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How Does One Win a Lost War? Oral History and Political Memories

Abstract and Keywords

This article refers to the Malvian Wars to analyze how political memories are embedded in oral history. It provides a broader look at political memories as historical constructions, and a reflection on the place of historians in disputes over the past. All memories are political, but not all memories affect politics. In some cases, this is because they have been silenced, and in others because they remain in the individual sphere, and consequently are forgotten and disappear when their bearers die. Talking to others about their political memories can leads to conscious efforts to intervene in disputes over the past as a way of impacting upon the present. This article also tries to analyze the memories associated with dictatorship with special reference to political upheavals in Argentina. Memories of the Malvian wars are vividly captured in this article, and this is followed by a discussion on the idea of patriotic wars. An explanation about the place and importance of historians against this backdrop concludes this article.

Keywords: Malvian wars, political memories, oral history, historical constructions

And have we done with War at last?

—Robert Graves, Two Fusiliers

How do memories of the Malvinas War fit with the memories of the Argentine military dictatorship? What revisions—in terms of the defeat and revelations of human rights violations—have those memories imposed on the republican patriotic cult that prevailed in Argentina even during the dictatorship? To what extent are those memories still functional for those sectors of society that uphold the role of the armed forces during the last military dictatorship? A system of values and beliefs, anchored in the idea of the nation and its symbols, was shared by dictatorial and democratic regimes alike, by revolutionary movements and established parties. Such ambiguity has allowed individuals responsible for crimes against humanity to remain unpunished, protected by the idea that they rendered services or fulfilled duties on behalf of the fatherland. Through oral history, an analysis of the memories of the Malvinas War, within the context of the military dictatorship and post-dictatorship in Argentina, provides a broader look at political memories as historical constructions, and a reflection on the place of historians in disputes over the past.

(p. 125) The Malvinas Islands, situated near the southernmost point of South America, were occupied by force by Great Britain in 1833, after which their recovery became one of the strongest and most constant symbolical elements in Argentine political culture. Between April 2 and June 14, 1982, Argentina went to war with Great Britain over the Malvinas Islands, which the British call the Falklands. Seizing the historical claim shared by thousands of Argentines, the military junta, which had been in power since a coup d'état in 1976, planned and ordered a deployment of troops to recover the islands for Argentine sovereignty. Having grown unpopular due to the economic crisis and accusations of human rights violations, military leaders received wide acclaim for their action in the Malvinas. However, the national consensus was as short-lived as the Argentine presence on the islands and lasted merely two-and-a-half-months, and it ended with their re-conquest by British troops after a brief yet bloody war.

Despite its short duration, the war had a profound impact on Argentina. It accelerated the fall of the bloodiest military regime in the nation's history, which had accounted for somewhere between 14,000 and 30,000 murders and disappearances in the years from 1976 to 1983. After ending in a catastrophic surrender, the war had wounded the national pride in a manner that determined the timing and particular features of the Argentine armed forces' withdrawal from power. This in turn had an impact on the historic narratives that were spun to explain not only the war but also the dictatorship and the return to democratic rule.

Like other collective catastrophes, wars give rise to a dialog between the state and its inhabitants regarding social identity and their idea of nationhood. Even when wars lead to victory, the costs can be traumatic, as in the case of World War I for France. Armed conflict redefines relationships among individuals and between them and their communities.

Defeat heightens this tension, and the failed Malvinas War left Argentine society at such a crossroads. Added to the defeat was the fact that the same armed forces that had failed at Malvinas were responsible for massacring their own people through state terrorism. The defeat brought significant discredit to the armed forces (for many people “they had failed in their specific function”). There was a loss of both the fear and respect they had instilled, encouraging more to come forward with accusations of their crimes. The atrocities committed during the so-called Process of National Reorganization came to light massively. In addition to news of clandestine mass graves and testimonies of human rights violations, the surviving draftees who had fought in the war returned as firsthand witnesses to the abrupt military failure in the South Atlantic. Thus began a period of acute political conflict in which oral testimony has played a role.1

Memory and Politics

All memories are political, but not all memories affect politics. In some cases, this is because they have been silenced, and in others because they remain in the individual sphere, and consequently are forgotten and disappear when their bearers (p. 126) die. Talking to others about their political memories can leads to conscious efforts to intervene in disputes over the past as a way of impacting upon the present. If we remember that memory, aside from being a subject of study, is essentially a recalling exercise; we can differentiate two core elements for understanding it as a historical phenomenon. First, memory directly connects the past and present. The questions we ask of the past derive from our present standpoint. That makes memory, secondly, a “dimension of political practice.”2 Exploring the political nature of memories requires us to reflect on the “operative nature of the relationship with the past.”3 That relationship—established by social players who sustain specific demands and projects—continually debates past memory of operations that sought to consolidate a given political circumstance and to lay the foundation for an imagined future. In this framework, the notion of political memory restores our responsibility for writing history in order to overturn present circumstances of domination, based on a criticism of accounts of past events, which reflect political struggles featuring vanquishers and vanquished. “While the relationship between the past and the present is based on silence, concealment, compartmentalization,” writes Jean Chesneaux, “that which goes unsaid, the inverse relationship, between the present and the past, must be explicit, voiced in broad daylight, and, therefore, politicized.”4

This politicization involves memory entrepreneurs, different social players who mobilize their energies toward a given cause, in this case anchored in memory.5 Undoubtedly, the state apparatus, as well as nongovernmental organizations and social movements, is an agent of political ideas designed to manipulate the past. Dominique Schnapper calls them “political administrators of memory.”6 Historians and oral historians can also become memory entrepreneurs, in their role as makers of the great national narratives. Finally, the confrontations between memories of the past imply decisions to retain and forget historical processes and events, and in some extreme cases, even the human beings that embody those memories.

