In the United States and much of the English-speaking world, the term “dirty war” has become a common label to describe the years of dictatorship in Argentina between 1976 and 1983. From the White House to the academy to the press international, the term was taken up as a political shortcut for those dark years when state repression, kidnappings and all manner of human rights violations were used by the state to maintain its power backed by the ‘army.
But how accurate is the term “dirty war”? How neutral is it? With the implication of having two warring sides, each attacking the other with, if not equal force, at least comparable force, the term implies a very different power dynamic than that which existed during the years of the Argentine dictatorship. . Sometimes extended to describe other violent regimes in the Southern Cone as well, the term more broadly distorts the truth of South American history, though some may use the term naively. Understanding the history of the term “dirty war” and the ideological and political positions behind it will help us to reject it completely and adopt language that better describes the one-sided killing of the regime that took power by blow. State in 1976..
It is historically inaccurate to describe the years of dictatorship in Argentina as a dirty war. There were not two camps vying for control of the territory, nor a professional army (hidden or not) to compete with the forces of the state, be it the official armed forces, the police or various paramilitary formations.
Political violence was certainly a regular feature of the Argentinian landscape since the early 1970s. Before the 1976 coup, there were left-wing guerrilla movements like Montoneros and the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo, and paramilitary organizations. right-wing like the Alianza Anticomunista Argentina. However, the coup d’état ushered in a new era of systematic and unchallenged violence that left little room for these movements.
Left guerrilla groups had no chance to seriously match the might of state forces. The armed capacity of the revolutionary resistance has never been able to cope successfully or continuously with state violence, and it certainly has not used repressive tactics. Like Daniel Feierstein and Eduardo Duhalde showed, the guerrilla activity that characterized the years before the dictatorship was quickly wiped out by the state. A few months after the coup d’état, the leaders of these organizations were dead, missing or in exile. The political terror lasted until 1983.
We can understand the term “dirty war” only in the larger context of the Cold War, and more broadly the American struggle against communism. The US national security doctrine identified what it saw as threats to internal security that every country in Latin America faced. Through specific training programs for local armed forces, the US military taught techniques of torture and counterinsurgency designed to combat what was considered communism and destroy internal enemies.
But political repression in Latin America has gone far beyond these stated goals. Members of left-wing parties and trade unions, as well as Jews, homosexuals and many others considered to be inconsistent with the conservative Catholic view, have been called “subversive” or even enemies of war – a label which mistakenly suggests that these political activists and mobilized citizens were warriors carrying weapons.
This war rhetoric concealed the political and social objectives of the military junta. Taking on a broader scope, the Southern Cone dictatorships all worked to dismantle the recently formed welfare states and, with them, to break down unions. As neoliberalism took hold under the terror of the armed forces, all traces of resistance were silenced. Like Federico Lorenz reminds us, we tend to consider the missing as a sort of young Che Guevaras. In fact, most of them were workers and trade unionists.
According to his most popular definition, in a dirty war, the state uses all its resources to fight an elusive and hidden enemy. This is not conventional warfare as there are no open battles – the state must conduct reticular research when looking for its enemies. Importantly, the enemies of the state are armed and secretly active; as a result, kidnappings, torture, rape and clandestine detention centers are, so the record goes, required. The rules of war seem to change when it comes to eradicating an underground adversary.
It is according to these changing rules that the Argentine military defended their own performance during the dictatorship. In a crusade against those who aimed to overthrow the country’s Catholic and traditional way of life, the junta proclaimed that they were fighting a slippery and internal enemy. Like James Brennan showed, the term “dirty war” was favored by the military themselves in the last stages of the dictatorship, and was used for the first time at a press conference by General Reynaldo Bignone, head of the last junta military between 1982 and 1983.
The use of the term by the junta is no accident. The term “dirty war” deliberately evokes another campaign of counterinsurgency, notably carried out by the French in Algeria. Indeed, many Argentinian servicemen were trained in counterinsurgency tactics by French intelligence agents. By qualifying the years of dictatorship as a dirty war, the junta claimed to link its battle to that of the French, ultimately seeking legitimation from their European counterparts.
The term “dirty war” is concocted precisely by the personalities who perpetrated the crimes during the Argentine dictatorship. Why are so many people using it indiscriminately today? This amounts to speaking of the “middle passage” to describe the transatlantic slave trade.
In December 1983, two months after the fall of the dictatorship and the transition to democracy, then President Raúl Alfonsín created the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (CONADEP for its Spanish acronym). After a thorough investigation, this commission released the Nunca Más (Never Again) report, which contained testimonies of torture, kidnappings, disappearances and other human rights violations during the dictatorship. Its prologue, written by the famous Argentine writer Ernesto Sábato, declared that “during the 1970s Argentina was torn by terror from both the far right and the far left”.
Such words opened the door to a debate which still animates us today. Many have accused the Nunca Más report of promoting the so-called two-demon theory, which places responsibility for human rights violations on the two forces of the state. and local guerrilla groups. In 2006, in an effort to remedy this misrepresentation, and under the Peronist administration of Néstor Kirchner, this prologue was rewritten in a new version of the report. Significantly, under the presidency of Mauricio Macri in 2016, the original prologue has been restored.
The term “dirty war” carries this baggage with it today. It is deeply offensive to the victims and their families who suffered, many of whom are still alive. To refer to it is, consciously or not, to align oneself with a right-wing reading of history which seeks to diffuse the responsibility for the violence of the dictatorship, and to justify the torture and generalized disappearances that characterized the time.
How to name more precisely the period that the Argentine right designates as “dirty war”? Latin American academics and human rights activists are looking for a better term, and many have argued that the term “genocide” would be more accurate due to the emphasis on extermination of a targeted section of the community. population. Others focused on the precise characteristics of authoritarian states, proposing terms such as “parallel state” to emphasize their illegal use of repression, or “national security state” to emphasize their ideological origins.
The notion of state terrorism might be the most specific due to the emphasis on goals and methods. The term clearly points out the state agency for using illegal practices to spread terror among the population in order to impose a specific economic, social, cultural and political model. Indeed, it is this concept that most human rights conversations in Argentina employ today.
Words matter and words like “dirty war” cannot be used innocently. There was no war; there was only persecution, torture, disappearance and extermination. We cannot echo the language of the junta and we cannot reproduce its narrative.