Mission Accomplished! – Authenticity, Massacre and the Militarization of Politics in Brazil During COVID-19 Commentary
Wikimedia / U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Adam M. Stump
Mission Accomplished! – Authenticity, Massacre and the Militarization of Politics in Brazil During COVID-19

The recent return of the military to the national political scene happens in a moment in which the democratic regimes, in Brazil and in the world, suffer the decline of trust in liberal-democratic institutions. The current militarization has been associated by some authors with a current global, systemic and structural conjecture with variations, from a micro and macro standpoint, beginning in the second half of the twentieth century. Senghaas considers militarism as the union of politics with military, and, more concretely, with the predominance of the latter over the first and this would have an empirical outcome: on one hand, in the loss of political primacy and political direction in relation to the military plans and the needs postulated by the army; on the other, in the penetration of the military imperatives in civil society. Militarism would be the ideology that aspires to a bigger militarization of the public and private sphere of a society. It has a dynamic character and may represent the progressive expansion of the military sphere over the civil sphere (Montenegro). Militarization would be understood as a type of securitization that is made possible through an inter-subjective process that institutionalizes the domain of the military over the political with a series of exceptional effects. The military is not necessarily associated with militarism. No military person per se behaves better or worse than a civilian, and there may be civilians with more militaristic speeches and practices than some people in the military (Montenegro).

Several states are undergoing a process of militarization caused by exogenous and endogenous factors (Tanter).  The different faces of militarization in different spheres of societies interfere in the internal plane of States, leading to a policing of the Armed Forces caused by the expansion of defense  functions. This new wave of militarism in governments and political decision-making is taking shape at the invitation of democratically elected governments, in the most varied subjects, including public security, political crises and structural problems of the state.

A result of the elasticity achieved by the concept of defense, which encompasses numerous endogenous activities carried out by military forces, is its politicization. The expansion of the application of the military in domestic functions is likely to cause an imbalance in civil-military relations. When acting regularly outside the traditional functions of defense in democratic regimes, as is the case of deterrence against external threats, the military corporation tends to be increasingly interested in maintaining and maximizing corporate benefits that result from its continuous use in the most varied activities ranging from acting in public safety to water supply in remote regions.

The routine use of the military tool and the expansion of their roles has the power to elevate the military to the political scene, either by corporate interests or by the demand of segments of society for the solution of political problems by the armed forces. In liberal democracies, the demand for military salvationism counters the constitutional functions of the armed forces. Military messianism politicizes the barracks and establishes the militarization of politics, resulting in dismantling of democratization: a progressive burial of democracy by submitting it to the chain of command typical of the military hierarchy.    

Support for the military and for the use of the armed forces at both the political and social levels represent an appeal to the last resort of state sovereignty to resolve any issues, revealing an increasing fragility of the state that becomes incapable of solving political, social and economic problems, since in democracies they can only be settled by civil means, the source of democratic legitimacy. In democracies, political problems are not solved through the armed forces, cases of violence must be managed by moderate forces, precisely the subsidiary police forces, and not by combative, military forces.  The broadening of military application is a result of the disbelief in representative civil institutions, therefore, of the belief in the higher efficiency of the coercive solution in the solving of political matters.

In an intensely militarized country, there is a proximity between the armed forces, society and government, the intimidation of a coup or the threat of a coup, because this proximity occurs with the consent of a “militarized society” that trusts more in the judgment of the military than in intermediary bodies such as political parties and organized sectors of civil society (Pion-Berlin).

The Israeli Defense Forces, for example, although subordinate to the Minister of Defense, totally dominate cabinet meetings and overlap with civilians, setting the agenda, presenting opinions and shaping resolutions. The Israeli military has taken on a wide spectrum of non-war functions that are traditionally not part of the military framework, such as developing representative government institutions, ensuring internal security, developing local governance structures, promoting bottom-up economic activities, rebuilding infrastructure and building indigenous capabilities (Pion-Berlin). The author presents another strong tendency: as the government becomes increasingly dependent on the Armed Forces to execute internal public policies, there is an increasing propensity to view problems from a military perspective also in the policy formulation stage. Therefore, the problems are framed in order to favor a military solution, the militarization of politics. 

The militarist culture did not go unnoticed in the field of the COVID-19 pandemic, since it ended up revealing continuous processes of militarization of society and the change in society-military relations, strengthening their ties. This is the context described by Grzebalska in the Polish context. The military rhetoric described by the author began to surface when the public, disoriented by the overwhelming nature of the pandemic, learned through the media that the country was at “war” against an “invisible enemy” and that it demanded that the Minister of Health should act as a military commander to position himself at the front lines of the battle front.

