Argentines still divided over Falklands War against Britain

McClatchy NewspapersMay 28, 2007 

LA PLATA, Argentina—When Gabriel Sagastume thinks back to his time fighting on the Falkland Islands, this is what he remembers.

It's May 1982, the middle of winter in the southern hemisphere, and his Argentine army regiment has been sent to defend a ridge north of the town of Stanley from an anticipated landing of British troops. They have no food and little ammunition, and no one's seen the unit's commanding officer for days.

When the British arrive, chaos erupts among the Argentines, until an enterprising soldier takes charge. It doesn't help. The Argentines surrendered days later.

"The war shouldn't have ever existed," said Sagastume, now a prosecutor in this provincial capital. "Much less to take us there in the condition they took us, and afterwards not give us food and not give us munitions and not do things minimally well."

Twenty-five years after British and Argentine forces clashed over patches of rock that were home to more sheep than people, Argentines are still debating the legacy of the Falklands War, known here as the Malvinas War.

Was it, as Sagastume and many others argue, a misguided effort by a corrupt dictatorship to distract Argentines from a failing economy and the government's brutal persecution of dissidents? Or was it a heroic, if ultimately failed, effort to reassert rightful Argentine authority over territory spirited away by colonizers 149 years ago?

The debate would feel familiar to Americans who still argue over the lessons of Vietnam.

"We are all in some way strongly marked by what happened on the islands," said Cesar Trejo, who was sent to the Falklands as a 19-year-old conscript and fought the British in several key battles on East Falkland Island.

By the time Argentina surrendered on June 14, 1982, 255 British soldiers and sailors had perished in the 74-day war. Argentina says it lost 635; the British put the number at 649. The two sides had fought some of the fiercest naval battles since World War II and both had lost major ships. It is still the only conflict in which a modern nuclear submarine fired torpedoes that sank an enemy vessel.

Argentina's military government, which had seized power seven years earlier, quickly collapsed, and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher cemented her hold on power for another eight years.

Fabian Bosoer, a columnist with Argentina's largest newspaper, Clarin, said his country's defeat ended the military's longtime stranglehold on domestic politics and soured relations with allies such as the United States, which supported the British.

"The Malvinas, for me, is like the end of a ball of string that if you pull it, it lets you unravel 40 years of Argentine history and the country's relations with the world," Bosoer said.

Argentines have been commemorating the war's 25th anniversary since last year, with President Nestor Kirchner and other politicians visiting veterans and firing up crowds by pledging one day to retake the islands. No ceremonies are planned to mark the June surrender.

A flurry of books and movies also has highlighted the war, with many of them lambasting the dictatorship and denouncing the deprivation that soldiers had to put up with.

That's sparked complaints from some veterans that Argentines are being sold an overly bleak picture of the war. The hit 2005 film "Enlightened by Fire," for example, details the abuse meted out by officers on young soldiers and the attempted suicide of a veteran years later.

In Trejo's view, such accounts denigrate the sacrifices of thousands of Argentines and reduce what was a just war to a dictatorship's folly.

"There were people who, as ordinary people, produced extraordinary acts, and this deserves respect," said Trejo, who lives in the capital of Buenos Aires.

He points out that Argentine pilots won worldwide fame by sinking British ships in perilous low-flying attacks that managed to avoid enemy radar.

Poorly armed Argentine troops also put up stiff resistance to the British incursion on East Falkland Island in May 1982, even though the soldiers were isolated and had exhausted most of their supplies of food and ammunition.

Maria Fernanda Araujo, whose brother was killed by a British shell in one of the war's last battles, said she has devoted her life to "recovering the history of the Malvinas" as part of a group representing about 650 relatives of slain soldiers.

"We aren't going to let this become a tragic case where they say (the soldiers) were just these poor kids, these poor boys," the 34-year-old said. "They weren't poor boys ... No, they went with conviction and they decided to defend the fatherland and the flag until death. This is what we consecrate and know them as."

The debate came to a head in mid-May when Trejo and other veterans furiously walked out of an exhibit about the conflict organized by the country's Defense Ministry in its Buenos Aires building.

Amid the exhibit's uniforms, rifles and model planes, veterans from Sagastume's regiment in La Plata had laid out a dummy dressed in army fatigues with its arms and legs stretched out and tied to stakes—a reference to a widely denounced punishment used during the war on disobedient Argentine soldiers.

The veterans also hung up a poster reading, "If the Argentine people at first celebrated the recovery of the islands, they soon understood the meaning of a war started by a repressive and politically declining dictatorship."

Veteran Juan Coronel said he was shocked when he saw the exhibit. During its opening, a group of veterans stormed out, trailing behind them news cameras and reporters.

Coronel survived one of the war's most harrowing episodes, the May 2, 1982, sinking of the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano, which claimed about half of Argentina's total casualties and remains the only such attack by a nuclear submarine.

"Their exhibit doesn't represent what most veterans think," Coronel said. "There were abuses like this, but there were also a lot of brave officers who gave their lives for their soldiers."

As a counterpoint, Coronel and other veterans have put together their own exhibit about the war in a Buenos Aires cultural center, featuring guns and knives used in the conflict, pilots' masks and pictures of fallen soldiers, among other artifacts. Every few minutes, the recorded, deafening swoosh of a jet plane rumbles the high-ceilinged, dimly lit space.

At the center of the exhibit stand defaced cardboard cutouts of Thatcher and U.S. President Ronald Reagan.

Exhibit guide Martin Colque, who was a corporal during the war, acknowledged that Argentine soldiers had been mistreated by their officers. But he said the dictatorship also had been betrayed by the rest of the world.

"There were traitors on all sides," he said. "We were betrayed by the military, which didn't prepare us adequately for the war. They were betrayed by the world's great powers, which ganged up on Argentina. Now, some feel we're being betrayed by our own comrades."

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

WORLD NEWS ARG-FALKLANDS

McClatchy Newspapers 2007

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