Today, April 2nd, is the 33rd anniversary of the start of the war between Argentina and the United Kingdom over the Malvinas islands, which the British call Falklands, in the South Atlantic. I am not going to dwell on the reasons and consequences of that war, nor in who is has sovereignty over those islands. I have an opinion, of course, but I’m going to keep it to myself.
My experience of the war was from a distance, as I lived in Buenos Aires, 1200 miles away from the mortar fire, fighter jet attacks, sinking warships, the constant fear of severe injury and death. But I vividly remember the events surrounding the war, the stories of those who fought and came back to tell them, the short-lived euphoria of an impossible victory and the fury and disappointment of defeat that led to the fall of the military regime and the advent of democracy the following year. That was the only positive consequence of that senseless loss of young lives.
This piece is not about politics but about a casual conversation I had with an former Royal Marine who fought in 1982. And what an eye-opener it was.
My husband’s cousin D loves vintage vehicles and owns a few. Restoring a Bedford bus from the fifties became his latest project. Once it was ready, D organized a day trip to Brighton to watch a rugby match between his old club and the locals, Brighton Blues.
The party consisted of D, his rugby friends and wives and us, fourteen people in all.
At the club, sounds, smells and colours triggered memories of rugby matches I watched in Argentina: the referee’s sharp whistling, the coaches yelling instructions, the bench players walking to and fro along the side of the pitch and cheering their team on, the players’ parents, wives, girlfriends, friends, children, other club members on the stands also cheering the team on, the noise of shoe making contact on leather ball, the ooooooooomph! from the two packs of forwards engaging in a scrum. The only differences were the language spoken by players and coaches, English as opposed to Spanish, the hills in the background and the fact that the ref was a woman.
Discussing the game was beyond my limited knowledge but I did try to keep up with the conversations. Many of D’s friends, all former players, told me they have a huge respect for the Pumas, Argentina’s national team, for the passion they show on the field. Also, that they were glad the team was accepted to play the Three Nations Tournament (now Four Nations) together with South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand because they deserved that spot. I was bursting with pride.
We all went to the pub after the match. I had declined the offer to go shopping in Brighton with the other wives because I preferred to watch the match. I ordered a hot chocolate instead of a beer because I was chilled to the bone. That garnered me strange looks from the seasoned drinkers.
M, from our party, joined Sean and me and started chatting about this and that. For some reason I cannot recall, I said that my mother tongue was Spanish. M did a double take because he thought I was from some non-Spanish speaking European country and asked where I was from.
“Ah. The Falklands,” he said. I rolled my eyes and thought please don’t bring the subject up. But he did.
“No, no, wait. I was there in ’82.” Now that caught my attention. M was a former Royal Marine. I felt curious although I wasn’t sure what to say next. I hadn’t met any Royal Marine veterans from Malvinas. My father-in-law, also a Royal Marine, had retired before 1982.
M told us things about the war that I had heard from an Argentinean veteran immediately after the war and from the media years later. He said he felt deeply sorry for the pitiful state of half-frozen, starving Argentinean troops after rendition. The British forces fed them and gave them warm clothes. It’s still heartbreaking. We had heard all this from Tony, a former employee of my father’s and war veteran. Tony said that they were treated better by the enemy as prisoners of war than by their own commanding officers, who sometimes denied them food and shelter. Some kids, because they were no older than 18, were so cold and desperate that they stuck their hands directly into the peat fire. M highlighted the bravery and skills of Argentinean air force pilots.
Although I knew all this, it was still shocking to hear it from someone who at one point was the enemy.
However, what really shocked me to the core was what M told us next. He returned to the islands for the 20th anniversary of the war and felt disgusted by the kelpers’ attitude, the island’s local population. They refused permission to the Argentinean delegation (made up of parents of fallen soldiers) to fly the Argentinean flag for two hours at Darwin’s military cemetery as a sign of respect. The way I understood it, this refusal went against the military code of honour.
M also witnessed acts of racism and discrimination. Once, he was on a bus and a white passenger verbally abused a black passenger. He said “This is not what I fought for.”
Soldiers and politicians from both sides went to war for very different reasons. I think the latter should not use this to manipulate the population by stirring patriotic sentiment and thus garner votes to stay in power. Politicians should listen to the veterans, learn from them, be humbled by their experiences. But that would be like finding a hen’s teeth.