On April 2, the National Day of Veterans and the Fallen in the Malvinas, provinces and social organizations throughout Argentina held commemorative activities and marches. But for Argentina, the act of remembering the thirty-year-old Malvinas War is no straightforward task. It is charged with both international politics and an internal struggle within Argentine society.
“Instead of a life full of future, death. Instead of dreams, an open belly torn by machine guns… and those who remained alive see the faces of pain in their comrades’ faces every night.” These are the words of the Argentine pacifist and journalist Osvaldo Bayer marking the 30th anniversary of the Falklands/Malvinas War, which claimed the lives of 650 Argentine and 255 British soldiers. On April 2, the National Day of Veterans and the Fallen in the Malvinas, provinces and social organizations throughout Argentina held commemorative activities and marches to remember those who lost their lives in combat and honor veterans who were forever marked by a brutal and losing battle.
But for Argentina the act of remembering the war is no straightforward task. It is charged with both international politics and an internal struggle within Argentine society to understand how, why, and in what conditions war was declared—two issues very much alive today. Launched in 1982 by a fraying military junta in power since 1976, the war was a brazen last-ditch attempt to garner support for a regime that could no longer hide the crimes it committed against its own population. For many Argentines, the war was the final crime.
Yet these two issues—international sovereignty and the dictatorship’s decision to declare war— are often advantageously lumped together, as Britain continues to refuse negotiations over the islands on claims that as Argentina attacked before it could attack again. This week the U.K. deployed the HMS Dauntless warship for a six- month tour to the islands that have been under its control since 1833.
Touching on both in a commemorative speech from the southern city of Ushuaia, President Cristina Fernandez Kirchner called for “memory and truth … and fundamentally to pull back the curtain on what the United Kingdom tries to make everyone believe: that the decision [to go to war] was one of the Argentine people.”
One might look at photographs of Argentine conscripts on the Malvinas taken in 1982 and from the antiquated artillery and uniforms place them in the 1940s. Whereas when viewing footage of the Royal British Air Force during the war, with the latest missiles and aircraft of the period, its a wonder how the Argentine army lasted the two months that it did before surrendering.
Not simply outmatched, the Argentine military was unprepared. The Rattenbach Report, a recently declassified document commissioned by the military government to assess the war, details just how poorly planned the military strategy was and the junta’s underestimation the British navy and air force. Nevertheless, government-controlled news reports during the war boldly stated that Argentina was in fact winning.
For the Argentine conscripts themselves, some as young as 17, the enemy wasn’t just the British but its own military. Soldiers were not only sent with outdated and unreliable machinery, most had only received days of formal combat training. Stationed in trenches (one of the last trench wars in history), soldiers battled the bitter South Atlantic cold without proper clothing and were denied adequate food from their senior officers. Fatigued and freezing, soldiers were often caught asleep on duty or stealing food rations. Punishment for such actions ranged from standing at the bottom of a pit full of icy water for hours, to being pegged to mounds of mud with one’s arms and legs spread, a practice called estaqueamiento.
“They were perverse,” veteran and writer Edgardo Esteban tells Pagina 12 in reference to the estaqueamientos. “They left 18 year old kids all night long tied by their hands and feet, and made them run for five minutes so they wouldn’t freeze, then they’d tie them up again on the wet ground.”
Many senior officials were none other than those responsible for the kidnapping, torture, and disappearance of thousands of Argentines as part of the state’s Dirty War against political dissenters and sympathizers. Former marine captain Alfredo Astiz – known as the “Blonde Angel of Death” for his role in infiltrating the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo and causing the deaths of numerous human rights activists including two French nuns – was one of the first to arrive on the islands and in fact surrender the neighboring South Georgia islands. He was held as a prisoner of war for its duration, and despite requests for his extradition from France and Switzerland for crimes against humanity, was returned to Argentina in a deal struck between Margaret Thatcher and the military government.
Further exposing the fascist elements of the army at the time, Jewish soldiers in the Malvinas took the worst abuse. Silvio Katz, 19 years old at the time, was verbally and physically abused and humiliated and even ordered to urinate on his fellow soldiers.
“I quickly went from being a shit Jew to being Jewish traitor, a Jewish coward, and a Jewish homosexual,” Katz recounted to Pagina 12.
Memory and Justice
It was when the war ended that the real battle began for the surviving soldiers. Since the war’s end more than 500 veterans have committed suicide, with many more suffering posttraumatic stress disorder and facing unemployment.
“I came back from the war and I never went dancing again,” says Katz. “I took months to go to the movies, and even longer to laugh. Three or four years passed before I could truly laugh.”
Before being allowed to go home, the military kept soldiers at base Campo de Mayo where they were finally fed in order to avoid questions as to their malnourished state. Soldiers were then forced to sign documents agreeing to not tell of what they had seen and experienced during the war.
Though Argentina’s defeat in the Malvinas meant the end of the military dictatorship and a transition to democracy, the unpopularity of the war and its instigators also meant total isolation of veterans who had served.
“They put us all in the same bag,” says Rodrigo Sevilla, a survivor of the Belgrano ship sunk by Britain in neutral waters, in an interview with Diaro Uno. “We remained marginalized and to speak of the issue became a taboo topic ever since.”
Many veterans agree that the abandonment and forgetting by Argentine society have been the most painful. In the 1990s under then President Menem, the government’s policy was one of whitewashing the past – pardoning generals of the former military junta and signing the Madrid Accords with Britain that effectively promised Argentina would not seek sovereignty over the islands.
With the re-opening of cases against former generals for crimes against humanity in 2003, and the release films like Iluminados por el Fuego (2005), inspired by author Edgardo Esteban’s book with the same title, more stories of abuse have surfaced and paved the way for formal charges to be brought against officers by former soldiers.
Search for Sovereignty
Separate from the crimes of the war remains another open wound: control of the islands themselves. Talk of the war often overshadows Argentina’s claim of sovereignty and the glaring fact they are located on the country’s continental shelf.
At stake in the dispute between Britain and Argentina are lucrative fishing and oil reserves that the U.K. continues to exploit, in addition to its claims on the Antarctic—one of the largest fresh water reserves on the planet. (For more on this see: Resource Control and Military Might: The Future of the Malvinas/Falkland Islands)
“We want justice for the region and a demilitarized area,” said President Kirchner on Monday. “We don’t want the drums or helmets of war.” This past year Argentina has renewed its diplomatic pursuit of negotiations. In February it presented a formal complaint to the United Nations, and this week UNASUR (Union of South American Nations) voted to support the country and prevent British ships from entering surrounding waters, a strong agreement that in practice will be difficult to implement. Nevertheless, and despite Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon’s offers to mediate, Britain continues to defy Argentina’s requests and the ten U.N. resolutions calling negotiations.
Struggle goes on
Chanting “Volveremos” (We will return) and “Patria Sí! Colonia No!” (Homeland yes! Colony no!) left political organizations not affiliated with the government marched to the British embassy in Buenos Aires on the anniversary of the war. Calling into question the President’s sincerity about decolonizing the islands, marchers pointed out what they see as a hypocritical discrepancy between the Argentine government’s words versus its actions.
“They continue to negotiate with English banks, with those who take all the oil, with the most important companies, and on top of it all they are worried about paying an external debt to the Paris Club where there is British capital,” says march organizer Oscar Guberman.
“The tribute we pay today is for the 650 soldiers who were left behind in the Malvinas. The islands belongs to us and we’re going to continue the struggle.”