 The slaughter resulting from the pandemic in Brazil was marked by the role of General Pazuello in politics that contributed to achieving over 533 thousand deaths, many possibly avoidable, during his tenure as Minister of Health. The choice and performance of the acting General as head of the health portfolio, in the midst of the greatest crisis in the recent history of humanity, accelerated the degradation of democracy in Brazil and highlighted the risk of having a military man in a civilian technical position. With an authoritarian and arrogant behavior, Pazuello showed contempt for politics and disinterest in scientific evidence, which led him to leave the legacy of one of the worst health administrations and thousands of deaths. 

The former Minister of Health currently answers in court for suspected crimes and administrative improbity committed during his term. The investigations question if he was omissive during the Oxygen crisis in the Amazonas state; if there was massive distribution of chloroquine presented as an “early treatment” against COVID; successive testing failures; irregularities in the supply of medications used in sedating intubated patients; insufficiency and slowness in the budget execution of the ministry in the pandemic; under-reporting of cases of deaths and COVID-19; irregularities in the allocation of public resources to States and Municipalities to fight the pandemic; politicization and failures in vaccine procurement and distribution; the insufficient allocation of supplies to the Unified Health System (SUS).

The actions and inactions of the former minister evidenced the incompatibility of the exercise of political power by active soldiers in functions outside the scope of defense. The inversion of the civil-military role into the military-civil one causes the collapse of democratic institutions and inefficient management in crises that is not confused with war.  

The militarization of politics can be achieved through the transfer of functions traditionally destined to civilians to the military. The main distortion, however, materializes when the military is assigned the decision-making instance on the most relevant political matters for the nation. In this sense, there is a distortion of the civil-military relationship, a conversion of the relationship into a military-civil one, therefore a subordination of the civilian to the military, from the president to the general (Gouvêa; Castelo Branco). The war is no longer the unfolding of politics and politics becomes commanded by the military. It is a condition for the state of exception to be naturalized at any time (Gouvêa; Castelo Branco).

Trained in accordance with disciplinary power, Generals do not dialogue, especially in crises, and, once submitted to the chain of command, they are subject to the verticality of relationships, a dynamic contrary to the horizontality of democratic interactions. Command and obedience make sense in the closed universe of the barracks or in a situation of real war, but transposed to relationships, in which the parties are on an equal footing, they undermine the horizontalized democratic structure.

Militarization derives from the military ethos, the military ideology that includes the central idea of military expertise, discipline, alleged incorruptibility. Militarist ideology derives from the glorification of war and thrives when war is no longer controlled by politics. Militarism, a cult of war in times of peace, is not directed towards the real war that does not exist, but is aimed at hunting the internal enemy, in short, members of the people themselves, as has previously happened in the history of Brazil.  Therefore, the guarantor of the democratic system needs to be subordinate to the civil authority, under penalty of becoming autonomous and turning against the democratic institutions that maintain it, going from a State institution to a Praetorian faction. The source of legitimacy of the civil authority to which the military authority is submitted are the elections (Gouvêa; Castelo Branco).

It is important to differentiate which types are harmful and which are not, and two hypotheses are presented (Pion-Berlin): is the influence of the military autonomous or is the military present by designation of legitimate civilian authorities? In the first case, the military are political decision makers exercising excessive, coercive and illegitimate political influence, but known as praetorian. As praetorian actors they impose their views on political leaders, advising or governing directly and without civilian oversight. In the second scenario, the military receives the decisions and executes the will of their political supervisors, regardless of the mission received. They can be seen in various fields, but they do not define, dominate or manipulate these tasks for their own corporate purposes, meaning they simply fulfill the political objectives of an elected government. They are subordinate to civil control, even if they are applied in a way different from their nature in civic, social, economic and security projects of any kind.

We observe, in contemporary Brazilian politics, a process of inversion of Clausewitzian aphorism, whose materialization is translated into the militarization of politics: instead of war being ruled by politics, politics is now ruled by war. Thus, politics becomes warlike, and war loses its instrumental character, so that the sword is no longer a democratic national defense tool. The erosion of civil control over the military instrument represents a threat to democratization.

The gradual inversion of the democratic balance constituted by the civil-military relationship through the subordination of civilian authority to the military official tends to sharpen an aspect of militarism: belligerence. General Pazuello with an explosive and, many times, authoritarian temper and whose profile is seen as one of confrontation (CNN Brasil) represents an important variable of the Bolsonarist populist movement: authenticity.

Reflecting directly on the role of the military in politics, the politicization of the Armed Forces represents, according to Linz, a decaying process of the democratic system. Therefore, liberal democratic constitutions tend to prohibit active military participation in specific political acts; prevent political and insurrectionary protagonisms by defense bodies and force commanders on behalf of the constituted power (governance) and against institutional safeguards; prevents praetorian actions by the military. Otherwise, this animosity ends up representing the fundamental spice that cannot be dissociated from violence.

