Saturday, April 4, 2009

Malvinas: Where the ‘Proceso’ Went to Die

This week marks the 27th anniversary of the Argentine Armed Forces Government’s pre-emptive takeover of the Falkland (Malvinas) Islands on April 2, 1982. The move triggered a 10-week conflict with Britain that cost 649 Argentine and 258 British lives. It was also the beginning of the end for the ‘Proceso’ dictatorship.

Invasion Day – April 2, 1982.
I recall the morning that Buenos Aires and the nation as a whole awoke to find that the Armed Forces had taken over the Malvinas (Falklands) from the British. It was an unseasonably cold and crisp day. Barely the start of South American autumn, but a sharp Patagonian wind had cleared away the clouds, chilled the air and left the sky a deep and limpid blue. It was as if the weather itself were announcing the advent of the series of events that would follow in the freezing climate of the sub-Antarctic islands.

But on that date, in Buenos Aires, it was a gorgeous, clear, cold and sunny day. I walked the streets of downtown to ‘test the waters’ before going in to work. I was general news editor and an editorial writer for the English-language Buenos Aires Herald at the time. Normally, I wouldn’t have been headed for work before mid-afternoon (when you work for a daily, you do the bulk of your actual writing at night, although you’re usually busy, one way or another, all day as well), but considering the top news of the day, I wanted to get an early start.
One of the first signs of reaction I noted was that Harrods, the emblematically English department store was absolutely festooned with sky-blue and white Argentine flags, dozens of them, the larger the better and no vestige of a Union Jack anywhere in sight. Furthermore, the store would, in short order, put out a press release reminding everyone that it had long since been bought out by Italian and other interests.
The large English-speaking and Anglo communities in Argentina had long thought of Harrods as an oasis of English popular culture on the posh Florida pedestrian street in the heart of the city. Opened in 1912, it was the first and only foreign branch ever founded by the famed London emporium, and although it became independent of its English parent store in the late 1940s, until the morning of April 2, 1982, it had remained a British icon in downtown Buenos Aires. Now, suddenly, it was demonstratively, almost ‘euphorically’ Argentine.
And a little further down the street, it would only be a matter of hours before the ever-traditional Franco-Inglesa pharmacy and fine perfume store would scratch the gold-lettered second half of its name off the windows and paint it over on its sign to become merely “the Franco”. Nor would these be the only victims of combined paranoia and anti-Anglo jingoism to suffer modification.
It was a Friday, but from early on, as people started finding out the news, it began to have a holiday feel. Perhaps, a better than holiday feel. People seemed excited but happy, smiling and nodding to each other on the street, stopping to chat about the news. And little by little, people began gravitating toward the main square of the city, Plaza de Mayo, where a spontaneous demonstration was taking shape, under the nervously watchful eyes of Federal Policemen whose number also began to climb as the day went on.
None of this was normal under the iron-handed government of the National Reorganization Process, or ‘Proceso’ as it was known for short. Gatherings had been banned since 1976, following the coup that brought the ‘Proceso’ to power, as was union activity, political parties, and any other kind of cultural group or association that might be construed as threatening to the military government. Of late, the ‘Proceso’ had become even more paranoid than usual. It was losing its grip and it knew it. So its reactions to political demonstrations that, little by little, were again beginning to rear their heads, had become increasingly severe and violent.

But today they were reading the crowds differently. There was no belligerence in those headed for the Plaza. There was only jubilation and rampant national sentiment. They were going there to celebrate, to congratulate the very dictators that had repressed them for seven long years, to thank them for taking back what British colonialism had usurped so long ago from Argentina’s sovereign territory. It was a far cry from the attitude of growing unrest that had been seething just beneath the surface and that, just that week, in the final days of March, had boiled over into unbridled violence.

