Portugal’s ‘quiet hero’ warns of militarisation of society

Portugal’s ‘quiet hero’ (as dubbed by the Financial Times) vice-admiral Henrique Gouveia e Melo has sounded the alert over relying too heavily on the military.

The man whose leadership of the vaccination task force has seen to it that Portugal is now the most-vaccinated country against Covid-19 in the world, has repeatedly said he wants nothing to do with politics or public life, and would like simply to return to anonymity.

One way or another, that doesn’t appear to be happening.

No longer sporting camouflage fatigues, he has appeared in the papers today in brilliant white Naval attire bedecked in military decorations and talking about ‘balance’.

During a debate at Lisbon’s Military University Institute (IUM) he stressed there is a time and place for the use of the military in society, but “soldiers cannot be a panacea for everything”.

“We are an instant remedy, but not a long-term one”, he told his audience. “You cannot transform soldiers into something so holistic that they cease to be soldiers and become boy scouts. 

“We have to be careful, because the militarisation of society is a risk”.

His warning comes when due to the pandemic so many countries have resorted to the military to help with logistics and/ or enforce lockdown policies.

It also came in the context of commemorations for the life of former head of the armed forces (CEME) and one-time defence minister Loureiro dos Santos who defended that the Portuguese Constitution should be changed to allow soldiers to act on national territory without any ‘states of exception’ being declared or external threats identified.

In Gouveia e Melo’s mindset that is not the way to go.

The pandemic and his own ‘success’ “will make the population and the political system think a bit” about the relationship the military should have with society, “which is useful”, he said, but soldiers should not be called in “for any problem”.

And he gave a valid example: the use of soldiers to construct a Command Centre in a day and put 4,300 people to work to vaccinate 100,000 people every day ‘makes sense’ – but using soldiers as they were used in 2017 to strim scrubland (in the aftermath of killer fires) does not.

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