The overlap between the war in Ukraine and today’s 40th anniversary of the Malvinas war permits Lieutenant-General Martín Balza, Argentina’s most recognised and most decorated contemporary military figure, to take a trip down memory lane to the present, delivering unforgettable lessons about war, conflict and conduct.
Is there any point of contact between the Ukraine and Malvinas wars?
No, and I’m going to give you an obviously personal interpretation. The circumstances of time, place, scenario and modes of warfare are completely different. But if I had to name two or three differences, I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that war is not a work of God but a renunciation of our scant claims to humanity. I’ve had the opportunity to study wars in military academies, in particular the First World War and above all the Second, with a death toll of 50 to 60 million, according to some calculations, where the most elementary human rights were violated by both the Allies and the Axis powers to a tremendous degree.
The Malvinas War had one particular feature – as confirmed by the International Red Cross Committee in Geneva, it was the only conflict in memory in which both sides, Argentine and British, respected the Geneva Convention [the international law governing the humanitarian conduct of warfare], respecting the dignity of the adversary, of the foe. In this combat there was also one particular feature substantially different from the Second World – there were no civilian casualties among the tiny population of approximately 2,000 English-speaking people then inhabiting the Malvinas. Three of them died but not as the result of Argentine fire.
General Jeremy Moore commanding the land forces – I was then a lieutenant-colonel – was brought out of retirement for the Malvinas War. When he made his victorious entry into Puerto Argentino/Stanley, he went to apologise to the bereaved family, saying that their deaths were the result of a British error. We Argentines respected the civilian population. That’s characteristic because what I’ve seen in other conflicts is that it is the civilian population which most suffers war. The only problem in war should be that it is the soldiers who fight and die.
Let me then take advantage of your military academy studies in warfare. Independently of the ethical critiques, there are the opinions that the Russian military operations are not working because they are taking longer than [Vladimir] Putin expected. Now when you compare it with other recent wars, for example the United States invasion of Iraq, the US forces took 40 days to enter Baghdad while the Russians only needed a few days to be at the gateway of the capital Kyiv. How would you evaluate the Russian plan in military terms? And I again ask you to tread lightly on the ethical aspects to analyse this question in purely material terms.
The [former] Russian ambassador and military attaché in Colombia told me a curious anecdote: “We left Afghanistan because we could not win. The enemy lived in caves, we did not know what or how they ate or whether they drank water or not, they rode camels but all our technology was useless.” They further told me: “The US will go in and the same thing will happen to them” and they were defeated too. That’s why I say that while sometimes the technology can be impressive, the resistance of the people is necessary.
At the military academy we studied that in the Second World War. There was a Ukrainian city which was a model for house-to-house combat between Soviet and German troops. There are certain technological means which cannot be employed and are thus brought down to size. For example, tanks are fundamentally conceived to fight other enemy tanks but they need broad fronts. The examples were in the Second World War. The German generals told [Adolf] Hitler not to invade the Soviet Union because the Soviet defence was in their vast spaces. A tank needs space to fight in cities where it is an easy target. A kid with a very precarious Molotov cocktail can approach and knock out a tank.
If memory serves me correctly, Ukraine must have a similar population to Argentina. It’s not just about taking a single city, Kyiv. You then have to control it and controlling a city is more difficult than taking it. Russian technological and military superiority is light years ahead of Ukraine. Right now Russia must be the second military power in the world after the United States with China perhaps third but that power is hard to apply. It has surprised me that evidently there may have been conceptual errors in the strategy which then work down into the tactics. Sometimes strategy is analysed in cabinets from a military viewpoint in terms of the conditioning factors of time, space and troops before they materialise and then a determined plan or campaign is conceived. The tactics come when the forces are already facing off.
An example: our great liberator General San Martín, when he conceived his continental plan of genius of crossing [the Andes] to Chile with a small army and then pushing up by sea. San Martín was a strategist but when he was fighting battles like Maipú, [April 5, 1818 in Chile], he was a tactician. The war is now at a tactical stage. Encircling tactics can make it last longer but human deaths are avoided.
They could have encircled certain cities so that no aid could enter nor anybody leave. The Ukrainian is fighting for his country. Is the Russian Army motivated to fight a country so linked to them? Linguists say that Ukrainian and Russian are as alike as Spanish and the Portuguese of Brazil. Here there has been an inconceivable invasion for such an experienced politician as Putin.
I hear military specialists pointing out that in reality the world has atomic peace thanks to mutual dissuasion – in other words, the possibility of the country being attacked being able to destroy the aggressor means that nobody attacks, making a certain amount of time necessary to know that the attacking country has launched its missiles so that the attacked country can launch theirs. Is that correct?
I don’t see that now. And there is one question which I’d like to point out – NATO was created in 1949, if memory serves me correctly, by very few countries, half-a-dozen commanded by the United States, including France and Britain. But it was created aimed at the Soviet Union, which reacted with the Warsaw Pact two or three years later. In the 1990s the Soviet Union imploded and the Warsaw Pact was dissolved but not NATO, apparently with no more enemies. Today NATO contains over 25 countries and has expanded towards the East, reaching a crucial point, which is Ukraine. The Baltic states, the Czech Republic, Romania and Hungary have all passed to form part of NATO.
