Dying for the Malvinas

Isabel Hilton

There was a junior minister in General Galtieri’s government who, in April 1982, made one of the few perceptive remarks to be made by government ministers on either side of the strange little war that was then being fought. After a brief visit to the newly recovered Malvinas, he said: ‘Every Argentine seems prepared to die for the Malvinas, but none would wish to live there.’ It did little for his political career, but he summed up the difference between the attachment of the Kelpers to those boggy, windswept islands, a place of hard living and stubborn attitudes, and the Argentine image of the place as the final jewel in the state regalia, a powerful symbol for a nation that relies the more heavily on symbols for its identity because of the lack of substance and cohesion in its national life. Argentina in 1982 was a nation that had failed to find itself, its national myths usurped by the military and, as Jimmy Burns points out, swept up into Juan Peron’s vision of ‘a country which is formed by generals, liberated by generals, led by generals and today claimed by generals’.

The militarisation of Argentine society reached its apogee in the Seventies. A large section of civic society colluded in the formation of the Doctrine of National Security which emerged in response to the civil conflict engendered by the chaotic government of Maria Estela Peron, underwrote the coup against her, and served as the pretext for the savage repressions of the Dirty War. This doctrine did not just entail a massive violation of human rights: it enabled the military to destroy the constitution in the name of saving the nation, to take over sections of the economy and put them to the service of the ruling clique and the military institutions, and it fed the delusions of glory that have plagued the military consciousness in Argentina for fifty years. It was a looking-glass world, in which the citizen was criminalised and the criminals were in charge, a world of secret laws, secret prisons, secret executions, in which everyone and no one knew what was happening, where reality was too dangerous to be acknowledged. Football, light entertainment and the music of military bands drowned out the sounds of pain and dissent.

This process is very well analysed by Jimmy Burns, for five years correspondent in Buenos Aires for the Financial Times, and its results in the Falklands conflict are intimately described by the collective authors of The Secret Plot, a group of journalists who are responsible for the political coverage of Clarin, the largest daily paper in Buenos Aires. Both books were inspired by the war – and both take up the theme that most concerns Argentina-watchers today: what kind of Argentina is emerging in the wake of the Falklands War and how successful has civilian Argentina been in reclaiming the nation?

As a reporter in Buenos Aires in 1982, I had watched that peculiarly Argentine mixture of tragedy and farce. Like many of my colleagues, I would occasionally pinch myself to dispel a persistent sense of disbelief at the sight, as Borges put it, of two bald men fighting over a comb. We were a long way from the front line in Buenos Aires, and spent our time trying to penetrate the fog of misinformation that swirled round the city and to make sense of the Argentine military leadership as it galloped, swords drawn and banners unfurled, towards disaster, cheered on by most of the population and by virtually all of the Argentine press, including Clarin.

It was the national hangover that set in once the party was over that triggered the writing of The Secret Plot. The authors tell us that they had promised themselves throughout the war that one day they would sit down and write the book. To their credit, when it was all over and most of Argentina switched off the war and switched on the World Cup, pretending to themselves that they had been firmly against the whole nonsense from the beginning, Cardoso, Kirschbaum and van der Kooy began the painful process of research and reappraisal. As they put it here, ‘the single fact of having to face that final defeat and humiliation taught the whole Argentine nation a few home truths. It made us ... realise that the project, which at first had been just a diversion ... was now a necessity.’

The book appeared in Buenos Aires in 1983, and its publication in English is long overdue. It is a pity that after such a long wait, the English edition should read as though translated by someone whose native language could well be Albanian. Irritating at best, the text occasionally descends into the impenetrable. It adds nothing to what has already been published on the battlefield aspects of the war. Nevertheless it must rank as the best account of the incompetence, the squabbles and the fantasies of glory that were the underlying themes of the adventure. It would be pleasant to recall that some of these insights were available at the time to the readers of Clarin, but that would stretch revisionism too far.

