Guerrillas and Generals is probably one of the best English language descriptions of chaos that engulfed Argentina in the last half of the 20th century. Many of the descriptions of Argentina's dirty war under the military junta that lasted from 1976 to 1983 tend to focus those years alone and give scant attention to what took place before or after. The first half of this book deals with the years leading up to the junta's ascension to power. Thanks the class cleavages exacerbated by populist President Juan Peron and the influences of the cold war and leftist nationalism that swept through Latin America in the post-WWII period, Argentina was facing a serious terrorist revolutionary movement. The 1960s and 1970s experienced an explosion of college attendance in Argentina and campuses became hot beds of radicalism. By itself, that isn't shocking since it was true in many other countries but this occurred under authoritarian governments that, for whatever reason, made little or no effort reign in the faculty and administration that not only tolerated revolutionary radicalism but encouraged it.
The revolutionary groups, the Monteneros and ERP were not just idealistic young people fighting for the rights of the poor; they were committed leftists with a strong predilection for violence that a series of military and civilian governments had failed to quell. The hard ball tactics to crush the rebels did not begin with the military coup of March 24, 1976 that overthrew erratic President Isabel Peron (who assumed the Presidency when husband Juan died in 1974). Peron's government had given the military orders to "annihilate" the rebel groups, however, the harshness of tactics and the scope of those targeted greatly expanded after the coup.
Lewis is not sentimental about either side, and thus he presents an unbiased description of events. In the process, he takes down some of fashionable myths about the period. First, there is very little evidence the United States had much of anything to do with the junta. While the Administration of U.S. President Gerald Ford didn't raise many objections to the military's actions, the junta had a frosty relationship with Jimmy Carter. Certainly Ford's Secretary of State Henry Kissinger glossed over the junta's actions but the junta received neither help nor inspiration from the Americans. Rather, their guide was the French counterinsurgency strategies in Vietnam and Algeria, which is interesting, given they knew neither strategy was ultimately successful. Nor was the junta a promoter of neoliberal economic policies, as is sometimes suggested by the socialist left, as it carried on the interventionist policies of governments before it.
Another aspect that should surprise developed world readers accustomed to civilian control of the armed forces was the status of the military in Argentina. Apart from its tactics in the dirty war, it seemed to operate in its own fiefdom well before the 1970s and was frequently at war with itself. The book is replete with descriptions of units taking up arms against units of the same military. It may have been this sense of detachment from the society as a whole that allowed the military leaders to believe they could act with such impunity when they had control of the government.