The Flight

Kaitlin Quistgaard reviews "The Flight: Confessions of an Argentine Dirty Warrior" by Horacio Verbitsky.

Topics: Books,

Horacio Verbitsky, Argentina’s famously unflappable investigative journalist, doesn’t flinch as he pulls the bloody skeletons from his country’s closet in “The Flight,” his account of the atrocities committed during the “Dirty War” of the 1970s and early ’80s. But he relates the story with such indignation and vigor that you may have a hard time fighting the urge to flinch yourself. Be strong, as this is important and engrossing political history.

Verbitisky combines his own reporting with the confessions of a retired Argentine navy officer, Adolfo Scilingo. The result is an account of how 10,000 to 30,000 people were “disappeared” (read: kidnapped, tortured, murdered) by the Argentine armed forces, including chilling reports about torture by cattle prod, by toe-nail pulling, by the introduction of live mice into a woman’s vagina.

Scilingo’s story alone is compelling. Guilt overtook the officer 18 years after he obeyed orders to throw planeloads of prisoners, alive but drugged unconscious, to their death in the Atlantic Ocean. Plagued by nightmares that began when he almost fell out along with one of his victims, Scilingo grew outraged when, years later, the navy refused to admit that these actions had been ordered during the undeclared “war against subversives.” Steadied by sedatives and whiskey, Scilingo admitted his fears to Verbitsky: “If you carry out orders and enough time goes by that they are no longer secret for operative reasons and they are still being hidden or even directly lied about … this is lying in a treacherous way. And, in the context of that lie, I say we were transformed into criminals.”

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These taped confessions are the record of one man’s impossible struggle to reconcile having unquestioningly followed orders to kill, with the realization (far too late) that those giving the orders were heinous murderers, not upright soldiers. The story of “the flights” was one Verbitsky had heard many times before, but only from the mouths of victims. When he published Scilingo’s confession in Buenos Aires in March of 1995, he opened the biggest can of worms to wriggle through the fashionable tango capital since democracy was reinstated in 1983. Scilingo’s revelations led to a historic mea culpa by the chief of the army, a demand (still stuck in the country’s Supreme Court) for the armed forces to provide lists of the “desaparecidos,” and — perhaps most significantly — to a society’s painful examination of the past.

This American edition of “The Flight” summarizes these post-publication developments and offers a brilliant chronology of Argentine political history since 1930. A glossary of key figures serves as a who’s-who refresher and guide through the maze-like text. As a primer to the Dirty War, “The Flight” is a volume of bloodcurdling horror that packs an astonishing moral punch. And it profoundly illustrates Verbitsky’s statement that “often in human history, great secrets are revealed by a solitary conscience.”

Kaitlin Quistgaard, Salon's former technology editor, writes frequently about the arts and South America, where she once lived.

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