Time to Stop Calling Argentina’s Last Dictatorship a “Dirty War”

Mar 26, 2014
10:46 am

More than 30 years have passed since the last dictatorship ended in Argentina, and many English-language media outlets are still misusing the term “Dirty War.” The last dictatorship in Argentina (1976-1983) was not a war, but instead genocide, and it is time that we start calling it like it was, and still is.

GlobalPost Jerusalem correspondent Noga Tarnopolsky, whose five family members disappeared during the dictatorship said, “I don’t use the term ‘Dirty War’ unless I’m trying to illustrate the really evil way the Argentine military junta attempted —like other murderous regimes— to turn language into a tool in their favor. The term is a relic of that period.”

Tarnopolsky finds it unfortunate that English-language media still use the term. “The usage does seem to expose laziness on the part of editors and journalists who haven’t bothered even to look it up. I suspect they’d be horrified to know they are using a term that was invented to try to explain away as justified crimes against humanity,” she said.

Buenos Aires graffiti against the dictatroship

Buenos Aires graffiti against the dictatorship

The Dirty War

War is defined as a state of armed conflict between different countries or different groups within a country. The term “Dirty War” comes from a misunderstanding of the conflict between Argentina’s Montoneros and the military during the last dictatorship. The Montoneros were an armed opposition group with popular support. It was completely broken up after only six months into the Argentine dictatorship. On October 7, 1976, the Argentine junta’s foreign minister, César Augusto Guzzetti told Henry Kissinger, “the terrorist organizations have been dismantled.” Yet the dictatorship would go on for another seven years ending with thousands of deaths and even more disappearances.

Flag of the Montoneros

Flag of the Montoneros

Claudia Acuña, editor of the magazine, Mu, said that the military used terms such as, “The Dirty War,” during the dictatorship to hide what was really happening.

“In Argentina in 1976 there was no war. The opposition was militarily defeated. What was it then? Writer Rodolfo Walsh explained what was happening with facts and precious words in his Open Letter to the military dictatorship in 1977, and was killed for speaking out. Walsh called what was happening, “Planned Misery,” that consisted of a terrorizing dictator implementing an economic plan that plunged the country into poverty. To impose such a plan, it was necessary to destroy all civil, union, political and social resistance. And that’s what happened. That’s what left us with 30,000 people disappeared.”

History Rewritten

In September 2006, 30 years after the military takeover in Argentina, Miguel Osvaldo Etchecolatz, police commissioner of the province of Buenos Aires during the junta years, was sentenced to life in prison. The judge found him guilty of six counts of homicide, six counts of unlawful imprisonment and seven cases of torture. But the judge didn’t stop there, saying that in order to continue to preserve the “construction of collective memory,” he needed to declare that these offenses were “all crimes against humanity committed in the context of the genocide that took place in the Republic of Argentina between 1976 and 1983.”

This changed the official story for good. What had been thought of as a “dirty war” for years was finally taken for what it truly was: “a plan of extermination carried out by those who ruled the country,” the judge said.

The Hunted

Leading up to the dictatorship, Argentina, Chile, Brazil and Uruguay were flourishing in a time of economic development. Social programs, public education and nationalized industries made the Southern Cone flourish. With this came a dominant leftist mass culture.

“It was in the poetry of Pablo Neruda, the folk music of Víctor Jara and Mercedes Sosa, the liberation theology of the Third World priests, the emancipatory theater of Augusto Boal, the radical pedagogy of Paulo Freire, the revolutionary journalism of Eduardo Galeano and [Rodolfo] Walsh himself,” said Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine.

The junta defended its genocide by declaring it a war against dangerous Marxist terrorists. Admiral Eduardo Massera called it “a war for freedom and against tyranny, a war against those who favor death and by those of us who favor life. We are fighting against nihilists, against agents of destruction whose only objective is destruction itself, although they disguise these with social crusades.”

The majority of the victims of state terror were factory workers, farmers, economists, artists and psychologists. In these torturous ideological elimination operations, the juntas burned books by Freud, Marx and Neruda, closed hundreds of magazines, occupied universities and banned strikes and political meetings.


In Argentina, 81 percent of the 30,000 people who disappeared were between the ages of 16 and 30. Five hundred babies were born inside Argentina’s torture centers. These babies were often sold or given to couples who were associated with the dictatorship.

“The last dictatorship can’t be described as dirty,” said Acuña. “Can baby kidnappings, torture and systemic rape of women, death flights that threw thousands of bodies into the Río de la Plata including the founder of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo or French nuns who lent their chapel to families of the disappeared? I have no words to describe what that means. Because that’s a dictatorship: the end of words, beyond language. Reducing a society to silence. So many years later, we are recovering our speech. Slowly, very traumatically and together we are walking down the street to yell, ‘Nunca Más.’”

Today’s Terms

Editor of The Argentina Independent, an English newspaper based in Buenos Aires, Kristie Robinson, said that the publication rejects the term “Dirty War.” “We don’t use the term ‘Dirty War’ as it would indicate that what was happening in Argentina during the 1976-83 military dictatorship was somehow two-sided, rather than state-backed terrorism.” By rejecting the term, Robinson does not deny that the left-wing guerrilla groups used violence or questionable techniques, “but the junta’s response was massively disproportionate, with systematic killings of those it deemed, often arbitrarily, to be the enemy. What happened here was not a war, it was oppression of dissidents by a military dictatorship. “

It’s 2014, and it’s time to start calling it like it was, and still is: the last dictatorship.


Taylor Dolven is an “infinitely curious journalist” based in Argentina. You can follow her on Twitter @taydolven. She is part of a growing independent media movement in Argentina, miarevista.com.