In the United States and across much of the Anglophone world, the term “dirty war” has become a mainstream label to describe the years of dictatorship in Argentina between 1976 and 1983. From the White House to the academy to the international press, the term has been picked up as a political shorthand for those dark years when state repression, kidnapping, and all manner of human rights abuses were used by the state to maintain its military-backed power.
But to what extent is the term “dirty war” an accurate one? To what extent is it neutral? With the implication of having two warring sides, each attacking the other with, if not equal force, then at least some comparable strength, the term implies a very different power dynamic than that which existed during the years of Argentina’s dictatorship. Sometimes extended to describe other violent regimes in the Southern Cone as well, the term distorts the truth of South American history more broadly, even if some may use the term naively. Understanding the history of the term “dirty war,” and the ideological and political positions that underpin it, will help us to discard it altogether and reach for language that better describes the one-sided murderousness of the regime that took power by coup in 1976.
War, What War?
It is historically inaccurate to describe the years of dictatorship in Argentina as a dirty war. There were no two sides vying for control over territory, nor was there a professional army (hidden or not) to rival the state’s forces, be they the official armed forces, the police, or various paramilitary formations.
Political violence was certainly a regular feature of the Argentine landscape since the early 1970s. Before the coup of 1976, there were left-wing guerrilla movements such as Montoneros and the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo, and right-wing paramilitary organizations like the Alianza Anticomunista Argentina. However, the coup inaugurated a new era of systematic and unchallenged violence that left little space for these movements.
Left-wing guerrilla groups had no chance to seriously match the might of state forces. The armed capacity of revolutionary resistance was never able to successfully or continuously confront state violence, and they certainly did not use repressive tactics. As Daniel Feierstein and Eduardo Duhalde have shown, the guerrilla activity that characterized the years before the dictatorship was rapidly smashed by the state. A few months after the coup, the leaders of these organizations were dead, disappeared, or exiled. The political terror lasted until 1983.
We can only understand the term “dirty war” within the greater context of the Cold War, and the American fight against communism more broadly. The US doctrine of national security identified what it saw as internal security threats facing each country in Latin America. Through specific training programs for local armed forces, the US military taught torture and counterinsurgency techniques destined to fight against what was seen as communism and to destroy internal enemies.
But the political repression in Latin America went far beyond these declared objectives. Members of left parties and trade unions, as well as Jews, homosexuals, and many others seen as not conforming to the Catholic conservative view, were labeled “subversives” or even war enemies — a designation that wrongly suggests that these political activists and mobilized citizens were warriors bearing arms.
This war rhetoric hid the political and social goals of the military junta. Adopting a broader scope, the dictatorships of the Southern Cone all worked to dismantle the welfare states that had been recently built up and, with it, smash the labor unions. As neoliberalism settled in under the terror of the armed forces, any trace of resistance was silenced. As Federico Lorenz reminds us, we tend to think of the disappeared as young Che Guevaras of sorts. In reality, most of them were workers and unionists.
Tracing the Origins
According to its most widespread definition, during a dirty war, the state employs all of its resources to fight against an elusive and hidden enemy. It is not a conventional war because there are no open battles — the state needs to perform a reticular search when looking for its enemies. Importantly, the enemies of the state are armed and covertly active; as a consequence, kidnapping, torture, rape, and clandestine detention centers are, so goes the narrative, required. The rules of warfare seem to mutate when it comes to eradicating a clandestine opponent.
It is according to these mutating rules that the Argentine military defended their own performance during the dictatorship. In a crusade against those who aimed to subvert the Catholic and traditional lifestyle of the country, the junta proclaimed that they were fighting against a slippery and internal enemy. As James Brennan has shown, the term “dirty war” was favored by the military itself in the last stages of the dictatorship, and was first used in a press conference by General Reynaldo Bignone, head of the last military junta between 1982 and 1983.
The junta’s use of the term is no accident. The term “dirty war” deliberately invokes another campaign of counterinsurgency, specifically by the French in Algeria. Indeed, many Argentine military personnel had been trained in counterinsurgency tactics by French intelligence agents. By referring to the dictatorship years as a dirty war the junta claimed to link its battle with that of the French, ultimately seeking legitimation from their European counterparts.
The term “dirty war” is concocted by precisely those figures who perpetrated the crimes during Argentina’s dictatorship. Why do so many use it uncritically today? It is similar to talking about the “Middle Passage” to describe the transatlantic slave trade.
Re-Centering the State Responsibility
In December 1983, two months after the fall of the dictatorship and the transition to democracy, then-President Raúl Alfonsín established the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (CONADEP for its Spanish acronym). After a thorough investigation, that commission published the Nunca Más (Never Again) report, which contained testimonies of torture, kidnapping, disappearances, and other human rights violations during the dictatorship. Its prologue, written by the famous Argentine writer Ernesto Sábato, stated that “during the 1970s, Argentina was torn by terror from both the extreme right and the far left.”
Such words opened the door for a debate still with us today. Many have accused the Nunca Más report of fostering the so-called theory of the two demons, which pins responsibility for human rights violations on both state forces and local guerrilla groups. In 2006, in an effort to address this misrepresentation, and under the Peronist administration of Néstor Kirchner, this prologue was rewritten in a new version of the report. Significantly, in the 2016 presidency of Mauricio Macri, the original prologue was restored.
The term “dirty war” carries this baggage with it today. It is deeply offensive to those victims and their families who suffered — many of whom are still alive. To refer to it is, consciously or not, to align with a right-wing reading of history that seeks to diffuse responsibility for the violence of the dictatorship, and to justify the widespread torture and disappearances that characterized the era.
How do we more accurately name the period that Argentina’s right designates with “dirty war”? Latin American scholars and human rights workers are looking for a better term, and many have argued that “genocide” would be more accurate due to its emphasis on the extermination of a targeted part of the population. Others have focused on the precise features of authoritarian states, proposing terms such as “parallel state” to highlight their illegal use of repression, or “national security state” to underline their ideological origins.
The concept of state terrorism might be the most accurate due to its emphasis on both aims and methods. The term clearly signals the state’s agency for using illegal practices to spread terror among the population 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 terms like “dirty war” cannot be used innocently. There was no war; there was only persecution, torture, disappearance, and extermination. We cannot echo the junta’s language and we cannot reproduce its narrative.