Las Malvinas demonstration in Buenos Aires, 1982 (Photo by Francois Lochon)
Artillery Row Books

At the hands of Argentina’s “kidnapper-in-chief”

This personal history of the Falklands War brings new details to light

Not many reputable history books include Donald Trump in the acknowledgements. The Argentine Declassification Project was initiated under Barack Obama but it was not until April 2019 that the majority of the CIA, FBI and US Department of State files were released. As Julian Manyon observes in Kidnapped by the Junta: Inside Argentina’s Wars with Britain and Itself, Trump couldn’t resist exaggerated claims about this being the largest-ever release of classified information when much, especially regarding US assistance to the UK during the Falklands conflict, was redacted. The information nevertheless goes beyond what has previously been made available for public consultation through the archives of the Margaret Thatcher Foundation and Ronald Reagan Library.

Kidnapped by the Junta: Inside Argentina’s Wars with Britain and Itself, Julian Manyon (Icon, £20)

Back in May 1982, Julian Manyon was a young ITV correspondent dispatched to Buenos Aires. Along with his TV crew, he was bundled into a car, briefly kidnapped and put through a mock-execution. Just a few hours later, in an attempt to make diplomatic amends, he was offered privileged access to members of the Junta’s inner circle including the Oxford-educated civilian Foreign Minister, Nicanor Costa Méndez and the heavy-drinking President, General Leopoldo Galtieri. Forty years on from the Falklands conflict, Kidnapped by the Junta is a potboiler account of the author grappling with the archives to make sense of his own experience within a broader socio-political context. 

The book is a full-throttle adrenaline ride from word go: “Amid all the dramas of the career in journalism that I had so much desired, I had not expected to have an hour to contemplate my own imminent execution.” Manyon has a gift for recreating scenes from his past and the archives with almost cinematic visual details: we learn that Ford Falcon cars are the kidnapper’s vehicle of choice, and read about the torturer’s headquarters with leather armchairs and a large portrait of Hitler alongside a dartboard with a picture of Che Guevara. 

Manyon worked with the recently released documents quickly — the book was published in time for the fortieth anniversary of the war. There is, of course, already a classic account of a historian finding material about his younger self: Timothy Garton Ash’s 1997 book The File is a story of the disconcerting process of finding his own code-name in Stasi records. Manyon’s publishers were presumably hoping his case might assume greater prominence amongst the declassified materials. Instead, the book is locked in a strange dependence on his nemesis: his story is only significant as we learn more about his kidnapper. 

Having carried out one of the country’s most notorious and profitable bank-robberies in 1971, Aníbal Gordon became a secret-service killer employed during the Argentinian state’s dirty war of the mid-late-1970s. If, to employ one of Manyon’s effective turns of phrase, “kidnapping became an industry”, Gordon was its “kidnapper-in-chief”. His victims included Argentina’s first female diplomat, Elena Holmberg, who was suspected of holding damaging information on leading figures of the Junta that took control of the country following the 1976 military coup. Whilst being targeted by him and his crew didn’t necessarily entail a death sentence (the Marxist affiliated actors Adalberto Luis Brandoni and Marta Raquel Bianchi were set free), more often than not, it did. Buenos Aires became the de-facto headquarters for Operation Condor, a series of extra-judicial killings of Communists or suspected Communists across and beyond Latin America. Whilst US memos sometimes expressed fears that the Generals were going too far, their behaviour was tolerated and sometimes even encouraged. Henry Kissinger received a hero’s welcome on attending matches at the 1978 World Cup held in Argentina at a time when the occupant of the White House, Jimmy Carter, raised concerns about crimes committed by the military dictatorship.

Inexperienced conscripts faced British soldiers trained for war against the Soviet Union

On the evidence available in Manyon’s book, the recently declassified materials add colour and detail to the Falklands War without radically changing our understanding of the conflict. His principal hypothesis is uncontentious: Argentina’s defeat can largely be attributed to the Junta being over-bullish about the extent of their protection as a key Latin American ally to the US. On the one hand, it was not an unreasonable assumption on the part of the Argentinian generals to count on US support or at least neutrality given the election of Ronald Reagan to the Presidency and assurances that he didn’t have his predecessor’s obsession with human rights. That said, Manyon exposes personal and political hubris. In a face-to-face meeting, Reagan repeatedly warned Galtieri that Britain was a special ally and Margaret Thatcher a personal friend. The Argentinian General’s response, refusing to believe what he was hearing, was to berate the interpreter. A greater capacity to listen might have nuanced the not unreasonable premise that the cuts following a 1981 defence review were symptomatic of the occupying forces’ weakened position and that the UK government would back down. Polls in Buenos Aires, which initially showed close to universal support for reclaiming the Falklands, can be put down to Argentinians being assured of a rapid victory requiring little in the way of human sacrifice. In reality, inexperienced conscripts faced British soldiers trained for war against the Soviet Union, whilst UK diplomats skilfully utilised membership of NATO and the UN Security Council to maximum strategic effect.

Over in Argentina, things were much scrappier: Gordon was involved in a potentially government-organised robbery of artworks by El Greco and Francisco de Goya to provide funds for the war effort. The moral bankruptcy of the Generals was shown by their treatment of veterans, who were told that they should return on busses with curtains drawn because, according to officers, they might be stoned by angry civilians. An inadvertent consequence of the British victory was the downfall of the Latin American dictatorship, but that is not to imply, as the book does, that the Falklands constituted a triumph for democracy. Whilst references are made to the oil reserves thought to be on the islands, only passing mention is awarded to the role played by Thatcher’s friendship with General Pinochet. As with US foreign policy of the time, dictators only became problems when they refused to fall in line. The human rights record of the Argentinian Junta provided good ammunition for propaganda but was largely irrelevant in terms of the British decision to enter into war. In other words, the UK’s victory was more military than moral.

UK undergraduates have been known to think the Falklands are located just off Scotland

Manyon laments: “For many in Argentina the Malvinas campaign remains the noblest of causes and, in most cases, their writers do not make any attempt to explain how it fitted with and resulted from the Junta’s years of murderous repression.” But not all Argentinians who believed in the righteousness of the battle for the sovereignty in Falkland Islands endorsed the General’s going to war, whilst many in Britain who objected to the Junta’s bloody regime didn’t support the Thatcher government going to war. Those who did weren’t always a model of dignified statesmanship. In response to the possibility of peace talks, The Sun ran the headline “Stick it up your Junta”, and the popular rabble-raising anthem by The Macc Lads had the lyrics: “there was a load of bloody fairies in Buenos bloody Aires. With greasy hair and sweaty bums, they’d never heard of Boddington’s. A different culture and a different race — no chippies in the fucking place. You can keep that poof Ardiles, we’re going to have your Malvinas”.

Prior to the Falklands conflict, the islands the British gained full control of in 1833 were something of a “geopolitical footnote that scarcely registered in the public’s consciousness”. In the twenty-first century they figure more prominently in the Argentine than the Anglo collective imagination. UK undergraduate students in Spanish have been known to think, like some British servicemen of the early-1980s, that the Falklands are located just off Scotland. Kidnapped by the Junta takes the reader by the hand to a vivid and visceral moment in Buenos Aires. It is accessible for those who know little about the subject, but I suspect it will be devoured by those who, like Manyon, remain nostalgic for a time when the UK apparently wielded greater influence on the global stage.

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