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Remembering Our Servicemonsters

For US citizens, today is Memorial Day, following on from a weekend at the beginning of summer and a full day commemorating the men and women who have died while serving the country in the armed forces (or enjoying the day off, either way, it's a known thing). In Argentina, yesterday was Argentine Army Day, commemorating the birth of the institution in 1810. From the start we can see key differences in the essence of the celebrations, rooted in cultural differences regarding the countries' armies.

There are not many points in common to be found between the US and Argentina in many ways. Although they are both young countries and the US army is older by just 35 years, the culture surrounding the armed forces of the two are starkly different (it should be recognised that veterans suffer in both countries, albeit to varying degrees). In fact, it is difficult to even talk about the army in Argentina, while there does not seem to be particular discomfort in bringing up the armed forces in the US in public discourse.

Let's see how this column goes.

"Admittedly, the armed forces are coming from years of neglect by the State, which abandoned them, and this [neglect] brought budget problems, equipment issues and infrastructure issues," said President Mauricio Macri at an Army Day event this morning.

In his speech, Macri promised to make amends to what he called the “ignored” army. In the US, the idea of the army being forgotten or ignored may seem somewhat ridiculous. While Macri stated that the army should become an “arm of Argentina’s foreign policy,” the US would seem one-armed without it. Furthermore, while Obama lay wreaths in Arlington Cemetery and had breakfast with army representatives and family members that lost their loved ones at war, Macri asked the army to "leave [inner] confrontations and conflicts behind."

There is one big factor in explaining why the Argentine armed forces have deteriorated both in credibility and in its functions: the series of military dictatorships that ripped the country apart over the 20th century, creating a whirlwind of political instability and violence. Argentina does in fact have a Memorial Day: the National Day of Remembrance for Truth and Justice, which commemorates those who lost their lives during the brutal repression of the last military dictatorship (1976-1983).

The crimes against humanity committed by the Argentine army during the dictatorship were despicable beyond description, breaking every code between the people and the army that protects them as well as severing any kind of trust between the State and its citizens. There can be few, if any, things worse than a State murdering (or forcefully “disappearing”) its own people. The transition to democracy occurred as the military government lay in shreds after the crushing Falkland Islands/Malvinas War defeat of 1982, giving all the power to the incoming democratic regime. The military was discredited, as it should have been, but the military institution and the officers involved were different. There is a focus on forgetting the monsters that perpetrated the horrors and not the servicemen or the institution.

This is a very emotional topic so it should be made clear: it was wrong. There are no words to describe the wrongs of the dictatorship and forgiveness is impossible to ask of anyone. However, leaving an institution frozen in time is not the best alternative. It has no space to grow to be what the country needs: which is Macri said in his speech, a “21st century army,” not the memory of a 20th century one.

In the US, honouring the army is woven into the country's fabric. As trivial as it may seem, applauding soldiers as they walk through an airport is absolutely unheard of in Argentina. In Argentina, there is no summer weekend or Facebook photos draped in the country’s flag in honour of the army. Instead, there are formal parade marches and stiff presidential speeches recalling the army's mission. While one has become more informal in its quest to remember, the other seeks to push memory aside while the occasion maintains its formality (and thus, its distance).

What the US has is too much to ask of a country that has suffered incredibly at the hands of its own military only 40 years ago and which continues to have certain servicemen that were present during the dictatorship. However, one possible step forward would be to separate the cupboard from the monster and the clothes within, besides. Especially the clothes. The generalised lack of trust that Argentina exhibits towards institutions means that the cupboard will need a serious rehaul for them to open those doors again, which are clinging to its hinges.

"Truly remembering means that after our fallen heroes gave everything to bring their battle bodies home, we make sure we give everything they have earned, from healthcare to a good job," said President Barack Obama at Arlington Cemetery.

It's easier for the US to keep an eye on the clothes. Not only does it not have a monster in the way, but soldiers are actually sent off to war and the losses are personal: that’s why there can be a focus on the soldiers while in Argentina the army remains somewhat abstract. The answer for Argentina is not to start wars (that did not turn out well) but to remember the clothes and the human beings that once filled out the formless fabrics gathering dust on the shelves.

The conclusion is not that Argentina should follow the example of the US: that is too simplistic. However, the concept of Memorial Day may be a useful one, if only to begin remembering what the army actually is and not what it became under the power of people that twisted its mission to its exact opposite. Forgetting the humans that are in the institution is letting the monsters win.

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