Spare the Rod...
You can beat a dog to make it obey. Tie it up and beat it hard enough and it’ll cringe every time you draw near and try its best not to displease you in order not to be beaten. For a while, at least. Until it gets accustomed to the pain and violence and decides to bite back. And beating a dog will never make it loyal. It’ll only make it wary, terrified and, ultimately, mean. Show weakness, show the slightest sign of helplessness and you’ll be lucky if it doesn’t turn on you and tear your throat out. It’s a basic and primitive law of survival. It takes no human (or humane) sentiment into account. It is when all that exists is the power of brute force exercised by one over the position of weakness of another. It’s an almost baseless relationship that only stands on might and abuse, with no love lost between the parties involved and with each wanting what’s worst for the other. It is the tense “peace” and order of a prison, the ever-shaky standoff between life-long prisoner and jailer.
This was the relationship that Argentina’s military came to have with common society in the bad old days of the National Reorganization Process (1976-1983). At first, like a starved and frightened dog, society had cozy up to a new master and licked its hand, hoping for protection from the other one that it had chosen, but that was now starving and abusing it, the one that demanded loyalty and gave abuse in return. But it didn’t take long to find out that the 1976 coup was all about leaping from the skillet into the scorching fires of authoritarian hell.
The Armed Forces government’s top brass swaggered over the human and civil rights of the people like feudal lords, taking and doing whatever they wished and killing off those who stood in their way. The abusive practices of those who served them were as consummately vile as any that might invade your worst nightmares. Beatings with nightsticks and rifle butts, electric cattle prods applied to gums, genitals and other sensitive body parts, and water and suffocation torture of all kinds (wet submarine, dry submarine, waterboarding, etc.) were standard operating procedure to be applied to just about anyone questioned by military and security forces. And here the word anybody meant just that: anybody, at any time and practically at random.
But even worse things were done to the people who fell into the limbo of “the missing”: repeated rapes and beatings, the abuse of pregnant women by inserting electrodes into their bodies and torturing their unborn babies in the womb, bodily mutilation with blowtorches, hanging prisoners by their wrists or thumbs or ankles and beating them with clubs – in short, every kind of atrocious torment that a perverted mind could conjure up – all cowardly, all despicable. And then there were the other abuses and atrocities: extortion of the families of the “missing” in which they gave everything they had worked for to try and save a loved one that they would, nonetheless, never see again; pregnant political prisoners separated from their babies and murdered after giving birth in prison, their babies then being given over to an ad hoc “adoption agency” that provided children to barren friends of the regime; mere high school children jailed, tortured and murdered for protesting a hike in the price of the school bus ticket; truckloads of prisoners taken to remote sites, machine-gunned en masse and their bodies blown up with dynamite; prisoners drugged and pushed from military helicopters to their deaths in the River Plate or in the ocean; business people accused of subversion and jailed, their businesses confiscated and their personal properties snatched because their interests conflicted with those of the despots in power; so-called third-world clerics summarily executed for speaking out, for defending Christian ethics, for calling for an end to the madness, for ministering to the poor.
People were scared. People didn’t talk about what was going on. They pretended not to know. They looked away, as they might look away from a facility for the criminally insane, not wanting to imagine what went on in there, afraid that by looking they might make the madness spill out into the street and grab them, afraid that they themselves might end up “inside”. But although they “didn’t know”, they knew enough to warn their loved ones not to “get into anything”, not to “mess with politics”, not to look authority in the eye, to lower their eyes, to lower their heads, to ‘circulate’.

