Canadian Journal of Sociology Online January - February 2000

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Patricia Marchak, in collaboration with William Marchak.
God’s Assassins: State Terrorism in Argentina in the 1970s.
Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999, 393 pp. $39.25 cloth (0773520139)

God’s Assassins: State Terrorism in Argentina in the 1970s
is, in the authors’ own words, an attempt “to explore the nature of state terrorism and its impact on a population, and, in the process, to identify the structural origins and proximate causes of the events.” This is a timely book given that Argentine judges have recently arrested several leaders of the past dictatorship and Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzón (who has been prosecuting General Pinochet) has ordered extradition procedures for 48 Argentine military and policemen, charging them with genocide, terrorism, and torture.

Patricia Marchak, in collaboration with William Marchak, adopts the definition of state terrorism that was developed by Hannah Arendt from her work on the Nazi regime in Germany. According to this definition terrorism is an instrument designed to terrify people, not simply to eliminate political opponents. The authors wisely state that state terrorism is a process, not just an event, and that the process begins when a majority of the population believes that the state’s actions are necessary to bring stability and order to the society. Eventually, however, as they point out, the net of intelligence services developed by the state grows and becomes fully functional, any kind of criticism becomes suspicious, and state terrorism victimizes more and more people. Anybody can become a target, and this unpredictability creates fear and paralyzes the population. In the case of Argentina the methodology of terror applied from 1976 to 1983 by the military juntas involved the kidnapping, torture, and murder of so-called “subversives” which included practically anybody who did not agree with the military. Human rights organizations estimate that the number of disappeared is about 30,000.

The book’s introduction provides historical background to the emergence of state terrorism in Argentina. The structure of the book is interesting and it makes for engaging reading: the author’s views are interspersed with interviews with Argentines who lived under the military regime and report on their experiences. The authors interviewed 118 people (75 men and 43 women) twenty years after the coup, and about fifty of these interviews are quoted. The majority of the interviewees had been between the ages of 16 and 30 in 1975. This is significant because, as the authors point out, 81% of the disappeared in Argentina were in this age group and their experiences are particularly relevant to understand the impact of the repression.

The interviews provide a relatively inclusive look at the life of the population living under the repression. Particularly interesting are the interviews with people who have, up to now, received scant attention from researchers in the field: interviews with prisoners held at the will of the President; relatives of the disappeared in Tucumán province, where the military experimented with state terrorism even before the 1976 coup; and military dissidents who opposed their fellow officers. These provide an important addition to the literature on Argentina’s reign of terror. It would have strengthened the book if the authors had included interviews with members of the financial and economic elite as well.

In order to address the topic of the structural origin of state terrorism the authors discuss in detail the relationship between neoliberalism and the military. José A. Martínez de Hoz, a civilian and a member of the oligarchy, was the regime’s minister of economy for the first four years. He put in place a set of neoliberal policies: he pushed for an end to the economic power of the state, ended subsidies and tariff controls, regulated exchange rates, and pursued foreign investments. He also increased the defense budget and raised military wages, while in the general population incomes fell, and unemployment and inflation rose. He targeted the unions with particular virulence and tried to limit them and destroy their power. The authors ask whether the junta chose him because of his plan to restructure the economy or because of his strong opposition to socialism. The question, simply put, is did state terrorism emerge in order to restructure the Argentine economy, destroy those opposed to the restructuring, and impose a market ideology? If not, what are some other plausible explanations about the origins of state terror?

The authors propose four possible explanations for the origins of state terrorism: 1) the military launched a “holy war” to eliminate the guerrillas and all traces of Marxist ideology; 2) state terrorism was necessary for the restructuring of the economy; 3) external forces (the US, France) used Argentina as a testing ground for the Third World War and 4) there was an “intraclass power struggle” in the middle class, and that internal struggle started the violence that led to state terrorism. According to the authors, the middle class included the military, the Catholic Church, professionals, small businesses, union bureaucrats, academics, and public service employees. They argue that the military won that struggle by imposing state terrorism. The authors lean toward the fourth explanation as the most plausible. They base their opinion on their assessment of the military as highly autonomous, and the leaders of the financial, industrial and business world as not participating actively in politics and without a coherent set of either short-term or long term interests. Thus, they do not think that the financial elite was behind state terrorism. They see the “ideological leaders of unions, universities, church and the military” as the ones sharing the stage and struggling for control of the state. An option they do not consider, that I think however can also be argued, as other authors have done, is that the methodology of terror and the economic policies of the regime were inseparable and complementary, instead of trying to look for “first” causes or a single explanation. One could propose that it was not necessary for the financial elite to be “behind” the military, but that the two groups were locked together, enhancing each other’s survival and power. Also, I think it would have been helpful if after mentioning the four possible explanations of the origin of state terrorism the authors created a wider and more integrated picture of “origins” that included elements of the various views.

In spite of the extensive research that went into the book I found some errors that left me wondering about its overall accuracy. For example, on page 298, the authors state that “the CONADEP estimated a death toll of some 30,000 people.” The CONADEP (National Commission on Disappeared People) estimate of disappeared people (the Commission did not estimate deaths, only disappearances) is about 9,000. Also, on page 311, the name of the prosecutor of the commanders should be Strassera (not Estraceda). Finally, the authors have some harsh words at the end of the book about young people in Argentina, for example: “Consumerism, not politics, is their passion; and consumption, not citizenship, motivates them.” By their own admission, the authors have not carried out systematic interviews with people below 35 years of age, so these views are, at best, impressionistic. Also, this judgment does not acknowledge the conspiracy of silence that has permeated Argentine society during the era these young people were growing up. In my own research, while working on my book on the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo (Searching for Life: The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo and the Disappeared Children of Argentina, University of California Press, 1999), I met many young people who had not been personally affected by the repression but who volunteer their time and energy in several human rights organizations.

In spite of these shortcomings, this book is a provocative and engaging study on state terrorism in Argentina and as such it can open up new venues for discussion and analysis.

Rita Arditti
Union Institute
January 2000
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