That Inferno

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That Inferno: Conversations of Five Women Survivors of an Argentine Torture Camp. Foreword by Tina Rosenberg. (Vanderbilt University Press, 2006).

Thirty years ago rightwing Argentine admirals and generals rebelled against their legally elected government. From 1976 to 1983, while most of the world looked away, they began their "dirty war" against the country’s dissidents and leftists, descriptions often broadly and vaguely defined.

That Inferno, a book of "conversations" with five female survivors of the infamous Mechanics School of the Argentine Navy — a torture center — calls on us to try to remember what was done to them and their country — not to mention other Latin and Central American countries then under the sway of assassins and criminals. Having suffered excruciating tortures (one women said "they didn’t kill women, but they executed our husbands") they recall a time when they and tens of thousands were killed, tortured, thrown out of planes (they were dubbed "fish food"), raped, and babies of imprisoned women handed over to childless pro-regime couples. After the Junta’s botched military campaign (backed, incredulously, by a majority of still nationalistic Argentineans) to capture the Falkland/Malvinas from the British, a war in which they and their largely conscript armed forces were soundly thrashed, the women and other prisoners were released but often found themselves unable to function "normally," reliving their nightmare over and again.

In his prologue, Leon Rozitchner, an Argentinean intellectual and activist, points out that these crimes against humanity "would not have been possible without the training received in the U.S. and European intelligence schools and war colleges and without the support of the powerful Catholic Church and economic interests linked to national dominance and imperialism."

Other institutions were just as silent, and by their silence, supportive of the Junta. Marguerite Feitlowitz’s seminal A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture discusses the absence of protest by Argentina’s organized Jewish community. Two percent of the population and ten percent of the "disappeared" were Jewish as was a high percentage of the courageous Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. The lesson: Silence always results in acquiescence.

Jimmy Carter was mocked by American right-wingers for trying to counter the Junta’s murderers when he halted the sale of weapons. He also became the first modern American President to actually believe in and practice the defense of human rights. But when Ronald Reagan entered the White House human rights in Argentina and anywhere else was derided as liberal claptrap (except in Communist states) and arms sales to Argentina were resumed.

Yet Reagan’s policies were more in accord with traditional U.S. foreign policy than Carter’s. Throughout the Twentieth Century the U.S. has always been willing to accept Latin and Central American despots, killers and its wealthy ruling elites.

Perhaps those who torture and murder their opponents will one day be tried in a court of law. Argentine President Nestor Kirchner told his people he would carry out his duties "without rancor but with memory." Memory is crucial as victims of the Gulag, the Holocaust and other atrocities have learned. Future generations need to know what horrors were carried out in their names.

Murray Polner [send him mail] co-authored Disarmed and Dangerous, a biography of Daniel and Philip Berrigan and wrote No Victory Parades: The Return of the Vietnam Veteran. This article originally appeared on the History News Network.

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