War's Broken Social Contract

Our mothers gave us the best advice that they could in the situation. I had a friend living down the hall in another cell with a mother who had told her the stark reality of everything, including that she would be adopted out to the enemy (a common practice by the dictatorship that would have long-lived consequences politically in Argentina, as well as for the children they sold).

Instead of speaking about adoption, my own mother chose to give me tools for surviving the situation. She gave me things to read, she educated me, and she taught me how to be a good hostage. That last lesson both cost and saved me in the end, because I kept it with me throughout life and far beyond those prison walls. The method of deception necessary to be a good hostage would gain me acceptance by the enemy. It would also keep me entrenched within them, sacrificing any attempt at fulfilling a child’s need for true human connection and protected vulnerability.

My mother had explained that I always needed to tell people what they wanted to hear, even when what they wanted to hear wasn't real or realistic. She taught me how to read people's expectations, not necessarily by the words they spoke, but by indicators of what they believed they would hear when I spoke. I would watch their eyes, the levels of tautness and movement of the muscles beneath the skin of their face, the manner in which they leaned in or away, and I’d listen to their breath to see which of my words it caught on, so I would know where to pivot my speech to match what they expected to hear from me based on what they perceived me and the situation to be.

She had shown me the easiest and yet most destructive path, the path that no one ever questions – one of accommodating and matching the unique biases of each individual person whom I spoke with. I became a mirror of their expectations and view of the world. I reflected back at them the world they expected to see.

It got me into some small (and large) issues over the years. Often, people would look at me and assume I had certain traits and knowledge or affiliations with any of a wide variety of random groups, schools, or cultures that I knew nothing about and thus struggled to mimic or discuss. In those moments, I would use distraction or play dumb. There are quite a few people out there in the world who may think I’m legitimately mentally challenged. It was preferable to them discovering that I wasn’t who or what they assumed I was, and neither was the situation.

And it made me a perfect hostage. It was easy to end up wrapped up within a group or pigeonholed by them, often by my own doing. It took decades to begin to escape those self-inflicted shackles. I’m still working on breaking the last links in their chains as I write this. This writing has been an exercise in providing the honesty I would prefer to see. It’s actually led me to question how I present some of my own assertions. For example, while subterfuge is a problem when used for exploitation, and accepting and adding layers to that subterfuge can cause a victim to entangle themselves further, there were times when hiding in plain sight and allowing people to uphold the lies that hid me there helped to keep me alive to see another day. I would be wrong to leave that unacknowledged, even if it makes my argument more nuanced in a culture that struggles with nuances.

If that last thought on deception made zero sense, let me clarify:

A lie does not exist simply because one person states it. There needs to be someone on the other end to bend enough to accept it. Every lie requires two active participants: the giver and the receiver. In most cases, once they engage, both become just as invested in keeping the lie afloat.

There’s a reason that it’s a million times easier to get someone to accept a lie than it is to get them to acknowledge that they were lied to. It requires unentangling them and removing the hook that silently slid in when they first accepted their part in giving life to the lie.

So, as I was saying, subterfuge for self-protection is a necessity in many cases. The trouble is balancing that with and separating it from the danger of the results of exploitative subterfuge. A large amount of brutal honesty and active discernment is required to get close to attaining that balance and separation, and even more would be necessary to consistently maintain them at a useful level.

But, back to the prison…

Our days were uneventful for the most part, despite the war that brought us there. Our routine was usually predictable, dictated by a military regime and prison that needed the facade of precision control and authority in order to maintain their positions in governance. The days were so predictable and the prisoners were so kind to me, most likely because they could finally see how important life was in those moments when it promised to end. Memories from my time in that prison are the stable and humanity-filled moments that I cling to. They are what I remember fondly when I look back on my life.

War isn’t all shock and awe for the television viewers. It is predictable. It lulls you into a sense of false security as each day washes over you, as you learn to adapt and you come to understand how little you can actually live with and still survive. It becomes a daily life that chips away all that is unnecessary and leaves only the human core. It brings out the best in people, not just the worst. It’s when we become closest to ourselves, our humanity, and we can see and feel it so clearly that it becomes tangible.

