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Opinion: "Dirty Secrets, Dirty War"

A new book about Argentina's past and why the truth matters.

A man holds up a picture of a woman who disappeared during Argentina's "Dirty War" in a demonstration to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the military coup in Buenos Aires, March 24, 2006. (Marcos Brindicci/Reuters)

PARIS — Back when Bob Cox committed his brave little Buenos Aires Herald to saving Argentina from itself, one editorial quoted Nietzsche: “If you look into the eyes of the dragon, you risk becoming the dragon yourself.”

Three decades later, “Dirty Secrets, Dirty War” by Cox and his son David details how a wealthy society of good people, if willfully ignorant, can go so horribly wrong.

And, as a well-meaning but often misguided superpower breathes indiscriminate fire at indefinable evil, the book reminds us what real journalism is supposed to be.

In the 1970s, the Argentine military and police tortured people even vaguely suspected of leftist leanings. Thousands were “disappeared” to hide the evidence.

Perhaps 30,000 Argentines were put to death between 1976 and 1983. Many vanished without a trace.

Washington knew about it from the start. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger ignored his ambassador’s anguish and signaled generals to do what they must to thwart communism. Argentine editors averted their eyes in fear of reprisal or for national pride. Cox, a Briton who edited an English-language daily owned by Americans, did not.  

During those ugly years, I was Associated Press bureau chief in Argentina. Like other correspondents, I dug for clues about mysterious kidnappings and disappearances.

One morning in 1976, the Herald ran a front-page headline, a quote from a desperate grandfather: “Help Me Save the Children.” That was a turning point.

A Uruguayan couple had vanished in Buenos Aires along with their two infants and their 4-year-old. Cox told authorities he would campaign until the kids reappeared.

Soon after, a U.S. embassy legal attache — the FBI man — asked to see me. Disgusted with Washington’s complicity in a cover-up, he had decided to spill the beans.

Argentine intelligence officers wanted him to take custody of the kids, he told me. They balked at killing children, and they feared heat from the Herald’s scrutiny.

Then he told me the rest.

Police used simple guilt by association, seizing people found in suspects’ address books. With no oversight, personal vendetta or sexual perversion was cause enough.

He described screams he had heard from routine torture at interrogation centers. One favorite technique was “el submarino.” That is, waterboarding.

Each day, he said, helicopters dumped victims into the ocean, still alive so they would gasp in water and sink. Each military branch had its own disposal airlift.