(This article and its content were first published on thebubble.com, February 27, 2015).
As difficult as it is to find consensus in Argentine politics these days, most people surely agree that the military is in a pretty awful state. It’s present predicament was highlighted when a handful of worrying reports surfaced these past few weeks revealing links to crime, intrigue or perhaps just plain incompetence. Or any pick-and-mix combination of the above. First there was the “unexplained disappearance” of an anti-tank missile from La Plata a few weeks ago. Not an encouraging sign from the generals who, with their business clients, are so adamant that we can’t get by without this sort of wildly expensive and mostly idle weaponry and lethality.
It was stolen “without the launch equipment” we have been told, so don’t panic, we’re not about to be blown to smithereens just yet. But slight unease about the military losing this level of deadly ordnance is the logical response, just as it was to the last week’s news that 26,000 9mm Caliber bullets went “missing” from a military armory in Santa Fe Province late last year.
Unlike the complex missile, it turns out this particular, ubiquitous type of round is often used in gun related homicides, and in light of the rising cartel-related gun crime here in Argentina (especially in Rosario, near where the weaponry went missing) bullets are not really something you want to fall into the wrong hands.
The military cannot possibly excuse losing this stuff, not even with the multiple sackings of those deemed responsible. After all, it’s our taxes that pay for this equipment in the first place. The army, every national army in fact, insists on large sums of public money to pay for itself and its own upkeep. Technology’s perpetual logic of immanence, a “messy inertia” which says that the latest guns, bombs, planes, tanks, battleships, submarines, tear gas, land mines, drones, missiles or nuclear warheads will probably be out of date by the time they are introduced, necessitates constant advancement and replacement.
It is true that Argentina spends a smaller percentage of its annual budget on the military than most other nations in Latin America. The Fernández de Kirchner administration has also reduced the size of the army since 2010 (from 44,000 to around 38,000) and seen the funds redirected to social spending.
Even with the fewer resources it now has to look after, though, the military still seems shaky when it comes to responsible management, as other recent incidents show. In 2011, over 150 rifles were stolen from the “San Lorenzo” battalion that operates in Santa Fe. Thefts of weaponry have also occurred from barracks in the Mendoza province, where a travelling New Zealander was among those shot dead in gun-related murders last year.
And misplacing dangerous hardware might just be the tip of the iceberg. While these examples of incompetence are unsettling and perhaps part of a growing problem, there also remains a tangible sense of unease when we arrive at the thorny issues of government and politics. Just a few decades ago, the military was both of these things, after all. And in the end the country overwhelmingly responded with one voice saying Never Again (Nunca Mas) to dictatorship by the Generals. So when La Nacion recently reported that activists from La Campora, the pro-government youth group, were embedded in a military regiment in Mendoza province, there was an entirely justified cause for alarm.
Even a vague association with the famously militant Kirchnerite group is worrying, not least since politics here is polarizing at an alarming rate as Cristina goes out with a bang. The elections are looming at the end of the year, and her final few months in office are developing into a fully-fledged Gotterdammerung (even if she’s avoided the dock) that’s made her government act like a wounded beast at times, desperate and potentially dangerous, lashing out at enemies both perceived and real. Any party-political association with the Army is all the more troubling because of this. It should not even be possible, let alone actually happening.
However, this instance isn’t so much Cristina’s fault as it is the military’s, which ought to rebuff any attempts by any political faction that tries to cozy up to them. Both Kirchner administrations have, in fact, excelled in standing up to the shadow cast by former generals over politics by repealing amnesty laws and putting criminals from the last dictatorship on trial.
Meanwhile the military itself appears to be rotting from the inside out. The Navy, architect of multiple coups against elected governments and found guilty of spying on the Nestor Kirchner administration in 2006, rarely puts to sea in force anymore. When it does, its ships are scuttled by mechanical malaise or impounded on the orders of vulturous financial pirates, whose influence is enough to bully the fleet for their own interests.
The situation in the other two branches is hardly any better, as one recent report from the Human Security Service outlined:
“THE ARGENTINE AIR FORCE LARGELY CONSISTS OF A COLLECTION OF OBSOLETE AIRCRAFT MOSTLY DATING BACK TO THE 1970S, WHICH ARE FREQUENTLY GROUNDED DUE TO POOR SERVICEABILITY. THE ARGENTINE ARMY HAS DEPLOYED ON OPERATIONS WITHOUT SOME OF EVEN THE MOST BASIC EQUIPMENT AND RARELY HAS THE RESOURCES FOR TRAINING.”
It’s a lamentable state of affairs. But a track record in recent decades about as appalling as it’s possible to imagine speaks for itself. Why should successive governments invest energy and public funds into an organization that is not only incompetent, as the latest equipment calamities underline, but has repeatedly proven itself to be a threat to the democracy it claims to defend?
This question should be asked by whoever assumes the reins of power at the end of this year. Reform is surely needed, but it’s hardly fair to expect the initiative to come from the politicians without an incentive that it won’t be a waste of time and resources. It must come from the military itself. That’s where the buck stops.