Respect stays out of reach for Argentine military. Argentina's military wants to burnish its image. But the legacy of the `dirty war' has left a chasm between civilians and the Army.
Buenos Aires — In the two weeks since rebellious Army Col. Mohammed Ali Seineldin laid down his arms, Argentina's government has bent over backwards to meet his demands. Not only have the armed forces won a significantly higher pay rise than was on the cards last month, but over the weekend, Defense Minister Jos'e Jaunarena made a speech that was music to the soldiers' ears.
The so-called ``dirty war'' the Army fought against leftist guerrillas in the 1970s had been ``necessary'' Mr. Jaunarena said. It was the first time that a government official had publicly shared the military's own view of its campaign of repression in which more than 10,000 citizens died or ``disappeared.''
But at bottom, what Colonel Seineldin and his colleagues in uniform want is something that the government cannot give them - a respected place in society and expressions of gratitude from the populace for having saved the country from communism.
``They want to be loved,'' says opposition leader Guido di Tella. ``So do we all. But how do you go about that? It will take time and good behavior. It cannot be decreed.''
Lack of contact between soldiers and civilians, born of a mutual hostility, has isolated the military from society.
Among Seineldin's demands were a ``pacification law'' - widely interpreted to mean an amnesty for officers jailed on human rights charges - and an end to the trials of soldiers still facing such charges.
According to military expert Andres Fontana, what Seineldin and other officers really want is ``the public to acknowledge the merits of what they did'' in the name of saving the country from communism.
``But when they demand that,'' Mr. Fontana says, ``the people expresses itself unanimously against them.''
Some of the rebel demands, Defense Ministry officials say, pose fewer problems: The government is not opposed, in principle, to higher military pay, nor to increasing the budget to buy modern weaponry. But it must also meet civilian demands on treasury funds in a period of economic austerity.
President Ra'ul Alfons'in insists he made no deals to end the uprising. (Seineldin gave up after four days and was reportedly taken into detention Dec. 6.) But a number of generals say that the Army chief of staff said he was in agreement with Seineldin's demands, and had put them to the President.
There is room for debate on the rebels' call for a more professional Army, say analysts who specialize in military affairs. For example, the armed forces own all the country's weapons factories. This offers many opportunities for corruption. Many junior officers, these analysts say, feel that the military-industrial complex should be privatized, allowing soldiers to concentrate on the business of fighting.
That debate, however, has not even begun in the five years since President Alfons'in took office, complains Juan Pablo Lohl'e, a professor at the Army's War College. Nor has there been serious discussion between civilians and military officers on strategic questions, he says.
``The military need civilians to talk to them, but there is no he says. ``They need someone to fix them a policy, and to give them goals, and if the civilian authorities don't, they will fix their own, which will include taking political power.''
Another problem analysts see is that, in the six years since it lost the Falkland Islands conflict with Britain and then handed power over to civilians, the military has not been busy. Indeed, last month was the first time in seven years that the three armed services held joint maneuvers.
This, argues military sociologist Jose Miguens, has created ``a terrible identity problem because they have nothing to do.''
A defense law passed in 1985 specifically forbids any military role in domestic security or intelligence, and excludes it from all decisions of state.
That leaves soldiers with the sole task of defending Argentina from external enemies, which is not a particularly onerous job.
Neighbors Bolivia, Paraguay, and Uruguay pose no real security threat. Brazil is such an enormous regional power that ``our only possible defense is diplomatic,'' says di Tella, one of the few civilian politicians to have taken an interest in strategic affairs. Only Chile, of which Argentina has always been wary, is seen as a real source of potential danger.
In addition, the Falkland Islands is not a realistic military target, says di Tella. Most independent analysts agree.
Thus, says di Tella, any dispassionate analysis of strategic needs ``will inevitably result in the downgrading of the glorious aspirations of some officers'' who see the Army in its traditional role of Praetorian Guard.
Although democracy here may yet be a fragile seedling, politicians of all stripes are convinced that a coup is not on the cards. Only a small minority of officers would favor such a step, and civilians put up an unprecedently solid front against Seineldin's rebellion.
But the chasm between the military and civilian society remains unbridged, and democracy remains to be consolidated.
The irony, says columnist Horacio Verbitzky, is that such uprisings achieve the opposite of their goals. ``It's like when King Kong grabbed Fay Wray and growled `Love me, love me.' It just made her hate him even more,'' he says.