There are precious few heroes in this story – the atmosphere is distinctly opera buffo. General Galtieri, drinking heavily, depressed and euphoric by turns, dreaming of being hailed as a new President Peron, and deaf and blind to diplomatic and military reality even after his troops had surrendered. Admiral Anaya, the head of the Navy, inexplicably described by the authors as the most ‘stubbornly well-balanced’ of the Junta when it was his urging that brought about the invasion and his blind inflexibility that broke every attempt at a diplomatic solution. The Air Force chief, Lami Dozo, who could see all too clearly what was coming but never managed to convince his fellow members of the Junta. The civilians come out of it little better. The Junta depended, for their appreciation of the international diplomatic reaction, on the vain and pompous figure of Nicanor Costa Mendez, who conspired with the early stages of the plot because he, too, dreamed of his role in history as the foreign minister who restored the Malvinas to the fatherland. In true Argentine style, he always made time for shopping on his trips to the UN; and at the height of the war, was so taken with my small Sony tape-recorder that he insisted on holding it throughout the interview and called in his aides to take the serial number. No doubt his tape-recorder reached him a great deal faster than military material ever reached the islands.

Costa Mendez encouraged the military fantasy with an assessment of the likely international reaction that was so disastrously wrong it beggars belief. He then lost every important diplomatic fight, turned Argentina’s diplomatic alliances on their heads and ended up, to the amazement of the oligarchy, embracing Fidel Castro, the bête noire of his military masters. Those pillars of Western Christian civilisation, who had seen themselves as constituting the front line of the ‘third world war’ – the war against international Communism and terrorism – found themselves, faute de mieux, dealing with Colonel Ghadafi and contemplating a tactical alliance with the Soviet Union. No wonder the nation emerged with an identity problem. After the years of self-delusion, of aspiring only to the best clubs, reality hit rather hard. Nor did Argentina’s friends cover themselves in glory. Jeane Kirkpatrick, then US Ambassador to the United Nations, who championed Argentina as an example of the ‘authoritarian’ as opposed to the ‘totalitarian’ school of dictatorship, assured the Argentines, according to the authors, that Britain would never succeed in introducing the Falklands issue into the forum of the United Nations.

What matters now is what Argentines learned from the catastrophe and what they want their nation to be. It was much easier to answer the question in the immediate aftermath of the war – in those moments of self-disgust and remorse that inspired Cardoso et al. Yet there is something missing from The Secret Plot which seems to tell us that the self-examination can go so far and no further. In what is in other respects a detailed account, the authors simply do not touch on the role played by the Argentine media in inducing the collective hallucination. It is a story they must be well-placed to tell and the importance of the exercise would go far beyond conscience-clearing. A distrust with all things military comes across clearly, but for the examination of the military’s relationship with society we must turn back to Jimmy Burns.

The last part of his book, however, peters out in a journalistic account of the beginnings of the Alfonsin Government. It is a competent account, but it fails to carry through the analysis that made the early part of the book so promising, perhaps because the book was completed before the Army mutiny last Easter revealed the depths of Alfonsin’s failure to confront the military problem. On page 2, Burns points out that in the five years that have elapsed since the war, Argentine ‘historiography is already taking a potentially dangerous turn: the anti-militarism and self-criticism shared in the immediate aftermath of the war is giving way to a revisionist theory which seeks to explain the war simply in terms of Britain’s diplomatic intransigence and Argentina’s own deep-rooted collective sentiment about the justice of the Malvinas cause.’

President Alfonsin took office at a moment when Argentina’s military fortunes were at their lowest ebb ever, and at that point he might have had the power to dismantle the military machine and reshape it to his own design. But as is now evident, he was surprised by his own victory, all but overwhelmed by the problems he faced, and came to power, without a military plan, under pressure from the human-rights lobby, to whom he was sympathetic, and yet apparently unable to rid himself of the belief that Argentina needs its powerful Armed Forces, who must be given every chance to recover their self-respect. Perhaps he was right to think that it was undesirable that the Armed Forces should continue to be the pariahs of Argentine society, but in his anxiety to allow an unrepentant force to reform itself, he gave it the breathing-space it needed to test the limits of the Government’s nerve. When it came to it, the Government’s nerve failed. The Armed Forces are still isolated and out of tune with civilian society, but the sense of their inviolability returned last Easter. The torturer Alfredo Astiz is safe. The relatives of his victims are not and it is not too far-fetched to imagine that one day they will be naming streets in Buenos Aires after General Galtieri.