Friday, September 02, 2005

Booknote: Confessions of an Argentine Dirty Warrior

Title: Confessions of an Argentine Dirty Warrior
Author: Horacio Verbitsky
Publication Information: New York: The New Press, 2005
ISBN: 156584985X
Genre: Nonfiction
Subgenre: Current events. Latin American studies.
Note: Translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen. This book was first published as The Flight in 1996.

Pages: 215, including a list of key figures, a chronology and notes.

This is the confession of an officer in the Argentine Navy during the time period known as the Dirty War. This was a space of time between 1976 and 1983 when the country was under a military dictatorship, and some of the worst crimes against humanity were committed under the excuse of fighting insurgents. The flight in question refers to various flights that the navy undertook to get rid of political prisoners. Basically, after torture, prisoners would be loaded up on navy transport planes and dumped into the ocean while they were still alive. To make it "more humane," the prisoners were given tranquilizer drugs so they would be barely aware of their fate. At the same time, the fate of these prisoners, and many others who were tortured and killed in other ways, was never revealed to the families. These prisoners became "desaparecidos," the disappeared ones. The tactic was to keep families uncertain of the prisoners' fate as a way to inflict terror and thus keep control. And I am describing this in very simple terms. The officer that Verbitsky interviews goes into much more detail.

This is a very engaging book, but it is also a book that can be hard to read. The officer, who participated in one of the flights, is haunted by the memory of what he did. At first, he wants to keep a high ground by saying he was under orders, but he gradually comes around to see his role and how he was responsible. That officer was the only one with some credibility that actually dared to even come forward and admit his role during the Dirty War. You see, as the dictatorship was coming to an end, the military put measures in place to make sure they could not be prosecuted by civilian authorities. To make things worse, the successive governments of Alfonsín and Menem reinforced this, making it next to impossible to prosecute these criminals. This is a book that will make you angry at times at seeing how the military got away with terrorism. One must note that some of the subversives they were fighting were terrorists as well, but when one tallies the balance sheet, the military was the worst offender. The book goes through the interview by Verbitsky of the officer, then describes what happened in the aftermath, any prosecutions that may have happened, the trials seeking to release names of those disappeared, and how some of these criminals were prosecuted by other countries using criteria for crimes against humanity. The Dirty War is a very dark and distressing period in Argentine history, one that some would rather forget, yet the book reveals how this will live on. In fact, even if the criminals were never prosecuted, the society has moved to condemn them in other ways. One example is just plain social ostracism. Some of the former officers may show up at a restaurant with their bodyguards, and people will move away or leave the establishment; waiters will refuse to serve them; some people have gone as far as confronting the criminals, defying any bodyguards. This example is a small gesture, but it reveals that even if the government wants to forgive and forget, refusing to prosecute, the people themselves will never forgive. As for people during the Dirty War, no one was safe from the military. Even family members of some military officers were kidnapped.

Verbitsky points out that the officer he interviewed is very credible, and he points out the reasons why in the book. The officer's tale is chilling, at times moving, at times leading to anger for the reader. Yet, one thing that stuck with me is how the military justified some of its actions. The rhetoric is eerily similar to some of the rhetoric used by the current U.S. administration for its treatment of prisoners in places like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. It is the idea of the ends of justifying the means, and in the case of Argentina, that idea went terribly wrong. Yet, it is an idea that we should learn from, and it is an idea that has the potential to happen again in other parts of the world. Listening to the officer explain how they were keeping the homeland safe by taking away rights from citizens, and then taking subversives away, many of them innocent or guilty by association, in the middle of darkness, is scary stuff. Not just scary for what happens to those people, but it is scary because some of those words used to justify those actions are heard in places like the U.S. today in the fight against terrorism. The book is highly recommended. It is pretty easy to read in terms of length and pacing. The afterwords and notes serve to place the events in context and are very informative as well.

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