Breaking Point: The Jimmy Carter Era.
By 1982, the situation could no longer be ignored. With very occasional exceptions, the military had, by then, made just about everybody disappear that they planned to. There was no longer any “enemy” for them to pretend to be fighting. The “subversives” were all dead or gone or crushed beyond being any danger to the regime. The ‘Proceso’ now talked in the past tense about the “dirty war” it had supposedly had to fight in order to “save the Christian and Western world”. But its international image had been so tarnished by then that even the common folk back home could no longer pretend nothing had happened: International organizations were calling for an end to the regime and the advent of democratic elections. Human rights groups targeted the ‘Proceso’ as one of the bloodiest and most abusive regimes in the world. The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo had been on major television news programs in the Unites States and Europe, calling for the “return alive” of their missing children and grandchildren. Renowned news columnists and writers had described the atrocities committed and called on their governments to censure the regime.
Four years of the Jimmy Carter Administration (1977-1981) in Washington had also made a major difference. After decades of US policy that took a hands-off approach to “friendly dictators”, President Carter imposed a foreign policy whose key tenet was the protection of human rights through diplomacy. The dichotomy of US foreign policy up to then had always been that while Washington preached democracy, rule of law and the Bill of Rights as basic inalienable human and civil rights at home, it applied a double standard elsewhere, as if to say that North Americans were just a little more human than the people who had to live under the heels of dictators’ boots in rightwing regimes that posed as front men for the US in its war on communism. Never in modern times had a US president emphasized as much as Jimmy Carter did the idea that US foreign policy should reflect the highest human ideals of the United States and Western democracy.
He named staunch human rights activist Patricia Murphy Derian to be his Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs and she immediately took on the authoritarian regimes in places like Chile, Paraguay and Argentina, as well as in apartheid-era South Africa and elsewhere. President Carter was criticized by the right for overlooking human rights abuses in Korea, China, Iran and other Eastern countries but his concentration on cleaning up the human rights situation in Latin America and putting these countries on the road to democracy was clearly a question of starting in his own backyard and turning the Americas into a showcase for basic Early American ideals.

The Derian Factor.
Assistant Secretary Derian proved a tenacious defender of that policy and of human rights in general. In the case of Argentina, she called a spade a spade, openly accusing the regime of crimes against humanity and becoming instrumental in setting up an inspection mission that the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IHRC) carried out in Argentina under authority from the Organization of American States (OAS) in 1979. It was also in that year that she helped secure the release of Jacobo Timerman, owner and publisher of the center-left newspaper, La Opinión, who had been imprisoned and tortured after being falsely accused of helping launder leftwing terrorist extortion money. Her campaign to gain Timerman’s release helped catapult his case to the forefront of international interest and put such intense pressure on the Argentine military that they finally had to let him go. Although the regime showed its displeasure at having to do so by taking over Timerman’s paper, stealing his property and stripping him of his citizenship before letting him leave the country, his release still caused ultra-rightwing factions in the Army to accuse the junta of being soft on terrorism and to stage a military revolt in the interior of the country that was eventually put down, but not without loss of face and power for the leaders of the ‘Proceso’.
Assistant Secretary Derian’s actions so infuriated the Argentine military that they internally declared her their Public Enemy Number One and are even reported to have entertained plans to have her killed. (Not surprising, since this was how they had been handling the opposition of every color up to then, and they were clearly arrogant enough to think they could get away with it).
Weakening the military’s image still further, in 1980 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, an Argentine artist and human rights activist who was tortured and held for 14 months by the ‘Proceso’ before international outcry brought his release.
With Ms. Derian leading the action, President Carter slapped sanctions on Argentina for failing to heed his demands that human rights be respected, alienating the leaders of the ‘Proceso’, but at the same time drawing ever-increasing international media attention to what was going on, and making it impossible for the military to operate with the kind of impunity that they had early on after the coup. Suddenly, the ‘Proceso’ was high-profile and its image was abysmal.
This obviously weakened its position at home as well. You can’t ‘tie your dog up and beat it’ before the eyes of the whole world, because somebody bigger and stronger is almost bound to intervene and stop you – and perhaps hit you with your very own stick. Which was precisely what President Carter did, because one of the sanctions imposed was keeping the Argentine military from getting their hands on US arms if they were going to use them to repress their own people.
Just Call Me Pontius Massera.
Ms. Derian would remain a champion of human rights in Argentina long after she and Mr. Carter were out of office. When the respective military juntas were tried for human rights violations after democracy was restored, the former Assistant Secretary of State went to Buenos Aires to testify against them. One of the most chilling parts of her testimony had to do with a meeting she had with Admiral Emilio Massera to explain the Carter Administration’s policy to him.
Massera was a cynic and a bully. He was also apparently hopelessly obtuse if he thought he could pull the wool over the eyes of such a thorough investigator and such a brilliant intellectual as Patricia Derian. Or perhaps he was simply so arrogant that he thought he could convince her of whatever sort of spurious nonsense he made up.
At any rate, when Assistant Secretary Derian met with him on August 10, 1977 (when the worst human rights violations of the ‘Proceso’ were in full swing) and bluntly told him that Washington was aware of the abuses being perpetrated by the regime and that they would absolutely have a negative impact on relations with the United States if they didn’t stop immediately, Admiral Massera said that the Navy hadn’t tortured anyone. It was the Army and Air Force that did those things, he said.
Ms. Derian was flabbergasted by the denial. She stated that she was in possession of hundreds of reports from people tortured by naval officers. Moreover, she had reports from people within the Argentine Navy itself, as well as from within the Army and the Air Force. Massera again denied all participation, saying that he had made special efforts to keep union leaders safe after the coup and that this was why they were being held aboard a ship anchored off shore. (There were already reports by that time that Light and Power Union Leader Oscar Smith, for example, had been murdered and his body disposed of at the Naval Mechanics School, so the falsehood of his statements was almost laughable, had the cases not been so tragic).
Losing patience, Assistant Secretary Derian said that in one of the reports, she had seen a layout of the very building where she was meeting with Massera, and she added: “It’s possible that, as we speak, someone is being tortured on the floor below us.”
Then, she would be astonished as Massera broke into a broad leering grin, made a histrionic hand-washing gesture and said: “You remember what happened to Pontius Pilot, right?”
Ms. Derian would have to wait nearly three decades to receive the recognition she deserved for hobbling the dictatorship and very likely saving thousands more lives that would otherwise have been taken, but finally, in 2006, she was awarded the Order of the Liberator General San Martín, with the rank of Officer – the highest decoration granted by the Argentine government to foreign officials.

