- Argentina's Missing Bones: Revisiting the History of the Dirty War by James P. Brennan
Brennan has written a timely account about the troubled past of the last dictatorship in Argentina. The recent "human rights" politics of Néstor and Cristina Kirchner's administrations (2003–2015) have generated an important shift in the enduring memory, truth and justice practices in Argentina that now allow original materials about the crimes of the Dirty War (state repression in Argentina from 1976 to 1983) to emerge. The most important are the court testimonies of relatives of the disappeared and survivors of the clandestine detention centers and (the albeit few) state documents that have been offered as evidence in the renewed trials for crimes against humanity. Brennan has sensibly utilized these personal and institutional archives in his well-researched and original historical study, which places the Dirty War in a regional framework.
In contrast to many scholarly works about Argentina and the dictatorship that mostly concentrate on Buenos Aires and the surrounding provinces, Brennan provides a thorough analysis of the violence and the truth and justice practices in Córdoba, the second-largest city in Argentina. Through this case study, the book seeks to reconsider the underlying causes for the brutality and scale of the state repression in Argentina. One great strength of this book is its break from the revisionist notion that Argentina's Dirty War was a by-product of a global Cold War. Brennan by no means ignores the ideological influence of the United States within the Argentinian armed forces during the twentieth century. However, his combination of transnational and regional approaches demonstrates that the [End Page 150] ideological and practical underpinnings of the state terrorism was an "amalgam of influences, drawn from Argentina's history and the military's own institutional culture as well as diverse foreign sources" (7).
Brennan brilliantly demonstrates that in the military's view, the subversive forces in Córdoba—a highly politicized youth culture, a socially activist Catholic Church, and an extremely committed militant union movement—were more radical than those elsewhere in the country. The particularly brutal nature of the Dirty War in Córdoba was therefore not accidental or indiscriminate but carefully targeted by the armed forces (74). On a transnational scale, Brennan focuses sharply on the Argentinian–French connection to analyze the adaptation of the brutal postcolonial counterinsurgency in Algeria to local tactics and general strategies intended to annihilate dissidents in 1970s Argentina.
Brennan uses a historiographical paradigm to demonstrate that the brutalities of state repression in Argentina cannot be thoroughly understood through the lens of societal trauma and personal memories of the victims alone. His claim that memory is fundamentally different from history is not new, but in the context of the last dictatorship in Argentina, it is a welcome observation. To revise the history of the Dirty War with all its complexities and contradictions, the book examines the perpetrators of the violence to elucidate the military government's understanding of what constituted war. Unfortunately, Brennan's views of the perpetrators remain shallow. He later acknowledges the challenge that this methodology presented, because historical records about the state's repression had either been destroyed or never written; the military commanders gave their orders orally. Brennan had to rely on fragmentary information from military sources and the scattered declarations of a few indicted generals at the court of Córdoba, the majority of whom maintained a "stony silence" (84). Because of the fundamental lack of historical evidence, compiling the history of the Dirty War in Argentina remains largely a matter of memory.
Overall, Brennan convincingly analyzes how remembering the Dirty War in Argentina is not only an individual or private matter but also encompasses an institutional memory fomented and fashioned by the policies of the Kirchner governments (96). By focusing on Córdoba, Brennan successfully captures the role of the state in constructing public memory of the Dirty War.