DOSSIER SECRETO Argentina's Desaparecidos and the Myth of the "Dirty War." By Martin Edwin Andersen. Illustrated. 412 pp. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press. Cloth, $59. Paper, $17.95.
May 9, 1993
When Raul Alfonsin was elected president of Argentina in 1983, marking the return of democracy after years of military dictatorship, he created a commission headed by the Argentine writer Ernesto Sabato and charged it with producing a comprehensive record of the atrocities committed by the military during the years from 1975 to 1979, the most intense period of the infamous "dirty war." Titled "Nunca Mas" ("Never Again"), the commission report compiled horrifying evidence of some 9,000 "disappeared" persons.
Most experts agree that thousands more were victims of arbitrary arrest, detention and torture. Martin Edwin Andersen's "Dossier Secreto" is a sort of "Nunca Mas" with a thesis. Like the Argentine report, this book by a former Argentine-based reporter for Newsweek and The Washington Post chronicles one of the grimmest chapters in Latin America's history, a tragedy that went on for years while the world averted its gaze.
Mr. Andersen, now a consultant to the Justice Department on international justice issues, argues not only that the repressive methods used by the armed forces were unconscionable by any standard of conduct, but also that there was never a threat requiring anything remotely resembling a war, dirty or otherwise. Yet the Argentine military claimed to be fighting the first battles of World War III.
As early as 1962, Mr. Andersen shows, the military gave advance notice that it was girding for combat. In a report to foreign military representatives that was dressed up in cold war rhetoric, it declared: "Counter revolutionary warfare is mainly intended to prevent mass contamination of the people and to prevent the seizure of basic organizations of the country by Marxist ideologists and their agents.
The purpose of this counterrevolutionary warfare is to preserve the national ideological sovereignty. . . . Sometimes the combination of certain factors may call for the timely intervention of a surgeon to eradicate the evil before the body becomes too weak and is totally diseased."
Mr. Andersen's thesis is that the military, in order to justify a sweeping purge of all elements of Argentine society that it deemed suspect, infiltrated one of the guerrilla groups, the Montoneros, and manipulated it, even bombing and murdering in its name, exaggerating what was in fact a tiny subversive movement.
Though the guerrillas by mid-1976 had been devastated, the military made them appear a continuing threat so that it could prolong its repression. Mr. Andersen's dogged reporting has unearthed dozens of examples of the lengths to which the guardians of order were willing to go to perpetuate their hoax, such as calling for a strike under the Montoneros' name and then brutally squelching it.
The book's treatment of the dirty war is a tour de force, indicting a military run amok. It had convinced itself that students, teachers, clergymen, unionists and intellectuals were the country's mortal enemies. Mr. Andersen also calls into question the United States Government's role in Argentina during this time.
The most shocking charge in "Dossier Secreto" is that the military's infiltration extended to the top Montonero leader, Mario Firmenich, who, the author says, was a double agent actively aiding the military's Machiavellian plan, even sending his own comrades into ambushes and to certain capture and death.
Mr. Andersen first made this claim in a March 1989 article in The Nation. Here, he adds supporting evidence of Mr. Firmenich's duplicity. But it is troubling that the identification of Mr. Firmenich as a double agent comes from a single source, a retired Central Intelligence Agency station chief posted to Buenos Aires and identified only as "Sam."
At one point, Mr. Andersen tells us in a footnote that he has provided two letters by Sam to the book's publisher confirming Mr. Firmenich's role. This does not help the reader to weigh the truth of the allegation.
Of course, one difficulty in an instance such as this arises from the restrictions the C.I.A. places on its former employees. But in the same footnote an Argentine source gives only weak confirmation of Sam's claim, saying: "It's possible . . . it might have. . . . I can't say, but I'm convinced of one thing -- they did each other favors."
Mr. Andersen's research produces a strong presumption of duplicity on Mr. Firmenich's part. Unfortunately, Mr. Firmenich refused to be interviewed for this book. The author does point out that Mr. Firmenich was a nationalist and a Peronist, and many of his targets were members of the Marxist People's Revolutionary Army.
So it is indeed plausible that he could have been a willing accomplice of the Argentine armed forces in their war against the left. About half of "Dossier Secreto" chronicles the decades before the 1970's, when the armed forces practiced and refined the techniques that they would use to wage their dirty war.
This long prologue somewhat dilutes the central drama of Mr. Firmenich and the Montoneros' manipulation. More important, missing from this account of the growing chaos is a clear acknowledgment that the society itself was breaking down. This was not simply a case of cowed but decent folk falling into the hands of neofascists and neo-Nazis; a wide array of groups, right and left, had embraced violence.
Mr. Andersen recounts but does not explore one of the most violent incidents, Juan Peron's 1973 homecoming at Ezeiza airport after 17 years of exile, when Peronist thugs of the right set upon poorly armed Peronists of the left. Such anarchy is crucial to explain, though obviously it does not excuse, how the military came to step in so that it could impose order at any cost. Even though violence of the right and the systematic bloodbath of the military went on for years, taking a far higher toll than the blood spilled by the left, the societal breakdown was evident before the generals stepped in.
Curiously, Mr. Andersen lays very little responsibility for that breakdown at Peron's doorstep. Peron remains opaque in this book -- Mr. Andersen seems content simply to brand him an opportunist -- yet he clearly fostered the anarchy and the eventual military crackdown by encouraging guerrilla activity and radicalism while courting the right. By playing one side off against the other, he ultimately left the door open to the dirty war.
"Dossier Secreto" is not a work to be shelved with historical military studies. It documents the depths to which apparently civilized societies can sink. It calls into question the wisdom of the 1990 presidential pardons of the dirty war's perpetrators and of Mario Firmenich. And as messianic military men resurrect their appeal in Venezuela and elsewhere, it forces us to confront the crucial questions of why such madness occurs and whether it might occur again.
Linda Robinson is the Latin America correspondent for U.S. News & World Report.