The phrase "dirty war" came into use during the 1970s and 1980s to describe the campaign of state terrorism in Argentina after a dictatorship overthrew the elected government of Juan Peron. Anyone associated with socialism or Peronism was a target for kidnapping, torture, and "disappearance."
The Argentine coup and reign of terror began with the military bombing of Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires on June 16, 1955. Hundreds of people rallying in support of Peron were killed.
A year later, June 9, 1956, Peronists in the Army and civilian supporters staged an uprising against the dictatorship. They were crushed within 24 hours. Within that time frame, the police carried out a secret kidnap and murder operation against a group of men they suspected of involvement in the uprising. The operation was botched and half the intended victims escaped.
Rodolfo Walsh, an Argentine crime fiction writer, heard about the secret police operation some months later. Intrigued and startled by the fact that there were survivors, he began an investigation that rivaled that of a crime fiction hero. He sought out anyone who might have information and followed every lead. The result became "Operation Massacre," a classic work of journalism and literature. Walsh worked on the project and the book for the rest of his life.
Walsh pressed his research into an increasingly activist agenda, as the regime's terror escalated, ultimately killing at least 30,000 and carrying out horrific acts of torture. His last effort was on March 24, 1977, when he mailed an "Open Letter from a Writer to the Military Junta." The very next day he was kidnapped on the street, never to be seen again.
"Operation Massacre" is now available in an English translation for the first time, from Seven Stories Press, in paperback. As the translator, Daniella Gitlin, writes in her introduction, "The story is so good that it sounds like fiction: someone has survived an execution that no one even knew had taken place."
The reverberations of Argentina's dirty war continue to affect world events. On March 15, 2013, just two days after the selection of a new pope, the Vatican was confronted with—and denied—accusations that Pope Francis had been complicit with the dictatorship during his tenure as priest, bishop, and cardinal in Argentina.
The Argentine dictator, Jorge Videla, ultimately answered for his reign of terror, when an elected government took power from the junta in 1983 and began prosecutions for crimes against humanity. Videla was sentenced to life in prison. He was briefly granted amnesty, but further judicial proceedings put him back in prison. In 2012, he was convicted of the special crime of kidnapping babies from mothers who were "disappeared." The babies were handed out to members of the military to raise. Videla was sentenced to an additional fifty years for this crime. In May 2013, he died in prison.
Baby kidnapping from "disappeared" mothers is startlingly reminiscent of government-sanctioned stealing of American Indian children in the colonization of America. U.S. Army Colonel Henry Pratt founded the first Indian boarding school, albeit after he retired from the military, to remove Indian children from their homes and raise them so as to abandon their native ways. Baby stealing from Indian families is still going on under the aegis of state "social service" systems.
Another startling fact is that the Argentine dictatorship's name for its overall agenda, "Process of National Reorganization," echoes the U.S. "Indian Reorganization Act." In each instance, the target is a way of life, a way of being in the world.
Dirty wars may be laundered. For example, Ronald Reagan was eager to please the Argentine junta for its "business-friendly" attitude toward global capital. Reagan's support for the Argentine junta was announced even before his election: He minimized and excused human rights violations in Argentina as "the incarceration of a few innocents."
Wars against ways of life are not necessarily "dirty" in the sense of secret kidnappings and executions. The various religious-based wars going on around the world are open and unabashed wars against ways of life, claiming a higher morality to justify killings and depredations. The three branches of the Family of Abraham are implicated in the Middle East, as well as Buddhists in Myanmar (Burma).
One of the most common claims made by governments today is that they wage "clean war." An example is the use of drones—robotic aircraft controlled from a distance—to wage war with a minimum of casualties to those operating the drones, and with a proclaimed accuracy of targeting enemy combatants. Drones are also being deployed against domestic populations, to "enhance" law enforcement.
"Counterinsurgency" is another mantra for waging "humane" wars that supposedly protect local populations while building nations. But the facts are different, as detailed in a new book by Douglas Porch, Distinguished Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California.
Professor Porch works at the heart of the U.S. military establishment. His critique cannot be accused of being "soft." He challenges the notion that counterinsurgency is a humane way of war. The reality, he writes, is that counterinsurgency campaigns shatter and divide societies and unsettle civil-military relations. In a review of Porch's book, Colonel Gian Gentile, United States Military Academy, West Point, refers to the "mythical universe of counterinsurgency" and says the "historical truth [is] that they are ultimately wars of death, destruction, and often brute conquest."
"Operation Massacre" is a work of history and a call to conscience. It is a warning and even a prophecy of what happens when government cuts itself off from human rights and embarks on an effort to remake society in the name of some "higher" purpose, whether that is right or left, religious or secular. Porch's book is a good companion to this warning.
Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. He was Staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970, in Shiprock. He taught Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. He is a consulting attorney on indigenous issues.