Argentina and Britain: the lessons of war

Justin Vogler
2 April 2007

Argentina’s democracy and commitment to global peace are the most important legacies of the Falklands war, argues Justin Vogler.

For someone born after the Beatles split up, I have surprisingly clear memories of the Falklands/Malvinas war, which started on 2 April 1982 when Argentina's military dictator Leopoldo Galtieri seized the islands, and ended seventy-four days later with the humiliating surrender of the Argentinean forces.

I remember the surprise on learning that the Falklands lay 300 miles (850 kilometres) off the Patagonian coast and not north of Scotland as most Britons assumed; the sense of surrealism that hung over the departure of the taskforce; the sinking of the Belgrano outside the 200-mile exclusion zone; the raucous tabloid Sun's masterly "Argy Bargy" headline; the Exocet missile hitting HMS Sheffield; supermarkets withdrawing Argentinean corned-beef; and Margaret Thatcher, on the steps of Number 10, ordering reporters to "rejoice".

These memories came back as, with a tinge of unease, I watched Tristán Bauer's film Iluminado por el Fuego (Enlightened by Fire). Bauer traces the life of one of the estimated 350 Argentinean veterans who have committed suicide since the war ended. He captures the hell suffered by poorly-clad Argentinean conscripts trapped in wet cold dugouts, brutalised by incompetent sadistic commanders and subject to the psychological torment of continual air and sea bombardment.

Also in openDemocracy:

Anthony Barnett, "Churchillism: from Thatcher and the Falklands to Blair and Iraq" (30 March 2007)

Ivan Briscoe, "Argentina and the Malvinas, twenty-five years on"
(2 April 2007)

So how should we be commemorating a war, motivated by political weakness on both sides, in which 910 young men lost their lives?

Much of the Anglophone press has been highlighting the continued diplomatic tensions between Buenos Aires and London. Most Argentineans believe that the south Atlantic islands are historically and geographically theirs; in 1994, the constitution was amended to include the peaceful recovery of the islands, "by means in accordance with international law", as a national objective. President Néstor Kirchner- himself a southern Patagonian and old-school Peronist nationalist - has made his country's claim to sovereignty a cause célèbre.

In 2004 Kirchner tried to obstruct LAN Chile flights to the islands from the south of Chile in order to convert the Argentinean port of Ushuaia into the Falkland's sole supply-line. This annoyed London, created tensions between Buenos Aires and Santiago, and sent shivers down the spines of the "kelpers" (as the islanders apparently call themselves).

"There is fear among islanders that it could happen again", Mercopress quoted the Falklands' governor, Alan Huckle, as saying in February 2007. "There is a potential threat at all times."

In advance of the anniversary, Tony Blair's message to the islanders at Christmas 2006 was characteristically resolute: "I want to assure you that the British government's determination to protect (the islanders' right to self-determination) is as strong today as it was twenty-five years ago."

The Argentinean president is equally firm. "The Malvinas must be a national objective of all Argentineans", Kirchner declares. "And with dialogue, diplomacy and peace we must recover them for our homeland. But dialogue, diplomacy and peace do not mean we have to live with our head bowed."

His foreign minister Jorge Taiana, speaking in Johannesburg in February, rejected the notion of a joint British/Argentinean act of commemoration. "They present this as a celebration of victory", said Taiana. "In this context we cannot do anything together." The choice of venue was not coincidental. Buenos Aires sees Argentina and South Africa as rightful guardians of a "strategic zone" in the south Atlantic. The 1,800 British soldiers on the Falklands are a painful blot on the seascape that frustrates this plan.

Democracy after militarism

But there is a more constructive way of looking back at the war. The extensive literature on Latin American democratisation concludes unanimously that the humiliation of the Falklands, coupled with the military's economic mismanagement, brought an end to seven years of bloody dictatorship in Argentina, during which an estimated 30,000 people were murdered. Sixteen months after the military defeat, in October 1983, Argentina held democratic elections.

Public disgust with the military enabled the newly elected president Raúl Alfonsín to sideline the generals and avoid the intrusive military tutelage that characterised the democratic transitions in neighbouring Chile and Brazil. Alfonsín was free to launch the process of modernising the military and radically redefine Argentina's geopolitical orientation.

In 1985 he signed the "joint declaration of nuclear policy" with his Brazilian counterpart José Sarney. This led both countries to abandon their nuclear programmes and to Latin America being declared a "nuclear-weapons-free zone" in accordance with the 1967 Treaty of Tlatelolco. It also paved the way for the creation of Mercosur and the designation in 1998 of the Southern Cone as a "zone of peace".

Since then Buenos Aires has been a constant champion of regional military collaboration. In 1995 permanent committees to manage bilateral security were set up with historic rivals Brasilia and Santiago. This has proved necessary as well as impressive; as recently as 1978, only last-minute mediation by the pope averted the outbreak of full-scale war between Chile and Argentina in a dispute over ownership of Islands in the Beagle Channel.

