Monday, March 23, 2009

Why I Study Latin American Dictatorships and Military Politics

There's no big mystery or moral crisis as to why I study Brazil. Through a series of happy accidents that aren't worth recounting in detail here, I discovered early in my graduate career that I really enjoyed Brazilian history, that it made sense to me, and that I was good at it. I opted for Brazil over Chile, and the rest is cheesily history.

But, as Erik pondered here, the explanations not just as to why I study dictatorships, or how I can, is more interesting, and more difficult. And quite honestly, at the end of it, I don't know. A lot of historians are fascinated by the dark, macabre side of history - I suspect that's what draws many environmental historians to their field. Likewise, labor historians probably find labor unrest more interesting than labor rest, and there's a reason that there are so many amateur (in the broadest and worst sense of the word) "military historians" out there. I think we historians generally just like things when they are at their messiest, most complex, most volatile.

But studying dictatorships has a particular oppression looming over it. Environmental destruction, strike-breaking, and war all have really ugly components. Yet, at least to my way of thinking (and I think a lot of people's more generally), dealing with issues like methodical torture, disappearances, and murders in lop-sided "battles" is really, really hard to deal with. I'm pretty sure every Latin Americanist who studies dictatorships (not just Southern Cone) passes through a phase somewhere in their professional path where they seriously worry, "is there something WRONG with me for wanting to study this?" At least for me, it wasn't just some passing question I waived off - it ended up involving some pretty heavy moral and philosophical reflection in my second year of my Master's. And I've known many people who started off wanting to study dictatorships, but once they really got into how awful those governments could be, they opted out, choosing to focus on some other issue either topically or temporally (or both).

Ultimately, those of us who really want to study these things in depth find many ways to deal with it. Partly, you take comfort in the fact that, if those who survived this made it through some of the most brutal tortures you could imagine, then you can too. In part, there's a wish to overcome the frustrations, the horrors, the complete despair in the face of some of the despicable acts humans can perpetrate against other humans, because I (we?) believe that, if we can just teach others about these horrors, then maybe we're taking some small step to preventing their repetition. There is also the fact that you learn and understand the complexities of the issues, so the fact that the French or Americans taught many of these torture techniques leaves plenty of blame to be spread around. And, at least in the case of Latin America, we have other areas we don't study that seem even more horrific. The 30,000 dead in Argentina is terrifying and brutal, but we can still say, "well, at least it's not Stalin, or Pol Pot."

Ultimately, none of this satisfactorily answers the question, "is there something wrong with me?" But at the end of the day, it's much better to be teaching others about the torture and murders that happen in dictatorships than to be perpetrating them in the name of a government.