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01/08/2006 | Book Review: Political Violence and Trauma in Argentina

Martin Edwin Andersen

Antonius C. G. M. Robben. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. 467 pp.

 

Contemporary analyses of the—at times monstrous—fratricide that wracked Argentine politics for half a century generally fall into two categories. The first mirror an author’s own personal preferences and social commitments, injecting the personal “I” into the ordering of recollections, facts and theories that are mustered to explain, for example, how as many as 30,000 people, including hundreds of elderly and children under 16, were secretly abducted, tortured and killed by the Argentine military during the 1970s and early 1980s. The second category substitutes the “I” with the “Eye,” meticulously providing new information, insight and careful synthesis to an already much-studied topic.

Political Violence and Trauma in Argentina straddles these two approaches. Antonius C.G.M. Robben convincingly challenges conventional wisdom that violence alone engenders more, and often more vicious violence, arguing that social trauma played a mediating role, aggravating the downward spiral into mass murder of what was once called the most “civilized” country in Latin America. Unfortunately, the book—whose dust jacket boasts of “combining history and anthropology”—itself does some violence to the former, while making real, important contributions to understanding how the repeated traumatization of political adversaries helped create a counterinsurgency strategy and a military regime whose methodology was, as Robben notes, “inadmissible by any moral standard, and especially by the Western values they claimed to defend.”

Robben is at his strongest in addressing the group dynamics of Argentine civilian and military politics. He convincingly relates how, after the ascension of Juan Peron to power in the 1940s, both the myth and reality that grew up around the role of street crowds as a bellweather of Argentine politics, ended up contributing to the Peronist versus Peronist vortex that ripped apart the strongman’s last presidency in 1973-1974. The harsh military repression of Peron’s followers after his overthrow in 1955, as well as the exiled lider’s own violent rhetoric, are correctly portrayed in the book as stoking a culture of grievance borne out of individual and group traumas. As a result, Argentina’s most important political force moved into shadowy resistance in which mass politics was replaced by subterranean political warfare that included anti-regime sabotage and other violence. However, after more than a decade of military rule and elected minority governments, previously antagonistic working class, middle class and university sectors pushed politics back into the street, traumatizing the military with not only the specter of Peron’s return, but also of growing armed resistance.

Robben ably depicts how the decades of military rule and repression, political disenfranchisement, revenge killings, armed combat and state terror irrevocably changed Argentine society. “The mediation of massive violence by social trauma explains why state terror brought the increasing political violence to a halt in the late 1970s,” Robben writes. “The spiral of violence burned itself out because one party out-traumatized the other … The guerrilla forces had been decimated and demoralized, while the political opposition became paralyzed by military repression.”

Unfortunately, the book is marred by occasionally sloppy footnotes, a repeated reliance on assertions made by questionable sources, and internally inconsistent renditions of the same historical events. For example, Robben conclusively claims, offering the slimmest proof, that then leftwing Peronist social critic and author Rodolfo Walsh was one of five commandos who assassinated Peronist labor leader Augusto Vandor in 1969. He places the date of merger of “all” of the Peronist leftwing guerrilla groups with the fast-radicalizing Montoneros was placed at “the beginning of 1973” (p. 115), while the date of the fusion of by far the most important of these, the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR), was later correctly given as October 1973 (pp.119, 134). The crushing defeat of the Marxist Peoples’ Revolutionary Army (ERP) in December 1975 did not, “in any direct sense mark the ERP’s military defeat” (p. 156), Robben writes, while claiming that both the ERP and the Montoneros “had been largely defeated by early 1976” (p. 173). Similarly, the state intelligence agency, SIDE, was incorrectly described as the “army intelligence service” (p. 196).

Robben also makes an artificial distinction between police and military practice on torture, saying that the former’s six-decade-long use of torture accounts for the fact that most secret detention centers during the 1976-1983 “dirty war” were located on “police premises” (p.216). Until 1983 and the return of democracy, Argentine police were almost always under the command and control of the armed forces; by far the two largest concentration camps—the ESMA and La Perla—were run by the military.

The multiple errors make Robben’s work a thought provoking and important, but not an authoritative, read. 

American Anthropologist (Estados Unidos)

 



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