Guy Gugliotta
Guy Gugliotta

Fellowship Title:

Argentina and the Third World War

Guy Gugliotta
May 10, 1986

Fellowship Year

On Nov. 2, 1981, Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri offered a toast to the power brokers of the newly arrived Reagan Administration, gathered at the Argentine Embassy in Washington for a gala luncheon. It was an auspicious occasion. After four years of unpleasant and often bitter exchanges with Jimmy Carter and his human-rights-conscious government, Argentina was trying to mend fences with the United States. He had found a receptive audience among Reagan conservatives, who liked the Argentine Army commander’s easy bonhomie and tough anti-communism. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, the first to lift a glass, remarked that Argentina and the United States had “entered a phase of reconstruction in their friendship.”

Argentine Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri.
Argentine Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri.

In reply, Galtieri sounded a favorite theme: “The First World War,” he said, “was a confrontation of armies. The second was a confrontation of nations. The third is a confrontation of ideologies.” The United States and Argentina, he continued, “must march together, united in their anxieties and their common interest.”

Galtieri had spoken in a code only partially understood by his Yankee audience. For 51/2 years the Argentine Armed Forces had fought a so-called “dirty war” against leftist insurgents that had resulted in the deaths or disappearances of thousands of citizens. Many of the victims had little or nothing to do with Argentina’s guerrilla violence, and the military government in which Galtieri was a leading actor had earned a reputation for ruthless repression second to none in Latin America. The Reagan Administration, unlike its more fastidious predecessor, was ostensibly willing to ignore or at least minimize the slaughter of innocents. The “excesses” were the lamentable but unavoidable detritus of an unsought war which the Argentine Armed Forces had fought and won. Starting from this premise, better relations between the United States and Argentina were both possible and desirable.

What the Reagan Administration failed to understand–could not understand–was the degree to which Argentina’s military leaders were indoctrinated in and committed to the concept of ideological war, or, as Galtieri and his Argentine peers preferred to describe it, the Third World War. The Reagan team’s ideologies, steeped in the demonology of East-West confrontation, might welcome Galtieri’s like-mindedness, but as representatives of one superpower in a bipolar world, they could not afford to indulge their anti-Communist fancies. In their world compromise must be contemplated, confrontation anticipated and avoided whenever possible. In the nuclear age Alternative strategies are unthinkable. This reality converts even the wildest-eyed fanatic into a practical man.

The Argentines had no such constraint. For the Process of National Reorganization that ruled Argentina from 1976-1983, anti-communism was a crusade. The Armed Forces had developed the concept of the Third World War and the military doctrine that accompanied it. Critics of the Process at various times have speculated that Argentina’s repression responded to a plan devised and carried out by the Armed Forces with advice and approval from the Pentagon. The critics are wrong. The United States may have led a polemical war against communism in the hemisphere–especially after Fidel Castro’s takeover in Cuba in 1959 and again with the advent of the Reagan administration–but this has little to do with the Third World War. In matters relating to the Third World War, the gringos had nothing to teach Argentina.

Argentina developed its counterinsurgency doctrine beginning in the late 1950s at the Army’s high command headquarters and at its Escuela Superior de Guerra–Command and Staff College. The prime mover was a stubby, temperamental engineering officer and military theorist, Lt. Col. (and later Maj. Gen.) Carlos Jorge Rosas.

Rosas was just 41 years old when he returned to Argentina in 1955 after two years of military studies in France. Superiors and subordinates regarded him as one of the outstanding officers–perhaps the outstanding officer–of his generation. He was known as El Chivo–”the Goat,” probably because of his physical aspect and his aggressive, lurching gait. Ideas cascaded from his mind, and he demanded that his colleagues keep up. Many of his former associates remember him as the most intelligent man they ever met. In France, Rosas had learned about revolutionary war and counterinsurgency.

Until Rosas returned to Argentina–as assistant Operations Chief at the Army High Command and as the Escuela’s subdirector, guerrilla warfare was a non-existent discipline in the Argentine Armed Forces. Training in tactics and strategy focused on conventional war and external threats. Argentina had little knowledge or interest in the enemy within.

Still, times were ripe for change in 1955. The Cold War had made neutrality difficult for any South American nation, and Argentina, despite unpleasant and often ruinous relations with the United States, was in the Western camp both by tradition and inclination.

