Book Review Essay: The Guatemalan Military Project: A Violence Called Democracy<br>by Jennifer Schirmer

September 25, 2007

How inexorably antidemocratic is the Guatemalan army? This is the question anthropologist Jennifer Schirmer asks in her new book, summarizing 15 years of research into the institution which is central to the Guatemalan violence. A Violence Called Democracy scrutinizes the army's "return to the barracks," which has allowed civilians to be elected to the presidency since 1985 but protected the army from accountability for the massacres of the early 1980s and more selective killings since then.

Schirmer's book has informative chapters on the army's changing response to the guerrillas, its use of Mayan Indians as counterinsurgents, and the dreaded G-2 death squad. Particularly fascinating is the chapter on the Oficiales de la Montaña, right-wing coup-plotters challenging the "constitutionalists" who uphold at least the appearance of civilian rule.

Chief among Schirmer's preoccupations is "national stability" doctrine, which purports to be more sophisticated than the old "national security" doctrine positing Communism as the most serious threat facing Guatemala. Under the aegis of national stability doctrine, the army's more astute officers have distanced themselves from the most reactionary ones. They have consented to checking (although usually not punishing) the most egregious extracurricular offenses by brother officers.

The Guatemalan army's play book continues to include selective assassination, as underlined by the April 26, 1998 murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi, head of the Catholic Church's Recovery of Historical Memory project. The intimidation of witnesses points in a familiar direction, to die-hards in the officer corps whom the high command is unwilling or unable to control. Now that the report of the UN-sponsored truth commission will lead to attempts to prosecute officers for wartime offenses, Schirmer's book will serve as a valuable baseline for evaluating army compliance with the peace agreement.


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