Enter Ronald Reagan.
Be that as it may, by the start of the South Atlantic War, the regime had already gotten chummy with Washington again, thanks to former actor and governor Ronald Reagan’s election win over Mr. Carter in 1981. Mr. Reagan had an old-time rightist approach to foreign policy and almost immediately sent his foreign policy architect, Jeane Kirkpatrick, to let the ‘Proceso’ leaders know that the Jimmy Carter era was stone cold dead and that from now on they would no longer have to fret about pesky human rights investigators out of Washington.
Dr. Kirkpatrick was a fervent anti-communist and the author of what came to be known as the “Kirkpatrick Doctrine”, one of the main principles of which was the exact opposite of the Carter policy pinning US support to democratic government and, above all, respect for human rights.
The Kirkpatrick policy advocated Washington’s support of just about any kind of government, including harsh rightwing dictatorships, with the only prerequisite for membership in the Reagan Administration’s group of ‘friends’ being hard-line opposition to all things leftist. The ‘Proceso’ was, obviously, a shoo-in. It had been so tough on reds that it had wiped out every opponent that ever even dared to blush. And the ‘Proceso’ was more than willing to lend support to Reagan’s rightwing Contra guerrillas (freedom fighters as his administration dubbed them) in Central America.
The Kirkpatrick Doctrine had a side that was obviously ‘for general audiences’ who might find supporting perverse dictatorial regimes distasteful. The theory that supposedly made doing this ‘okay’ was that leftist regimes could never be turned toward democracy, whereas ‘allowing’ rightwing dictatorships to ‘help’ Washington in its war on communism would cement ties between them and the US and permit Washington to eventually give them a friendly nudge toward a US-style democratic system.

In theory, it almost sounded plausible, as espoused by the brilliant Dr. Kirkpatrick. But in fact, it didn’t always work. For instance, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, better known as the Shah of Iran, was brought to power as a rightwing dictator through a CIA plot called Operation Ajax that ended the government of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in the 1950s after his administration nationalized Anglo-US oil interests. Previously a figurehead king within a democratic system, the Shah became an absolute monarch with military backing. Although he protected US interests for three and a half decades and practically became a cult icon in the West, he never showed signs of being ‘nudged toward democracy’. On the contrary, his despotic policies and intolerance of dissent were the direct cause of the Iranian Revolution that brought Islamic extremist clerics to power in the late ‘70s, turning Iran into a bitter and dangerous enemy of the United States.