Let me read to you what the French presidential candidate for the Union Populaire and former Socialist minister Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who picked up 20 percent of the vote in the 2016 elections, has recently said – that since 2014 he has been insisting that if NATO advances towards the East, there was inevitably going to be a war with Russia. Has it been an error of the United States to advance towards the East with NATO in the face of, as you put it, a non-existent enemy?
Yes, according to my appreciation. Countries which were in the orbit of the Soviet Union with the Warsaw Pact entering a NATO expanding towards the East. I criticise this cruel invasion of Putin, who has exploited the failure of the ineffective international organisations, in particular the United Nations where there are five permanent members of the 15-strong Security Council with veto rights, including the trio which manage NATO (the United States, Britain and France) confronting a fourth member also with veto rights, i.e. Russia, with a prudent silence from the fifth Security Council member with veto rights – China. We also have to analyse this.
There are two issues over which Putin could not give ground. One is Ukraine entering NATO, which is not the same as entry into the European Union – the latter is a political and economic pact whereas the former is essentially military. Ukraine joining NATO implies missiles being within reach of Moscow.
The second is my own appreciation and probably very mistaken – that Putin will never give up the Crimean peninsula.
It has been maintained that the problems of the Italian Armed Forces during the Second World War, who lost on every front, bore no relation to Italian resources, which were not so inferior as to justify the results obtained, way below their capacities. And the explanation is that when [Benito] Mussolini took power, he only promoted fascist generals, emphasising ideological proximity to himself rather than military skills. Is there a risk of the Argentine Armed Forces appointing military officers for their ideological sympathies in detriment of their technical capacity?
I was the Army chief-of-staff for eight years, commanding an excellent group from the generals down to the non-commissioned officers and I insist on the NCOs because they are the backbone of an army. We were all worried about ideological and partisan factors entering the Armed Forces and nor did they.
A single date – December 3, 1990 – objectively marked the subordination of the Argentine Armed Forces. I’m fundamentally speaking of the Army and the civilian government. One of the conditions of the current head of the Joint Chiefs-of-Staff, General [Juan Martín] Paleo, about which nobody can have any doubts, is his set of democratic and republican convictions and even more his respect for human rights and from there downwards throughout the Armed Forces.
But turning to the Italian Army, it’s just as you said. That is why [German general Erwin] Rommel always said of the Italians with him in North Africa that they were good soldiers when well commanded. When ideology enters the Armed Forces, they rot conceptually.
I entered the military academy in 1962 at the age of 17 and retired in 1999 at the end of the last century. I thus lived through four of the six military coups, those following 1930 and 1943, some as a schoolboy or cadet such as the overthrows of [Juan Domingo] Perón and [Arturo] Frondizi, a great president. As a first lieutenant I witnessed the overthrow of another gentleman ignominiously ousted from the presidency, Doctor [Arturo] Illia, and then that masterpiece of cruelty and terror in 1976.
The Army in the second half of the past century acquired a different profile from the Army of the first four decades, making domestic enemies their focus. Initially that was Communism. Many said that Communism would not succumb to any war and nor did it. A Polish pope and a Polish worker did much to topple Communism, which was not defeated by force but due to other factors. After 1955 Peronism was added to the list and that takes us through to 1976. What happened then was the result of the Army losing that essence of a professional force – being beyond the political conditions. In some cases – I don’t want to give the names of any ministers) – I wouldn’t say they imparted illegal or immoral orders. In the Malvinas [conflict] I received some orders which were neither illegal nor immoral but just plain crazy – since I didn’t carry them out, I saved most of my soldiers as did other unit commanders.
When I was Army chief-of-staff, in 1997 or 1998, a group of different political tendencies ordered a total blackout of the City of Buenos Aires for three or five minutes. At my post on the third floor of the Libertador army headquarters [Azopardo 250] I received an order from the [Defence] Ministry to light up the whole building during the blackout as if it were a national day like May 25 or July 9. It was not an illegal or immoral order but of course I told them that the order would not be carried out, keeping the building normally lit. Carrying out that order would have meant that the Army was giving political support to the government. The chiefs-of-staff and their head are presidentially appointed and respond to the political power, to the citizen who has been elected president, no matter what the ideology.
In other words, there is an authority above the President, which is the people.
