Left: George HW Bush with former Argentine President Carlos Menem
History, Terror, and Deformed Language
The use of language to describe historical events is not simply the province of academics; the very purposes of spoken and written words are to communicate knowledge and ideas to other people. As an important part of shared culture, recorded history provides an element of cohesion between members of a social group.
Language, however, also proves to be a useful tool to those who might wish to manipulate collective memory. The efforts by the Japanese government to deny or downplay the appalling atrocities committed in 1937 by the Japanese Imperial Army in Nanking are a consummate example of the deliberate use of rhetoric in an attempt to rewrite history. Seisuke Okuno, serving as land agency chief in Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita's cabinet, declared in 1995 that, despite the deliberate massacre of between 300,000 and 400,000 Chinese civilians:
[t]here was no intention of aggression. The white race had made Asia into a colony, but only Japan has been blamed. Who was the aggressor country? It was the white race. I don't see why Japanese are called militarists and aggressors.
A similar culture of deliberately misdirected language arose in Argentina during and after la guerra sucia ("dirty war"), in which as many as 30,000 Argentine citizens were murdered by right wing death squads. Far from being an ancillary product of political turmoil, disingenuous rhetoric was a deliberate, planned behavior by individuals who, for varying reasons, sought to minimize, justify, or deny the horrors of Argentina’s Dirty War. The comments of Admiral Emilio Massera underline this premeditated linguistic intent: “We know that in order to repair so much damage we must recover the meanings of so many embezzled words.”
Los desaparecidos ("the disappeared ones") received their respective fates at the hands of quasi-military operatives, whose actions were at least tolerated, if not actively encouraged, by the highest levels of the military junta that ruled Argentina from 1976-83. These individuals, understandably, necessarily approached any discussion of their activities with an element of self-preservation. The examples of the convicted Nazis in the Nuremberg trials likely lingered in the minds of these Dirty Warriors, and efforts by such persons to rewrite history should be understood within this context.
On its way out of office in 1983, the military junta released its Documento final de la junta military (Final Report), which sought to provide an official report on the past seven years of dictatorship-by-committee. The document contained the following quote that attempted to settle any lingering grievances over the kidnapping, rape, torture, and murder of Argentine citizens by announcing “genuine Christian pain over any errors [emphasis added] that may have been committed in the fulfillment of its assigned mission.”
The Final Report also broached the subject of the many thousands of los desaparecidos. The document’s authors asserted that the missing individuals were “living in exile”, “residing in Argentina with false identities”, or else they “should be considered dead, even when it is not possible to determine the date, place, or cause of death.” In an ominous note, General Videla intoned that many of these would be “absent forever.” Indeed, the Final Report took the art of obfuscation to new rhetorical heights, as vicious crimes were linguistically reduced to innocuous-sounding phrases.
Left: Montage of vicitms of Argentina's Dirty War
The very existence of the detention centers, which numbered some 340 during the years 1976-83 , was ignored by the outgoing junta in its assessment. The report simply ignored the detention, torture, and death of the thousands of arrested citizens. The generals erected a wall of silence in the form of the Final Report, seemingly arrogant in the face of outrageous abuses of human and civil rights.
The passage of time has not softened the rhetoric of those responsible for los desaparecidos. An unrepentant General Jorge Rafael Videla, former President during the Dirty War, emerged from prison following his 1990 pardon and made the following statement: “[w]e should be thanked for saving the Nation from chaos and the menace of subversion.” Frustrated at the demonstrations by victims and victims’ families that occurred during the twentieth anniversary of the reign of terror, Admiral Massera went on the offensive. He opined that “the so-called victims brought it on themselves.” One of the most brutal torturers, Julio Simón (also known as Julián the Turk), adamantly defended his actions: “What I did I did for my Fatherland, my faith, and my religion. Of course I would do it again.” He also defended the brutality of the camps with the following justification: “Look, torture is eternal. It has always existed and always will. It is an essential part of the human being.”
As architects, builders, and executors of the Dirty War, it is not surprising that those responsible have sought to reduce, refute, and rationalize their crimes against humanity. Avoidance of prosecution and retribution are powerful motivators. The motivations those whose hands are not stained with the blood of the victims and, yet, seek to engage in rhetorical distortion are more difficult to comprehend.
The next category of those who would misrepresent the realities of la guerra sucia I refer to as “the compliant;” that is, individuals who acknowledge historical reality but seek an end to its ability to influence the present. During and after the terror, many individuals acquiesced in the face of mounting evidence of horrific transgressions committed and justified under the guise of due obedience.
Leading this category is former Argentine President Carlos Menem, and a hint of his accommodating nature could be found in his inaugural speech, in which he said: “I hate to see even birds in cages.” Within the next twelve months, Menem would issue an executive order that pardoned hundreds of military officers who were still subject to prosecution for their Dirty War crimes, as well as a pardon that freed the convicted ex-commanders. Ever the pragmatist, Menem also pardoned purported leftist subversives; unfortunately, three of the “pardoned” were long dead, six already had cases dismissed by the courts, and four had already been released. In a moment of “balance” that strains credulity, Menem described his actions as seeking equilibrium between the “two demons” of la guerra sucia.
