[Marxism] Fwd: H-Net Review [H-LatAm]: Sharnak on Brennan, 'Argentina's Missing Bones: Revisiting the History of the Dirty War'

Andrew Stewart hasc.warrior.stew at gmail.com
Mon Apr 29 11:15:57 MDT 2019

---------- Forwarded message ---------
From: H-Net Staff via H-REVIEW <h-review at lists.h-net.org>
Date: Mon, Apr 29, 2019 at 1:08 PM
Subject: H-Net Review [H-LatAm]: Sharnak on Brennan, 'Argentina's Missing
Bones: Revisiting the History of the Dirty War'
To: <h-review at lists.h-net.org>
Cc: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.org>

James P. Brennan.  Argentina's Missing Bones: Revisiting the History
of the Dirty War.  Berkeley  University of California Press, 2018.
xi + 195 pp.  $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-520-29791-3; $34.95 (paper),
ISBN 978-0-520-29793-7.

Reviewed by Debbie Sharnak (Harvard University)
Published on H-LatAm (April, 2019)
Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz

When Luciano Benjamín Menéndez died in February 2018, he was ninety
years old and serving fourteen prison terms--twelve of them life
sentences. A fifteenth trial and possible prison term was pending.
During Argentina's so-called Dirty War, which officially lasted from
1976 to 1983, General Menéndez served as head of the Third Army
Corps in Córdoba, the second-largest city in the country. The
_Washington Post_ has called him "one of the most bloodthirsty
leaders of a violent dictatorship" and indeed, the characterization
rings true.[1] While exact numbers of _desaparecidos_ are difficult
to ascertain, it was under his watch that the death camp La Perla
operated. The most conservative estimates place the number of
disappeared there at around five hundred.[2] La Perla was known for
its sadistic torture sessions, and those who entered the structure
were rarely seen alive again. Menéndez eventually led a failed coup
against the military junta leader Jorge Rafael Videla, arguing that
the commander of the army, General Roberto Viola, had been too soft
on "subversives" due to an attempted easing of the repression.
Menéndez remains one of the only people who ever accused Viola of
being too soft--Viola was a leader of the dictatorship at a national
level who oversaw some of the worst years of the repression. For
this, Viola was also eventually tried and convicted of human rights
violations in the aftermath of the military rule.[3]

Studying Menéndez, and the extent of his zealous and violent
convictions in the pathos of the Dirty War, provides a window into
exploring how the Argentine dictatorship played out in Córdoba.
Córdoba was indeed one of the most violent areas of the country
during the military rule. In _Argentina's Missing Bones: Revisiting
the History of the Dirty War_, James P. Brennan studies the history
of the repression and its aftermath in this city, offering an
accounting of the period preceding the military dictatorship, the
years of the most intense repression, and the subsequent struggles
over justice and memory. In this work, Brennan examines how national
narratives about Argentina's military regime, refracted through
particularities of Córdoba, challenge some of the historiographical
assumptions about the violence. This study indeed does a wonderful
job with this project. By surveying the vast literature on
Argentina's dictatorship and spending time in archives in the United
States, Argentina, and Córdoba, Brennan makes three main
interventions. First, he shows how the violence in the region started
before the onset of the actual military takeover in 1976, challenging
1976 as the beginning of the military rule and the repression.
Second, he examines the multicontinental influences on how the
military carried out its campaign, looking beyond the United States
and instead locating both national trends and the perverse
inspiration of French counterrevolutionary warfare. In noting these
more varied influences, Brennan seeks to overturn the assumption that
the Dirty War in Argentina was merely a product of Washington's Cold
War project. Third, he takes seriously not only victim narratives but
also the military and police culture to examine how readers can
understand the intensity of the violence that ravaged the area and
sought to erase "an entire sociocultural milieu" (p. 5). In this way,
Brennan succeeds in complicating historians' periodization of the
conflict, illuminating the various global influences, and
demonstrating how to further understand violent periods by studying
not only victims but also perpetrators.