In Brazil, General Pazuello participated in a political act in support of the populist president Bolsonaro in Rio de Janeiro, without authorization, and, however, there was no punishment for the disciplinary transgression. The Military Statute, Law 6.688, of December 9th, 1980, that regulates the situation, obligations, duties, rights and prerogatives of members of the Armed Forces, states in its article 45, that any collective demonstrations, both on acts of superiors as well as those of a claiming or political nature are prohibited. On the other hand, Decree 4.346, of August 26th, 2002, which governs the Disciplinary Regulation of the Army, in its Annex I, item 57, states that active military personnel who publicly express themselves, without being authorized, regarding issues of a political party nature constitute a military transgression.

Two hypotheses are worth mentioning that were the object of defense by the military: the event was not party-political because the country is not in an electoral period; and that Bolsonaro is not affiliated with a political party .

The defense presented represents a serious theoretical distortion of what is to be a political act that was accepted by the Commander of the Brazilian Army Paulo Sérgio Nogueira de Oliveira, who considered that “the practice of disciplinary transgression was not characterized”.

This act represents, on one hand, the militarization of politics and, on the other, the politicization of the Armed Forces in Brazil.  The lack of punishment of General Pazuello not only legitimizes Bolsonaro’s populist movement, but also points to the degradation of the Brazilian democratic system, as it may represent a commitment of the Armed Forces – a permanent institution based on hierarchy and discipline.

In a recent study, Gallego informs that authenticity is perhaps the main value that subjectively mobilizes the figure of Bolsonaro. For faithful Bolsonaristas such as General Pazuello, the President’s aggressive and controversial form of addressing the public is positively evaluated because it demonstrates to be authentic and not be manipulated by the marketing and falsehood associated with traditional politics. According to Gallego, this rhetorical violence is reinterpreted as authentic, true, being one of the most desirable values in a political context perceived as corrupt and deceptive.

Brutality represents the ingredient of the authenticity of the messiah, and it cannot be dissociated from violence. With this inversion, politics is now governed by the logic of war by converting any form of opposition into a faction, adversaries into criminals, opposition parties (to the government) into enemies.

Violent military action reduces the political field to a battlefield in which the force of authority is replaced by the authority of force. It is no longer the agreements, coalitions, the exchange of interests that dictate democratic political practice, but the imposition of will for fear, for the threat of the use of force. In this sense, war takes an internal direction, and is no longer thought of in the light of a strategy of deterrence, readiness, defense, and is directed outwards, in order to repel external threats. It enters the field of internal politics, deepening the differences to the point of replacing the democratic political tension by a hostile military tension. There is no longer any adversary, opposition, discussion, persuasion aimed at forming opinion, and there is a desire for enemies, belligerence, persecution with potential for civil war. 

Authenticity in the field of militarization of politics is also reflected in the simple war rhetoric “mission given, mission accomplished” which means that government actions become military missions, often stripped of human and humanitarian character. Pazuello’s militarized political management represented over 200,000 deaths!  Missions are accomplished regardless of the empathy for slaughter. In the Parliamentary Inquiry Commission (CPI) of the pandemic, General Pazuello answered the question of Senator Renan Calheiros: to what do you attribute your dismissal of the position of Minister of Health? Mission accomplished. The rhetoric, the idea of mission accomplished, of the chain of command, makes sense in the military world, in real war, in barracks, and not in politics.  

If we legitimize the militarization of politics and the politicization of the armed forces, we are consequently legitimizing Bolsonaro’s populist governance and all its affectations that come from its variable properties and, consequently, degrading Brazilian democratic values. There are great possibilities to naturalize the polarization of politics, tolerance or encouragement of violence, misinformation, weakening and attacks on institutional safeguards.


Pedro H. Villas Bôas Castelo Branco is a Professor at the Institute of Social and Political Studies (IESP) at the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ) and Professor of the Law Graduate Program at the Veiga de Almeida University (PPGD/UVA).

Carina Barbosa Gouvêa is a Professor of the Postgraduate Program in Law at the Federal University of Pernambuco (PPGD/UFPE). 


Suggested citation: Pedro H. Villas Bôas Castelo Branco and Carina Barbosa Gouvêa, Mission Accomplished! – Authenticity, Massacre and the Militarization of Politics in Brazil During COVID-19, JURIST – Academic Commentary, August 3, 2021 https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2021/08/branco-gouvêa-brazil-militarization-politics/.

This article was prepared for publication by Khushali Mahajan, a JURIST staff editor. Please direct any questions or comments to her at commentary@jurist.org

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