Memories of the Dictatorship

The first step in social processing of the reality of the Argentine massacre was the dissemination of facts about the crimes committed. It was imperative to find out and make known what had happened, and the forms the horror had taken on. These quandaries emerged forcefully in the public opinion in the latter half of 1982, and laid the groundwork for the accusations made by human rights organizations. The military's loss of prestige in the war encouraged the press, which until then had maintained a tombstone's silence on the subject, to publish increasing numbers of news items regarding the activities of human rights organizations. Especially those stories relating to the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, who, with their head scarves and circular marches every Thursday, became the symbol of the fight against the perpetrators' impunity.

(p. 127) What had been whispered about as rumors for many years now materialized in the form of horrifying photographs of bones unearthed from cemeteries and personal accounts by witnesses. The strongest accusations came from the relatives of the missing victims, who in isolation had sustained the reports and claims made during the harshest years of the repression. Accounts circulated about the captivity of numerous Argentines, aberrant tales of abuse and torture, and testimonies of some of those who caused the repression, which intensified the ghastly images of the scene. This period was termed the “horror show.” It established the permanent presence in public spheres of the victims and of the damage that had been inflicted upon them by their captors.

These accusations and revelations were incorporated into party platforms and programs, and became a key element in the transition to democracy. The magnitude of the exposed crimes generated a widespread repudiation and indignation that became deeply rooted in many social sectors. The crimes had been committed by a regime that had received wide public support when it took power, and that had recovered that consensus temporarily during the Malvinas War. The revulsion against those crimes now led to a change in the opinion regarding the military government and its actions. The “fight against subversion” began to be called an “illegal repression” and “human rights violations.” The victims went from being “dangerous subversives” to “innocent human beings.” The process of depicting the victims as innocent people aimed at heightening the criminal characteristics of the Argentine State, but it also diminished the possibility of doing any political analysis of these past events because it enlarged the proportions of the evil that had befallen Argentina.

The accounts of the repression consolidated a historical narrative regarding the social mobilization and political violence that had preceded the military coup. This process boiled down to the guerrilla violence prior to the Process of National Reorganization, which was in turn compared with the State terrorism within a framework of generalized contempt for violence. According to this reading, Argentine society had been a passive spectator, witnessing the confrontation of two forces equally violent in their methods, equally deserving contempt and rejection from a democratic society.

The emblematic model of this notion is the famous prologue to the Nunca Más (Never Again) report by the National Commission on the Disappearance of Peoples (CONADEP). It stated that “during the seventies decade Argentina was violently agitated by terror instilled in like measures by the extreme right and by the extreme left.”7 Known as the “two demon theory,” this explanation fulfilled two key purposes for the transition to Argentine democracy: it offered the possibility of identifying the parties responsible for the tragedy (the guerrilla organizations and the armed forces) while simultaneously offering a route for proposing democracy as a new system that would be foreign to the two practices.

Consequently, the democratic system did not emerge as the heir of a historical process of unprecedented violence, but rather as the path for effecting basic change. To put it simply, this theory was effective because it explained the past period as aberrant and disruptive of a more civilized history. The identified responsible parties (p. 128) were alien to the majority of society and therefore enabled the commencement of a democratic phase by individuals belonging to the sector of innocent people who were alien to violence.

The construction of an image of the victims devoid of anything that could associate them with violence or assign any blame to them was a necessary complement of this historical vision. In contrast, the image of the armed forces as the personification of evil grew progressively larger and stronger. Youth played a key role in this process. During the dictatorship, the human rights movement—a minority group confronted by a repressive State—was attacked by dictatorial propaganda, which identified youth with subversion because of its propensity to fall under the influence of extremist ideologies. As a result, the claims made by the parents of missing persons as to the whereabouts of their children cautiously avoided the political causes that had led to their disappearance.8

In the mid 1990s, the accounts of the state terror were complemented by stories of the political militancy and struggle. Other survival accounts and experiences were added to the memory of horror in the form of stories by members of the revolutionary organizations, who vindicated their experiences during the years prior to the coup by pointing to the intense political and social unrest at the time. They no longer defined their personal experiences in the interpretive matrix of human rights violations as victims, but in their militant status as agents of change and social fighters. Documentaries and testimonial writings, analytical or fictional, constituted a significant publishing and journalistic boom, which has grown stronger with each anniversary of the coup. Needless to say, these accounts of the lives of political militants strongly contradict the earlier images of the victims of the dictatorship.

