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Spain's Army marches to a dated drummer

With 260,000 men in the Army and 70,000 more in paramilitary services the Spanish Army is now the fifth-largest Army in Europe. But even before the Feb. 23 coup attempt it was out of step with European armies.

A deliberate policy of the late Spanish dictator, Gen. Francisco Franco, contributed to this. Although he took care during his rule to keep the Army happy, Franco always ensured that the material power of the military did not grow too much. Lots of decorating, honors, and holidays, but relatively little money and equipment seems to have been his guiding principle.

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An opposition politician explains: "Franco came to power on a coup but he did not want to leave that way."

But lack of modern firearms and money does not seem to have been a principal factor in the discontent that led up to the abortive rebellion. Paradoxically, the Army has received more sophisticated arms and more money since the return to democracy in 1977, even though the defense budget, at 1.6 percent of GNP, is still one of the smallest defense budgets in Europe.

The main reasons for the rebellion lie further back. The loss of the last shreds of the Spanish empire in the 1890s deprived Spain's Army of an occupation and of an external mission. Form this time on the Army saw its mission as being principally an internal one. This role was reinforced by involvement in the 1936-39 Civil War and by Spain's long isolation from the rest of Europe during Franco's dictatorship.

A rigid caste system remained in force. Even today roughly 68 percent of all Spain's professional soldiers are themselves sons of soldiers. And most of Spain's officers who joined the Army in the 1940s were thoroughly indoctrinated in Francosim and owe their careers to Franco.

The result, according to a group of middle-ranking officers. is that these right-wing officers tend to be ignorant to the outside world and deeply contemptuous of civilians and liberal societies. They admire force and ostentation and still revere the Nazi Army. And most of the men at the top of the military heap appear to be intolerant of criticism.

(A much-quoted example is the case of a Spanish journalist once threatened with trial by a military tribunal if he published a factual account he had written of the "court martial" of an Army mule that had damaged some equipment. The mule was put on short rations as punishment.)

The group of Army officers concludes: "The Army hs too many generals and colonels who live in another world and whose view is: 'We don't care how the Russians and the Americans are governed: it is our duty to conserve the traditional values of Spain.'"

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Not surprisingly, there was much that senior officers found disturbing about the course of Spain's democracy:

* The legalization of political parties (the Socialists and the Communists) that previously the Army had been trained to persecute.

* The appearance of ills familiar to other societies in Europe but new to Spain, such as inflation, unemployment, pornography, drug addiction, and delinquency.

* The erosion Spanish unity (with a generous government program for regional autonomy) -- of one of the Caudillo's most sacred ideals.

* The decline in law and order.

Of all the recent issues that led up to the coup attempt, none other contributed so much to military discontent as the deliberate policy of provocation pursued by the Basque separatist organization Euzkadi ta Azkatasuna (ETA).

In this struggle against Basque terrorists the Army lost its patience.It also felt a lack of support by politicians and the press chiefly because it could not understand the criticisms made of continued police torture.

The government policy of isolating the terrorists by granting the Basque region a broad measure of autonomy is now paying off. But since 1977 over 250 people have been killed by the ETA, most of them Civil Guards. The Army, not prepared to wait, wants immediate solutions.

The problem of disaffection in the armed forces is a matter of education and reflects the way in which Spain's democracy was introduced. A key element was that reform should come from within the Francoist institutions and that there should not be changes imposed from outside.

In line with this, Lt. Gen. Manuel Gutierrez Mellado, the former deputy prime minister for national security and defense, began a moderate program in 1978, the basic principle of which was to phase out the most recalcitrant members of the armed forces -- either by retirement, or by taking them off the active duty roster, or by transferring them to harmless administrative posts.

This kid-glove approach was more in evidence on the left. But according to a former Army major, this persistent yielding to "a diffuse fear of the military" cut the ground from underneath the democratic sectors of the armed forces and gave heart to the fascist and traditionalist right.He estimates the last group as about 25 percent of the officer class, while sincere democrats probably account for 10 percent. The remainder he regards as broadly apolitical.

He says a final straw for the democratic officers was what happened last year.

At a court martial in Madrid in March, the plotters of an abortive right-wing coup to overthrow the democratic government of Adolfo Suarez in November 1979 were given minimum sentences of three months. (One of those plotters was Col. Antonio Tejero de Molina who led the assault on parliament last week.)

In contrast, the ARmy balked in July 1980, when the government was considering the reinstatement into the Army of 12 discharged Army officers who had been arrested shortly before Franco's death and charged with belonging to a secret democratic organization. The ruling Democratic Center Union Party (UDC) withdrew its support for the proposal in August. The left made no more than a token gesture and the issue was tossed aside.

The message of the two cases is a barometer of grass-roots military moods: The Army alone decides its members. If you are a reactionary plotter, stay in; if you are a democrat, stay out.

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