Nor was the definition of ‘rightwing’ always clear. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, for instance, was an Arab Socialist. And yet, because of his position as a bulwark against Iranian advances in the Middle East, he was seen as ‘a friendly’ by Washington. In addition to the billions upon billions of dollars that the US had already pumped into Iraq prior to the Reagan era, the Reagan Administration alone handed Saddam another 40 billion dollars in loans in the 1980s to help him prosecute his war with Iran – a war in which, according to some estimates, a million lives were lost. And in addition, during that same period, Washington sent Saddam billions in direct aid, basically to prevent him from forming any strong alliances with the Soviet Union. Undoing that diplomatic ‘marriage’ is still costing American lives and billions of dollars in US taxpayer money each year to this day.

The ‘Proceso’ was also seen as having certain strategic value in the war on communism with which the Reagan Administration seemed so thoroughly obsessed. And, according to some sources at the time, the Malvinas (Falkland) Islands played a role in certain US contingency plans.
But even President Reagan and Dr. Kirkpatrick couldn’t give the junta free rein to rekindle its “dirty war” in order to stem growing opposition to its permanence in power. With Jimmy Carter, a new ethical line had been drawn in the Americas and even Ronald Reagan couldn’t ignore it completely if he hoped to remain in office for eight years.

A Union Protest Turns Popular Riot.
Although the Armed Forces obviously already had their invasion of the islands well under way by the end of March, it was still a well-kept secret from the rest of the world, and particularly from the Argentine people, who had been tolerating the perversely repressive ‘Proceso’ for six long and harrowing years. The Carter years and international repudiation for the regime, despite Washington’s newfound love affair with it, had so undermined its image that Argentines were no longer willing to put up with its permanence in power and were clamoring for a political opening. And with the whole world now watching, the tactics the dictatorship had applied back in 1976 had been rendered out of the question.
Just four days before that crisp, sunny April 2nd, when I had walked the downtown streets of Buenos Aires and watched people spontaneously gathering in Plaza de Mayo to celebrate the Malvinas takeover, I had also been out observing the scene in the heart of the city. And on that day, Tuesday, March 30, 1982, people had also gathered in the center of the capital city, not to celebrate but to protest against the ‘Proceso’.
The protest began as a general strike and mobilization called by the Peronist labor unions grouped in the General Confederation of Labor (CGT). The demonstration was commanded by the CGT’s firebrand leader, Saúl Ubaldini. The strike and mass protest were billed as a call for “peace, bread and jobs”. It was the most serious protest the military regime had had to face in its six years in power and it gravely challenged the dictatorship’s ability to continue to repress the tide of popular support for a return to democracy.
The Interior Ministry had banned the mass protest, claiming that it might have permitted a peaceful protest, but that the CGT had neglected to request the proper permit. The march, the government said, would not be allowed. But Saúl Ubaldini pushed ahead with his plans, claiming that the dictatorship had run its course, undermined by internal contradictions and reaching the point of collapse in the midst of an economic crisis that was starving the nation’s workers.
Emboldened by the CGT’s decision to forge ahead, other civil, political and social organizations joined the march. Despite an intimidating display of police and military power, the protest drew a crowd of some 50,000 workers, students and other young people. And these began to be joined by some of the passersby, who, inspired by the resolve of the marchers, decided that they too had had enough of the dictatorship and that the time had come to start bringing it down.
The regime panicked and ordered the protest crushed. Riot forces armed with tear gas, nightsticks and weapons loaded with rubber bullets, as well as their regulation arms, advanced on the crowds. Many people broke and ran, adding to the confusion, but significant numbers of grimly stubborn protestors stood their ground and clashed head-on with riot police, turning the wooden staves of their protest signs into clubs with which to return the blows they received, lobbing tear gas canisters back at the cops and converting trash dumpsters and cans into makeshift barricades, setting their contents ablaze. Riot-control detachments from the Federal Police Infantry Guard – under Army command since the coup – chased rioters that fled the Plaza down central side streets, using their riot shields to surround themselves and becoming a human battering ram, reminiscent of the Roman army’s tortoise maneuver, so that as the protestors mingled with the passersby on the streets, these too became fair game as the armored platoons ran roughshod over whomever wondered into their path. Office and shop workers took refuge in stores that remained open, but many had already lowered their security curtains to avoid damage. At the center of the protest, however, the direct confrontation continued, as well-organized squads of union and political activists attacked individual mounted police, pulling them from their mounts or even dragging their horses down, jerking the cops from their saddles amidst a barrage of kicks and blows.
And then something started happening that the police and military hadn’t counted on: white-collar workers in the surrounding office buildings started hurling anything they could lay their hands on from the windows and balconies – chucking out wastebaskets, paper weights, phonebooks, staplers, flower pots, anything heavy enough to do some damage – in a bid to injure or intimidate the riot squads and make them retreat.
Clearly, this was no longer a labor union protest, but a spontaneous outpouring of repudiation and hatred for the dictatorial regime. Skirmishes raged on for six hours, as rioters broke for the side streets, thus disbanding the solid police and military front that had been holding firm in the Plaza. When things grew quiet that night, the streets were littered with debris and small fires burned in the makeshift barricades that remained, giving off an eerie flickering glow and lending the usually civilized city a savage, dangerous atmosphere.
Nor was this the only protest: In Rosario, Mar del Plata, Neuquén and other cities in the interior, police and rioters clashed in similar demonstrations. In the Andean city of Mendoza, the protest and clashes between rioters and police ended in the killing of unionist Dalmiro Flores, sparking still further ill-feeling and unrest. Civil disobedience had burst from the box the military had kept it in for more than half a decade, and it clearly wasn’t going to be easy to put it back.

