The War of Paraguay: Chapter X, General Oversight. — Military Decay.

Two facts explain that disorder— the first (temporary) our complete ignorance of López’s modus operandi; the second (of an essential and permanent character) was the weakness of the whole military system of the Empire.

Our oversight was general. All our civil servants suffered it, and it rested on the political prejudice, turned by the conservative school into a type of national dogma, that friendliness and alliance with Paraguay constituted Brazil’s principal interests in the Plata. That prejudice was so strong that without López’s attack Brazilian statesmen would have had difficulty in agreeing to move our army and fleet against Paraguay. It’s enough to read Paranhos’s circular manifesto from 26 January 1865, addressing the soon-to-be allied nations of the war which we saw ourselves forced to wage, to have an idea of how profoundly that imposed break-up of a friendship, which we cultivated with such care, affected our oldest political superstitions.

In light of subsequent events, this constant request for Paraguayan friendship appears an obvious error. Asunción fostered the secret purpose of dominating navigation on the Paraguay and its tributaries, and taking over Mato Grosso and Misiones, keeping them as a guarantee of their independence and peace. Brazil instructed the Paraguayan army and navy by means of Brazilian officials, like Porto-Carrero and Willagrán Cabrita, Soares Pinto and Caminada, constructing for them the trenches and batteries of Humaitá (1), and the whole system of its defenses; Brazil guided Paraguay through the hand of our diplomats and statesmen: Pimenta Bueno, Bellegarde, Paranhos. Brazil fulfilled no other role with Paraguay than that of the dupe. We armed it against the Empire and shaped the formidable resistance with which we were later to clash.

“The Guard-House of Humaitá,” engraving published in the London Illustrated News, 1864.

One of the hypotheses of that a priori diplomacy was that Humaitá’s fortifications would never serve against Brazil, but solely against the re-formation of the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata. With all that, it didn’t much reckon on what really had importance, dealing with a government like that of López. It did not reckon on his lack of mental fixity; nor on the fears that could assail him; nor on how much was left to the influence of intrigues, flattery, and fear; nor on his lack of perception of national interest or of the strength of his large neighbors; nor on his suspicion of being cheated and seeing himself become an instrument of hidden aims; nor on his extraordinary conceitedness, or on the profound indifference that he must’ve shown to all the benefits of civilization when his time of need, his time of misery arrived; nor on the nomad background, indolent and fatalistic, of the old reduced Indian, a background quite visible behind all the authoritarian ostentations and the regal appearance of his power. Brazil’s best course of action would have been to impede, as much as possible, the fortification of the pass giving access to Mato Grosso, and, if not that, at least not lend itself to help construct a Sevastopol (2) on the river. What is certain is that the appearance of ignoring the military conditions and disturbing strength of Paraguay—the cause of such oversight—reached, without exception, from the Emperor to all the parties, governments, civil servants, diplomats, and military figures of that time.

This ignorance is one of the main factors of the war in 1864. The other is the disorganization of the military service in Brazil. Since the first reign, and above all since the debacle of the Cisplatine War, the old military state, that’s to say, what little of the spirit of the Count of Lippe (3) Brazil’s secession had left us with, was forever decaying, and except in Rio Grande do Sul, the military career ceased to inspire enthusiasm and produce the sense of having a calling.

Little by little the spirit of independence is insinuating itself into the officers, the spirit of individual initiative, of criticizing one’s superiors and the way they carry out discipline. Politics, instead of considering the army as a noli me tangere, respecting its proper character and attending to the most perfect preservation of each of its essential qualities, shows itself indifferent to military glory, and it contributes to the decay of all the elements that constitute a militia. In this way the old traditions of obedience disappear before a new spirit of criticism, individualism, which will come be preponderant after the war, thanks to the importance that independent or irregular elements manage to acquire during it (volunteers and National Guards, above all the Rio Grande National Guard), with relation to regular troops or line infantry. Upon the sudden occurrence of the English affair in 1862 (4) the country feels that it is completely disarmed, without army or navy; that it has done nothing but sleep in the peace of a military dream for twenty years (more than a generation), interrupted only by the struggle against Rosas. Then there’s a reaction; attention turns to the country’s defenses, but fixed so singularly on the state of our fortifications, mere simulacrums at the entry-points of Rio de Janeiro and Bahia, so incapable of fulfilling their jobs with the frigate Forte (5) and later with the Wachussett (6).

