Argy-Bargy

Malcolm Deas

Knowing something of Argentina gives one no privileged insight, on 18 April 1982, into what should be done; it does give one a stronger desire to avoid a war, and a different awareness of some of the issues. Whatever happens to ships or governments, countries do not sink.

In his Britain and Argentina in the 19th Century, published in 1960, Professor H. S. Ferns gives this summary: ‘The dispute between Britain and Argentina concerning what one nation calls the Falkland Islands and the other Las Islas Malvinas is now more than a century and a quarter old. The antiquity of the dispute is one of its illuminating peculiarities. It is neither important enough to solve nor unimportant enough to forget.’ Those here who have not judged it important enough to solve are essentially the politicians. Some tried, but there were no more votes to it than in building prisons. A solution, which by definition had to be acceptable to Argentina, would have been opposed by the Falkland Islands lobby and by the islanders; at least, it would only have been accepted by the islanders under pressure, and that pressure would have been hard to bring to bear, given the predictable reaction of the House of Commons.

The dispute must also antedate many of the elaborations of international law that our international lawyers use to support our claim – leaving the issue of armed aggression to one side. For many years it was not exactly an even diplomatic or military match. It is the aggression which makes this more than an Anglo-Argentine dispute, and which gives it troubling implications for many other parts of the hemisphere.

South American military men are not overdressed. The most elaborately dressed military man that I have ever seen was Lord Mountbatten, got up to take the salute at what I think was a rehearsal of the Trooping of the Colour. His uniform would have been the envy of the Kaiser, and would have made an Argentine general look like a dustman. The person I have met who was most moved by Mountbatten’s death was an Argentine in Tucuman. He remembered his polo team, ‘Sailors on Horseback’, and his visit to Buenos Aires, where he had laid a wreath at the foot of the statue of San Martin. Mountbatten, he said, was a splendid figure the like of whom neither Englishmen nor Argentines would look upon again. This Argentine produced comic operas. I do not mention this as any slight on Mountbatten’s memory: it is just that comic operas are for some reason particularly associated with foreign armies and navies. Now that the Balkans are condemned to eternal seriousness and African sensibilities must be respected, these forces are usually Latin.

Tin pots have also been in the papers recently. The adjective causes me extreme irritation. Those who use it are usually complacent or ignorant, or both, and guilty of the covert self-congratulation of those who have drawn prize numbers in the lottery of life. One who uses the term is the Director of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, the phantom Foreign Office in St James’s Square. For reasons of economy or snobbery or inertia, that Institute has paid precious little attention to Latin America in recent years, though it used to run a regular seminar on the region. It is a bit more tin-pot than it used to be.

It is a credit to the armed forces that they do not nowadays use this sort of language themselves, at least not in public, but leave it to civilian internationalists like Mr David Watt and Mr Silkin. One also senses that the Navy does not itself use the shark-like term ‘hunter-killer’ for its submarines. We have the good fortune to have a silent and professional military establishment. One of Argentina’s many troubles is that its armed forces are wedded to universal conscription – the one Latin American republic besides Cuba where this is a reality – with all the political and philosophical consequences that that entails. This makes a bloody confrontation all the more ghastly to contemplate, and all the more problematic in its impact.

Another common word is ‘fascist’. It is of European origin, and comparatively recent. Not every Latin American wearing a uniform is a fascist. Some Argentine generals have fascist mentalities, some do not. They were faced with a threat of armed subversion in the Seventies on a scale few outside Argentina grasped, and their methods in meeting it were indefensible. This does not mean that they are all fascists. Any solution to the problems of the islands, unlikely scene of subversion though they may be, that recognised Argentina’s claims would have to give anyone who wished to stay some sort of guarantees. At the same time, it is clear that if a solution requires the disappearance of the Argentine armed forces from Argentina, then it must wait for ever.

Perhaps ‘tin-pot’, ‘comic-opera’, ‘fascist’ and similar terms have to be used because the British have only the vaguest ideas about Argentina and the rest of Latin America. We have never in the hundred and fifty years or so of the independent existence of Latin America been threatened with such a conflict as this, and have no traditional animosity to fall back on. There is a tradition of incurious condescension. It is caught by the underrated William McFee, in a novel of 1928, Pilgrims of Adversity, where he describes the alcaldia or town hall of Havana:

A number of officials sat at desks in this large chamber, leaning back in their chairs, bending over documents, reaching for telephones and conversing with attentive subordinates. And they were doing all these things with a slight air of theatrical self-consciousness, as though it were a game and they had just learned it. When James reached the hardwood barrier and waited to be addressed, these gentlemen glanced in his direction and became ostentatiously absorbed in their affairs. But perhaps because they waved fans to cool themselves James was unable to take them seriously. They appeared to him – and he retained this impression of the executive Latin American all his life – to be engaged in an operatic performance graciously patronised by an invisible but powerful Anglo-Saxon authority. Even when they ignored and flouted him, he was convinced it was because they felt securely the support of men of his own race.

Europeans also find little or no intellectual difficulty in considering Latin Americans in power inherently more authoritarian, violent, torturing and fascist than they are themselves. This is often considered so obvious that it is not only not worth arguing about, it is not even worth inquiring into possible causes. One reason for this is that darker episodes elsewhere are often dignified by being part of ‘world history’, in much of which Latin America has had the good fortune to be a marginal participant.

The Argentine high command is no disciplined monolith, and well-placed generals have had a freedom of action not common in armies anywhere else. General Bussi, when in command of Tucuman, was a case in point, and the subject of many stories. He decided to create a park filled with the statues of proceres, heroes of the struggle for independence, and sent for a sculptor. The sculptor was promptly given a month to produce a score or so of monuments. When he protested that it could not be done in time, the General’s response was ‘All right, all right. How many troops do you need?’

Another political joke from Tucuman: in the time of Peron one leading local figure, a man afraid of nothing and nobody, found himself made director of the local botanical garden. There he received the visit of a particularly stupid Peronist Governor, who glanced around the grounds and then asked: ‘Why have you got so many weeds together here?’ ‘In case a Governor should come by to browse’ was the answer. These jokes – I am not sure that the first one was a joke – do not seem very funny just at the moment. They may persuade someone that Argentines are capable of political humour. Let us hope they recover.

Another insoluble problem from Argentina ... La Mala Vida en Buenos Aires, by Eusebio Gomez (Buenos Aires, 1908), besides a lot of fascinating information which has long lost its power to shock anyone in the old world, contains an illustrated description of a machine with wires, knobs and dials called the trun-trun, fabricated by the local estafador or confidence-man. The trun-trun could make legitimate golden sovereigns, and the trick was to sell it to some gullible purchaser. The book does not explain what story was told to get him to buy. It must have required unusual negotiating talent.

The word ‘dago’, according to Partridge’s Dictionary of Historical Slang, derives from the common Spanish Christian name Diego. An alternative derivation might be from hidalgo, hijo de algo, son of somebody, gentleman. It dates from a time when the sun did not set on the Spanish Empire. Dago shows no great powers of invention, but it is better than Argie – a name favoured among Falklanders.

What if, instead of landing thousands, the Argentines had left on the islands a garrison no larger than that they had removed?