Monday, November 02, 2009

Chilean Ex-Soldiers Willing to Reveal What They Saw During the Pinochet Era

Some (non-officer) Chilean soldiers have begun to seek pensions, something that has been denied them in the past because of their roles as the "grunts" of the dictatorship. In return for gaining amnesty and being eligible for pensions, they will reveal some of the secrets of the basic functioning of the dictatorship's repressive apparatuses at the local level.

This gets into a really sticky question of who is or isn't a victim, but I'm inclined to agree that some of these soldiers very well may also be victims of the dictatorship. I realize that sounds silly up front. It's a military dictatorship - isn't saying the military is a "victim" too just an affront to those whose families really did suffer? The short answer would seem to be "yes," but the biggest and easiest trap in studying and writing about military dictatorships is the assumption that "the military" is a unified whole, when that's never the case; even when scholars know better, we often find ourselves having to refer to "the military" as shorthand, which just further creates the impression that there was some unified whole that was imposing repression, authoritarianism, torture, and state-sponsored murder on its nation's citizenry.

But as anybody who can studies dictatorships in detail can tell you, the idea of a single "military" is never accurate. Firstly, there is the fact that there are always dissensions within the highest levels of the military leadership itself. Pinochet didn't start off as the sole leader of Chile; he was part of a junta, but through power-plays and the removal of those who disagreed with him (including high-ranking air force brigadier generals and naval admirals, as well as other high-ranking generals), he was able to consolidate power. In Brazil, there were five military generals who occupied the post of president in its 21 year dictatorship (1964-1985), and scholars generally agree that they really represented two groups: "moderates," and "hard-liners." While I've always wondered if that categorization hasn't been too simple, it holds up in the documents, and indeed, in the mid-1970s, Ernesto Geisel (one of the "moderates") had to do some tricky maneuvering to prevent the hard-liners from taking control again (after two hardline generals and a brief junta held the presidency from 1967 to 1974). Rarely among dictatorships do you see any kind of unity even among the leadership; even when generals and military leaders publicly seem to be on the same page, there is often conflict behind what Derek Sayer called the "mask of the state."

Beyond high-level internal disagreements, militaries also often see disagreements between the officer corps (who are often highly-educated men from middle- and upper-class families) and the soldiers (who are often comparatively speaking, less-educated working-class men who are drafted or who enlisted for financial or professional reasons). In this kind of structure, multiple dividing factors can and do emerge - hierarchical differences, cultural differences, political differences, and class differences. Many times in Latin America, these men joined the army in peacetime, or turned to it as a last resort for stable income, and suddenly found themselves being ordered by their superiors to arrest, torture, and even kill civilians.

This brings us back to Chile. It's not a big secret that many soldiers were horrified at what they had to do, and often tried to avoid duties like torture. Indeed, a particularly harrowing account in this collection of eyewitness reports from Chile in 1973 (a book that I cannot recommend strongly enough for those interested in the fall of Allende) tells of how one soldier refused to arrest the residents of a poor neighborhood in the wake of Allende's overthrow, and his commanding officer shot him dead on the spot and said the same would happen to anybody else who did not follow orders. And for those who did follow orders and survived, it's clear that many of these conscripts are still suffering severe psychological and personal trauma for what they had to do during the Pinochet regime:

In a lengthy interview with The Associated Press, Mellado said the former draftees also are victims — forced into service as minors and made to do unspeakable things or be killed themselves. He said many have told him of horrifying crimes they want to get off their chests.

One confessed to shooting an entire family. Another — now an alcoholic who sleeps in the street in Santiago — said he was forced to drown a 7-year-old boy in a barrel of hardening plaster. Others describe harrowing torture sessions, and loading bodies onto helicopters to be dumped at sea.

"Our mission was to stand guard outside, and listen to their screams," said former draftee Jose Paredes, who described his service at the Tejas Verdes torture center in an AP interview. "They would end up destroyed, torn apart, their teeth and faces broken."

"There are things that I've always said I will take to the grave," Paredes said, his grizzled face running with tears as he named a half-dozen officers who he said gave the orders. "I've never told this to anyone."

When you read passages like that, it's hard not to see how many soldiers in the lower ranks also ended up being victims of authoritarian regimes.

Now, this isn't to say some soldiers, be it in Chile, Brazil, or elsewhere, did not relish in their duties, or at least have little problem with their role in combating "subversion." Just as with the leadership, the non-officer soldier corps is diverse in its attitudes, opinions, beliefs, etc. Nonetheless, many men in multiple dictatorships in Latin America found themselves put in the position of having to risk their income and their lives on one hand, or torturing and killing innocent civilians on the other, and while it's easy to say from a distance that they never should have tortured, the long-term and real-time consequences of their actions at the time no doubt made things much more difficult.

In that regard, I think the soldiers in the Chilean case mentioned at the beginning here have a strong case. Some would say, "well, they should just offer up the information anyways." Perhaps. But just as it's easy to say that they shouldn't have tortured in the first place, it's easy to say they should just cough up what they know when you're not in their position. Is it possible that some of these men are just in it for the money? Again, perhaps. Amnesty laws in general are tricky matters. But, as the AP article points out, in spite of the prosecutions of men like Chile, and in spite of what we know about how torture functioned under the Pinochet regime, it's also true that, "in nearly two decades of democracy since then, less than 8 percent of the disappeared have been found." Thus, at the end of the day, if the conscripts' accounts are accurate and shed new light on how exactly the mechanisms of repression and torture functioned (because, after all, it wasn't Pinochet who was in the cells demanding information from victims), then I think it's a worthy endeavor to pursue.