Politics, more potent than every other concern, deteriorated and rusted the springs of public service. The blame is not isolated to any one person; it belongs to everyone. There was patriotism, good will, and self-sacrifice; but there were also three irresistible things: the indolence born of the climate, of race, and of social habits; the patronage produced by bonhomie and natural benevolence, by the effects of debility, by the lack of resistance, by the fear of consequences, by the near impossibility of saying no, by hurt, by disillusionment; and the partisan spirit with its traditional organization, its secretive freemasonry, its absolute excommunications, imposing conformity on all of its fellow believers. The old Portuguese discipline was too heavy—tiring, like the old dress and old manners—for a society that only wanted rest, the freedom to stretch out and sleep.

From this abandonment, from this force of habit, it is only the privileged class—the political class, responsible for the good preservation of the administrative machine—who could benefit and allow the machine to grind to a halt and become a factory in refuge from its clientele, only they could benefit from the idle parasitism that grabs ahold of the machine, and so, equally, grabs ahold of magistrates or police, schools, colleges and faculties, arsenals, ships and barracks, cathedrals, seminaries and parishes, railways, post offices, town halls, provincial governments, secretaries of state, legislative chambers, electoral colleges—all suffer the same continuous deterioration, upon all sits the same neglect, that same intermittence of energy, that same inferiority of work.

The warrior spirit, the ambition for glory on the battlefield, the custom of obedience and self-sacrifice that forms discipline, the custom of command which the concept of hierarchical superiority gives, which entrusts the care of the troops to the chiefs and makes them compete with each other in the eagerness to have the best instructed and best disposed troop possible—all that, which forms the military environment of a country, was waning, tempering itself to the general tone of indifference that characterized public services, and which, vainly, was hurriedly attempted to be remedied at the last moment. Luckily our moral fiber was not dead; it had been relaxed but not corrupted. There was torpor and laziness, but there was also sensibility, heart, honor, patriotism, idealism—and thanks to the quasi-customary veneration which was still preserved for living examples of the old spirit, of the court of that other epoch, like Caxias, Porto-Alegre, Osorio, Tamandaré, Barroso, thanks to the national conscience admirably embodied by the Emperor, thanks to our economic resources, still intact, thanks to the order of the central motor not yet deteriorated by the mold that covered the surface of the machine, our country could, in a relatively short time, present to the nations of the Plata the greatest military apparatus that to this day has ever been seen in South America, an apparatus that, because of the great expanse of the theater of war, never was fully compiled where it could be contemplated altogether.

Translator’s Notes

1. Humaitá, a Paraguayan fortress on a bend of the Paraguay River, was the single greatest obstacle the allies faced. From October 1866 to July 1868, the allies’ offensive operations all centered on surrounding, and then maintaining the siege of, Humaitá.
2. This is a reference to the Crimean port city, which became infamous when it resisted an enemy siege for 349 days (1854-1855) during the Crimean War. The comparison is apt because both Sevastopol and Humaitá were heavily fortified, both were under frequent, intense bombardment during their sieges, and both faced an allied assault (France, Britain, and the Ottoman Empire in the case of Sevastopol.)
3. An incredibly successful military leader, who reformed the Portuguese military and defended Portugal from the Franco-Spanish invasion during the Seven Years’ War. Despite being outnumbered three to one, Lippe successfully drove the invading forces back, and gained renown throughout the Portuguese Empire.
4. In 1862 the British consul in Rio de Janeiro presented the Brazilian government with an ultimatum, making absurd demands in response to a few incidents of Brazilians mistreating British sailors. Surprisingly, Brazil did not back down, and it instantly prepared for a naval war. The British consul backed down, though not before ordering British ships to capture Brazilian merchant vessels as indemnity. Brazil severed diplomatic ties with the empire in 1863, though the conflict did not escalate from there. More on this in Chapter XXV.
5. One of the British ships that captured Brazilian merchant vessels.
6. A warship of the Confederate States of America, captured by a Union ship while in Bahia Harbor, Brazil, violating Brazilian neutrality.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s