South American military conflicts

Armed conflicts in the history of humanity from the ancient times to the 20th Century.
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RF
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South American military conflicts

Postby RF » Wed Oct 18, 2006 8:34 am

I have made some notes and observations from the references given to me by Marcelo concerning the War of the Triple Alliance. As this website is devoted to naval matters people may be interested in reading and discussing them.

One of my interests is geopolitics, specifically the interaction of geography, economics, logistics and warfare strategy. Sea power is a crucial element in all this, and I have noticed that while South America is a large land mass, its military conflicts, with one exception, were largely based and decided on sea power.

Until I saw Marcelo's references I knew nothing of the detail of the Triple Alliance war, only the result, in that between 1864 and 1870 Paraguay was utterley defeated by the combined forces of Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina.

I had expected the detail of the war to be entirely land based, land fought. Not so. Paraguay, the only permanently landlocked country of South America, had to import to sustain its ability to wage war (like Germany and Austria-Hungary in WW1). So the war hinged on the control of the rivers and waterways leading to the River Plate, Paraguay's only outlet to the sea; the only roads were dirt tracks. The early destruction of the Paraguayan navy decided the war, even while the Paraguayan army was still advancing on all fronts. Paraguay was blockaded, worn down by attrition and gradually overrun - much as Germany was worn down 1942 to 1945. The war only ended with the death of the dictator, Lopez in March 1870. The ending of the war and the absolute defeat of Paraguay in 1870 bears a sharp resemblance to the absolute defeats of Germany and to a lesser extent Japan in 1945.

The other major war of that time came in the early 1880's. This was the War of the Pacific, the very name suggests a sea war. This was the conflict in which Bolivia lost its coastline and its most valuable natural resource to Chile. In fact this was almost an entirely naval based war, the land fighting being ancilliary to the naval action (again no proper roads), itself based on the organised and aggressive Chilean navy. Bolivia was out of the war quickly, when it lost the Atacama coastline, Chile's other enemy Peru was defeated by a series of Chilean naval landings, culminating in the capture of Lima, the capital city of Peru.

It is striking that the three main military powers of South America, Brazil, Argentina and Chile, all had powerful navies and managed to avoid fighting each other - in sharp contrast to the major military powers in Europe. How did they avoid going to war? I think this is a matter of geography and a recognition of each others strength.

Argentina and Brazil have only a short land border, in an area where it would be logistically difficult to fight and in which little advantage could be gained by either country. Paraguay and Uruguay act as buffer states. Compare that with the French-German conflict over Alsace-Lorraine: three wars inside 75 years.

Argentina and Chile on the other hand have a very long border - which runs along the second highest mountain range in the world. On paper Chile looks to be geographically vulnerable to invasion from Argentina - if the Andes weren't there. In fact I would think that the only place they could fight on land is in Tierra del Fuego.

My conclusion is that the mutual naval strength and facing each other back to back has kept the peace - much better than the Cold War scenario in the northern hemisphere.

The one remaining conflict I have not yet mentioned, which involved no naval activity as the theatre was almost completely devoid of water, falls in my opinion into the category of the most futile and pointless war that has ever been fought. I refer to The Chaco War of 1929 to 1934, between Paraguay and Bolivia, the two countries least able to sustain a war, with Mussolini cynically supplying both sides with weapons, including aircraft.

Fortunately this has proved to be the last South American conflict. The only remaining trouble spot is the border dispute between Peru and Ecuador - but here, instead of actual fighting, Ecuador has steadily diminished in size over the decades. It is significant here that Ecuador did not get involved in the War of the Pacific as an ally of Chile and take the opportunity of annexing most of northern Peru.


I would welcome any comments or feedback people may wish to make on this post.
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marcelo_malara
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Postby marcelo_malara » Wed Oct 18, 2006 11:31 pm

I can see three important differences between South America and Europe.

First of all South America is far larger and was less populated in the XIX century than Europe. That means that the land was not so scarce, and even not fully exploited yet. For example the Argentine Patagonia was not fully conquered from the native indians (a most regrettably chapter of our history) until the late 1870s. So, why engage in a war with a neighbour if you still have land unused?

Second South Americans countries were not involved in an imperialist expansion like most Europeans countries were. So there were no jealous of your neighbour having more influence than you.

Third, we share a common language (except for Brazil). That means that we feel closer to our neighbours than may be the case for example between Germany and France.

Finally some comments. The border between Argentina and Chile is very long, the Andes separating the two countries for half the border length. There are many passages but are few and can be easily defended. But to the South the Andes losses height, so a land battle is perfectly possible. In fact there are more Army detachments in the Southern provinces than in the Northern ones. In 1978 the two countries were on the verge of a major conflict, caused by a long standing dispute on the Beagle Channel in Tierra del Fuego. The conflict was finally avoided by the mediation of the Pope.
With respect to the Chaco war, bear in mind that the area is rich in petroleum, so do not disregard this as a cause.

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Postby RF » Thu Oct 19, 2006 9:05 am

Apart from Francisco Solano Lopez there haven't been any leaders with the ego of Kaiser Wilhelm II (for whom the title of the Bond film ''The World is not enough'' would be highly appropriate) or mad like Hitler.

But I think it fair to say that there has been some expansionism where countries can get away with it, such as Peru eating up bits of Ecuador, Brazil seizing Acre from Bolivia in 1911. Acre I believe was seized because it was supposed to be a good supply of natural rubber, at a time before commercially produced rubber came on market. Today Acre isn't much developed and remains remote.

