“I heard you shout for yesterday, but I was sleeping on the job
And I dreamt of fighters miles away whose lives I had to rob
Have a drink on me
I put it down to the company”
— Madness, Blue Skinned Beast (1983)
Commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Falklands War, a pictorial at the memorial in Buenos Aires with my charming Argentine friend Nando.
Regardless of your personal opinion on the logic of, by Nando’s own frustrated admission, a “third world country” declaring war on Great Britain, the ‘Malvinas’ remains a touchy subject among locals. Indeed, the first Monday after April 2, the date of Argentina’s taking of the 778-island archipelago, is somewhat defiantly recognised as a national holiday.
So even though Nando and I disagreed on the merits of my country sending a task force 13,000 km to liberate an almost forgotten outpost in the South Atlantic from his country, the fact remains that the invasion of a sovereign British Overseas Territory was ordered by an unelected military dictator who wanted to distract attention from his failed economic policies and the scandal of the Disappeared — 30,000 unarmed non-combatants murdered in order to quash any potential opposition. Galtieri was his name, Belgrano the boat that was controversially sunk by the Brits.
If you study the once top secret files that have been declassified in recent years, it’s clear Margaret Thatcher — no stranger to vainglory or dictatorial tendencies herself — was in an impossible position. A diplomat she wasn’t, but the PM felt obliged to respond by force or be forced out of office, humiliated. Virtually any UK Prime Minister would have done the same.
Having said that, to reduce the UK’s spending on defence, the year before the Prime Minister had insisted that the Falklands ’Guard Ship’ be decommissioned. Not unnaturally, the Argentine government assumed that it meant that we were no longer interested in guarding the islands; which they then invaded.
Defence of the realm then, however belatedly. Argentina lost the war and suffered more than 700 casualties, sparking the junta government’s collapse that Galtieri was trying to avoid. He was eventually imprisoned for his crimes.
The sheer cost in human life was tragic. To add further pathos to this sorry tale, Nando told me how many of his fallen countrymen were young conscripts with little military training sent out with old failing weapons, many of whom actually died of hypothermia because they weren’t kitted out with the appropriate gear to deal with the sub-zero temperatures of the freezing Falkland nights.
In all, more than 900 people were killed and more than 2,000 injured, all over a windy, sparsely inhabited hangover from the British empire. Population in 1982? Just 1300.
The dispute over ownership of the islands has never gone away. And neither has the threat of war. As the French would say, “Putain”. Isn’t it remarkable how they pronounce Putin the same way?
Talking of which, what’s interesting is four decades after the event the then-Senator, now President of the United States talks in a recently unearthed CBC interview of how the US must stand together with ”its oldest and closest ally” and that, in reference to reports that the USSR was providing assistance to Argentina with an eye on a “whole new opening in Latin America”, that, and I quote
”Soviet capabilities are limited in the area. There’s no evidence the Soviets are, in fact, making any major moves in the hemisphere. I‘d be sorry to see the situation change in such a way that there would in fact be an increased prospect of Soviet and communist influence in the hemisphere. But I‘d be even be more sorry if we dashed what is already a fragile and very tenuous situation with regard to NATO and NATO solidarity.”