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For whom did the snake smoke?

Studies show the importance of Brazil's participation in the Second World War


A current joke in Brazil in the early 1940’s, before the country entered the Second World War, was that Hitler had allegedly said it would be easier to see a snake smoking than to see Brazil sending troops to the battlefront. When the Brazilian Government renamed the troops Brazilian Expeditionary Force (FEB) because it had been impossible to find the appropriate number of soldiers for an expeditionary corps, the hearsay was that Brazil would no longer join the war effort because the government “had got cold feet.” According to recent research studies, the FEB – unwanted by the Allied Forces and the product of a pragmatic negotiation by the Estado Novo regime, in search of higher global exposure, went to the battlefront. Upon its return to Brazil, the FEB was the object of national contempt and its history underwent military censorship. “We have scant information on the role of the expeditionary force in the war, which has resulted in an unsophisticated and absolute version of its performance: were the FEB troops heroes or bunglers.  For the young generations, Brazil’s participation in the war seems as distant as its Independence,” says historian Cesar Campiani Maximiano, from the Federal University of Mato Grosso do Sul, and author of Barbudos, sujos e fatigados [Bearded, dirty and fatigued] (published by Grua Livros, 448 pages, R$59). The study reveals how the soldiers made the military of the so-called “Army of Caxias” uncomfortable, to the point that their memoirs were repressed by the army. The FEB was ammunition for the Afro-Americans’ civil rights movement, as they were the only combat troops that did not engage in racial segregation.

The FEB was comprised of 25 thousand young Brazilians, transformed into citizen-soldiers, whose mission was to fight the Axis armies in the campaign in Italy, in 1944 and 1945. They were the only Latin American combat troops in Europe. “The creation of the FEB resulted in more than 20 thousand families directly affected by the war,” says the researcher. The proposal to create the FEB arose in mid-1943, through a grandiose government project that aimed to achieve strategic results, modernize the Brazilian Army, and acquire the necessary experience to fight against internal and external enemies – imaginary or not – as desired by the military.

“The FEB was the core of a political project to strengthen the Armed Forces and provide Brazil with a globally prominent position as an ally of the United States. The problem was to make the Americans think the same,” explains Letícia Pinheiro, a professor at the Institute of International Relations of the Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio). “At the height of the war effort, the Allies didn’t want a partner like Brazil, whose troops had to be dressed, fed, trained, and armed, and tried to discourage Brazil’s intentions. The Vargas administration, however, insisted in sending the expeditionary force to improve its international position at the post-war negotiations table,” says historian Francisco César Ferraz, a professor at the State University of Londrina. The Armed Forces, however, were not prepared to organize an expedition of that kind and few officers had any combat experience – the last time they had fought was in 1932. “The training of the Army, based on French military doctrine of 1914, was already outdated. The doctrine was a scientific approach to war, which conflicted with a reality of uncertainty in Italy, with the need for improvisation and swift decision making by the officers,” says Campiani.

“The perception was that the bravado shown in campaigns in the hills or in the shootings of untrained students from the State of São Paulo would be enough to confront the German Army.” In the battle for Monte Castelo, for example, general Zenóbio da Costa, the Brazilian commander, canceled the artillery’s planned attack on German positions by shouting: “there’s no need for artillery – my boys will take that s. just by shouting!”. “A new era was inaugurated in the Army when the youngsters were called to join up: the era of the civilians converted into soldiers to fight for their country,” says Ferraz. This was no easy task. The newly summoned soldiers had to contend with the French tradition of the Brazilian military. “The officers were very harsh with their subordinates and the foot soldiers were submitted to disciplinary detention for insignificant reasons. The food was awful and the dress uniforms of the officers contrasted greatly with the foot soldiers’ uniforms, made from cheap fabric that tore easily,” says Ferraz. In addition, many conscripts from the upper classes contrived to find someone with the power to pull the strings and exclude them from the FEB. The same was true of a significant number of professional officers from the regular Army, who found ways to circumvent their obligation of joining the war effort. To make matters worse, the selective medical exam was precarious and, in many cases, dismissed conscripts in good health and accepted men with serious health problems that had to be dealt with in Italy in the midst of combat. One such example was a lieutenant who went to war with a glass eye. The main reason for excluding the men, however, was “insufficient teeth.”

DISSEMINATIONSolders and friends: pause for a photo in BolognaDISSEMINATION

However, the myth of the “undernourished foot soldier” is untrue. “The FEB had the features of the immigrants from the South of Brazil, of people from the neighborhoods in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro and the small towns in the State of Minas Gerais. The allegories chanted by the war correspondents who conceived the notion that the “puny hillbillies full of swing” were by nature superior to the obtuse German Übermenschen did not hold true” Ferraz, points out. “However, very few soldiers had any idea of the reason they had been sent to fight the Germans which worried the commanders because of the absence of any real drive to fight,” says the researcher. The soldiers benefited from the Americans’ demand that the FEB adopt the US Army’s combat doctrine, even though the instruction manuals that had been given out were all in English. Future results, however, were positive. “The inclusion of the Brazilian soldiers in the Allied Forces in Italy and their interaction with the Americans resulted in a drastic change in attitude. For the first time ever, the Brazilian soldiers were getting the same treatment as their superiors, which was in contrast to the rigid discipline in the Brazilian army barracks. All the Brazilian veterans were impressed by the attention the Americans gave to the conscripts,” Ferraz states. On the battlefront, the enormous variety of equipment available for the FEB bothered many of the officers, who could not come to terms with the idea that high quality articles were being distributed to foot soldiers. This allegedly explains the often fatal delay in the distribution of winter uniforms to the soldiers – the winter uniforms remained in storage at military warehouses, when they were crucial for survival in temperatures that could reach 25 degrees below zero. After the war, the official version of history decided to propagate the version of the Brazilians’ knack for solving difficult problems: unlike the Americans, the Brazilian soldiers did not have to depend on technological paraphernalia to beat the winter; all they needed was the “intrinsic Brazilian creativity.”

