Military families and political violence in 1970s Argentina

Eleonora Natale

Military populations embody a striking contradiction: on the one hand, they are bound by strict humanitarian standards while undertaking missions and drills; on the other, they are capable of committing horrendous crimes while performing their duties.

Most scholars in social sciences and international relations either evade this contradiction or adopt harsh moral stances when researching the military. In doing so, they tend to neglect the perspectives of soldiers on the ground, including their approach to the use and abuse of military force, its meanings and consequences, both at home and in international operations. My PhD addressed this important but often neglected issue by researching the Argentine military’s standpoint on widespread repression perpetrated during the last dictatorship in Argentina 1976–83.

A burdened past

On 24 March 2021, Argentina commemorated the 45 years since the military took power for the last time in 1976. The regime known as Proceso de Reorganización Nacional waged a ‘dirty war’ against left-wing ‘subversion’. Through operations of counterinsurgency and state terrorism, the military killed or displaced thousands of revolutionary guerrillas and civilians. Four decades later, the Argentine authorities managed to convict 1,025 people for crimes perpetrated by the dictatorship, including hundreds of former military officers. Since 2005, the ongoing trials for crimes against humanity have provided some closure to victims and their relatives, making Argentina an example of successful transitional justice in the world.

With most Argentines in favour of the trials, the military have become a socially ostracized group. Accused, detained and in many cases convicted to severe sentences, they are often seen by fellow Argentines as ‘monsters’, a label widely used by the media. Moreover, they are approached by social scientists almost exclusively as ‘perpetrators’, a category grounded in the juridical and moral universe of humanitarian law.

While this interpretation aligns with the agenda of human rights organisations, who had a crucial role in the quest for justice since the days of the dictatorship, it also impedes the production of more holistic studies on the military of that period. By neglecting their standpoint on the events that preceded and followed the ‘dirty war’, dominant approaches fall short in explaining how and why State violence happened in the first place.

The military family

I drew on social anthropology to adopt an alternative perspective which challenges facile assumptions and social sentiments that may affect studies on the Argentine military. In particular, my approach looked at the Argentine military as a community made of families. Furthermore, adopting ethnographic methods enabled me to observe and describe the world of the military from the point of view of its members. I interviewed former officers of the regime, their wives and adult children to understand how they remember the years of political violence; and I asked them about the current trials, to explore how they live within a society that condemns them.

My study demonstrated the heterogeneous character of the military, and the extent to which they share views and experiences with other social groups. It explored the subjectivities of non-combatants, such as the wives and children of officers, who were nevertheless involved in the militarisation of the 1970s in different, unexpected ways.

In doing so, my research made the military’s experiences of violence and transitional justice intelligible. I was able to show what it meant to be a young officer or a military spouse during the dictatorship, and what that condition means for military families living in democratic Argentina today, especially since the opening of the trials in 2005.

The ethnographic approach and the focus on the family allowed me to explore how military force was understood, implemented and represented by military actors within the context of ideological confrontation of the 1970s. It showed how violence was normalised and became part of everyday life for many Argentines, including military families. For example, although former officers did not disclose the details of the operations in which they were involved, their wives got to know political violence quite closely, as military families were targets of revolutionary armed organisations especially in the years immediately preceding the coup. One of the women I interviewed said:

[The guerrillas] used to follow me. They used to phone and say, ‘Are you sure your children are at school?’ Our military friends, their wives used to carry a gun in their bag, but I never wanted to. [Because] if there are kids around you, they can be killed too.

My work also emphasised how these groups saw violence as a military but also as a social phenomenon, in which several factors — gender, generation, class, education — were crucial. For example, social circles were defined by people’s ideological sympathies and therefore attitudes to violence, especially among the youth. Junior military officers and their wives were part of that youth. They understood violence through their occupation — it was the military’s job to defeat a subversive enemy — but also through their experience as professionals, students, parents and young people who had seen violence become the main way to solve political disputes during the 1960s and 1970s. As a former officer explained:

I joined the Army in the 1970s because it was an internal conflict, with gunshots and bombs. In that situation, which 18 years-old man wouldn’t want to take side for one faction or the other?

Finally, by retracing the dynamics of social life in the military world, my research showed how military families have adapted to their condition of condemned actors in post-dictatorship Argentine society, using the same mechanisms of mutual support that they created throughout their life in the Army.

A different perspective on militarization

Including and understanding the perspectives of military personnel and their families on the use of military force goes beyond the study of authoritarian regimes in South America. Although crimes perpetrated by a military in power can never be diminished, ‘humanizing’ the military — for example by bringing in the perspective of families — may provide new insights into how these crimes are perpetrated, as well as increasing our understanding of the use of military force and the question of responsibility and accountability, within and beyond active duty.

We as researchers, need to remain open to acknowledge and problematise not only the data we gather from military populations, but also our own assumptions about them, in order to produce new critical knowledge on violence and the military in a variety of contexts.

Eleonora Natale is a Lecturer in international history and member of the Centre for Grand Strategy at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London.

The Bulletin of Latin American Research will soon publish her next paper ‘Researching violence and everyday life in the 1970s: an ethnographic approach to the Argentine military family’.

New Voices in Global Security is a collaborative blog series between the School of Security Studies, King’s College London, and International Affairs. Drawing on cutting edge research, the blog series highlights diverse empirical, methodological and theoretical approaches to understanding global security and engages with questions of equality, diversity and inclusion within the discipline. Contributions are based on the New Voices event series — organized and chaired by Dr Amanda Chisholm, School Equality, Diversity and Inclusion lead — which promotes the research of PhD students and Early Career Researchers (ECRs) working both within and beyond the School of Security Studies.

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