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Guerrillas and Generals: The Ultimate Guide to Argentina's Dirty War by Paul H. Lewis

Guerrillas and Generals: The Dirty War in Argentina

If you are looking for a book that covers one of the darkest chapters in Argentina's history, you might want to check out Guerrillas and Generals: The Dirty War in Argentina by Paul H. Lewis. This book is a comprehensive, balanced examination of the period between 1973 and 1983, when the military regime waged a brutal war against leftist guerrillas and political dissidents. In this article, we will give you an overview of the book's main arguments, its sources, and its reception by reviewers and scholars.

Guerrillas and Generals: The Dirty War in Argentina

The origins of the Dirty War

The Dirty War did not start overnight. It was the result of a long history of military interventions, social polarization, and political violence that marked Argentina since the 1930s. Lewis traces the roots of the conflict back to the rise and fall of General Juan Peron's populist regime (1946-1955), which created a loyal base of workers and unions but also alienated large sectors of the middle class, the military, and the Church. Peron's overthrow by a military coup in 1955 sparked a resistance movement that gave birth to several guerrilla organizations in the 1960s and 1970s.

The guerrilla organizations

Lewis provides an overview of the main leftist groups that fought against the state during the Dirty War, their ideologies, tactics, and links to other movements in Argentina and abroad. He focuses on two major groups: the Montoneros and the ERP (People's Revolutionary Army).

The Montoneros

The Montoneros were the largest and most influential guerrilla group in Argentina. They claimed to be followers of Peronism, but with a radical twist. They advocated for a socialist revolution that would liberate Argentina from imperialism, capitalism, and bureaucracy. They also supported the rights of workers, women, and minorities. The Montoneros carried out several high-profile attacks, such as the kidnapping and execution of former dictator Pedro Aramburu in 1970, the assassination of labor leader Jose Rucci in 1973, and the bombing of a police station in 1976. They also participated in the political arena, forming alliances with other Peronist factions and joining the government of Hector Campora in 1973. However, they soon clashed with Peron himself, who returned from exile in 1973 and denounced them as traitors and infiltrators. After Peron's death in 1974, his widow and successor Isabel Peron unleashed a wave of repression against the Montoneros, who went underground and continued their armed struggle. The military coup of 1976 marked the beginning of the end for the Montoneros, who faced a ruthless counterinsurgency campaign that decimated their ranks and leadership.


The ERP was the main Marxist-Leninist guerrilla group in Argentina. They rejected Peronism as a bourgeois ideology and aimed to create a proletarian dictatorship that would lead to a socialist society. They were influenced by the Cuban Revolution and the writings of Che Guevara, Mao Zedong, and Regis Debray. The ERP conducted urban and rural guerrilla warfare, but their most ambitious project was the rural war in Tucuman province, where they tried to establish a liberated zone and a base for a continental revolution. The ERP also carried out several spectacular actions, such as the kidnapping of Esso executive Victor Samuelson in 1973, the attack on the Azul military base in 1974, and the assassination of former president Arturo Illia in 1983. However, the ERP also faced fierce opposition from the state, especially after the military coup of 1976. The army launched a massive operation to crush the rural war in Tucuman, using napalm, helicopters, and death squads. The ERP's leader, Mario Roberto Santucho, was killed in 1976, along with many of his comrades.

The other groups

Lewis also mentions some of the smaller or less active guerrilla groups that operated in Argentina during the Dirty War, such as the FAR (Revolutionary Armed Forces), the FAL (Argentine Liberation Forces), and the MIR (Revolutionary Left Movement). These groups had similar goals and methods as the Montoneros and the ERP, but they had less impact and visibility. Some of them merged with or joined other groups over time.

The military regime

Lewis gives an overview of the military coup of 1976, the National Security Doctrine that justified its repression, and the methods and consequences of its Dirty War.

The coup and the junta

On March 24, 1976, a military junta led by General Jorge Videla overthrew Isabel Peron's government and established a de facto regime that would last until 1983. The junta claimed to be saving Argentina from chaos, corruption, and subversion. It suspended the constitution, banned political parties and unions, censored the media, and imposed a state of siege. It also appointed a civilian cabinet composed mostly of technocrats and businessmen who implemented neoliberal economic policies that favored foreign investment, privatization, and austerity.