“The contact with citizen-soldiers from other countries and the needs of the war introduced the Brazilians to a new army model, which was less autocratic, and to a military culture that differed from the military culture of the ‘Army of Caxias,’ in which hierarchical superiority and its emanations resulted in the tyrannical submission of the soldiers to the officers’ wishes and orders, which were not always reliable,” Ferraz points out. This was the origin of the “Army of the FEB.” One of its characteristics was the absence of racial segregation among the soldiers, thought this did not mean that there was no individual racism. “The unrestricted camaraderie among Brazilians of different ethnic origins drew the attention of American war correspondents linked to the civil rights movement. A double-V campaign existed in the USA at the time, which stood for Victory at the battlefront and the Victory of civil rights at home. Given that black soldiers were risking their lives in combat, the campaign claimed that it was unacceptable for them not to enjoy citizens’ rights at home.” An American journalist, fascinated at seeing black and white Brazilians sitting together in a coffee shop, asked the group of soldiers to define their Army. “There is only one Brazilian army and it is comprised of Brazilians,” was the answer. At a meeting between Brazilian and American soldiers, the Americans asked the FEB soldiers if the negri brasiliani sono buoni (are the Brazilian negroes good). The Brazilian answered that all of them were great companions, to which the Americans replied: “Negri americani non buoni” (American negroes not good) . “Nothing shocked the Brazilian soldiers more than this blatant show of racism. It is a fact that the news on the FEB spurred the questioning of the American system of segregation and provided an additional impulse to the Civil Rights Movement in the USA,” says Ferraz. Before the troops went on parade, Zenóbio da Costa had allegedly given an order to isolate or withdraw Brazilian Negroes from the military column. This order was totally ignored by the FEB officers.

For this and other reasons, the “FEB Army” was unpopular with the leaders of the “Army of Caxias,” who took swift action to demobilize the homecoming troops at the end of the War. The press heralded the FEB as a symbol of the “troops of democracy,” which created great expectations about the Brazilian troops’ return. “For a long time, the belief was that Vargas feared the soldiers’ return because he allegedly felt that this would speed up the end of his regime. However, the highest distrust came from the top Brazilian military authorities, namely Generals Dutra and Goes Monteiro, and from the politicians, who feared that the FEB soldiers might undermine their authority because of their exposure to a more open society,” says Ferraz. A limit of eight days was established when the Brazilians came home, after which the soldiers had to return the uniforms of the FEB. In addition, while still in Italy, the soldiers were forbidden from making any comments about the war without the express authorization of the Ministry of War.

“There were political fears: the threat to the ‘Army of Caxias’ posed by the new kind of armed forces, more professional, liberal and democratic; the fear that FEB officers might tip the political-electoral scales and be co-opted by the Communists; above all, the fear was that the FEB soldiers, among whom Vargas was extremely popular, would support him and drive the population to demand solutions different from those of the conservative pact of the political elite for the succession of Vargas,” Ferraz explains. An example of this fear was the veto on the Americans’ distributions of medals to all the soldiers. After all, such a gesture could be a “source of embarrassment” for the career officers who had remained in Brazil and who would have to wrestle, politically and professionally, with military men shaped by combat. “There was flagrant ill will towards the FEB among the government authorities, and many career officers feared they would be sidelined in future career promotions, to promote FEB officers and soldiers who had gone into battle,” says Ferraz.

Many FEB soldiers bitterly realized that their battle front experience, the only one of its kind in South America, would not be used to shape a new Army. Instead, they were sent out to far-flung army posts. In addition, many FEB soldiers faced unemployment, because their employers, who had been obliged to re-hire them, soon fired them, alleging that they were misfits, neurotics, or professionally incompetent. “The difficulties of getting a job were enhanced by the fact that most of the FEB soldiers had been recruited at an age when they would have been learning a profession or a trade,” Ferraz points out. The veterans also had a hard time understanding why they were forbidden to talk about their combat experience to civilians and the press. “It was necessary to convey the impression that it had been their training and not the tough learning in combat, that had made it possible for the Brazilians to overcome a strong enemy – this was an issue of prestige in a society in which the Army was the main political player. The military could not admit its limitations and failures,” Ferraz points out. The veterans, who had no bargaining power with government authorities – many of whom had been high-ranking army officers during the military dictatorship and had managed to flee conscription – kept their mouths shut in order to survive. Because of ideological confusion and irony, the image of the FEB veterans was associated with the military officers who had engendered the coup d’état, which led people to question the memories of the FEB even more. “It was not until 1988, when the new Constitution was passed, that the veterans gained the right to a special pension. However, of the 25 thousand FEB soldiers, less than 10 thousand were alive when the rights were approved,” says Ferraz. The question “do you know where I come from?” , line from the Canção do Expedicionário [the Expeditionary’s Song], remains unanswered.