With the 40th anniversary of the outbreak of the 1982 South Atlantic War being marked today, that famous Talleyrand phrase “It was worse than a crime, it was a mistake” (used to question Napoleon’s execution of a Bourbon princeling over two centuries ago) springs to mind. Not that there was any lack of crime in that conflict (the decision to invade itself, the treatment of Argentine conscripts and the British sinking of that ancient cruiser General Belgrano are leading examples) but it ranks way down among the bloodbaths of history, countless volumes of which could be explored without finding another case of a war with only a three-digit death toll – just in the past month far more people have died across the plains and steppes of Ukraine (with some quick to draw parallels between that war and the conflict beginning 40 years ago today, not least on the disputed islands).
Yet more than a crime it was a mistake, to paraphrase Talleyrand, and mistakes carry consequences (as Vladimir Putin may well be discovering) – this may be the most important lesson to be underlined in today’s recollections with an Argentine newspaper published in English perhaps uniquely equipped to explain it. Whatever the merits of Argentina’s sovereignty claims to the Malvinas (which are not only perfectly justifiable but totally beyond any dispute at the geographical level at least), Leopoldo Galtieri’s disastrous decision to invade has probably ensured that the islands will remain in British hands for the rest of the century at least as a matter of pride – no Conservative government can disown the Margaret Thatcher heritage while their opposition coming to power would be vulnerable to charges of a Labour sell-out. Regardless of whether such British attitudes are attributed to self-righteous indignation over a territorial dispute being taken to the extreme of armed conflict, respect for their war dead or sheer bloody-mindedness, they are facts of life which need to be taken on board – and perhaps it takes journalists with British roots making their homes and families here can help explain them.
It need not have been that way. Under the Labour governments dominating the years between 1964 and 1979, mainland links were intensifying all the time with leaseback on a not too distant horizon and if Margaret Thatcher did not fall into line, her days were quite possibly numbered as the year 1982 began – in a winter by-election the Conservative candidate lost his deposit (i.e. under five percent of the vote, something which should never happen to a major party, even in a rival stronghold) with Britain in the midst of the teething troubles of economic transformation. Problems echoed at the bottom end of the Atlantic – Galtieri’s need for an external distraction was especially acute 40 years ago with a CGT demonstration over 30 blocks long just three days beforehand to protest austerity policies reducing an annual three-digit inflation to a monthly two percent. It takes two to tango, as the phrase goes.
In a dispute pitting territorial against popular sovereignty, the geographical aspects could not be clearer but the historical claims are much murkier. The Argentine government rubbishes the self-determination of an “implanted population” but only the tiniest percentage of Argentines can trace back their origins to before 1833 – almost everybody here would also be an “implanted population” in some indigenous eyes (even if the Mapuches at least only crossed the Andes after 1833). Yet there is an “implanted population” within the “implanted population” on the islands with the original kelper families possibly a minority – around a quarter are recent British arrivals and another quarter are from a mosaic of nations. Such arguments can continue until the cows (or sheep, in the case of the islands) come home.
So is reconciliation a lost cause? Frosty although the relations between the two governments have generally been over the past four decades (freezing out the islanders in the process) and sterile the negotiations urged by the United Nations, the sequel to the war has not been without its unique human warmth. The best conclusion to this editorial would be to underline and praise that humanitarian aspect – the heroic task of removing land-mines and all the compassionate work which went into identifying the fallen soldiers “known only to God.” If the war beginning 40 years ago was a tragedy of human weaknesses masquerading as a show of force, the best thing we can do today is to highlight the positive side of being human. Reconciliation is far from easy and can be extremely painful, but it is the right and correct path to follow.