In making these claims, Brennan offers a roughly chronological
structure to the book. He starts by examining what made Córdoba
different from the rest of the country, mainly by identifying the
highly politicized youth culture, socially activist Catholic Church,
and militant trade union movement that all worked in solidarity to
"increase the radical tendencies within each" (p. 18). In this sense,
Brennan explains that the military, police, union thugs, and
paramilitary organizations viewed leftist militancy as a fundamental
threat--one that had to be met with violence as early as 1966 and
which became rampant from 1973 to 1976, even before the onset of the
official dictatorship. In this chapter, Brennan takes seriously the
extent of repression from these right-wing forces, but also explains
that violence had emerged from the Left as well, particularly groups
such as the Montoneros, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias, and the
Fuerzas Armadas Peronistas. While careful not to assert that the
repression was in any way justified, Brennan attempts to understand
why it might have been so harsh in this region of the country by
looking at the social and cultural context that led to the military
perceiving the region as a target that required such intense
repression in the first place.

The following two chapters explain the nature of the repression by
exploring the dictatorship's practices, primarily the use of
disappearance, death, and detention, but also how the military
extended its influence into university administration and local
institutions such as the judiciary and local media to exert total
control. Brennan makes a case study of the La Perla death camp, one
of the most notorious in the entire country for the degree to which
prisoners were largely disappeared, with little hope for transfer.
Even though documents related to the functioning of the camp were
destroyed by the military as it left power, careful historical work
studying the military, survivors, and court records allow Brennan to
offer a view into how the horrific camp operated to inflict terror on
those unfortunate enough to arrive at its doors.

Chapter 4 takes seriously the work of attempting to understand the
perpetrators, looking in detail at the institutional dynamics of the
Third Army Corps. It offers a structural view into how the military
units functioned both internally and in relation to other branches of
the military. In addition, it looks at the autonomy of the local
military unit that allowed Menéndez's extreme views to guide the
regional repression, replete with blood pacts that implicated almost
every person who worked under his command. Any conscript unwilling to
cooperate risked joining the ranks of the disappeared--a possibility
that indeed occurred. In this way, Brennan both puts forth a view
into the particularity of how repression in Córdoba functioned and
persuasively argues that the Dirty War in Argentina cannot be
categorized with one national narrative. Instead it can only be
understood in the context of local influences and dynamics where
regional commanders and conditions impacted the extent and manner of
the repression.

Chapter 5 follows Tanya Hammer and Kirsten Weld in looking beyond the
United States and Soviet Union to understand the dynamics of the Cold
War in Latin America.[4] It considers the various influences on how
the Third Corps operated, including not only the United States, but
also French counterrevolutionary warfare in Algeria refracted through
Argentina's own particular Cold War political strictures. The chapter
moves past the bipolarity of the Cold War battlefield to investigate
how transnational ideas about countering subversives influenced the
military's handling of prisoners beyond just as a US puppet.

Chapters 6 looks more closely at the aftermath of the conflict and
attempts to reckon with the terrible violence at both a national and
local level. It examines trials--both the national move for
accountability as well as the specific trials surrounding notorious
figures in the Córdoba repression, most notably Menéndez. The
chapter explores the uneven progression toward justice that has
occurred in the nation, and some of Argentina's more pioneering
attempts to bring perpetrators to account. Even though Carlos Menem
overturned the initial convictions of members of the junta in 1989,
the last two decades have witnessed a revival of trials and
innovative legal maneuverings to hold those responsible on both a
national and regional basis--in spite of continued criticism from
both the Right and the Left for going either too far or not far

