Sometimes a decades-old text speaks directly to how we live right now.
Rodolfo Walsh’s Operation Massacre, which dates from 1957 and is now available in English (translated by Daniella Gitlin and published by Seven Stories Press), is one of those books.
On the surface, it’s the story of a state-sanctioned murder that took place June 9-10, 1956 in Buenos Aires—the botched police assassination of a dozen innocent men, five of whom died, in the early days of Argentina’s Dirty War.
It’s also the story of how Walsh, a journalist and mystery writer who spent his free time playing chess in coffee shops, got the story (working with reporter Enriqueta Muñiz)—using fake names, carrying a gun, going underground to avoid government retribution. And of his growing awareness that he could not retreat “back to chess and the fantasy literature I read, back to the detective stories I write, back to the ‘serious’ novel I plan to draft in the next few years, back to the other things that I do to earn a living and that I call journalism, even though that’s not what it is.”
Operation Massacre is also a story of how to take a stand when events call for taking a stand. “I will not ask what your politics are,” Walsh wrote in a passage that might inspire people attempting to battle the awful Egyptian military crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood or President Obama's insane build-up of the surveillance state. “That is how I respond to cowards and to those who are weak of spirit when they ask me why I—someone who considers himself a man of the Left—am collaborating journalistically with men and publications of the Right. I reply: because they dare to take the risk, and right now there is no hierarchy that I recognize or accept as being more noble than that of civil courage.” Yet he frankly acknowledged that if the party championed by his publishers was in power, he would never have been able to start his work. “Under Peronism I would not have been able to publish a book like this or the news articles that preceded it, or to even attempt to investigate police killings that were also taking place at the time. That’s the little we have gained.”
When he published a second edition, seven years after his remarkable account first appeared, Walsh suggested that the book had largely failed: it had brought the facts forward, but had in all other ways been defeated. “In 1957 I boasted: ‘This case is in process, and will continue to be for as long as is necessary, months or even years.’ I would like to retract that flawed statement. This case is no longer in process, it is barely a piece of history; this case is dead.”
He also acknowledged that those seven years had not made him more courageous. “There is yet another failure. When I wrote this story, I was thirty years old. I had been a journalist for ten years. Suddenly I felt I understood that everything I had done before had nothing to do with a certain notion of journalism that had been taking shape in my mind, and this—investigating at all costs, gathering testimony of what is most hidden and most painful—this did.” Despite this self-realization, he recognized the extent of his own failure: “I am rereading the story that you all have read. There are entire sentences that bother me, I get annoyed thinking about how much better it would be if I wrote it now.” But, he added in italics, “Would I write it now?”
On March 24, 1977, two decades after he published Operation Massacre, Walsh sent an “Open Letter from a Writer to the Military Junta” to the major newspapers and foreign correspondents in Buenos Aires. In it, he documented how the government had used “the rack, the drill, skinning alive, and the saw of the medieval Inquisition … alongside the picana [a metal prod used to administer electric shock, often to the genitals] and waterboarding, the blowtorch of today.” In a passage that has contemporary resonance given the recent actions of United States forces and contractors in Iraq and Guantanamo, Walsh wrote, “You have arrived at a form of absolute, metaphysical torture unbounded by time: the original goal of obtaining information has been lost in the disturbed minds of those inflicting the torture. Instead, they have ceded to the impulse to pommel human substance to the point of breaking it and making it lose its dignity, which the executioner has lost, and which you yourselves have lost.” He sent this testimony, he wrote, “with no hope of being heard, with the certainty of being persecuted, but faithful to the commitment I made a long time ago to bear witness during difficult times.”
The letter was not published at the time, but it must have reached someone important. The day after he dropped it in the mailbox, a military squadron surrounded and shot Walsh on a Buenos Aires street and hauled his body away. He became one of the statistics he wrote about.
In the decades of the Dirty War, the Argentine military killed perhaps 30,000 people—making the murders chronicled in Operation Massacre, as well as Walsh’s own, seem small. But Walsh stood up to a government that proclaimed, on a monument in downtown Buenos Aires, “El Silencio es Salud”—“Silence is Health.” His book remains as necessary today as it was when he risked his life to do the reporting. “I hope,” Walsh wrote, “I am not criticized for believing in a book—even if it does happen to be written by me—when there are so many more people believing in machine guns.”