More important, at least initially, counterinsurgency had possible short-term relevance for Argentina. The Armed Forces in 1955 had overthrown the elected government of President Juan D. Peron, an enterprise viewed with bitterness by millions of poor and working class people who had supported the caudillo. If the Peronist hordes were to seek revenge, it might be useful for the Army to know what to expect. Counterinsurgency training was not simply another imported fad.

To help him in his work, Rosas in 1956 asked for and obtained for Argentina the services of a French military advisory team. France sent two lieutenant colonels and rotated them every two years. The advisors were combat veterans of at least two wars and had learned their anti-guerrilla techniques in the bitterness of Dien Bien Phu and the Plain of Jars. Now they had engaged Ahmed Ben Bella and his guerrillas in Algeria. They were skilled, skeptical men, committed anti-Communists whose ideas found a ready audience in the Roman Catholic conservatives that comprised the Argentine officer corps. Between 1956 and 1960 they and Rosas taught counterinsurgency at the Escuela.

Their students, mostly captains in their early 30s, were the best and brightest of the Argentine Army, destined for staff positions or field grade commands. Galtieri, who stepped up from Army commander to become the Process’s third President in 1982, completed the Escuela’s three-year course in 1957. His Escuela classmate, Reynaldo Bignone, succeeded Galtieri as president following the 1982 Falkland Islands war. The Escuela’s rolls during the late 1950s read like a who’s who of the Process of National Reorganization.

Guerrilla war is a nasty business and officers in the Argentine Army, as in most conventional armies, disliked the idea of fighting one because it did not respond to the training and personal goals that attracted them to military service. Traditional objectives–winning battles, conquering territory, inflicting casualties–have little meaning in an insurgency. The enemy denies battle, cedes territory and often does not wear a uniform. A regular soldier can find little glory in guerrilla war, still less can he take satisfaction from it. It is almost never a job well done.

At the Escuela, the young captains had to consider a future unpleasantness. Any guerrilla war in which they fought would involve the killing of Argentines by other Argentines. This was not something the French had to worry about, for their wars were essentially colonial conflicts fought to protect French-held foreign territories from internal takeover by native revolutionary movements.

Nonetheless, both armies faced a common dilemma: how to justify actions that could be severely questioned on moral grounds. For the French, this meant finding a just reason for holding foreign territory in a world that was precipitately divesting itself of colonies. In the Argentine case, it meant finding a just reason for Argentine soldiers to kill their countrymen.

Hence, ideological war. In a 1957 Escuela lecture, Rosas described its essence: “Communism has a permanent mission of proselytism and struggle that it is striving to fulfill: the conquest of the world as its objective; the profound conviction that this conquest is inevitable in the more or less long term.”

It was an invasion of ideas, as foreign and hostile to Argentina as a horde of Brazilians streaming across the Parana River. This was the struggle of modern times; the stakes were enormous and the battle, although it :may not yet have reached Argentina, had already been joined. “We must underscore,” said Rosas, “that the character of this conflict corresponds to the religious wars of the past: ideological. Its probable consequences: the survival or disappearance of Western Civilization.”

From the beginning the Escuela’s instructors stressed the folly of trying to impose a purely military solution on a conflict in which the enemy measured its success not in territory gained but in popular support. Under the influence of Communism it was easy to confuse war and peace, Rosas warned, but make no mistake: “This is not only total war, but integrated total war, a war in which all the objectives, the means to attain them and the conditions of battle are mixed together in such a way that military activity is constantly influenced by other [factors] external to it, whether political, psychological or economic.”

American counterinsurgency doctrine, just developing at the time Rosas was teaching, did not begin to make inroads into Argentine thinking until the early 1960s when the United States had its own military mission in place. But the Yankee vision of guerrilla war differed markedly from the French. Argentines would find it excessively “militaristic,” in that planning, training, psychological operations and civic action were all put at the service of a military strategy aimed at a military objective–a limited war to defeat a guerrilla army. Rosas and the French fought total war to defeat an ideology.

This difference meant that for the French–and for the Argentines during the Process–the Third World War never ended. Objectives could not be clearly discerned, vigilance must be constant, gains must be consolidated. Communism was like sin. You could never put your hands on it, but it was always there.

