A Brief History of Argentine “Death Flights,” Their Renewed Glorification on College Campuses, and the Urgent Need for Historical Literacy

Between 1974 and 1983, Argentina’s military Junta took over the government for an extended period of state terrorism. During that time, there were death squads assembled and dispatched by the right-wing Junta; these death squads–also known as the Argentine Anticommunist Alliance (Triple A, but not the kind most US Americans are used to calling for a roadside assist) hunted, disappeared, tortured, stole babies from, and experimented on those believed to be leftist dissidents: students, teachers, journalists, trade unionists, writers, artists, actors, and political organizers.

Of course, anyone could turn in their neighbor and sometimes they disappeared people (look at what happened to language–did you know a person could be disappeared?) who had nothing to do with anything, just to maintain their fear-based control.

This period of time was called La Guerra Sucia–the Dirty War. Estimates vary wildly in terms of how many people were ultimately disappeared during those years, but scholars think the range is somewhere between 13,000 and 30,000.  It is almost impossible to quantify, since so many people were simply never seen again and official channels deliberately obfuscated and destroyed any paper trail. They were, as they say, “extrajudicial” killings.

It was no use, either, trying to find loved ones’ bodies: sometimes their charred remains were poured into the pavement of busy city sidewalks, and sometimes their bodies–still very much alive at the time–were dumped into the sea on what the Junta would call vuelos de la muerte, or “death flights.” From Wikipedia:

Victims were sometimes made to dance for joy in celebration of the freedom that they were told awaited them. In an earlier interview, in 1996, Scilingo said, “They were played lively music and made to dance for joy, because they were going to be transferred to the south. […] After that, they were told they had to be vaccinated due to the transfer, and they were injected with Pentothal. And shortly after, they became really drowsy, and from there we loaded them onto trucks and headed off for the airfield.”[3] Scilingo said that the Argentine Navy was “still hiding what happened during the dirty war”.[4]

I am telling you this because yesterday a colleague posted this image to his Facebook page. He saw it on the University of Washington’s campus and knew at once that it was a reference to Argentine death flights.

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Image header reads “ANTI-COMMUNIST ACTION JOIN THE FIGHT!” and shows a black ring festooned with the words “ANTI-COMMUNIST ACTION” surrounding an image of a helicopter throwing a person into the sky, on top of a waving flag. Below, the text reads: “We are a group of dedicated freedom fighters united against the growing threat from communists [sic] agitators and other violent left wing radicals on college campuses. We will [be silent?] no longer. Now the right fights back! Follow us on Twitter: @UW_AntiCo. Or email us at: [ripped paper].”

It would have been easy to miss, had my colleague not pointed it out, and had I not spent years in graduate school studying authoritarian regimes in Latin America’s Southern Cone.  The refrain that echoed from those days across Latin America was nunca más, never again. And yet, here we are, looking at a right-wing flier depicting the glorification of death flights, death squads, and right-wing terrorism.

You might have missed it if you never studied a certain branch of Latin American history, so here’s what you need to know:

Adolfo Scilingo, a former Navy officer responsible for the deaths of at least 30 desaparecidos during death flights, said he was told that the flights were considered “a form of communion” and “a supreme act we did for the country” (Fietlowitz 196). He said the ecclesiastic authorities “assured him that this was a Christian, basically nonviolent form of death” (to be thrown from the plane into the sea, what the clergy called “flying”) and that “if anyone had problems with this he could be assigned elsewhere” (195-6).

He added that the doctors aboard the planes would “move back to the cabin so as not to violate their Hippocratic oath” after administering the second dose of sodium pentothal. The prisoners were told they were getting “vaccinations” and were being flown to “rehabilitation camps.”

Scilingo claimed that once the prisoners were further sedated, the officers undressed them, and then two officers would drag one prisoner to the open door and “push him out into the sky.” He claims to have been haunted for the rest of his life by the sounds of the captives’ shackles and the piles of empty clothes that remained after all the “cargo” had been chucked into the sea.

After each of the flights, Scilingo claimed that he drank himself to sleep and then went to confession, where he was absolved immediately.

Marguerite Feitlowitz, author of A Lexicon of Terror, recounts Scilingo’s story, which was told for the first time on 2 March 1995 on the popular Argentine television show Hora Clave:

“It was a Christian form of death,” the priest assured [Scilingo] and, bastardizing a parable from Matthew 13:24, explained that subversives were the weeds sown by the enemy among the wheat. The tares had to be burned, so that the wheat could be gathered into the barn. “And that,” says Scilingo, “is how we were taught to save Western, Christian civilization from the Red terror” (197).

You can read all about it in this New York Times article from 1995.

My point is: We walk around nowadays in a perpetual state of scrolling-induced ephemera where we are neither here nor there, but only in some persistent present. We are no longer–if we ever were–adept at carrying history in our hearts, especially if that history belongs to a people other than our own.

“Never again” is meaningless if everything is always happening for the first time and if our historical amnesia allows right-wing, anti-communist groups to plaster our college campuses with images of “communists” being flung into the ocean, drugged on lies and Sodium Pentothol.

Three pieces of advice that I’m currently giving myself:

  • Learn the history of your people.  If you are just now waking up to the call to resist fascism, consider all the varied groups of persistent resisters that came before you. They are your people. Look at what compelled them to do what they did and how history unfolded.
  • Cast a wide net. Your people (see above) might not live where you do. Finding your people and learning their history might mean looking across an ocean or a geopolitical boundary.
  • Anti-Fa Fridays! Learn the symbols and coded language associated with Nazis and other right-wing terrorist groups; get out in your neighborhood and look for graffiti and fliers that depict them, then remove them or cover them up. You can do this alone or with friends! It’s a great community-building/neighborhood-bonding exercise. Yay, Anti-Fa Fridays! (Or, you know, whatever you want to call it… but, uh, that’s pretty catchy, right.) Carry tools in your bag if you want to do it on the fly (like this 70-year-old German woman).
  • Hold institutions accountable for hosting fliers like these.  For starters, you can email Ana Marie Cauce, UW’s current president, at pres@uw.edu.

I have to wonder how it is that UW’s administration is fine with these hateful fliers. They certainly create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation, even if they accomplish it in dog-whistled images of people being flung from helicopters, which is why there is now an urgent need to be historically literate. Without that historical literacy, it is impossible to hold institutions accountable.

I share my colleague’s thoughts today as I hammer out an email to President Cauce. He shared this when he posted the image:

I wonder how our Latin American students, staff, and faculty who lived through that time feel when they see this.

I hope you wonder, too.

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