Elizabeth Shesko, "Conscript Nation: Coercion and Citizenship in the Bolivian Barracks" (U Pittsburgh Press, 2020)
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Elizabeth Shesko’s Conscript Nation: Coercion and Citizenship in the Bolivian Barracks (University of Pittsburgh Press) is an intimate and rich history of the militarization of Bolivia over the course of the twentieth century through the lives of the men conscripted to serve.
Beginning with the Civil War of 1899 and elite fears of Aymara military might and autonomy and ending with the military coup of René Barrientos in 1964, Shesko shows how compulsory male conscription emerged out of desires to modernize the country and assimilate rural indigenous communities.
Only nominally universal, conscription was in fact deeply unequal and disproportionately affected poor urban and rural men, most of whom were not eligible to vote because of property and literacy requirements before the Revolution of 1952. Over the course of the book, however, Shesko shows how some men turned their service and the networks they developed in the barracks into a means of demanding citizenship and the right to make claims on the patria.
This new generation of conscripts would go on to transform the political and cultural life of the nation, especially in the wake of the disastrous Chaco War against Paraguay in the 1930s and in the development of political coalitions that took power in the National Revolution of 1952.
Conscript Nation ends in 1964 as Cold War politics, US intervention, and transnational counterinsurgency networks were transforming military culture yet again, in Bolivia as well as Latin America. However, Shesko suggests that even in this period, service to the nation formed a template that subsequent generations, up to and including former President Evo Morales could mobilize to assert their right to belong and to lead in a country riven by racial and economic inequalities.
This book will be of value for Bolivianists, military historians, as well as students of citizenship and race in Latin America, as it offers a window into the everyday lives and social worlds of Bolivian men who made up the armed forces.
Elizabeth Shesko is an Assistant Professor of History at Oakland University in Michigan
Elena McGrath is an Assistant Professor of History at Union College in Schenectady, NY.
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