On March 24, 2004, the anniversary of the military coup, President Néstor Kirchner apologized on behalf of the State in a speech delivered at the ESMA (Higher School of Mechanics of the Navy), a huge building that had operated as a clandestine detention center during the military dictatorship.9 Kirchner presented himself as a member of the generation persecuted by the repression. Only days earlier, he had entered the same site accompanied by former detainees, survivors of the clandestine detention camp, with whom he toured the premises.

The reactions to these events stirred up memories of political violence and repression, reviving debates that had been taken place two or three decades earlier. This has opened a new era in the political disputes over this memory, since the event held at the ESMA showed that the accounts of the past by firsthand victims now makes up the official policy of the Argentine State relating to human rights and memory.

For three decades, the keys to interpreting recent Argentine history lay with the image of the young victims of the military dictatorship, reinterpreted as revolutionary militants in the 1960s, then with the image of state terrorism and violence, and the with the image of democracy and respect for human rights “recovered” in 1983. The Nunca Más (Never Again) heading used for the report on state violence reflected the desire to lay a new foundation typical of the first half of the 1980s. (p. 129) However, what place did memories of the Malvinas War, and of its protagonists, occupy within this framework?

Memories of Malvinas

Different players have gradually built aligned or directly opposed views of the Malvinas War. Although the Argentine defeat facilitated and expedited the departure from dictatorship, the experiences connected with Malvinas lost specificity within the more massive and shocking sphere of human rights violations.

When I began to interview former soldiers who had fought in the Malvinas War in the mid-1990s, one particularly notable fact came to light. During my interviews or when reading other testimonies, the soldiers' return to the “Continent” after the rendition emerged as a memory more painful than the war itself. The different “returns” had taken place quietly, invisibly, and acquired symbolic characteristics which to this day define their relationship with their co-nationals. Burdened with the logical component of a lost war (as in the case of the United States and Vietnam), these marks on their memories raised a question of the relationship between the public narratives of the years of dictatorship and the war, and the individual memories of the survivors of each.

Alejandro Cano fought in Darwin-Goose Green, while serving in an artillery component. What follows is his description of his reaction to the public memories during the war:

In my opinion, they see us as … “Poor guys … what horrors they went through over there.” … By degrading the Army, they degraded all the [war] veterans. They judged them all in the same manner and thus the courage displayed by the soldiers never came to light. … If the weather had been warm, we would have died of heat. It was cold. … We were freezing to death! … During a war one suffers hunger, one suffers the cold, one suffers the heat.”10

Cano was confronting essentially two accounts with his testimony. One subordinated any account of the war to the story of the illegal repression (“by degrading the Army, they degraded all the [war] veterans”), which was the predominant position during the 1980s. The other was the reports that turned the soldiers who fought in the Malvinas into victims at the mercy of harsh conditions on the island and, in some cases, of their own officers. (“In a war one suffers hunger, one suffers cold.”)11

Certain clearly identifiable forms emerged at the end of the war to refer to it and to its protagonists. These became consolidated during the first years of democracy and prevail to the present day in the literature on the period, and which are unlike the conceptual and thematic changes regarding other aspects of recent history. They all cross each other, and their ambiguity resides in the tension between the national identity, the patriotic cult, and the state terrorism experience.

The Patriotic War

(p. 130) Wars play a central part in the construction of collective national identities. In Argentina, the leaders and soldiers who fought for independence became the heroes and founding fathers featured in the school education of Argentine children. The nineteenth-century Argentine national mausoleum was built by a cultural and political elite, which arbitrarily selected elements with the aim of perpetuating a version of history and which was also a model of civilian virtues. In this national historical narrative, military institutions play a central part. Victorious officers and men killed in battle have subsequently joined the ranks of the revered heroes that lie in the national mausoleums. They are the models for those who come after them, who will render their sacrifice meaningful. If the first drive to uphold these values was anchored in the public education system, compulsory military service (an institution in Argentina that dates from 1904) constituted the second landmark in the lives of young Argentine men. At the age of eighteen, a drawing was held to decide which of them would be recruited into compulsory military service in one of the three armed forces. This draft was intended to give cohesion to the new republic, strengthen the role of the State, and instill national and social values in its young people.

From a symbolic standpoint, these citizen soldiers were the heirs to a civilian religion, which built its civilian values on military virtues and thus outlined the self-image of the nation. These “secular cults” fulfilled an educational function where “celebrating the citizens who had fulfilled their duty implied an exhortation for others to fulfill theirs.”12

One of the ways of incorporating the experience of the former Malvinas combatants was through this patriotic discourse. This is where the initiatives of the armed forces and of the different civilian and military governments that alternated after 1982 converged, despite their divergent objectives. Seeing the war this way inscribes it in the official canonical history. It becomes a record similar to that of other warlike episodes in national history. It downplays the inherent political conflict: the fatherland is a sphere that has no place for domestic conflicts, inhabited only by the pure, including those who died for it. In this framework, the heroes from Malvinas include both civilians acting under allegiance to the flag and professional military people. When these two parties embodied the two symbolical sides of the political rhetoric, reference to the fatherland diminished any antagonism. Narrating the national history this way had been effective in building many national identities during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including the Argentine identity. It fed the imaginary of opposed conservative and revolutionary political forces, which, in a slow process of recovery, overcame the crushing weight of the armed forces to become the official voice of the state concerning the matter.

