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372 letters in canada 2002 university of toronto quarterly, volume 73, number 1, winter 2003/4 Patricia Marchak. God=s Assassins: State Terrorism in Argentina in the 1970s McGill-Queen=s University Press 1999. xi, 394. $44.95, $29.95 Between 1973 and 1983 Argentina suffered a period of unprecedented civil violence known as the >dirty war,= in which an estimated thirty thousand people >disappeared= at the hands of the authorities. According to Patricia Marchak, what occurred was a case of state terrorism, which she tries to understand and explain largely through the words of Argentine observers and participants. On the basis of interviews and personal recollections she provides an interesting, at times compelling, and certainly emotionally charged insiders= view of this black period in Argentina=s recent history. The roots of this apparently civilized country=s degeneration into disorder, violence, and state-sponsored repression can be found in its earlier history. Marchak paints a picture of a staunchly conservative country dominated by an elite with military support whose position was challenged by the rise of Juan Domingo Perón in the 1940s. His appeal, especially to unionized workers and the poor, unsettled the country=s fragile political equilibrium, so that despite his increasingly dictatorial rule and overthrow in 1955, he remained a popular hero and a symbol of democracy to many, especially during the subsequent years of military governments. His followers= attempts to restore democracy, often through violence, provoked government reprisals and also fostered bloody internecine struggles as Peronists disagreed over the methods to be used. In 1973 the elite and the military permitted Perón=s return to the presidency in the hope that this might end the deepening chaos. However, neither he nor his even more ineffective wife, who replaced him after his death, could find a solution, opening the door for the military to intervene once again, now with carte blanche to do what they wished. Arrests, looting, kidnapping, and murder became the order of the day over the next decade, primarily at the hands of the authorities. Neither legal dictates nor moral scruples limited those directing the repression. As one general stated in justifying the atrocities: >First we kill all the subversives; then we will kill their collaborators; then their sympathizers; then ... those who remain indifferent; and finally we will kill the timid.= Many quietly accepted the repression hoping that it would end the violence. With elements of the church supporting the military B explaining the book=s rather misleading title B the civilian population had further reason to believe the authorities= explanations. Opposed only by a handful of human rights groups, the military leaders continued their bloody path until finally they were forced from power following the Malvinas/Falklands fiasco in 1982. The author tries to make sense of the events through interviews with Argentines from various walks of life. Some discuss the years preceding the dirty war. Others, including union militants, students, members of various humanities 373 university of toronto quarterly, volume 73, number 1, winter 2003/4 guerrilla groups, peronists, Catholic activists, conservative and reformist priests, junior and senior military officers, and media representatives focus on the events of the 1970s. Some of those interviewed were innocent, ordinary people who were arrested themselves or had family members who were imprisoned or disappeared. Their testimonies present a clear picture of the fear and helplessness that permeated those years. Also evident is the naïveté of many of the participants and their differing perceptions about what was taking place. The overriding impression is of uncertainty and confusion. That same sense of confusion is evident in the author=s conclusion when she uses the testimonies to provide possible explanations for the state terror. Some blamed the military, who saw themselves as the saviours of the nation against a Marxist threat and couched this in religious terms, thereby winning church support. Others held the proponents of neoliberalism with their desire to reduce the role of the state in daily life and weaken the power of the unions responsible. The cold war and an internal struggle within the local middle class were other explanations. Marchak raises questions about all of these, leaving the impression that something more...


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