The National Security Doctrine

The ideological framework that guided the military's counterinsurgency strategy was the National Security Doctrine (NSD), a doctrine that originated in U.S. Cold War doctrine and was adapted by French officers who fought in Algeria. The NSD viewed communism as a global threat that had to be eliminated by any means necessary. It also considered any form of dissent or opposition as potential subversion that had to be neutralized or eradicated. The NSD gave the military a carte blanche to wage a total war against an invisible enemy that could be anyone: guerrillas, activists, students, workers, journalists, priests, lawyers, artists, etc.

The Dirty War

The human cost and the aftermath

The exact number of victims of the Dirty War is still disputed, but most estimates range between 10,000 and 30,000 people who were killed or disappeared. The majority of them were young men and women who were involved in political or social activism, but many others were innocent bystanders, relatives, friends, or colleagues of the targeted individuals. The violence also had a profound impact on the survivors, who suffered from trauma, fear, guilt, and grief. Many of them had to flee the country or go into hiding. Some of them formed human rights organizations, such as the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo and the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, to demand justice and truth for their loved ones.

The Dirty War ended with the collapse of the military regime in 1983, after its humiliating defeat in the Falklands War against Britain. A civilian government led by Raul Alfonsin was elected and initiated a process of democratic transition and reconciliation. One of its first measures was to create a National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (CONADEP), which investigated the crimes of the dictatorship and published a report called Nunca Mas (Never Again). The report documented thousands of cases of human rights violations and identified hundreds of clandestine detention centers. It also served as the basis for the human rights trials that began in 1985, in which several former military leaders, including Videla, were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.

However, the trials faced strong opposition from the military and its allies, who argued that they violated the principle of due obedience and threatened national security. Reacting to the trials, hardliners in the Argentine army staged a series of uprisings against the Alfonsin government. They barricaded themselves in several military barracks, demanding an end to the trials. To appease them, Alfonsin passed two laws that granted amnesty to most of the perpetrators: the Full Stop Law (1986) and the Due Obedience Law (1987). These laws effectively halted the trials and left thousands of cases unresolved.

The book's contribution and criticism

Lewis's book is one of the most comprehensive and balanced accounts of Argentina's Dirty War. It offers a historical perspective that explains the causes and consequences of the conflict, as well as a detailed analysis of the actors and ideologies involved. It also draws on a wide range of sources, including official documents, testimonies, interviews, newspapers, books, and academic articles. The book is written in a clear and accessible style that makes it suitable for both general readers and students.

However, the book is not without its flaws. Some reviewers and scholars have pointed out that it lacks attention to some aspects of the Dirty War that are relevant for understanding its complexity and impact. For example, it does not explore the role of women as victims and agents of resistance; it does not examine the complicity or resistance of the Church and the media; it does not address the regional and international dimensions of the conflict; and it does not reflect on the legacy and memory of the Dirty War in contemporary Argentina. These are some of the topics that could be further developed or updated in future editions or studies.


Guerrillas and Generals: The Dirty War in Argentina is a valuable book for anyone who wants to learn more about one of the most tragic and controversial periods in Argentina's history. It provides a comprehensive overview of the origins, development, and aftermath of the conflict between the military regime and the leftist guerrillas. It also offers a balanced perspective that avoids simplistic or biased explanations. It is a well-researched and well-written book that contributes to our understanding of Argentina's past and present.

If you are interested in reading this book, you can find it online or at your local library. You can also download a zip file with a PDF version here. We hope you enjoy this book and learn something new from it.


  • Q: When did Argentina's Dirty War take place?

  • A: The Dirty War took place between 1973 and 1983, but its roots can be traced back to earlier decades.

  • Q: Who were the main actors involved in Argentina's Dirty War?

  • A: The main actors were the military regime, which ruled the country from 1976 to 1983, and the leftist guerrilla groups, which fought against the state. There were also other actors, such as political parties, unions, human rights organizations, and foreign powers.

  • Q: How many people were killed or disappeared during Argentina's Dirty War?

  • A: The exact number is still disputed, but most estimates range between 10,000 and 30,000 people.

  • Q: What were the consequences of Argentina's Dirty War?

  • A: The Dirty War had devastating consequences for the victims and their families, who suffered from trauma, fear, guilt, and grief. It also had a negative impact on the economy, the society, and the democracy of Argentina.

  • Q: What happened after Argentina's Dirty War?

  • A: The Dirty War ended with the collapse of the military regime in 1983, after its defeat in the Falklands War. A civilian government led by Raul Alfonsin was elected and initiated a process of democratic transition and reconciliation. It also created a commission to investigate the crimes of the dictatorship and held human rights trials. However, these trials were stopped by two amnesty laws that granted impunity to most of the perpetrators.



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