The soldiers who fought in the 1982 war against Great Britain were mobilized on the basis of that traditional cultural and historical matrix. After they died, despite having fallen into acute oblivion and marginality, they were remembered that way (p. 131) officially. But how were the soldiers killed during the Malvinas War be incorporated to the national mausoleum? On this issue, the war showed various thorny sides.

One of them was that the deployment of soldiers on the islands had received significant and diverse mass social support. This became a painful reminder of the civilian ties with the de facto government, the dictatorship responsible for human rights violations. During the two months and two days that the conflict lasted, civilians organized support networks throughout the country to send aid to the soldiers on the islands. Deliveries included food and warm clothes, donations, and letters written to the soldiers who were at the front. In addition to the young men summoned to the units, thousands of men who had completed their compulsory military service were sent to war as volunteers. The image of a dictatorship leading the fight against Great Britain faded before the idea of national vindication. In a country subjected to more than six years of severe censoring and self-censoring, the fact that isolated sectors flaunted slogans such as “the Malvinas Islands belong to the workers, not to the torturers” and “the Malvinas are Argentine, so are the missing people” was less than irrelevant.

Defeat brought to light a fact that had indeed been irrelevant during the war because it was practically unknown. A significant number of officers and senior enlisted personnel who had fought in a legitimate war had also participated in the so-called war against subversion, which was beginning to be considered a “dirty war.” The public at large began to see the heroes of Malvinas as torturers and kidnappers. Doubts regarding the armed forces circulated, both because of the defeat before the British and because of the domestic repression. As far as the officers from the army, navy, and air force were concerned, these were two conflicts in which the institutions they belonged to had fought on behalf of the fatherland. From their professional military viewpoint, despite their different characteristics and endings, the two events were comparable. To Alfredo Astiz, a naval officer who had participated in the illegal repression, this only represented continuity in his career:

I have been in four wars and over thirty battles. I was in a war against subversion, I was infiltrated in enemy lines with the Chileans, when people said there was no war, I was in the Malvinas and I took part as an observer in Algeria. This is my fifth war. Keeping quiet, having kept silent all this time without saying anything, this is my last war.13


The defeat fed a discourse of victimization. This was the exclusive terrain of the news media, the political parties, and first groups of war veterans. This discourse created a wide public consensus since it was aligned with the image that had been formed by young people during the transition to democracy. It fit their definition as victims of the dictatorship, which gained strength during this post-dictatorial era.

(p. 132) The idea of the victim was complemented by the idea of the innocence of the crimes attributed to these young people by the repressive forces–their participation in or support for guerrilla movements. They were shielded as far as possible from any association with political violence. This model of youth built around the accusations of human rights violations therefore became the archetype for the war veterans returning from the islands. Even though these were young men who had been exposed to violence and personal combat, and had wielded real weapons, they received endorsement from the same society that now hated violence in all its forms.

Consequently, the theme involving the war veterans emphasized the fact that they had received scarce instruction (since many had just begun their compulsory military service when they were shipped to the islands). If the term “war boys” used to refer to them during the conflict was an affectionate way of emphasizing their youth and symbolically making them the sons and brothers of the population at large, the same expression—“the boys,” which was used after the defeat—referred to ill-prepared, defenseless youth in the face not only of their officers but also of the British.

The victimizing discourse depicted the soldiers as victims of their own officers and of the high command, in an analogy with the image that Argentine society had created of itself as a victim of its own armed forces. Both the soldiers and civilian society were therefore completely alien to the process that had generated political violence and state terrorism. This discourse accentuated the stories among the Malvinas veterans of misuse of authority, arbitrary decisions, and ill treatment, along with the suffering that resulted from poor planning, over and above the narrative relating to the actual battles with the British.

Who are the Malvinas Heroes?

On December 10, 1983, Raúl Alfonsín took office as the first democratically elected president following the dictatorship. Among the issues he inherited was the commemoration of the Malvinas War. On April 2, 1984, in the city of Luján, seat of the basilica whose virgin is the patron of Argentina, Alfonsín presided over the central ceremony commemorating the “recovery of the Malvinas Islands.”14 What could a democratic president have to say about the Malvinas? How could he nurse the wounded national pride? How could he commemorate a defeat? He did that by replacing the notion of military glory for that of sacrifice, exercising the republican cult of the dead in the shaping of nations.15 Death in battle was the highest surrender of the self to the national values, and it also represented a form of exercising civilian rights. This notion assigns a collective significance to death, beyond individual grief. In this framework, soldier-citizens die defending a community, which in turn adopts them as models. Alfonsín established this relationship in his emblematic speech: (p. 133)

