With totalitarian violence from both left and right, ordinary citizens were caught in the middle. The military rule of General Jorge Rafael Videla, his junta and the military regimes that followed during the Dirty War are estimated to have been responsible for the disappearances of up to 30,000 people.
During this time information about the disappearances was obscured through the control of the government, which pressured newspapers and media outlets not to discuss human rights abuses perpetrated by the military regime that kidnapped, tortured and murdered thousands of citizens. One common practice for the junta was to sedate their prisoners, herd them onto airplanes and dump them in large numbers into the ocean from high altitudes.
One newspaper that refused to hush the terrorism that abounded in Argentina under Videla was the English language daily, the Buenos Aires Herald. The editor, Robert J. Cox, served on the Herald staff for 20 years before fleeing the country in 1979 with his family out of fear of the military regime.
His son David tells the story that his father found too painful to relate. The middle child of the Cox family born to native Argentine Maud and British father Robert, David tells the compelling story of the political unrest in the country and relates it through the lens of his personal experience as a child growing up in Buenos Aires.
Cox’s work makes significant use of epistolary elements. Much of the information he relates comes through the form of his own journal entries and those of his father and mother. The book contains letters from friends and family. Also included are letters from citizens in support of Cox’s dedication to freedom of the press, as well as letters from ill-meaning members of the junta looking to intimidate Cox and strangle the voice of the free press in Buenos Aires. Many of Robert Cox’s editorials are contained in the work to illustrate the political climate of the country. Given the diversity of sources from which he compiles his writing, David Cox does an excellent job weaving together the various levels of narrative present in Dirty Secrets, Dirty War.
The narrative structure of the book is a fascinating insight into the Dirty War. The reader gains a complex knowledge of the political goings-on at the time from someone with firsthand experience. But even rarer than a firsthand account of the Dirty War is one that comes from a man who grew up in the turmoil Argentina was experiencing, whose father’s life was threatened by the military junta for daring to report on the disappearances of citizens. Dirty Secrets, Dirty War is at times highly personal. David Cox takes the story of his growing up as one of five children in a beautiful country and city with his happy childhood memories and juxtaposes it with the undercurrent of excessive violence, secrets, suspicion and paranoia engendered by the junta. His writing displays a bittersweet love of home, a love stained by fear.
The vein of fear in the citizens of Buenos Aires ran deep. Cox describes how mere suspicion on the part of the government often resulted in someone disappearing. These disappearances were often permanent. Cases came to the attention of Robert Cox where people were abducted by the junta in a mere case of mistaken identity; in spite of this, they sometimes did not return. The effect of the violence was that many citizens did not want to become involved; they did not want to inquire about the fates of countrymen who had disappeared. Anyone rousing suspicion or speaking out put himself at risk of scrutiny by the government, which could prove fatal.
The radicalism on both sides fostered a detachment from government for the average citizen; many believed it was best simply to mind their own business. In a democracy the people are engaged, an interest in governmental affairs without fear of retribution lending empowerment. A military dictatorship seeks to do the exact opposite by controlling with fear.
Robert Cox fought a battle against the violence of the junta and the misinformation they disseminated to the country, but also against a disbelief in the people in place as a defense mechanism. The government intimidated its citizens to look the other way. Robert Cox was resolute in his stance to report the truth and stare the problem in the face.
The polarization between right wing and left wing radicals left the more moderate political subjects caught in the cross-fire. The situation is reminiscent of W. B. Yeats’ “The Second Coming”:
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
David Cox describes how so many were silent except for a few honorable exceptions. Too many were scared and intimidated. Even General Jorge Rafael Videla was initially considered moderate. Cox writes that his father believed Videla to be a coward, bullied by hard-line members of the junta into condoning violence. Robert Cox was not one who lacked conviction or who allowed himself to be intimidated. This book does an excellent job describing a man and his career, for both of which the author obviously holds an unbounded amount of love and respect.
It has long been known that a number of soldiers from Nazi Germany and war criminals looking to escape prosecution fled to Argentina after World War II. There has been much speculation about the method in which this was carried out and how many fled from Germany. Dirty Secrets, Dirty War draws a parallel to the Nazi presence in Argentina and its similarity to Gestapo-style police tactics that the Argentine government used in the Dirty War. Both regimes used propaganda and misinformation to deceive their own citizens. Both regimes made certain citizens disappeared in clandestine fashion without writ of habeas corpus and certainly without legal arrest and detainment methods. The comparison of Nazi and Argentine governments and control tactics is fascinating.
Yet Cox does not speculate heavily on the correlation. Dirty Secrets, Dirty War could have benefited from more discussion on this intriguing topic. A concrete link between Argentine military hardliners and a Nazi influence would prove explosive and could be a stunning work for the future, either by Cox or someone else.
One account in Dirty Secrets, Dirty War presents an editorial written by Robert Cox. He was picked up by the police for violating press restrictions before being released amid international pressure clamoring for his freedom. When placed in the prison Cox noticed “there in the antechamber was a huge swastika, emblazoned on the wall by the police themselves. Underneath was the word: Nazi-nationalism.” One has to wonder how deep the connection was.
Overall Cox’s latest book is an intriguing read exploring the politics of a frightening time in Argentina. It is heavily dosed with a charming personal touch and attachment to subject and place that lend a strong tension to the events. David Cox’s account left me wanting to know even more.