Conscript Nation: Negotiating Authority and Belonging in the Bolivian Barracks, 1900-1950

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This dissertation examines the trajectory of military conscription in Bolivia from Liberals’ imposition of this obligation after coming to power in 1899 to the eve of revolution in 1952. Conscription is an ideal fulcrum for understanding the changing balance between state and society because it was central to their relationship during this period. The lens of military service thus alters our understandings of methods of rule, practices of authority, and ideas about citizenship in and belonging to the Bolivian nation. In eliminating the possibility of purchasing replacements and exemptions for tribute-paying Indians, Liberals brought into the barracks both literate men who were formal citizens and the non-citizens who made up the vast majority of the population. This study thus grapples with the complexities generated by an institution that bridged the overarching and linked divides of profession, language, literacy, indigeneity, and urbanity.

Venturing inside the barracks, this dissertation shows how experiences of labor, military routines, punishment, teasing, and drinking led to a situation in which many conscripts became increasingly invested in military service, negotiated its terms, and built ties that transcended local power structures. In addition to examining desertion, insubordination, and mutinies, it provides an explanation of the new legal categories created by military service, such as reservist, omiso, remiso, and deserter. It then points to the 1932-1935 Chaco War and its aftermath as the period when conscription became a major force in tying an unequal nation together. The mass mobilization necessitated by the war redefined the meaning and terms of conscription, even as the state resorted to forcible mass impressment throughout the national territory while simultaneously negotiating with various interest groups. A postwar process of reckoning initiated by the state, combined with mobilization from below by those who served, added a new hierarchy of military service that overlaid and sometimes even trumped long-standing hierarchies based on education, language, profession, and heritage.

This study thus explores conscription as a terrain on which Bolivians from across divides converged and negotiated their relationships with each other and with the state. The unique strength of this work lies in its use of unpublished internal military documents, especially court-martial records. These sources are further enriched by extensive use of congressional debates, official correspondence, reports of foreign military attachés, memoirs, and published oral histories. Through an analysis of these sources, this dissertation reveals not only elites’ visions of using the barracks to assimilate a diverse population but also the ways that soldiers and their families came to appropriate military service and invest it with new meanings on a personal, familial, communal, and national level. In the process, a conscript nation would eventually emerge that, while still hierarchical and divided by profound differences, was not merely a project of an assimilationist state but rather constructed in a dialectical process from both above and below.






Shesko, Elizabeth (2012). Conscript Nation: Negotiating Authority and Belonging in the Bolivian Barracks, 1900-1950. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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