This 2nd of April I am here to commemorate with you, at the foot of this monument, our [nationals] fallen in battle, those brave Argentines who gave up their lives or generously exposed themselves on that southernmost portion of our nation. Although it is true that the government that made use of force did not consider the tremendous and tragic consequences of its action, it is equally true that the ideal that encouraged our soldiers was and is the ideal of every generation of Argentines: the definitive recovery of the Malvinas Islands, South Georgia and South Sandwich. … Countless uniformed citizens must have wanted to lay down their own lifeless bodies among the rocks, the peat and the snow after fighting strenuously and boldly. But God saw the virtuous, and among these the brave and the lively, from among the wounded and the heavy-hearted, He chose His heroes. He chose the ones that we commemorate today. Anointed by misfortune, devoid of the victory laurels, these dead that we honor today are a living lesson of sacrifice in the line of duty. … These tragic deaths strengthen further the conviction we have of the fairness of our rights.16

This reasoning was an attempt to deflect the focus of the war memories from the armed forces while allowing the new government to take possession, by democratic means, of symbols that had been associated with nationalism and which had been misused by the military.17 Was it possible to maintain a nationalistic discourse and avoid its association with the memory of the bloodiest military dictatorship in history? Could the democracy contend with the armed forces and the right wing over such issues as “sovereignty” or “fatherland”?

These contradictions became evident during the first significant military crisis faced by the democracy. In December 1986, the National Congress enacted the Full Stop Law (Ley de Punto Final), which set a deadline for processing cases against illegal repression. In a little over two months, more than three hundred officers had lawsuits filed against them. Finally, in April, during Easter Week, Colonel Aldo Rico, who had been chief of Commandos during the Malvinas War, occupied the School of Sergeant Majors located in Campo de Mayo and demanded a “political solution.” The military units led by Rico painted their faces with shoe polish, in a similar fashion to assault units, to differentiate themselves from forces loyal to the government. The carapintada uprising—or “painted faces”—revealed the symbolical weight of the Malvinas Islands and the lack of consensus over the meaning of that war.

Mass rallies were held throughout the country in support of the government, with a multitudinous gathering at the Plaza de Mayo to back democracy. There was fear that the crowds would march toward Campo de Mayo and cause a massacre. President Raúl Alfonsín announced from the balcony of the Government House that he was going to Campo de Mayo to demand the rendition of the rebels. Upon his return, he addressed the crowded square to announce:

The seditious men have laid down their weapons. As it corresponds, they shall be detained and dealt with by the law courts. This is a group of men, some of them heroes from the Malvinas War, who took this mistaken stand.18

The president's reference to the Malvinas War was an unfortunate remilitarization of the war memories, and it downplayed the image of the mutineers. Should (p. 134) society show “understanding” toward them as victims of the consequences of the defeat? Or was the president resorting to deeper elements within Argentine political culture, those associated with the nationalism that nurtured the support for the recovery of the islands? Was this not an indication of the strong social commitment toward an unfortunate war and, therefore, toward the military leaders involved? The “painted faces” crisis had originally been seen as an attempt against democracy. Now the status of its perpetrators as veterans of a patriotic war provided an attenuating factor for the insurrectionists.

The ambiguity of the war had allowed Alfonsín to use the image of the military to define, through a reference to Malvinas, a political crisis that had been sparked by the policy of bringing the military to trial for human rights violations.

Memories of Former Soldiers

Through their war veteran groups, the young draftees who had fought on Malvinas presented a series of troublesome vindications of their actions and made demands in the context of the transition to democracy. Their claims emerged through a radical discourse that drew from national and popular political movements of the years prior to the dictatorship, and from revolutionary Marxist and Peronist left-wing discourse. They have defined the war as an episode in the Latin American anti-imperialist struggle. But this presented a twofold problem. The social rejection of violence as a manner of consolidating democracy left no room for the vindication of war or revolution, since both of these were associated with repressive state and the guerrilla organizations. These two demons had satisfied society's desire for self-exoneration while providing, at the same time, a historical view of the events that had occurred.

The fact that these young war veterans were using radical discourse short-circuited their public image as innocent people, and this generated a social desire to forget them. This came as a harsh blow for the war veterans. At the same time, the manner in which the first organizations of war veterans tried to vindicate their war experience separated them from the armed forces, which they accused of ill-treatment and inefficacy, and criticized for their surrender. Veteran draftees needed to establish a differentiation between themselves—the authentic soldiers—and the repressive army. Along these lines, a document issued in 1986 by the Center for Malvinas War Veterans states the following:

Our generation shed their blood for the recovery of our islands and this gives us a moral right. … During the Malvinas War a new generation of Argentines expressed itself. After the war, it became aware of the atrocities the dictatorship had committed. We did not wear the uniform to vindicate that scourge, which can only be carried out by those that lack dignity. We wore the uniform because we are the living testimony of a generation that wore it to defend the fatherland, not to torture, to repress, and to murder.19

(p. 135) The attempt made by the Malvinas war veterans to insert themselves into a history full of popular strife that was deeply rooted in the ideology of national left-wing movements was not effective, and it did not earn them a place in the context of the movement to democratic institutions. As a result, of the three interpretative models for discussing the war from the point of view of its perpetuation, this one is the least used. It subsists to this day among some groups, but has generally succumbed to the reconfiguration of the political relationships of the 1980s and to the dispersion this produced among the war veterans.