There is no oil production in the Chaco - companies have been prospecting for decades, no oil has ever been found, which is why I described that war as futile and pointless.

It has been suggested (in Britain) that the real reason for Galtieri seizing the Falklands/Malvinas in 1982 was the possibility of oilfields in that region, British companies are seriously prospecting the whole region today.

One point you mention is of interest concerning the sub-Andean regions between Argentina and Chile is that they are still heavily militarised - is this regulated by agreement between the two governments? I ask this as most wars do start by accident, only needing an incident to flare up, such as the Beagle Channel.

Another matter that is known in Britain but I don't know how well known in Argentina (at least in public) is that there was a flashpoint in 1982 when Chile aided British covert forces engaged in recapturing the Falklands/Malvinas. It was rumered at the time in the British press that Galtieri might have gone to war against Pinochet.
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Postby marcelo_malara » Fri Oct 20, 2006 3:28 am

Hi RF:

There is little petroleum in the province of Formosa, Argentina, which is located in the border with Paraguay. I think that the petroleum may have been a factor in those days, as its existance hadn´t been disregarded yet. Anyway, the main factor of the war, as described in an article in wikipedia in Spanish, was the control of the Paraguay river, which would allow sea access to the country controlling it.

The reasons for the seizing of the Malvinas/Falklands were many. First of all the long standing dispute about the sovereignity of the islands, discussions that were frozen. Second the fact that Galtieri´s military regime was too eroded by then, so it needed an urgent action to regain people´s support. And finally came the incident between the scrappers and the RN marines in Georgia, which detonated the conflict. I think that the petroleum question was far below the top causes.

The help given by the Chilean government is well known in Argentina, and is one of the reasons (along with the past border´s disputes) that we look at our neighbours with a little distrust yet.

The peace acorded in 1978 didn´t say anything about relocation of military facilities, so the detachments remains there. But now the conflit has gone down, so there is no possibility of a war.

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Re: South American military conflicts

Postby RF » Fri Oct 09, 2009 1:22 pm

In the last three years has there been any reduction in the forces deployed?
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Re: South American military conflicts

Postby marcelo_malara » Fri Oct 09, 2009 3:55 pm

Yes, the leftist Argentine government don´t have good feelings to the military, so the budgets have being cut down to almost impossible levels. The Mirage fleet is almost non-existant, due to age and attrition, I think no more than 5 are flyworthy, with limitations. May be around 20 A-4M (ex Marine Corps, upgraded with F-16A radar and avionics) are the only available aircraft. The Navy is too low on budget to, the MEKO 140 and 360 frigates are kept, but don´t do much sailing.

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Re: South American military conflicts

Postby Bgile » Fri Oct 09, 2009 4:00 pm

marcelo_malara wrote:Yes, the leftist Argentine government don´t have good feelings to the military, so the budgets have being cut down to almost impossible levels. The Mirage fleet is almost non-existant, due to age and attrition, I think no more than 5 are flyworthy, with limitations. May be around 20 A-4M (ex Marine Corps, upgraded with F-16A radar and avionics) are the only available aircraft. The Navy is too low on budget to, the MEKO 140 and 360 frigates are kept, but don´t do much sailing.


My brother in law flew A-4s in the USMC. :)

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Re: South American military conflicts

Postby RF » Mon Oct 12, 2009 1:55 pm

Is there a threat to the government, in that the military presumably won't take kindly to being reduced in both importance and size?
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Re: South American military conflicts

Postby marcelo_malara » Mon Oct 12, 2009 3:05 pm

No, the military have no civilian or political support for a coup, thanks God the lesson has been learned and all we have to wait is for two years for the presidential elections, so everybody can choose a new president.

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Re: South American military conflicts

Postby RF » Mon Oct 12, 2009 5:54 pm

That can only be good news for all of us Marcelo.
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Re: South American military conflicts

Postby Karl Heidenreich » Mon Oct 12, 2009 7:10 pm

Marcelo,

According to the official history in Chile, during Pinochet´s regime some 2,000 plus persons disappeared (euphemism for "killed"). During the military regime days in Argentina, how many were victims? Is there an estimate?

Best regards,
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Re: South American military conflicts

Postby marcelo_malara » Mon Oct 12, 2009 8:47 pm

Karl, the estimates vary between 30.000 and 8.000. The first figure corresponds to the leftist sectors, the second one is a more serious research based on persons listed as "missing". Some of them were shot to death, others were thrown alive from planes, the bodies washed ashore in Argentina and Uruguay. The most apalling fact is that the same people that killed so many indefense people (many of whom, but not all, were guerrilla soldiers, agreed to that) were not brave enough to face the British in Malvinas/Falklands, as is the case of the former Argentine Navy Lt. Astiz, who surrendered in Georgias after firing in a FAL rifle shot to the air, what according to International law means he didn´t surrendered without fighting.

The military is now being punished for all that, with low budgets, low salaries, etc...The punishment is directed to the institutions themselves, not the people, as most in active service during the dictatorship and the war are now retired. That would last some more time yet, I presume. This happens in a time when Argentina has not serious threats from abroad, so there is not really a need for them. Relations with Chile are in their highest point in history, both have leftist goverments. And Brazil is a commercial partner in the Mercosur.


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