For years the Argentines tried to marry the French and American doctrines, but it didn’t work. The Americans were Protestant, pragmatic and mechanical; they divided the war into clearly defined tasks designed to produce clearly defined results. It was an impatient strategy. Ideological matters were minimized or even dismissed as irrelevant. One passage from an early Argentine counter-insurgency manual explains in plodding gringo fashion that “insurrectionary movements on a large scale have as their basic cause the discontent of the population, whether real, imaginary or provoked.” A second volume of the same work, however, notes with Gaelic flair that “revolutionary war corresponds, in its essence, to the classification of ideological war. This is what International Communism has developed to impose Marxist doctrine in the world, embracing all aspects of human activity.” For the French, the stakes were always higher, the struggle more desperate.

The dangers of ideological war did not go unrecognized at the time. Capt. Jose Teofilo Goyret, one of Rosas’ military history professors, found disquieting the idea of revolution as religious crusade and said so. “Nobody in the Army was going -to quarrel with the idea that the Soviet Union was doing its best to undermine the west,” Goyret recalled later. “But better to define this as a global power struggle, not ideological war.”

One of Goyret’s colleagues, tactics professor Lt. Col. Mario Orsolini, was even more outspoken: “With ideology as cause, it is easy to embark on a holy war, with the ferocious characteristics that are peculiar to it; no quarter given or granted; no recognition of the adversary’s character as a belligerent,” Orsolini wrote in 1964. “The Army indiscriminately and at all levels develops a tendency to assume the views of the most extreme politicians, to imitate the adversary’s terrorist methods, to consider as an enemy anyone who raises his voice against the Collective insanity.…With the ideological army as the instrument of revolutionary war, judgment is impossible, sensitivity is cowardice, prudence is a sin.”

Nonetheless, the French-inspired crusade clearly prevailed over U.S. limited war. From 1957 until the Process, the Argentines were examining the doctrines and shaping it to fit their own needs.

French adviser Lt. Col. Patrice Roger J. L. de Naurois in a 1958 lecture set the rules of the game: “It is not possible to contend with subversive activity or fight guerrillas without using some of the procedures of subversive warfare and of the guerrilla.” The guerrillas sought to control the masses and win them to their cause. To deny them, the Army needed to fight the same war. Controlling the population was not an elective function designed to buttress a military effort–as in U.S.-inspired “civic action.” It was a primary mission with two purposes. On the one hand, de Naurois said, the Army wants to foster “confidence in the Government and show the population it is effectively protected from terrorism,” i.e., good advertising for the better product. On the other hand, however, people need to be convinced “that they must not in any way help or support the guerrillas, nor may they remain neutral. They must take the side of the forces of order and collaborate with them.” Buy collaboration, but if that fails, use other methods.

Once the Army was among the people, where it had to be if its efforts were to be effective, de Naurois envisioned a four-stage military strategy: “isolate the [guerrilla] bands from their external support (impede the arrival of personnel and supplies); impede the support of the population; isolate the bands from each other and–especially–destroy their bases and their rearguard and supply infrastructure; annihilate the bands.” It was a strategy of control and exhaustion–a patient strategy. Take away what the guerrillas needed: supplies, reinforcements, bases, popular support. Then finish off the guerrillas themselves.

This was the tactical basis of the Third World War. Actual fighting was only the final step. Control of the population, ideological indoctrination and, if necessary, intimidation and worse, were the key elements needed to isolate the guerrillas from their milieu. The Armed Forces first used the method in 1975 in the northwestern province of Tucuman to stamp out an insurrection by the Marxist-Leninist Peoples’ Revolutionary Army. The Army created a “Zone of Emergency,” divided the province into subzones and sectors and spent four months examining identification cards, searching cars and houses, arresting and interrogating. It was in Tucuman that the Army and police established clandestine detention camps, embarked on the systematic use of torture and permanently disappeared prisoners. The insurrection was over in six months.

With the 1976 coup d’etat that brought the process to power, the doctrine achieved countrywide success. Argentina was divided into “Zones of Defense,” subzones, sectors, etc., and the same procedure of search, seizure, arrest and interrogation was inaugurated. The left Peronist Montoneros, against whom this strategy was principally aimed, were finished as a military force by mid-1977. By the time Galtieri got to the United States in 1981, Argentina had not had “dirty war” for years. This did not matter.

“My country, for its vital importance in Latin America, was, is and will be a permanent target,” Galtieri said in a speech at Ft. Lewis, Wash. “The threat…is global, creating violence around the world with the single purpose of winning power for Marxism.”

©1986 Guy Gugliotta