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Historical Role of the Armed Forces

Permanently organized armed forces were first created during the reign of Ferdinand of Aragon (Spanish, Aragon) and Isabella of Castile (Spanish, Castilla) in the fifteenth century (see Ferdinand and Isabella , ch. 1). Throughout the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries, the army was well organized and disciplined, employing the most technologically advanced weapons of all the forces in Europe; in that period it suffered no decisive defeat. The army was colorful, feared, and respected. Military careers had status, and they were sought by the aristocracy and by the most ambitious of the commoners.

The navy was also formidable throughout much of the same period. The humiliation of the Armada, as the navy is known in Spain, in its battle against England in 1588 was a result of inadequate strategy and tactics, complicated by weather, not inferior fleet size. Its defeat did not end Spain's days as a sea power, but Spain was never again mistress of the seas. The appeal of military careers gradually declined, and the lower ranks became a haven for social misfits. Foreign mercenaries outnumbered Spaniards in twenty-six of the thirty-one brigades formed during the reign of Philip III (1598-1621). The Thirty Years' War began the eclipse of Spain's international prestige as a military power. The occupation of Spain by Napoleon Bonaparte in the first decade of the nineteenth century was the last occasion on which Spanish forces participated in a major conflict with those of other European powers (see The Napoleonic Era , ch. 1).

The War of Independence (1808-14) marked the armed forces' departure from unquestioning obedience to the government. Although the government had acquiesced in the French occupation, and many of the army's leaders had concurred in this, a number of regular army units rebelled against the occupation and responded to the patriotic cause. After the defeat by the French, guerrilla units continued to resist. Composed largely of former army personnel, these units were, in effect, fighting a people's war in opposition to the so-called legal government.

When the War of Independence ended, officers from the old army were joined by those of the resistance groups. Most retained their military status rather than resign or retire, because there were few employment opportunities in the sluggish civilian economy of the time. The glut of officers persisted, and it was one of the factors contributing to the military's continued dabbling in the political arena.

The Carlist civil wars that occurred intermittently between 1833 and 1876, the decadent monarchy, and the weak governments of the nineteenth century cemented the military's involvement in politics (see Rule by Pronunciamiento; Liberal Rule , ch. 1). Civilian politicians were rarely willing to turn over power, but they often encouraged actions by the military when conditions under the group in control could no longer be tolerated. Although not all its members shared a common ideology, the military was generally among the more liberal forces in society.

The armed forces were either the instigators of, or the major participants in, most of the governmental changes between 1814 and the Civil War of the 1930s. There were so many military interventions that the procedure followed a stylized scenario, known as the pronunciamiento (pl., pronunciamientos). A group of officers--usually led by a general--would, after exploring the "will of the people," seek a commitment to rebellion from other officers, who would pledge their troops and agree to act upon a proper signal. Convinced of adequate support, the leader would then issue a pronunciamiento, which typically would consist of an address to the troops or to a street gathering, taking the form of direct or oblique threats against the government. Both the military leaders and the government would then watch the public reaction to determine whether there had been an impressive rallying to the rebel cause, in which case the government would resign. If the pronunciamiento were not greeted with revolutionary enthusiasm and if those who had agreed to stage simultaneous demonstrations failed to do so, the effort was quickly abandoned.

Pronunciamientos were made almost annually between 1814 and 1868, and occasionally thereafter until the 1930s. The last successful one brought Primo de Rivera to power in 1923.

Depite the position of the armed forces as a highly important factor in Spanish politics, they demonstrated deplorable incompetence in battle. Spain's Latin American colonies successfully broke away early in the nineteenth century. Spain's last colonies, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines, were lost during the Spanish-American War of 1898. The navy shared the army's disgrace; its crushing losses during the Spanish-American War left it with only two major combat vessels.Spain emerged successfully from a frustrating campaign against Morocco (1907-27) only after painful and humiliating defeats. Symptomatic of the defense establishment's failure to adapt to modern needs was the existence of nearly 150 admirals in the navy of the time.

Data as of December 1988

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