War Stories

14Mar12

“I am for peace, but when they speak, they are for war.” Psalm 120:7

Paraguayan Recruits for the Chaco War. (Source: http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/chaco-war.htm, used by permission.)

Paraguay’s national history and identity have been shaped by two wars. In the War of the Triple Alliance (1864-70) Paraguay confronted Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina, and lost. Two generations later, President Eusebio Ayala launched the Chaco War (1932-5) which successfully checked Bolivia’s attempts to redefine the border between the two nations. Both wars cost Paraguay much money and many men, and permanently impacted how the nation understands its relationships with its neighboring countries.

Though Paraguay hasn’t been at war with its neighbors for many decades, Paraguayans often express feelings of vulnerability when it comes to their neighboring states, especially Brazil and Argentina. Yesterday we heard a radio talk show discussing Brazil’s supposed interest in invading Paraguay. Argentina also plays the bad guy, apparently imposing tariffs and taxes that disadvantage Paraguayan industry.

Paraguay’s sense of vulnerability also extends to countries further afield; Britain is seen as having instigated the War of the Triple Alliance, and the US company Standard Oil (no longer in existence) is at least in part to blame for Bolivia’s interest in the once reputedly oil-rich Chaco region.

All of this is background for how I felt meeting two remarkable individuals in a town that Marian and I visited on our way from Asuncion to Ciudad del Este. The first was Señor Espinoza, at 98 one of a handful of remaining veterans of the Chaco War. Señor Espinoza was drafted in 1934 at a time when the population was struggling to keep up with the massive human and financial toll of the war. Despite their suffering, Paraguayans steadfastly supported the war effort. We spoke with Señor Espinoza for a little while and learned that to this day he recalls being able to communicate in Guarani with Paraguayans from other parts of the country. Next we met an officer cadet enrolled in a nearby military academy. Having excelled in a battery of entrance tests, he now manages a demanding schedule of classes and physical training. Both the old soldier and the young are members of the Disciples of Christ congregation, and the church is clearly proud of them.

These encounters have taken me to some grappling with my overall opposition to war. Would I feel the same way if I hailed from a country that felt constantly threatened (rather than from a country more accustomed to doing the threatening)? All the same, at what point does the sensation of being threatened encourage a militarized society, or even create threats that otherwise wouldn’t have been there? How can we be both safe and open, and especially open to people who first and foremost experience the need to be safe?

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