Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Rebellion in the Backlands should be required reading for all military students, since it clearly points out the dangers to a cumbersome army, with outmoded tactics and long supply lines, of fighting a guerrilla war on the guerrillas’ home turf. The sertanejos utilize classic guerrilla procedures, including local intelligence networks, hit-and-run maneuvers, enticement into ambushes, recycling of captured equipment, and psychological demoralization. Most of all, the sertanejos are expert at using their terrain against the army, striking after the troops have marched into exhaustion or cul-de-sacs. Finally, the sertanejos illustrate the determination of guerrillas fighting for a fanatical cause or merely their homes.

Notwithstanding Cunha’s interest in military lessons, Rebellion in the Backlands is ultimately an antimilitaristic work. Besides showing the military to disadvantage, Cunha was condemning his country for using military power against its own citizens, poor people living in a neglected region which might be termed the Appalachia of Brazil. His condemnation may seem unfair under the circumstances, but Cunha believed that integrating the sertanejos into the national culture is a matter of time and education, not military force. Furthermore, Cunha’s admiration of the sertanejos suggests that such integration does not simply mean conformity of the “backward” sertanejos to the “civilized” national culture. How civilized, asks Cunha, is a culture which must prevail through superior brutality? This paradox continues to plague not only Brazil but also the superpowers and “civilization” generally.