example of this is the discourse surrounding ‘terrorism’. Even children associate terrorism with Islamic groups, Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden: the concept itself is overlooked.

Acceptance is reinforced by means of ceremonies held on dates of remembrance for the military, schools pausing lessons to commemorate anniversaries, children dressing in military clothing, and art is devoted to honour the date. There is no questioning of the nature of war.

Moreover, in the day-to-day running of schools, practices are employed that originate in the barracks but which were established, quite some time ago, in civilian life. Other practices that become commonplace for children and young people in their time at school are: school 'police' (pseudo-military brigades that keep order at break times), military bands, uniform, protocol very similar to that at military schools such as short hair, polished shoes, and the display of the institution's emblem.

The only resistance to this, as already mentioned, is the protests by secondary school students. The welfare of our youth and, through them, the future of our society, goes beyond legal or constitutional changes. It also calls for a change in the anti-militaristic culture of the formal education system.

The Chilean military knows very well that it has a privileged position, supported by vast sectors of the country. However, in recent years their fear has grown that our youth will drive radical changes in society, leading to new liberal, non-authoritarian and fairer ways to live. Such a scenario would mean stripping the military forces of all virtue, and thus changing some of the social constructs that have existed since the creation of the Chilean state.


[1] United Nations Development Programme, 'Reducción de la Pobreza y la Desigualdad'. (accessed 11 April 2013).

Translated from the original Spanish by Rebecca House



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