Men who won the Falklands peace

Ten years after Margaret Thatcher toppled Galtieri, Jimmy Burns asks: who gained what?

GENERAL MARTIN BALZA, Malvinas veteran and Argentina's army chief, sits in his panelled military headquarters in Buenos Aires, fingering four British 1 pound notes, as we talk about the Falklands War ten years ago.

The money represents half his pay as a prisoner of war after he surrendered his artillery position outside Port Stanley to the British forces. The general smiles as the memory of those days when, as a lieutenant colonel, he was shortchanged by an English soldier for a tube of toothpaste and a Coca-Cola. But he is not bitter. Argentina, he concedes, was destined to lose because of the incompetence of her former rulers.

Back in March 1982, when I was in Buenos Aires covering the war for the FT, Argentina's then army chief and President, General Leopoldo Galtieri was not a person I wanted to meet unprotected. His regime's way of dealing with opponents was similar to that of Nazi Germany. More than 8,000 people, some foreigners, had "disappeared" since the coup which brought him to power in 1976.

I will never forget, just a few days before the Falklands war, watching an old woman, with shopping bag and walking stick, being surrounded and beaten senseless by heavily armed police. By chance, she had strayed into the first big demonstration against the regime. Galtieri had ordered it to be repressed with sabres, gas canisters, long truncheons and live bullets. Yet when Argentina invaded the Falklands, Galtieri became a national hero.

Now ten years later, after the expenditure of 1,000 lives and enough cash to make each islander very rich, history has pushed aside both Galtieri and the woman who defeated him. Margaret Thatcher, whose defiance rang across the world, and helped to deliver a resounding victory to the Conservative party in 1983, walks sadly from the main political arena next month, almost at the anniversary of her military triumph.

She also was rejected from the leadership of her country, as heroic memories of the struggle began to fade. Yet the questions remain, was it necessary and was it worth the cost? From From Balza's office, at least, it seems the greatest benefit was reaped by Argentina, which escaped a vicious tyranny and brought its generals under political control. Did Britain also deliver a lesson which Argentina (if not the world) will never forget?

Even now, a monument outside the army headquarters in Buenos Aires states that the Malvinas were, are, and always will be Argentine. But Balza declares: "I don't see that there is any possibility of another armed conflict with Britain. We are living in a different world."

It seemed, when I stood in the Falklands a few days later under the union flag by 15 military graves at San Carlos, that the British Government believes him. All was as quiet as if there had never been a landing of troops, or a frenzied air attack on transports and frigates in that famous sound at the north west of the main island. Now only low-flying upland geese and seagulls disturb the stillness. The nearby military camp lies abandoned--a few empty cabins and a couple of jerry cans. Linda Anderson, owner of the recently opened Blue Beach Lodge nearby, complains that the Ministry of Defence can no longer afford to transport many soldiers to rest in her bed and breakfast.

British officials say the forces still stationed on the islands are enough to defend them. Even so, the UK now spends only 69m pounds a year on the defence of the islands, less than 7 per cent of the rate of spending in the three years after the war. (Even the present sum, however, could provide each islander with a 30,000 pound per year pension). Although the Falklands now boasts a large and fully-equipped military airport and three highly sensitive radar stations, the combined military presence has been reduced to half a squadron of Phantom aircraft (the Harriers have long since departed), some half a dozen aerial transport units, a company of less than 200 infantry, a frigate and a naval patrol vessel.

One former British marine on the islands said that if it wanted to, Argentina could recapture the Falklands in 24 hours, for example by landing special forces from a submarine at night and taking out the radars and the phantoms on the ground. But nobody in Buenos Aires seems even to be thinking of such a plan. One reason is that British intelligence has greatly improved. Ten years ago this week, the UK was apparently unaware of a series of key meetings between General Galtieri and an officer attached to the Chiefs of Staff, General Mario Benjamin Menendez.

At one such meeting, while an Argentine foreign minister was still going through the motions of diplomacy, Menendez was informed that a secret decision had been taken by the military junta to invade the islands. According to Menendez, Galtieri dismissed any suggestion that this would provoke a big international reaction. "Menendez", Galtieri said, "that is none of your's the junta's problem and no one else's. I just want you to think about being a military governor."

Two weeks later the Argentines overran the token force of marines on the islands. In Buenos Aires, civilians, including some whose relatives had been tortured and killed, poured through the streets waving flags and bringing Galtieri to the balcony of the presidential palace to rapturous applause.