A Common Cause.
On April 2nd, however, one never could have imagined that all of this had taken place just a few days earlier.
Now the square in front of Government House was teeming with well-wishers. Why such a radical change of mood? Because Argentina’s claim to the Falkland (Malvinas) Islands was an almost universal common cause among the country’s people. It was, in a word, Argentina’s “Alamo”, an issue about which there was no question: The Malvinas were Argentine and the British (who had held the archipelago since 1833), were trespassers there.
The ‘Proceso’ generals and admirals knew that if they could win the Malvinas back, it might well consolidate their political power and line the rest of the country up behind them at a time when the country’s tottering economy was making it increasingly difficult to maintain order. Their certainty of this was clearly bolstered by reassurances provided by Nicanor Costa Méndez, who became the ‘Proceso’ government’s Foreign Minister at the end of 1981. Dr. Costa Méndez was chief advisor to then-President Leopoldo Galtieri, who had taken over the reins from General Roberto Viola in what was basically a palace coup. General Galtieri probably entertained visions of becoming a popular authoritarian president. He retained control of the Army after ousting General Viola instead of naming a new Army chief as the previous ‘Proceso’ presidents had done, began talking about an eventual political opening and permitted limited dissent, all of this quite probably on the advice of Costa Méndez, who was a career diplomat.

General Galtieri gives the high sign to well-wishers on April 2, 1982

In the process of trying to legitimize the regime’s image, they had, of late, been courting international organizations in a bid to generate backing for their call for negotiations to end a century and half of British colonialism in the tiny, remote enclave located less than 300 miles off Argentine shores and, so the government argued, forming part of the nation’s continental shelf.
Dr. Costa Méndez was well-spoken in English and had apparently gained certain respect in both Washington and London. General Galtieri, for his part, seemed to make a hit with the Pentagon crowd. A tall, swaggering, tough-talking, blue-eyed hard drinker with a voice like gravel and a jaw like a lantern, he couldn’t help but remind more than a few military men of George Scott playing General George Patton. Between the two of them, General Galtieri and Dr. Costa Méndez had managed to get a tentative indication from Reagan’s Washington that the US might be willing to support a request from Argentina that Britain start thinking about giving the islands back.
But what now seems utterly delusional on the part of both men is their having convinced each other that the US would remain neutral in the face of an armed invasion of an ostensibly British territory, or that Britain had become such a second-rate power that it would permit a tin-pot South American dictatorship to take over one of its possessions without doing something about it. This seems clear, no matter how enthused Washington might have appeared about the possibility of setting up a US base on the islands once Britain had handed them over. Britain had never considered the Falklands of strategic importance, while the United States, in its Cold War with the Soviets, might well have – and was, in fact, strongly rumored to – as a sort of natural aircraft carrier in the South Atlantic. But neither did London consider negotiations to recognize Argentina’s claim to be a priority, and Dr. Costa Méndez’s British counterpart, Lord Carrington (and his eventual replacement, Francis Pym), made this clear to an increasingly irritated Costa Méndez. Britain probably would, someday, take a look at some kind of joint administration or even a British phase-out. Just not right now.
But the ‘Proceso’ needed it to happen right now, and if it wasn’t going to, they would make it happen. The first truly clear signal from Washington came once the invasion was practically under way, when General Alexander Haig, who was then US Secretary of State, told Galtieri’s government that if a conflict was in the offing, the Reagan Administration would, of course, side with Britain.