Many war veteran groups continue to uphold their claim for historical reparation. Initially, this related to their economic claims, which have been met gradually over time. After that, reparation came to mean national public recognition for the sacrifice made on the islands. The traditional and patriotic symbolical route inherent in this recognition has become the most effective for the inclusion of those who lived through the war. This demand grew into a movement, and its influence on interviews about war experiences has grown progressively. Yet there is difficulty in reaching an agreement even on this point. During the “painted faces” uprising in 1987, some of the war veteran groups placed themselves at a distance from the mutineers: “We cannot fairly call [the carapintadas] ‘Malvinas heroes,’ as the nation's president referred to them on Easter Week,” said one. “In our opinion, the only heroes are those who died fighting against imperialism on Malvinas.”20

A law enacted by the national congress adopted a similar criterion, declaring the 649 soldiers who died on Malvinas to be national heroes.21 What does the title of “hero” convey in this case? To define this, the law adopts this categorical criterion: to be a hero, one must have died. In relation to the Argentine past, however, this definition obliterates the ambiguity that a “national hero” according to this law may also have repressed his own people, acting in the name of the same values.

The Place of Historians

How can historians analyze these processes for the configuration of war memories? How can we incorporate them into other interpretations of the military dictatorship? A renewed treatment of the subject arose in the 1990s, with an abundance of publications on political violence and state terrorism, together with a turn to this field by historians and other scholars through “studies of memory.” Yet similar new scholarship has been practically nonexistent in terms of the Malvinas War, which is why oral history must be conducted.

Many intellectuals, including historians, believe that the transition to democracy involved the rejection of old truths and the appropriation of new ones. The categories for studying society changed radically against those that guided research in the years prior to the dictatorship. Democracy and its institutions, together with (p. 136) the defense of human rights, became the guide for those who devoted themselves to the institutional reconstruction of Argentina.

During this process, the notion of “citizen” gradually replaced other more specific concepts such as Argentine, worker, or fellow partisan, political characterizations anchored in absolute such as those of nation, people, or revolution. Thus, the democracy-in-the-making movement forgot the populist classes and their political connotation.22 This popular political maneuver is strongly linked to elements that relate to nationalism, and in particular to the Malvinas War.

For some intellectuals, this has created a dilemma in how to support the democracy-in-the-making. In an article that recalls the place of historians in the transition to democracy, the historian Luis Alberto Romero, one of the most influential writers in his field, explained his personal solution to this dilemma:

As a person, a historian has two coexisting souls, be they in harmony or in conflict: he is as much a citizen as a historian. Sometimes he acts as one of them, others, like the other, and sometimes he seeks equilibrium, a balance between the two of them. This condition becomes clearly evident in the study of the “painful past”: committed player and analyst; citizen who defends values, and performer of a knowledge that bestows relativity on them.”23

Although it is now possible to criticize the accounts of the violence and the State terrorism constructed during the 1980s, at that time, he said, “professional historians who were identified with civility conducted themselves—ourselves—essentially as citizens, confirming this version and abstaining from raising any doubts. What could they have said in line with their professional preference for coloring and bestowing relativity on convictions? Only truths that would be uncomfortable and negative for the object of the time.”24

Some Argentine historians made a choice not to debate certain historical views out of a political need. This shut the door on some issues regarded as potential tools for the vindicators of the dictatorship. The Malvinas War is one of those issues.

The predominant historical literature has treated the war as political. This thesis has reduced the war to the flailing hand of a drowning dictatorship faced with growing social discredit. It has turned a blind eye on the veterans' war experiences, reducing the war to a political event, which explains the motivations of the military junta but does not help us understand the reasons for the public support for the landing on the islands. And it says nothing about the role that the Malvinas War has played in the political imaginary of its participants. According to Rosana Guber, this is an ex post-reflection that fails to explain how the Argentines reached the war situation. On the other hand, it stands as a testimony of what we did with war memories afterwards.25

To recall the war and the support it received would have placed many people in an uncomfortable position. Many left-wing thinkers, most notably groups exiled in Mexico, supported the recovery of the islands while simultaneously condemning the dictatorship, without explaining the gap in this stand. Their endorsement of the military landing in 1982 has been attributed to an anti-imperialistic tradition, (p. 137) which had fostered armed conflict to achieve. In the context of the transition to democracy, any revision of this process and its ideological legitimacy would have been a complex task. It was all the more complicated for those who were trying to build the conceptual bases for democracy through criticism of these earlier forms of imagining social relationships and struggles.

Describing the war as a mere mechanism for upholding the legitimacy of the dictatorship enabled an evasion of these issues and strengthened the “two demon theory.” This view put the Malvinas on the same interpretative plane: Argentine society was the victim of fear and of manipulation (in an understanding view), or an accessory of the dictatorship (from a condemning point of view), at the mercy of the decisions of the Military Junta. These analyses complemented the victimizing discourse regarding the war veterans (who were at the mercy of their commanders). This strengthened the possibility of eluding social responsibilities, and it remains effective to this day. The result is that looking back at the Malvinas War and its protagonists generally implies opinion-molding on the war and cannot avoid condemnation of the event to be analyzed and explained.

What has been written and produced about the Malvinas has come from other spheres than professional historians. This has produced gaps in the studies of recent history; mute spots that constitute dangerous argumentative mines, since they leave the vindicators of the dictatorship in the self-assigned role of the moral victors and guardians of an “unrevealed truth.” This has enabled them to control identities and symbols of significant importance to a large part of society.