Thatcher responded by sending a taskforce of 30,000 men and scores of ships, the biggest UK naval operation since the Second World War. Within two months, on the May 21, the first British troops were wading ashore on the rocky gravel beach that lies just below Linda Anderson's Blue Beach lodge. On June 14, Argentine troops surrendered at Port Stanley.

The battle for the Falklands has been described by some military experts as a small colonial war. But the images that linger are those of high human drama which for a while gripped the attention of the world: they include the sinking of the battleship cruiser Belgrano with the loss of more than 400 lives in freezing South Atlantic seas, aerial dogfights of extraordinary skill and daring, the burning hulks of British battleships, and the dejected faces of the wounded and the defeated.

Of the 1000 men killed in the campaign more than 800 were Argentines. But in Argentina, as the tenth anniversary approaches, the fallen are remembered with muted emotions. Jorge Lanata, the 31-year-old editor of Pagina 12, one of the country's most popular newspapers, says: "Three years ago we ran a series on the war. It was treated with total indifference by our readers. Many of them supported the invasion, but they are now silenced by a sense of guilt. They look at the veterans as if they were ghosts." Yet some Malvinas veterans who, like Balza, survived the postwar purge are now in positions of command in a radically altered armed force. Commodoro Gustavo Justo, for example, a former Mirage 5 fighter pilot in the attack on San Carlos Bay, is today Chief of Operational Planning under a civilian ministry of defence.

On May 21, 1982 Justo led the first big attack on the British beachhead, flying low over the waters of the South Atlantic to avoid radar detection and leaving himself with the minimum fuel necessary to return to base. Justo narrowly escaped with his life, ejecting from his aircraft at 950 kms per hour, after being shot down by a British Harrier jet, equipped with the most modern air-to-air missiles provided by the US. He was only 1 1/2 miles short of his target. A fellow pilot and best friend was killed.

Badly injured and suffering from concussion, Justo lay in a shepherd's hut for several days. He was eventually found by an Argentine helicopter team and shared a field hospital tent with a wounded RAF pilot. "The Englishman said 'what a shit of a war.* My parents are old and I was going to get married.' But I thought to myself: not only am I married but I know what I'm fighting for."

Ten years on, Justo is much less sure.

"I have known how horrific war can be...There are peaceful options. That is what I am telling my children. It is a lesson that was not passed on to me by my superiors when we fought."

Justo, Balza and the new men at the top have presided over a sharp contraction of the Argentine armed force, squeezed by budgetary cuts and public indifference. They also perceive that after the Gulf War, a coup in Buenos Aires--let alone an attack on the Falklands--could no longer be sure to escape an international response. Indeed, the Argentine military that defied UN resolutions, today takes part in the UN's global peacekeeping exercises. More remarkably, it also exchanges information with British forces on movements in the South Atlantic.

These big changes in Argentina seem, however, to have escaped the notice of most of the 2,100 islanders. As military spending declines, their improved prosperity depends, partly at least, on Argentina's new policies of fishery conservation and non-belligerence. But for many islanders the traumas of the war have not healed, perhaps understanably in view of the large areas near Port Stanley still made deadly by Argentine mines.

Stuart Wallace, for example, who studied in Argentina and lives with his Argentine wife in Port Stanley, says that while Buenos Aires claims the islands: "The price of dealing with Argentina is potentially enormous. Renewed links would politically destabilize us. It would be different if we were still a disintegrating society with no revenue of our own."

The islanders may have some reason to remain anxious. Although Argentina's President Menem today speaks eloquently about his commitment to the new international order, the same Menem was elected President after labelling the British the "pirates of the world". He said then: "No matter how much time passes, or how much blood we have to shed, that territory will be ours again."

If he changed his mind once, might he not change it again? Suspicions that a lunatic fringe of military officers may have been behind this week's bomb attack on the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, can only have heightened the islanders' worries. Yet hostility is softening. Some island officials agree at least to attend talks between Britain and Argentina on issues such as fishing and oil exploration.

Meanwhile, Argentine school children are still being taught that the Malvinas belong to them: but they are learning about democracy too.** So the question returns: was it worth the fight? Living in Buenos Aires through the war I never doubted that it was, if only because Britain's response promised the destruction of a vicious military regime. On my return to Buenos Aires ten years later, I found a country deepening its determination to put history behind it.

This change, and the restoration of commercial and diplomatic links, make a far more fitting tribute to those, from both sides, who died in 1982, than the islanders' present intransigence.

=Jimmy Burns was the FT's Buenos Aires correspondent during the Falklands War. His book The Land that Lost its heroes: Argentina, the Falklands and Alfonsin is being republished by Bloomsbury (London) to coincide with the tenth anniversary.

(text of March 21/March 22 1992 Financial Times article)