There Were Two Sides to Argentina’s ‘Dirty War,’ and Both Are Stirring Anew

<i> William Ratliff, a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, visited Argentina in the 1970s and twice during the last two years. </i>

For 20 years Argentines have been grappling with two of human history’s great vices: the banality of evil and the evil of banality.

Recent events have brought flashbacks of the “dirty war” of the 1970s, the civil conflict that thrust these two vices on the nation. It was a decade that Argentines have not yet been able to fully come to grips with and move beyond.

Indeed, in this presidential election year, the fallout from that war still poses a threat to the democratic process in Argentina. Two weeks ago, Foreign Minister Dante Caputo warned that “hawks” in the military are planning a coup attempt, the fourth in two years, against President Raul Alfonsin.

In late January, 40 heavily armed guerrillas with links to the leftist terrorists of the 1970s blasted their way into a military base near Buenos Aires, hoping to steal weapons for use in the next uprising. They failed, but 36 people--soldiers and guerrillas--were killed. Another, smaller attack occurred at a provincial outpost in February, and the terrorists have pledged to strike again.


The flashback compels all who seek true solutions to Argentina’s problems to be more balanced and realistic in their evaluations of the “dirty war"--both its causes and its continuing repercussions.

Two casts played out the banality of evil in the conflict of the 1970s: the military and the guerrillas.

But most commentators, especially abroad, have zeroed in only on the military.

Before and after the coup that threw out a hopelessly inept Peronist government in 1976, some officers routinely tortured and murdered Argentines they thought were guerrillas or sympathetic to Marxist terrorists in the country. Thousands of Argentines died in custody and thousands more simply “disappeared.”


But, put in the most direct of terms, the guerrillas started the violence, as newspaper editor Jacobo Timerman, who was himself jailed by the military, wrote in his “Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number.” Those guilty of the evil of banality don’t seem to grasp this fact and its meaning.

The violence that ultimately provoked the 1976 coup began in 1964, Timerman wrote, “with the appearance of the first guerrillas, trained in Cuba.” By the early 1970s, “the eroticism of violence” meant daily kidnapings and murder by large and small groups. “Systemized violence” then swept the country, so that “when the army seized the government, the entire country . . . breathed a sign of relief.”

The People’s Revolutionary Army, one of the two main terrorist groups whose remnants were involved in the recent guerrilla attacks, had openly stated that its goal was to make Argentina part of a “Vietnam” engulfing all of Latin America. The military, which had no historical record of unusual brutality, sought to prevent the terrorists from bringing this conflagration about. It did so with the “dirty war.”

In a way, it worked. Neither Alfonsin nor anyone else would have been elected president of Argentina if the guerrillas had won. If Alfonsin survives until the presidential election in May, he will be the first president since 1928 to complete his constitutional term in office.

Most or all of these complexities are ignored or discounted by those guilty of the evil of banality. Terrible simplifiers all, they moralize in blacks and whites, drawing a caricature of a vast national tragedy in Argentina and in other nations as well, from El Salvador to Colombia to Peru.

The true story of Argentina, and of other countries then and now, is far more complex and deeply tragic. It is of a troubled nation generating political extremists who introduce and escalate a barbarity that is equaled or topped by government authorities putting it down.

This falsifying of history, which makes it impossible to find solutions to real problems, is seen with striking clarity in much of the media, trendy history and literature and the activities of some human-rights organizations. Take Lawrence Thornton’s recent and much-praised novel, “Imagining Argentina.” This writer, like so many others, seems to think that Argentine history began when the military took over and that only military brutality matters. How ironic that he has his characters working for Timerman’s paper, yet they haven’t a hint of the historical perspective that makes “Prisoner Without a Name” an important historical document. Even though part of “Imagining” is true, the context is so warped that it ends up a pernicious political tract.

Many nations will watch to see if the Argentines can put aside ignorant and self-righteous moralizing, recognize the moral ambiguities and complexities, and respond as civilized people to an era when barbarity bred barbarity.


If the Argentines rise to the challenge, a precedent of sorts will be set. This precedent must note the duty of governments to serve their people to the limits of their resources and thus to eliminate their seeing justification for terrorism. It also must reaffirm the duty of military forces to prevent terrorists from overthrowing governments and even entire societies, while setting limits to the tactics used.

It is a daunting challenge. If they don’t meet it, in time the successful coup will come in Argentina. What is more, when coups come in other countries, as they will in response to guerrilla terrorism, military forces will be reluctant to return power to democratic governments for fear of being punished for their actions.

The best thing that armchair moralists and the rest of us foreigners can do is pray for the Argentines and then get off their backs as they struggle for a precedent in a world that admits few easy answers.