The subsequent chapters on memory and blame critique the utility of
survivor testimony for constructing historical narratives as well as
the danger of dismissing leftist violence. Brennan argues that the
huge number of oral histories and overriding emphasis on these
testimonies limit historical analysis because social memory becomes
stripped of "complexities and contradictions" when it is shaped "by
those most directly affected by violence of those years" (pp. 90-91).
Brennan is undertaking a monumental task here--attempting to offer a
holistic account of the literature on memory studies across
disciplines and then make some conclusions about its usefulness as a
genre within the current political and scholarly environment. He
attempts to do this at a national level while also including the
particular studies on Córdoba, all in one short chapter.
Unfortunately, the true scope and complexity of the topics is
slightly lost by taking on this much. With respect to historians
alone, Brennan only mentions Steve Stern's trilogy on Chile in the
text, and then cites only two other studies--by Macarena Gomez-Barris
and Leslie Jo Frazier--from the narrow strip of the 2007-08 period,
which covers only work on Chile, and only in English. Just a short
list of more recent works ought to include those by Ana Ros,
Francesca Lessa, Katherine Hite, Susana Kaiser, Cheryl Jiménez Frei,
and Telma Lilia Mariasch, among many others, who offer a much wider
view into the complexities, utility, and struggles over memory and
the politics of creditability.[5] Although a comprehensive survey may
well have been impossible for his purposes, the implications of
Brennan's limited belief in the utility of memory beyond just
"testimony and tribute" seem to sidestep some of the more interesting
conversations on memory work in the Southern Cone (p. 104). Brennan
also appears to give some credence to the_ dos demonios _(two demons)
theory, which suggests that the dictatorship's violence was a
legitimate response to the violence of the Left. While Brennan notes
a difference in the scope of each side's violence and recognizes that
they should not be fully equated, he does attempt to posit the very
real threat posed by leftist violence in the period and the chaos
within society. His argument on memory and his exploration of the two
demons theory are perhaps the two most controversial claims that
Brennan puts forth.

Ultimately, the book is best when it integrates (and distinguishes
between) the variations in how the dictatorship played out in the
"interior" with national narratives of the period. In a country so
vast--and one where regional authorities maintained control and
autonomy with regard to carrying out the war on
subversives--Brennan's book offers a more nuanced picture of the
dictatorship and the struggle over justice and memory in its wake.

Overall, _Missing Bones _is a fantastic book that asserts the
importance of understanding Córdoba within the context of the
history of Argentina's Dirty War and offers a model and call for more
histories that distinguish and include narratives about both the
"center" and so-called "peripheral" areas during times of violent


[1]. Ellie Silverman, "Luciano Menéndez Obituary," _The Washington
Post, _March 3, 2018.

[2]. CONADEP recorded 457, but out of approximately 1,000 prisoners
during three years of operation, about 100 are known to have
survived, suggesting a much higher number. Brennan, 29 and 38.

[3]. The abortive coup eventually led to his imprisonment for ninety
days and forced retirement from the army, but it remains indicative
of how fervently he believed in waging a ruthless war against

[4]. Tanya Hammer, _Allende's Chile and the Inter-American Cold War
_(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011); and Kirsten
Weld, "The Spanish Civil War and the Construction of a Reactionary
Historical Consciousness in Augusto Pinochet's Chile," _Hispanic
American Historical Review _98, no. 1 (2018): 77-115.

[5]. Ana Ros, _The Post-dictatorship Generation in Argentina, Chile,
and Uruguay _(New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012); Francesca Lessa,
_Memory and Transitional Justice in Argentina and Uruguay: Against
Impunity _(New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013); Katherine Hite,
"Empathic Unsettlement and the outsider within Argentina Spaces of
Memory," _Memory StudiesO_8, no. 1 (2015) 38-48; Susana Kaiser,
"Argentina's Trials: New Ways of Writing Memory," _Latin American
Perspectives _42, no. 3 (2015): 193-206; Cheryl Jiménez Frei,
"Toward Memory, Against Oblivion: A Comparative Perspective on Public
Memory, Monuments, and Confronting a Painful Past in the United
States and Argentina," _The Public Historian _(Sept. 2017); and Telma
Lilia Mariasch, "Desaparecidos: De las luchas jurídicas a la memoria
cultura," _V Jornadas de Sociología de la UNLP_ (December 10, 11,
and 12, 2008), accessible at

Citation: Debbie Sharnak. Review of Brennan, James P., _Argentina's
Missing Bones: Revisiting the History of the Dirty War_. H-LatAm,
H-Net Reviews. April, 2019.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53422

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States

Best regards,

Andrew Stewart

More information about the Marxism mailing list