AGENTINE President Carlos Menem's decision to free the former military and police officials who masterminded the infamous ``dirty war'' of the late 1970s hardly ``vindicates'' their actions, as some of those freed claimed. Their deeds of abduction, torture, and murder are beyond vindication. Nor did Mr. Menem's decision necessarily indicate that he, like other civilian leaders before him, is caving in to the military. Only a month ago, Menem forcefully put down a rebellion by a group of army officers intent on restoring the ``dignity'' of the military. Ironically, the worst blow to that dignity had already been delivered by the same ex-generals just released from prison. They first waged a campaign of extermination against anyone who could remotely be termed ``leftist,'' then went on to an humiliating defeat in the 1982 war with Britain over the Falkland Islands.
What the president's step of freeing these men did reflect is the continued intertwining of civilian and military authority, not only in Argentina but throughout much of Latin America. Because of the political power still vested in Argentina's armed forces, Menem feels that his efforts at ``national reconciliation'' have to embrace the disreputable men who waged the ``dirty war.''
His decision has outraged public opinion and stirred anew ghastly memories of the abuses practiced by former military juntas. Menem's predecessor, Ra'ul Alfons'in, broke new ground in Latin America by pursuing the generals through the courts and gaining convictions. Public disgust with the military because of the Falklands defeat helped make that possible. But Alfons'in was threatened with coups, and his prosecutorial fervor waned.
Menem is hoping that current revulsion with his policy of freeing the generals will pass, and along with it, eventually, the passions and discontents of the recent past. But what must be expelled, above all, is the military's sense that it can step in whenever civilian authority, in its view, fails.