In a much-maligned speech during the twentieth anniversary of the coup, Menem continued to defend his decision to issue the pardons:
Events have proven me right [declared Menem in the March 24, 1996 speech]. I regret nothing. We had to pacify the country in order to transform it. We have definitely closed the wound.
Many officials of the Catholic Church have earned a place in the category of the compliant. Italian Cardinal and Papal Nuncio Pio Laghi was among those who were well-versed in the horrors of the military regime but chose to go along with a policy of accommodation. He chastised local priests following a special mass; in the words of one priest who witnessed the admonishment, “he said we were overly concerned with politics.
Left: Papal nuncio Cardinal Pio Laghi with Pope John Paul II
On the subject of the general repression, political prisoners, and disappearances, he was ambiguous…” A master of double discourse, Laghi “repeatedly denied ever having known anything about the inner workings of the repression,” even as other Church officials simultaneously “praised him for having saved people.”
Joining the Papal Nuncio in this group was Monsignor Emilio Grasselli, who was the secretary to the Military Chaplain. Grasselli compiled a list of some 2,500 victim names – in index card form – during the Dirty War. On this ecclesiastical list, the names of those known to be dead at the time were denoted with a cross next to the victim. Grasselli, however, acted as a sympathetic voice for the junta, as recounted here in the words of a family member:
He [Grasselli] told us that the young people [detainees] were in a rehabilitation program in houses that had been set up for that purpose and where they were being well treated…he told us that Videla was the charitable soul [emphasis added by Feitlowitz] who thought up this plan…he said the work was carried out with psychologists and sociologists, that there were medical teams to deal with their health, and that for those who could not be recuperated, it was possible that ‘some pious soul’ might give them an injection to make them sleep forever…
The compliant, as a group, might be considered to be utilitarian bureaucrats who see historical reality as an inconvenient roadblock to an orderly society. As political figures with substantial investment in the Argentine establishment, the warped rhetoric of Menem, Laghi, and Grasselli follows a certain crass, though lamentable, logic. The actions – and inactions – of those who refused to believe the increasingly obvious terror defies easy comprehension.
Many Argentines, both during and after the Dirty War, chose to live their lives in a state of blissful ignorance. As long as the terror did not directly affect them, or their loved ones, many citizens simply paid no attention to evidence of government-sponsored terrorism. The rhetoric of the “unseeing” is filled with such logical inconsistencies.
Of course, a certain proportion of the mass sightlessness can be attributed to the government, which labored to induce social anesthesia. Acting as the junta mouthpiece, La Prensa issued the following proclamation under the headline of “Activity All Over the Country Is Normal”:
Yesterday was another day of absolute tranquility in the interior of the country…business and industry, as well as urban and suburban transportation, were normal. By the afternoon, more people could be seen downtown, shopping and carrying out their usual activities in provincial administrative offices, which also functioned normally…
Like the Ozzian Wizard, the junta deftly attempted to direct the public’s gaze away from what was painfully apparent: Argentine citizens, en masse, were disappearing.
Some of the unseeing were frightened into blindness, as “seeing” could become one’s ticket to a detention center. El silencio es salud – “silence is health” - became a wry commentary on life in day-to-day Argentina. In the words of Soledad B., an Argentine interviewed by Marguerite Feitlowitz, “you got to a point where you didn’t dare to direct your gaze, you were no longer able to focus.” The escalating violence itself became the numbing agent desired by the government.
Other Argentines seemed to force themselves into denying that which they had witnessed, almost as if they engaged in a willful suppression of the truth. Feitlowitz interviewed a resident of Villa Devoto named Suki M., who initially stated: “Us? We knew nothing. Nothing!” The professional party-planner claimed no knowledge of the brutal repression that occurred mere blocks from her house.
Left: Tumba colectiva ("mass grave") of Argentine dead
The conversation, however, suddenly took a strange twist, as Suki suddenly began to describe the kidnapping of a young woman. While dropping off an invitation order at a printer, she witnessed “two men shoving her, stuffing her –oof! – into a car.” Suki continued: “Even now, you have to wonder. Did it happen? Can it be?” Pressed for further details by Feitlowitz, Suki seemed to switch to a willful denial of her newly-uttered words: “No. We knew nothing. Even now.”
Whether to deny, mitigate, or excuse the realities of the Dirty War, individuals have employed – and continue to employ – a calculated language of distortion towards the era of los desaparecidos. Denial of historical reality, however, provides the gainsayer scant fortification, as John Locke asserted:
The ignorance and darkness that is in us, no more hinders nor confines the knowledge that is in others, than the blindness of a mole is an argument against the quicksightedness of an eagle.
This is an as-yet unpublished essay that was inspired by the excellent book A Lexicon of Terror by Marguerite Feitlowitz (1998).