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  • How Traumatized Societies Remember:The Aftermath of Argentina's Dirty War
  • Antonius C. G. M. Robben (bio)

We all remember that time. It was no different for me than for others. Yet we do tell each other over and over again the particularities of the events we shared, and the repetition, the listening, is as if we are saying: "It was like that for you, too? Then that confirms it, yes, it was so, it must have been, I wasn't imagining things."

—Doris Lessing, The Memoirs of a Survivor.

Navy Captain Francisco Scilingo was troubled by a recurrent nightmare: he is flying across the south Atlantic, throwing naked bodies down the hatch of an airplane. Suddenly, he stumbles and falls into the great sky below. Just before crashing into the sea, he wakes up (Verbitsky 1995, 192). "My memory turns automatically to the flights at a moment of stress," he confessed to the Argentine journalist Horacio Verbitsky in 1995 (69).

Scilingo had flown groups of disappeared out to sea during the 1976-1983 dirty war of the Argentine armed forces against a leftist guerrilla insurgency and a heterogeneous political opposition movement. He was convinced that his task was vital to save Argentina from communism. One incident during a flight in 1977 marked him for life.

There are important details but it is difficult for me to talk about them. I think about them and I repress them. They were undressed while being unconscious and when the flight commander gave the order, depending on the location of the plane, the hatch was opened and they were thrown out naked, one by one. . . . As I was quite nervous about the situation, I almost fell and tumbled into the abyss. . . . I stumbled and they grabbed me.

(Verbitsky 1995, 58) [End Page 120]

Aside from the psychologically complex relation between nightmare and event, this narration cannot be seen independent of the personal and political circumstances of Scilingo's confession. A traumatized Argentine society was the conduit for his posttraumatic stress disorder, and psychoanalytic terminology its cultural idiom.

Captain Scilingo interpreted his traumatization in a popularized psychoanalytic language of unconscious repression, its compulsive recreation in flashbacks, and a sublimation in anxiety dreams. Disturbed by nightmares, suffering from PTSD, spat out by a Navy unwilling to provide psychotherapeutic care, and forced into retirement, Scilingo broke the military's pact of silence in a bone-chilling interview. His confession shocked Argentine society, a society under the false impression that its violent past had been put to rest after guerrillas and military officers were granted presidential pardons in 1989 and 1990. The Scilingo interview gave rise to more revelations by other military officers, made the human rights movement renew their call for the prosecution of perpetrators, and thus demolished the fragile reconciliation that seemed to be sprouting in Argentina.

The aging Madres de Plaza de Mayo continued their Thursday afternoon protest with renewed vigor, and the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo intensified their search for their grandchildren. At the same time, high-ranking officers attended Masses to remember their fallen comrades and praise the victory over the revolutionary insurgents. Finally, a new human rights organization, called HIJOS, was founded by young adults whose parents had been persecuted during the military dictatorship.1 They developed a unique protest. They traced the address of a pardoned officer or former torturer, spray-painted his house with slogans, and divulged his dark past by megaphone to shame the perpetrator publicly and ostracize him from Argentine society (Gelman and LaMadrid 1997). Theirs is a social memory and a social trauma in one. They have no experiential recollection of the dirty war, yet are its living victims.

Why this incessant return to a painful past? Are these individuals, groups, and organizations concerned about how the past will be remembered or how they will be judged by history? Are their public confrontations a manifestation of a politics of memory aimed at imposing a master narrative about dictatorial rule on Argentine society? [End Page 121] In this article, I shall argue that the ongoing conflicts of memory construction are surface manifestations of unresolved traumas about past atrocities in the bosom of Argentine society. Memory...


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