Glory and Disgrace.
Wars are almost always about politicians with veiled or not so veiled interests appealing to patriotic fervor in order to convince soldiers and sailors to march and sail off to battle and give their lives for the ‘higher cause of freedom and justice’. The ten-week South Atlantic War was no different. The Argentine military’s ever more tenuous grip on power and UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s flagging level of public confidence were a lethal combination that kept either side from laying down their weapons and going back to the negotiating table under UN supervision. What was truly disgraceful about the war is the political subterfuge and petty interests that spawned it, by appealing to the highest sense of patriotism and ethics of the people of both countries.
What also must be separated from the political issues is how the war was prosecuted on the battlefield by both sides in the conflict.
The same Argentine Armed Forces that had repressed and murdered tens of thousand of its own compatriots, managed to take over the islands in a lightning invasion that was orchestrated in such a way as not to spill a drop of British blood. This mission was carried out so well that the only death on April 2 was that of Marine Lt. Commander Pedro Giachino, leader of the detachment under orders to take over the house of the British governor of the islands. He, an aide and a corpsman were cut down by British Royal Marine fire, when he and his men surrounded the governor’s house and ordered those inside to surrender. The corpsman managed to get himself and the two officers patched up but Commander Giachino succumbed to his wounds. The Royal Marines, meanwhile, hopelessly outnumbered, surrendered.
Officers and men on both sides would later have words of praise for each other’s performance. Reports from Britain would discuss the grit of Argentine soldiers in the field who despite being under-armed, under-clothed and underfed, fought hard, inflicted serious casualties on some of the best trained and best equipped troops anywhere. Argentine soldiers, for their part, would recall how they were better treated and cared for by their British captors than they had been by their own commanders, who had sent them to war with defective equipment, scant munitions, poor training and totally deficient rations.
The conditions of surrender were signed in an atmosphere of mutual respect and honor, and it was only when Argentine fighting men returned to the mainland that they would suffer the oblivion of the vanquished.

Surrendered arms on the ground at Port Stanley (Puerto Argentino)

Malvinas: Where the ‘Proceso’ Died.
Be that as it may, the war attained one major achievement: It spelled the beginning of the end for the National Reorganization Process. Gone from Plaza de Mayo were the fawning crowds of April 2, 1982. With the announcement of the mid-June surrender, the angry throngs of March 30 returned to the center of downtown Buenos Aires, pelting police and paramilitary units with rocks, coins, sticks, anything hard enough to draw blood as they clamored to reach the doors of Government House and kick them in. Rioting and skirmishes raged long into the night and fiery barricades flamed into the early morning hours and smoldered there as the sun came up on the wintery morning of Argentina’s discontent.
Galtieri was removed from office just as he had removed Viola, replaced by a junta that named General Reynaldo Bignone to immediately start guiding the country toward a democratic opening and presidential elections.
The war and the ‘Proceso’ were at an end, but the sense of loss and suffering that both wrought in Argentina continues even today, a quarter-century later.

©2009 by Dan Newland. All Rights Reserved by the Author

1 comment:

Matthias said...

Sad enough people today are not questioning the motives for an unnecessary war, but rather concentrate on questions like "Who is to blame for not winning the war" or "How do we get the Falklands back now". Nationalism is a powerful medicamentation for any country in order to make them stop asking whether their leaders are doing right or wrong. It is a sick kind of loyalty to "support the boys", though the question should always be "Why did they send them". But I assume that it will always work, and that any war will always unifiy a nation, instead of making it opposing its leaders that brought the war.