Totally in agreement. That’s why I believe that disrespect towards a determined president of one political affiliation or another is disrespect towards the people who voted for them. One example from the Malvinas War of an order which was neither illegal nor immoral which I received but did not obey – the battle of Mount London raged for four or five hours in the evening of June 10, 1982. I had a 7th Regiment artillery observer ahead of us at my command post with the rest of the batteries located around seven or eight kilometres to the south of Puerto Argentino [Stanley] while this battery was to the west. We supported the 7th Regiment until I lost all communication with the advance observer, Lieutenant Alberto Ramos. He went missing and his corpse did not turn up until four or five years later, thanks to the work of the Argentine forensic anthropology team. An order had been given by General [Oscar] Joffre, not that day but some days beforehand, that any changes in artillery position would have to be authorised by him. At that time General Joffre was in a room in Puerto Argentino whereas I was with my unit on the ground and under fire, much closer to the situation than General Joffre. Nevertheless, I tried to communicate with him but couldn’t because the lines were busy with red tape so I ordered a change of position for one of my batteries which would have practically been within range of British mortar fire once Mount London fell. I’m talking about 4am or 5am in the small hours. I ordered that battery to change position to the rearguard, thus saving the lives of all the gunners as well as the weaponry. Part of the ammunition remained behind because we had no means of transferring it.
When he found out, General Joffre recriminated me for disobeying his orders. I affirmed that thanks to this disobedience I had saved the lives of my men and the general understood that. But certain orders are neither illegal nor immoral but sometimes you have to give priority to something more important.
General, you urged the end of conscription and your experience of war led you to peacekeeping. I remember that at the time of the Malvinas War, the United States maintained that it was not defending its historic Monroe Doctrine of “America for the Americans” in the case of that war, placing itself on the side of Britain because Argentina was governed by a military dictatorship. Now 40 years after that war and almost as many years of democracy as well as so many years of the United Nations urging Britain to negotiate, thus placing Argentina in the right, does the US defence of the Monroe Doctrine seem hypocritical to you? What is your perspective today after so many years?
Well, many attribute the slogan “America for the Americans” to the Monroe Doctrine but strictly speaking it should read “America for the United States,” not even the North Americans since Mexico is in North America. Yes, it was a case which practically confronted two Western countries. Just to show what an absurd and unexpected war it was, there were never manoeuvres for invading the Malvinas. It was a just cause in bastard hands because the aim behind a triumphant recovery was to prolong the dictatorship.
Is it correct that Britain had sufficient information about the escalation of Argentine approaches to the Malvinas, starting with South Georgia, and that British intelligence knew all about the Argentine plans, especially those of the Navy, allowing them to go ahead because they served Margaret Thatcher, just as victory would have served the military dictatorship?
I totally agree. Even the United States could not ignore that. In a well-known downtown club [not military], the then-Argentine foreign minister [Nicanor Costa Méndez] had said: “I’m the foreign minister who is going to recover the Malvinas” and the Argentine press published it. The only ones who knew absolutely nothing about it were those of us who afterwards went and fought in the Malvinas. And Mrs Thatcher, when defending [late Chilean dictator Augusto] Pinochet when he was arrested, said: “This man helped us a lot,” also saying “because, among other things, we don’t talk to dictatorships like the Argentine.” But she talked to dictators like Pinochet. Mrs Thatcher was on a totally downward path with elections approaching and the Royal Navy was being restructured within NATO where they were going to eliminate the aircraft carriers. The Argentine government, internationally discredited for its human rights violations and economic problems, sought how to rally the people around a just cause in bastard hands, the Malvinas sentiment.
But the British government could have acted earlier, allowing Argentina to advance.
I totally agree because in the end it was the irresponsible military junta of [Leopoldo] Galtieri, [Jorge] Anaya and [Basilio] Lami Dozo and the obsequious chiefs-of-staff who failed to say: “Hang on, we cannot, as a marginal country, take on NATO.”
Speaking of the future, would it be correct to say in military terms, that for every dollar invested by Argentina in military armament, Britain would have to invest 100 times more to defend the Malvinas so that finally the war would be economic? Would it reach a point where Britain would have to spend so much on their defence that they would finally return the islands, as was the case with Hong Kong? I understand that the last planes bought by Argentina were Super Étendard costing only US$14 million each, not very significant but obliging Britain to invest US$200 million in radars and defences for the Malvinas. Would there be a hypothesis of peaceful recovery if, paradoxically, Argentina invests in armament?
I wouldn’t know, perhaps lacking sufficient geopolitical knowledge. In the case of the Malvinas, then and now, I would venture to say in cinematic terms that the United States were not, are not and will not be an honest supporting actor after the Malvinas War. To say the United Kingdom is to say the United States too. The island of Diego García in the Indian Ocean, Ascension island in the South Atlantic [leased out indefinitely to the United Kingdom despite belonging to the United States] and in the far south the Malvinas – that triangle permits domination of the passages to the Indian, Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and to Asian countries, not to mention anything happening to the Panama Canal to make it impassable.
Which would make the Straits of Magellan strategic again.
But today the South Atlantic is totally controlled by Britain and the United States. The South Atlantic projects into the Antarctic, a gem of raw materials for the future and this is also related to what is happening in Europe because those countries are not preparing for the next 50 years but for the next 100.
Are you pessimistic regarding the recovery of the Malvinas?
Yes, as an Argentine I wish they were recovered, as I think all Argentines do. But being realistic, it’s very difficult because of that important actor which is the United States. The South Atlantic is also a gem for raw materials, as is our Patagonia, which we keep uninhabited. China must know all this very well because they are the reserves and future of humanity.