Justin Vogler works as a freelance journalist based in Chile, teaches political science in the socioeconomics department of Valparaiso University and is studying for a PhD at the department of peace studies at Bradford University, England. He has spent twelve years travelling and working on development projects in southeast Asia and Latin America and is a regular contributor to the English-language daily, the Santiago Times

Also by Justin Vogler in openDemocracy:

"Michelle Bachelet's triumph"
(January 2006)

"Small-country power: Chile and the Iraq war" (January 2006)

"Latin America: woman's hour" (March 2006)

"Ollanta Humala: a Peruvian gamble"
(April 2006)

"Mapuche: the other Chile" (June 2006)

"South America: towards union or disintegration" (July 2006)

"Democratising globalisation: Joseph Stiglitz interviewed"
(25 September 2006)

"Augusto Pinochet: chronicle of a death foretold"
(9 December 2006)

"Bienvenido, Señor Bush" (8 March 2007)

In 1998 Buenos Aires called for the creation of an integrated Mercosur defence force; the plan is still under consideration. In December 2006, the Chilean and Argentinean governments agreed to create a bi-national battalion - La Cruz Del Sur - for joint peacekeeping operations. This marks the first time since the early 19th-century wars of independence that the two countries have fielded integrated military units.

Europe's leaders, who celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Treaty of Rome in their Berlin gathering on 24-25 March 2007, may preside over the world's biggest integrated market. However, they might ponder on the fact that some of their Southern Cone counterparts have had more success in creating an integrated (as well as nuclear-weapons-free) security community.

Beyond the region, Argentina is one of the most consistent supporters of United Nations peacekeeping and observation missions. Successive governments in Buenos Aires have seen this as a way of both boosting the country's international standing and keeping the military gainfully employed. Argentinean "blue berets" are currently serving in the middle east, Angola, El Salvador, Western Sahara, Cote d'Ivoire, Haiti and Sudan.

The commitment to peace and cooperation has been mirrored by important changes in military doctrine. The country has one of the lowest military budgets in Latin America; indeed most regional defence analysts agree that it's too low. The armed forces are prohibited by law from involvement in the maintenance of internal order and Argentina was one of the first countries in the region to abandoned compulsory military service.

In December 2005, Kirchner followed a regional trend and appointed Nilda Garré, a leftwing woman and former human-rights lawyer, as defence minister. Garré has been responsible for reopening lawsuits against officers implicated in past human-rights abuses, increasing the number of women in the ranks and restructuring the military.

The recently elaborated Plan Ejército Argentino 2025 proposes a series of reforms: greater integration between the different services in order to pool resources, continued cooperation with neighbouring countries, and improved training and remuneration for service personnel. At the same time, armament spending will remain limited; most of the hardware budget will go on revamping the country's aging Hercules transport planes.

The armed forces role is defined as one of "strategic defence". Their primary function is to deter foreign invasion in a hypothetical "resource war" against a "better equipped and numerically superior foreign aggressor". Buenos Aires is aware that the Guaraní aquifer, one of the world's biggest fresh-water banks - situated under northern Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay - constitutes a highly sort after commodity in the 21st century.

So, following - and to a large degree because of - the 1982 defeat, a brutal and incompetent dictatorship was overthrown in Argentina and democracy restored. Furthermore, the armed forces have been subjugated to civilian rule and transformed into modern professional institutions committed to regional integration, cooperation and peace.

Imperialism after victory

For Britain, things have turned out very differently. Victory boosted Margaret Thatcher's flagging popularity and led to a landslide Conservative win in the 1983 election. The Conservatives controlled government until 1997, boosted the country's nuclear arsenals and transformed Britain into a free-market state. The New Labour party that replaced the Conservatives internalised the Falklands' lesson - that military adventures win elections - and sanctioned the use of violence as a legitimate foreign-policy instrument (in Sierra Leone, Kosovo and Afghanistan). This thinking would in time lead Britain into the quagmire of Iraq.

True, in a war universally described by the country's academics as "absurd", Argentina lost the Malvinas. In the 1970s, as London began contemplating the eventual transfer of Hong Kong to Beijing, it was logical to study ways of relinquishing this far less lucrative outpost. In January 1981, the then British ambassador to Buenos Aires, Anthony Williams, told his Argentinean counterpart, Carlos Ortiz de Rosas: "The islands are going to fall into your hands like a piece of ripe fruit". Yet after the enormous cost and human sacrifice involved in retaking the Falklands, no British government can now contemplate a handover, especially in the face of the islanders' vocal protests.

Yet despite the Argentinean veterans' trauma, the country's wounded national pride, and continuing socio-economic woes, Argentina emerged from its Malvinas debacle as a freer, more democratic nation that is comfortable in its regional context and has renounced the use of force as an acceptable foreign-policy tool. The same cannot, alas, be said for Great Britain.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData