Thursday, September 10, 1987

KBOO 10 September 1987

This summer I met Horacio, a young Argentinian conscript who fought in the Falklands/Malvinas war. He had an extraordinary brush with fate, being left for dead on the battlefield. A sergeant came by checking names and putting bodies in bags. As Horacio was being examined his eyes blinked – and the sergeant took him to a medical crew. When I met him he was setting off on a first visit to England.

This past week I noticed in the Cable guide the announcement of a program ‘The Falklands War- the Untold Story’. I switched on, and there, along with soldiers and politicians and diplomats from both sides, was Horacio telling his story. The two-hour program, made by Yorkshire, was a sensitive portrayal of the war, at times gruesome, causing you to reflect on the waste of good lives and how little the art of peace-making has caught up with the art of making war.

Here were two of America’s closest allies fighting each other over a desolate piece of real estate in the South Atlantic. It was a war in which a thousand died and a thousand were wounded, with a victory for Britain which meant that Thatcher stayed in office and Galtieri was removed, and which in a curious way led to Argentina’s democracy today. Yet it made you realize that better ways must be found of resolving potential conflicts before they escalate to war. ‘The whole affair,’ as one officer said, ‘was one of tragedy.’

Images and impressions remain. First of all, of courage: the colonel who died leading an attack on a particularly difficult emplacement and the young marine who went back to almost certain death to rescue a fellow soldier, failed to get him out, got out himself, tried to commit suicide because he failed, and then had the wonderful experience of meeting again the man he thought was dead.

Images of stupidity. The British officer who refused to accept the advice to get his men out of an exposed ship only to see them killed in an explosion, and the Argentine military junta who couldn’t agree on the terms of a settlement being negotiated by the United States. And the day by day progress southwards of an armada that never thought it was actually going to have to fight.

Images of humanity. The British airman paying tribute to a brave Argentinian pilot who kept on coming when common sense would have said that he should take the chance to save his life. And the British widow who said, ‘No one will know what price we paid. Perhaps it was worth it for Britain’s sake.’

Images of insensitivity – the headline in an English tabloid when the Admiral Belgrano was sunk: ‘Gotcha’ – contrasted with the selfless example of Lord Carrington responsible when the Falklands were occupied. ‘The honorable thing to do is to resign,’ he said, and he did. The euphoria of victory, with bunting and bands, and parades, contrasted with participants who would rather have gone quietly home as they saw a nation that was enjoying its holiday on the beaches as usual and had no idea what hell they had all been through.

I had a postscript this week, a letter about Horacio’s visit to London. He had asked to meet the British commander of a parachute regiment against whom he had fought. The commander didn’t want to but finally agreed. The atmosphere was charged with emotion. When they met, they embraced, the commander broke into tears.

Perhaps five years after the war, servicemen will lead the way to resolve differences that still persist between two countries who are meant to be friends.