To me, it felt like home.

Over the decades when I would fight to get back to my mother, that was the feeling I was searching for. I thought if I could get home, I would find it again. Back then, I didn’t understand that pure humanity is not a place. It’s a condition brought about as a reaction to being about to be extinguished, that final flare of life before it goes dark. That’s the condition under which we finally truly come to life - the moment we are face to face with death. Unfortunately, by then, there are usually no lessons to be learned or remembered because most die in that moment. They cannot return from death to show you the light. And even when they can, even when they manage to pull back from that brink and share it with you, you aren’t able to see it yet.

Each morning, we were separated from our mothers to spend our afternoons with the other children in another part of the prison more closely associated with the administrative area. There, we watched babies leave through the front door, adopted, and never to be seen in our small world again. As we stood in the street-facing adoption room with a row of cribs, my friend once expressed wonder about why her own adoption was taking so long and on which day it would occur. I never had a similar thought.

I never wanted to leave my mother.

Even now, the wound of being ripped from her has never healed. How could it? It’s still hidden beneath the purposely created fog of limited public perception, even with the active part of that particular deception-heavy war long over.

No one has ever gone back through the newspaper articles and annotated them with evidence of what truly went on. It’s easier to manipulate the public by keeping them perpetually in a state of mind that allows them to permit the results of war to persist, and for their own citizens to be systematically and indefinitely imprisoned, tortured, kidnapped, and killed. When in that state of mind, people will bury their own neighbors and family. That makes much less work for an infiltrating enemy. It also left me an orphan for life, separated from where I came from and only acknowledged as a “child criminal” deserving of my fate.

There’s an almost admirable simplicity in the use of influence and deceit. You rarely have to get your hands dirty. You only need to trigger someone else with rage and then point them in your desired direction to have them make your crusade their own. Those with the vocation of war managed to figure that one out before the rest of us.

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Infinite cycles. Infinite path.

How do I explain to you that war does not end?

It never ends.

It simply goes through cycles

of open activity and concealed preparation.

That silence you hear.

That silence you may have lived your life in.

It isn't peace.

It's preparation.

parachute symbol
parachute symbol
The Guardian
The Guardian

Image Source: The Guardian (7)

“Adopted by their parents’ enemies: tracing the stolen children of Argentina’s ‘dirty war’…

After the 1976 coup, the military brutally crushed its opponents. At least 500 babies were taken from their captured parents and given to military couples to raise. Many still live unaware of their true identity.”

Text Source: The Guardian

One day, the group of children I belonged to were walked through the main bureaucratic part of the prison, as we were at the end of each day. On the bureaucratic/nonprisoner side, the door we went through to get to the hall our cells were on had an old fashioned (maybe modern at the time) metal number-lock on the door, with a vertical line of metal buttons that was used to enter a short numeric code to unlock the door.

By then, we had been through the door enough that I had memorized the combination. As the guard entered the numbers, I carelessly said them out loud. She looked at me and told me to never use them or to repeat them again. I complied. But it makes me wonder. If a three-year-old can memorize a short code to open one door, how can an entire prison of adults who vastly outnumber the guards, and who are being threatened with death (every one of the political prisoners was), not find a way to break through those doors?

If you are going to die anyway, wouldn’t you want to die trying to gain freedom?

Even when faced with death, people tend to act overly compliant and trusting. It’s a part of human nature that leaves me entirely perplexed. There is nothing wrong with politeness and mutual respect. In fact, it is possible to show respect for the safety of others while also respecting yourself by making certain that you remain protected. When they do the same, it’s called mutual respect. When they don’t do the same, you were very right to protect yourself.

Absolute trust in any situation should be avoided, especially when in the hands of an enemy.

And demands for absolute trust? Down here in reality, those are simply insane.

In the enemy's custody