Why do historians find it so difficult to write about this war and its characteristics, and about those who died in the war? Perhaps this can be attributed to the trauma inherent to any war, and the inability of those who lived through it to emerge from the stupor caused by the horror of its forms. Perhaps it can be attributed to a lack of interest in it as an empirical subject. The reasons for the absence of historiography on the war can likely be found in the historical process of the 1980s, in patterns that were established to make sense of political and social change, and in some of the characteristics of the event under analysis.

As happened in other places, such as Spain, the end of a dictatorship generated a questioning and rejection of symbols and notions that were not the exclusive domain of the military, but which the military had used and abused, committing atrocities in their name. Ideas such as anti-imperialism, nation, or fatherland can be viewed as the spearhead of a resurgence of authoritarianism. Eager to leave behind a violent past, scholars discarded these symbols and notions in their conceptual destruction, but they overlooked some of their essential features: the fact that they exist throughout the whole republic; and the varying intensity with which the war was felt in the various regions of the country, such as Patagonia, or in provinces like Corrientes, and Chaco. Although not consistent with a vindication of the dictatorship, these symbolic elements enjoy a strong regional presence, which the defenders of authoritarianism view as their property.

The local dimensions of symbols and notions have been a largely overlooked facet of the political strife over memories. There is a saying in Argentina that “God (p. 138) is everywhere but he attends to Buenos Aires.” With such attitudes, one frequently encounters generalizing explanations that disregard the cultural and regional differences at play in such a vast and diverse country. Its different hues have a direct impact on the manner in which people experienced the illegal repression and the war. In a large city like Buenos Aires, the war experience was diluted quantitatively and qualitatively vis-à-vis other political events. But in the less densely populated provinces, the phenomenon was exactly the opposite, as were the social appraisals of the war. The experience of state terrorism may also have had more significance in some regions of the country and for certain social players, but not for others. The repression of student activists and the ESMA form the axis of one type of memory, as do the blackouts, mobilizations, and red alerts in other parts of the country.

The military insurgents' use of such symbols as the flag, the nation, or the fatherland have caused them to be condemned per se, as Trojan horses of authoritarianism. In the process, the possibility offered by those symbols of launching a true symbolical battle against the years of dictatorship was lost. Similarly, this condemning attitude has permitted a reestablishment of the worst of the nationalistic ideology by the hand of the defenders of state terrorism to be seen in the Malvinas War.

This has been aggravated by the fact that many cadres of the armed forces, despite having fought on the islands, take credit for their involvement in what they term “another war”—on the illegal repression. It is therefore critical for researchers, instead of the abandonment of the field to automatic condemnation, to reexamine their assumptions. We must explore the idea that in many regions of Argentina, people regard the war against Great Britain as more significant than the State terrorism.

One conclusion is that the traumatic impact of the dictatorship has hindered historians' ability to consider certain processes outside the matrix of terror. This limitation can also be attributed to the ideological framework shaped by the intellectual political projects that sought to redefine social relationships in Argentina since the 1980s. Although the war took place during the dictatorship, and was actually triggered off by it, this undeniable event in our analysis must not dim the specificity of the conflict, especially considering that multiple elements that have converged to construct the diverse experiences and narratives of the war. The task, therefore, consists in our ability to divest our analysis of that conceptual and experiential confinement.

There is also an issue associated with the commitment toward life and the respect for pain, in a country that was faced with death far too much of the past fifty years. As pointed out at the beginning of this chapter, all memories are political, but not all of them are involved in politics or reach the realms of public discussion. Interviewers learn that certain memories prevail over others when people are discussing the past, and this generates hierarchies. Some historical experiences—losses, sacrifices, commitments, pride and debts—become less conspicuous than others.

This can lead to feelings of deep injustice. Seven out of ten Argentine Malvinas War veterans did not have the chance to decide whether to risk their lives: they were draftees, young men, the vast majority aged between 18 and 20. Some questions are (p. 139) uncomfortably simple and difficult: What is the difference between the family of a worker that was seized or murdered and that of a soldier that died on Malvinas? What separates these from other victims of the dictatorship, whose stories have more repercussion or resonance? The answers are also simple yet difficult: symbolical capitals, class status, and last but not least their exclusion from historiographical reflections of their own experience.

These oversights should lead to new research questions, and with them the injustice may diminish. The strength of political uses of memories may reside in this: More than a quarter of a century after the war and the commencement of democracy, we should be capable of dispelling certain conceptual ghosts by listening to other stories. We need to do this in order to acknowledge our fellow countrymen, the veterans, who have been pierced by a strong experience that shares many common elements with the Argentine massacre. We need to move beyond looking at them—in the best of cases—as the passive victims and—in the worst—as puppets of the murderers who, having completed the massacre of their own people, then turned their eyes upon the islands in the South Atlantic.


