The military junta that ruled Argentina, and was responsible for killing 20,000 of its own citizens during the "Dirty War," in 1982 invaded the Falkland Islands, which the Argentines called the Malvinas. The junta, which had been on the verge of collapse and beset by violent street demonstrations and nationwide strikes in the weeks before the war, instantly became the saviors of the country. Labor unions and opposition leaders, some of whom were still visibly bruised from beatings, were hauled out of jail cells before cameras to repeat what was a collective mantra: "Las Malvinas son Argentinas."
The invasion transformed the country. Reality was replaced with a wild and self-serving fiction, a legitimization of the worst prejudices of the masses and paranoia of the outside world. The secret interior world arrayed against Argentina became one of strange cabals, worldwide Jewry trotted out again to be beaten like an old horse, vast subterranean webs that had as their focus the destruction of the Argentine people. The exterior world was exemplified by the nation. All that was noble and good was embodied, like some unique gene, in the Argentine people. Stories of the heroism of the Argentine military - whose singular recent accomplishment was the savage repression of its own people - filled the airwaves.
Friends of mine, who a few days earlier had excoriated the dictatorship, now bragged about the prowess of Argentine commanders. One general, during a dispute with Chile, flew his helicopter over the Chilean border in order to piss on Chilean soil. This story was repeated with evident pride. Cars raced through the streets honking horns and waving the blue and white Argentine flag. Argentines burst into the national anthem and ecstatic cheering at sports events. The large Anglo-Argentine community sent delegations to Britain to lobby for the junta.
I had spent nights with Argentine friends talking of a new Argentina, one that would respect human rights, allow basic freedoms, and perhaps put on the trial the generals responsible for the Dirty War. Now such talk was an anathema, even treasonous. On the street any dissent, espeically from a foreigner, could mean physical violence. Any suggestion that the invasion was not just and correct and glorious was unpalatable. One never referred to the islands by their English name. Overweeing pride and a sense of national solidarity swept through the city like an electric current. It was as if I had woken up, like one of Kafka's characters, and found myself transformed into a bug. I would come to feel this way in every nation at war, including in the United States after the attacks of September 11.
This was my first taste of nationalist triumphalism in wartime. There was almost no one I could speak with. A populace that had agitated for change now outdid itself to lionize uniformed killers. All bowed before the state. It taught me a crucial lesson that I would carry into every other conflict. Lurking beneath the surface of every society, including ours, is the passionate yearning for a nationalist cause that exalts us, the kind that war alone is able to deliver. It reduces and at times erases the anxiety of individual consciousness. We abandon individual responsbility for a shared, unquestioned communal enterprise, however morally dubious.
I found this very illuminating. And very familiar.