Where were you from 1976 to 1983? What did you know, in those years, about the “war on terror?” This was a war, its leaders said, to protect homeland security; a war for family values, Christian values, and clean-living innocent people, against enemy insurgents, terrorists, subversives, non-believers, homosexuals, Jews, Communists, union organizers, and radicals in universities and the arts.
In that war on terror, “safety and security” justified secret detention centers. Suspected terrorists were arrested, interrogated, stripped naked and threatened by dogs, dunking, rape, electric prods and probes in every orifice, rape, guns placed in their mouths, and unspeakable physical and psychological torment. In the name of homeland security, 30,000 “subversives” were starved, tormented to death, shot and tossed into mass graves, or thrown out of planes over the ocean. Young children of disappeared women also disappeared—killed? “reassigned” to “good” families? Over 500 pregnant women gave birth in custody to children who were taken from them to be reared by “good families” with “family values” instead of “subversive values.” This was Argentina’s “Dirty War,” a term borrowed from Charles de Gaulle, who coined it to describe France’s war with Algeria. Until Friday, I hardly knew a thing about it.
I was in my thirties in those years. I thought of myself as politically aware and politically active (“the personal is political”) in movements for civil rights, peace, and gay rights. I declared, “If we’re not part of the solution, we’re part of the problem.” I marched, wrote and toured a one-woman-play telling women’s stories. I lavished love on my second son, born in 1973. I held two or three jobs at a time, traveled Europe for six months, fell in and out of love, sang “political” songs, worked with prisoners and juvenile delinquents in Louisiana, and in 1982, started work on my Ph.D. All that time, I thought I was relatively aware, politically. Yet there was this horror going on in Argentina, and I didn’t pay attention. How was this possible?
Friday night I started my campaign to educate myself about Argentina’s Dirty War, and all day yesterday I read, took notes, tore through a stack of books, studied photographs, and felt as though the top of my head would blow off, or my heart would explode, holding so much horror. I kept hearing echoes: rhetoric of the Bush administration is uncannily similar to the rhetoric of the Argentine government in that era. With shame, I remember snippets of news about “The Disappeared,” and in the early 80s, the “Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo,” although I thought they were in Chile, something to do with Pinochet. I was busy living and didn’t make an effort to learn more.
All I can do is redress that now, and so far, the book that most clearly puts it all together for me is A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture, by Marguerite Feitlowitz (1998). I started Friday with Alicia Partnoy’s Little School: Tales of Disappearance & Survival in Argentina (1986). That shocked me awake with voices, names, images, and stories of people imprisoned, tortured, and murdered, told by a woman who was imprisoned with them. Partnoy is a poet; her mother, a visual artist, illustrated the book. Partnoy’s stories are a mosaic of pain, tenderness, undaunted spirit. Feitlowitz is absolutely necessary, because she explains the context and the language, which is oddly familiar. When I can’t breathe because of the horror of the story Feitlowitz tells, amplified by the voices in Partnoy’s account, I open Rita Arditti’s Searching for Life: The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo and the Disappeared Children of Argentina. It, too, is full of horror; it tells the same stories, but it offers some hope—some (88 of the 500-1000 children) have been found and restored to their biological families. I have three more books that I haven’t yet started: Nunca Mas: A Report by Argentina’s National Commission on Disappeared People (1986), Jo Fisher’s Mothers of the Disappeared (1989), and Diana Taylor’s Disappearing Acts: Spectacles of Gender and Nationalism in Argentina’s “Dirty War” (1997). I’m still waiting for Jacobo Timerman’s Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number (1981, paperback English edition 2002). The rest of this posting will be a summary of the “story” as I am assembling it from Partnoy, Feitlowitz, and Arditti, and quotes from Feitlowitz—because I need to put it together for myself, and maybe others are similarly ignorant. Some who are reading this may have been there; may know much more. Feel free to chime in. This is what I have, after about 36 hours of study, and my mind and heart are reeling from the horror of it, so don’t trust me. Trust Partnoy, Arditti, Feitlowitz. Trust Paula Luttringer, who woke me up. Trust others who lived it and/or have devoted years to studying it. Ignorance of something this big, this horrible, this close to home, and this similar to the present moment—just won’t do.
There was not a single figurehead with a stated ideology: no Hitler, Stalin, Hussein, bin Laden, or Bush. Instead there was a “government of national unity” composed of leaders of the Argentine military branches—a group, or junta united in what they said was a desire to make the country “safe” from a terrorist or “leftist” threat. The first group was composed of men named Massera, Videla, and Agosti, but over the years others rose to power or fell: what held the various leaders together was an ideology that they claimed was Christian, patriotic, and motivated by love of the nation. There was no single inciting incident, like 9/11. Instead, Feitlowitz explains, “At their height in 1975-77, these leftist groups totaled no more than 2000 individuals, of whom only 400 had access to arms” (6). The junta used a campaign of fear to exaggerate the numbers and the danger to the public of the leftists. “Over the entire decade of the 1970s, the leftist groups carried out a total of 697 assassinations, killing 400 policemen, 143 members of the military, and 54 civilians, mostly industrialists”(6). In its campaign against the “leftists,” the Argentine Anticommunist Alliance or Triple A (Partnoy was in a AAA camp) said it was trying to bring security to the country, to protect the country from terrorism, to defend human rights, and to do anything necessary to make everyone safe.
First the government pursued a campaign of fear, to keep everyone terrified of “subversives” in their midst. (I think of “Code Orange” and duct tape.) Then the government promised to protect the homeland. This would, of course, take money and “sacrifices” from citizens, but it would be worth it, for the sake of safety.
Feitlowitz explains, “…many of the most promising Argentine officers were rewarded with special training at the U.S. Army School of the Americas [SOA]…. In September, 1996, the Pentagon itself finally admitted that [SOA] students were taught torture, murder, sabotage, bribery, blackmail, and extortion for the achievement of political aims; that hypnosis and truth serum were recommended for use in interrogations; and that the parents of captives be arrested as an inducement for the prisoner to talk” (9).
Describing the dismemberment and scattering of body parts of people tortured and killed, Feitlowitz quotes a lawyer, Dr. Juan Carlos Adrover: “…I have the feeling that this whole country is a graveyard, and that we are all constantly walking on the bones” (18).
The propaganda campaign was wide and deep: all the media, including women’s magazines, were commandeered for the national security. Women were seen as particularly valuable because they could indoctrinate their children to be “on the side of life” (38) while the government, claiming to be defending liberty, democracy, and justice built 360 secret detention centers to imprison, torture, and exterminate suspected terrorists. The worst of the centers was called ESMA (the Navy Mechanics School) and is sometimes called the Argentine Auschwitz.
Feitlowitz writes, “The accounts are harrowing. But testimony fulfills the sacred obligation to bear witness, and however discomfiting it may be for us, our pain, though great, is minor compared with that of the victims. We lack the right to turn away” (50).
I’m going back to the books now.
Tags: Books and Movies, Politics, Prisons and Prisoners, What does it mean?