Friday, August 1, 2014

Military Service – La mili

Before the reign of King Felipe V Spanish armies were made up of petty thieves, vagabonds and the marginalised poor. By the beginning of the 18th Century there just weren't enough poor people willing to fight so Felipe introduced a system of forced recruitment. In 1770 his son, Carlos III, introduced systematic obligatory military service - the system which became known as la mili.

The original system of conscription decreed that one in five or a quinta, the Spanish word for a fifth, of the men between 18 and 40 be recruited each year to join the military. The men were chosen by lottery. In its history the period of service varied as did the age of recruitment depending on how many men were needed. As a result the word quinta has become a standard Spanish word to describe a cohort or the American idea embodied in “The class of …..”

If a country is going to force its men to join the military a lottery sounds pretty fair. It never was of course. Right from the beginning there were lots of exemptions. As always it fell only to the poorest to fight and to die. The Constitutions of 1812 and 1876 formalised processes of buying your way out of conscription or nominating a substitute. The rationalisation was that the money raised sustained and clothed the army.

Whenever there was a war more people avoided conscription. In 1909 the calling up of reservists to cover the huge casualties of a war in Morocco led to a bloody uprising in Barcelona. Three years later, shortly before being assassinated, President José Canalejas introduced differential payments to reduce, but not eliminate, the need for everyone to do military service. 2,000 pesetas reduced the three years to five months, 1,000 pesetas to ten months.

From 1940 the mili took on the form that older men still happily talk about today. Conscription was universal though certain groups, such as those who were the only support for their family, were excluded from being called up. The time spent as a conscript began to fall: three years in 1912, two years in 1940, between fifteen months and two years in 1968, a year in 1984 and, finally, nine months in 1991. Military service brought thousands of poor rural workers to the barracks in the cities. For many it was their first taste of urban life. It was modern military service which started to tackle illiteracy in Spain and to provide technical training for thousands of unskilled people. When their time in the military ended many stayed on in the cities.

It wasn't until the 1970s that there were cases of conscientious objection. Originally these were Jehova's witnesses and they were sent to prison. Slowly though the argument changed from being one of conscientious objection to simple opposition to conscription – insumición. In 1984 the Government introduced community service as an alternative to joining the forces. Nonetheless the number of people who wanted to take up the alternative or who had conscientious objections or who simply said no overwhelmed the system. Those who objected were quietly moved onto the reserve list and went unpunished.

Modern warfare using sophisticated weapons made the number of men less important. Coupled with the insumición that was why, in 2001, Federico Trillo, the current Spanish Ambassador to the Court of St. James, stood up in parliament and announced the end of 231 years of the mili.

No comments:

Post a Comment