Aguilar Fernández, Paloma, and Carsten Humblebaek. “Collective Memory and National Identity in the Spanish Democracy.” In History and Memory 1/2 (Autumn 2002).Find this resource:

    Chesneaux, Jean. ¿Hacemos tabla rasa del pasado? A propósito de la historia y de los historiadores. Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI, 1984.Find this resource:

      CONADEP. Nunca Más: Informe de la Comisión Nacional Sobre la Desaparición de Personas. Buenos Aires: Eudeba, 1997.Find this resource:

        Jelin, Elizabeth. Los Trabajos de la Memoria. Madrid/Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI, 2002.Find this resource:

          Lorenz, Federico. Las guerras por Malvinas. Buenos Aires, Edhasa, 2006.Find this resource:

            ——— . Malvinas: Una guerra argentina. Buenos Aires, Sudamericana, 2009.Find this resource:

              Guber, Rosanar. ¿Por qué Malvinas? De la Causa Nacional a la Guerra Absurda. Buenos Aires, FCE, 2001.Find this resource:

                (p. 141) Hass, Kristin Ann. Carried to the Wall: American Memory and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.Find this resource:

                  Merklen, Denis. Pobres Ciudadanos: Las Clases Populares en la Era Democrática (Argentina, 1983–2003). Buenos Aires: Gorla, 2005.Find this resource:

                    Mosse, George. Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.Find this resource:


                      (1.) According to Elizabeth Jelin, “Political openness, meltdowns, liberalizations and transitions enable a public sphere in which previously restrained and censored narratives and accounts can be incorporated. New ones can also be created. This aperture implies a scenario of struggles for the meaning of the past, featuring a plurality of players and agents that bring multiple demands and claims.” Elizabeth Jelin, Los trabajos de la memoria (Madrid/Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI, 2002), 42.

                      (2.) Popular Memory Group, “Popular Memory. Theory, Politics, Method,” in The Oral History Reader, ed. Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson, 75 (London: Routledge, 1998).

                      (3.) Jean Chesneaux, ¿Hacemos tabla rasa del pasado? A propósito de la historia y de los historiadores (Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI, 1984), 67.

                      (4.) Ibid., 69.

                      (5.) Jelin, Los trabajos de la memoria, 48.

                      (6.) Dominique Schnapper, “La memoria en la política,” in Françoise Barret, Ducrocq (director) ¿Por qué recordar? (Barcelona: Gránica, 2002).

                      (7.) CONADEP, Nunca Más: Informe de la Comisión Nacional Sobre la Desaparición de Personas (Buenos Aires: Eudeba, 1997), 7.

                      (8.) This has a quantitative basis. According to 1984 data, 10.61 percent of the missing persons were between the ages of sixteen and twenty, 32.62 percent were twenty-one to twenty-five, and 25.90 percent were twenty-six to thirty CONADEP, Nunca Más, 294.

                      (9.) Located in the most expensive area of the city of Buenos Aires, an estimated five thousand detainees were held at the ESMA, most of whom are still missing. Currently, the premises of the ESMA, spanning almost forty-two acres, constitute the “Area for Remembering and Promoting and Defending Human Rights.”

                      (10.) Interview with Alejandro Ramón Cano, Class 62, Airborne Artillery Group 4 (1994).

                      (11.) An investigation ordered by the armed forces established the serious logistic and organizational flaws of the Argentine war effort. These aggravated and worsened the deplorable conditions in which many of the Argentine soldiers fought. It should be noted that close to 70 percent of the Argentines deployed on the Malvinas were draftees, not regular soldiers. There are currently numerous lawsuits in process for the “Truth about Malvinas,” filed on grounds of accusations of ill treatment by some Argentine officers inflicted on their subordinates in violation of human rights.

                      (12.) George Mosse, Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 105.

                      (13.) Trespuntos, Jan. 1998, 9.

                      (14.) Clarín, Apr. 3, 1984.

                      (15.) Kristin Ann Hass, Carried to the Wall: American Memory and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 40.

                      (16.) Clarín, Apr. 3, 1984.

                      (17.) Paloma Aguilar Fernández and Carsten Humblebaek, “Collective Memory and National Identity in the Spanish Democracy,” in History and Memory 1/2 (Autumn 2002). indicate that the “misuse” of nationalistic and patriotic symbols by totalitarian governments (they analyzed the case of Franco) prevented them from being appropriated and given re-significance by leftist groups. This is a key element in the struggle for memory considering the strong identity component inherent in these elements.

                      (18.) Clarín, Apr. 20, 1987. My italics.

                      (19.) Centro de Ex Soldados Combatientes de Malvinas, Documentos de Post Guerra 1, 1986, 23.

                      (20.) Malvinizar, Mar. 1988, 9.

                      (21.) Ley No. 24.950, “Héroes Nacionales,” 1998.

                      (22.) Denis Merklen, Pobres ciudadanos: Las clases populares en la era democrática (Argentina, 1983–2003) (Buenos Aires: Gorla, 2005), 23.

                      (23.) Luis Alberto Romero, “Memorias de El Proceso y problemas de la democracia,” Lucha Armada en la Argentina 4, no. 10 (2008): 5–6.

                      (24.) Ibid., 7–8.

                      (25.) Rosana Guber, ¿Por qué Malvinas? De la causa nacional a la guerra absurda (Buenos Aires: FCE, 2001.