As we approach the 40th anniversary of the last military coup on 24th March, 1976, there have been several breakthroughs in the long campaign for memory, truth, and justice.
Last week, US National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice confirmed that Washington would declassify military and intelligence records from the 1976-83 dictatorship. The Vatican, too, said it was preparing to release its archives from the era. And with his first visit to Argentina coinciding with the anniversary, US President Barack Obama has faced renewed pressure to recognise his country’s role in supporting the dictatorship. A New York Times editorial called for Obama to “make a pledge that Washington will more fully reveal its role in a dark chapter of Argentine history.”
These are important steps – long demanded by human rights groups – that will shed more light on the secretive actions and human rights abuses of the military junta. Argentina is considered a global pioneer for its efforts to confront a traumatic past and pursue transitional justice, and though frustrating in its tardiness, this external support in revealing information will keep the search for answers moving forward.
Yet, in one aspect at least, the international community does not appear to have progressed: calling the dictatorship Argentina’s ‘Dirty War’. The term is discarded today by human rights groups as a misnomer, but is still widely used in international media and diplomacy.
“It is a totally mistaken concept – there was no war, clean or dirty,” said Estela de Carlotto, president of the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo last week, even as she welcomed the decision to declassify records. “It is a way of minimising the terrorism of the state and it’s a term born outside of this country.”
In fact, the origins of the name are imprecise. Dutch anthropology professor Antonius Robben, author of several books on Argentina’s collective memory, documents the first use of ‘Dirty War’ by an ultra-nationalist magazine in 1974. Robben says the term was then adopted by both the Argentine state and its guerrilla movements as a way to describe the unlawful actions of the other.
We do know that the term was widely employed by the military junta at the end of the dictatorship as a means of justifying its crimes against humanity. Against the backdrop of a ‘war’, it claimed that abuses, if they existed, were just “excesses” in an otherwise just campaign against terrorist groups.
This argument was quickly debunked as details emerged of the kidnapping, torture, murder, and forced disappearance of an estimated 30,000 mainly young people. In the historic 1985 trial of the military leaders, lead prosecutor Julio Strassera noted: “The argument that this was a ‘Dirty War’, employed tirelessly as a form of justification, is particularly despicable… these were criminal acts, that had nothing to do with war.”
Yet the notion of a two-sided conflict persisted, manifest in the extreme with the so-called ‘Theory of Two Demons’ that erroneously sought to equate the actions of the military junta with those of the armed guerrilla groups.
While the bombings, kidnappings, and shootings of guerrilla groups such as the Montoneros should always be condemned in society and courts as terrorist attacks, the scale and brutality of the state repression far exceeded the military action required to defeat them. By the military’s own estimates, the numbers of those active in the armed uprising hadn’t reached more than a few thousand in 1976, and it claimed to have crushed them just months after seizing power. Declassified documents reveal that on 7th October 1976, foreign minister César Augusto Guzzetti told US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that: “The terrorist organisations have been dismantled.”
In his response, Kissinger provided the line of reasoning that would later be perpetuated by the Argentine military: “What is not understood in the United States is that you have a civil war. We read about human right problems but not the context. The quicker you succeed, the better.” Subsequent cables from the US embassy in Buenos Aires talk of Guzzetti’s “euphoria” that Washington understood what the military was trying to do and would not impede their actions.
The systematic plan of forced disappearances continued for another seven years, with the vast majority of victims not involved in any armed conflict. They were students, workers, teachers, journalists, intellectuals – anyone who openly opposed the regime or had been singled out as a potential dissident or simply as “different”. And they were pregnant women, an estimated 500, forced to give birth in captivity only for their newborn child to be taken away and raised under a false identity.
The discourse related to remembering the last military dictatorship has advanced significantly in Argentina in the last decade. Hundreds of former officers have been convicted of crimes against humanity, and many more trials are underway. More recently, investigations have also advanced into the role of civilians who assisted the military junta. The 1976-83 era is now commonly referred to in human rights circles as the “civic-military dictatorship”.
In announcing the agreement to release more secret records, Obama is hoping to show that the US has also come a long way from the Kissinger era, and is ready to better acknowledge its role in Argentina’s painful past.
He should start by calling it by its real name.