Ever since Leopoldo Lugones, the famous Argentine poet, essayist, and right-wing nationalist, declared in 1924 “The Hour of the Sword,” the military of his country has heeded his message that officers were better than politicians. Deborah Norden has updated this long and tortuous legacy as it has unfolded in the late 1980s and early 1990s and has brought to it a political scientist’s perspective on civil-military relations.

The background to this subject has been studied carefully and skillfully by such eminent authorities as Robert Potash and Alain Rouquie. Almost half of this book reviews the same history of military intervention, from José F. Uriburu’s 1930 uprising through the military repression of the “Dirty War,” the debacle of the Falklands-Malvinas conflict, and the return to civilian rule. Most of this material is based on secondary sources, and it contributes little to a familiar narrative, except for the addition of some interviews the author conducted.

Nordens unique research is an examination of four attempted military revolts between 1987 and 1990, undertaken by the so-called carapintadas (painted faces, because of the battle makeup they used to distinguish themselves). These army rebellions against elected presidents Raúl Alfonsín and Carlos Menem created wide publicity for their leaders, Lieutenant Colonel Aldo Rico and Colonel Mohammed Alí Seineldín. Although none of the efforts succeeded, they demonstrated that segments of the armed forces were unreconciled to a return to democracy. A major reason for the army’s refusal to accept recent governments can be ascribed to more than half a century of praetorianism, which the military is loath to relinquish.

The author’s primary objective is to apply a concept of “democratic consolidation” to Argentina over the past decade. How well have civilian regimes persuaded the military to give up interventionism? For this purpose, Norden uses Guillermo O’Donnell’s interpretation of “bureaucratic authoritarianism,” which characterized the armed forces’ control during the Proceso de Reorganización Nacional (1976-83), to show a growing split between a professional stance and a political mission. She examines divergences in terms of infantry and cavalry rivalries, competing rightist philosophies, and intense personal loyalties. While the carapintada elements refused to accept subordination to civil authority, general officers showed their commitment to professionalism.

Most revealing are the author’s statistics indicating why the military threat has diminished: the relentless cuts in personnel and budgets have made institutional survival the major consideration. In a final section, these changes are compared with other contemporary military-civilian relationships in Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay. Readers familiar with the long, dismal record of army intervention in Argentina may remain skeptical about the consolidation of democracy and the final sheathing of the sword.