Children play on a monument to the fallen soldiers in the Malvinas war, Rosarios city, Santa Fe, Argentina. Picture Credit: Mario De Fina/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Blessed by fire?

Letters from the Falklands front: Feelings about the war in Argentina are both tragic and triumphant

Artillery Row

To mark 40 years since the Falklands War, two Critic contributors based in the Southern Hemisphere, A.S.H. Smyth in the Falklands, and Dominic Hilton in Argentina, are exchanging letters reflecting on the events of the war, and the differing perspectives on it in Port Stanley and Buenos Aires. Have the two societies moved on? Do scars still run deep?

Querido Adam,

I’m in Mendoza, which is one thousand five hundred miles north west of Puerto Argentino, though you’d never know it. On my flight from Buenos Aires, I sat next to a man wearing a facemask with LAS MALVINAS SON ARGENTINAS printed in bold capitals over a map of the islands. We got to talking, in Spanish, and after I paid for his instant cappuccino from the overpriced drinks trolley, he suddenly said, “The Argentine military forces are the best in Latin America. They could beat anybody.”

“You mean, anybody in Latin America?” I clarified.

His eyes shifted uneasily around the cabin. “Well, yes. Of course. We couldn’t beat the United States military, or the Chinese.”

“Or the Brits,” I refrained from saying. 

When we landed, the driver kindly sent to collect me was nowhere to be seen, so I sat drinking awful coffee in the tiny airport café. A wall-mounted TV was showing an hour-long documentary about how Argentina “recovered” the Malvinas in 1982. The channel’s ident was a map of the islands with #ArgentinaTieneHéroes (#ArgentinaHasHeroes) stamped across it. Thankfully, the TV’s sound was turned off. On the screen, a bald lawyer wept passionately behind his desk. A woman draped in the national flag thrust her hands into the air, pleading to higher powers. There were grainy pictures of British defence forces surrendering to their Argentine liberators, and eye-opening footage of the triumphalist multitudes in the Plaza de Mayo cheering members of the brutal military junta as they saluted from the famous balcony of the Casa Rosada.

It was 8am. My eyes felt heavy and full of grit, but I was kept on guard by a keen-faced woman the age of a granny who, for whatever reason, kicked my chair leg repeatedly with her periwinkle slip-on trainers while ranting to herself about the state of the nation. On the back of her tatty cagoule were the words CHOOSE CALM. I made a note of it, then gazed back up at the TV. A pair of hammy actresses were recreating a domestic scene from back in the day. They were far too pretty to be believable, and as they sobbed at the fake breakfast table, an actor with wonky false sideburns sat opposite them, shaking his head ruefully. I suppose he was meant to be a brother or a friend of the dead soldiers, who, out of loyalty, had shown up to comfort the sexy, grieving widows. 

What was it all for, anyway: seal-hunting rights? I just don’t get it

My thoughts strayed back to the previous evening, when I’d finally surrendered to the TV in my Buenos Aires apartment, which had been pressing me all month to watch a film called Iluminados Por el Fuego (English: Blessed by Fire). Naturally, the film was a war drama, equal parts hammy and harrowing, centring around la guerra de las Malvinas (or whatever the local squid fishermen call the conflict down there). For the first half an hour or so, I was irritatingly distracted by the zit on the side of the lead actor’s face. Couldn’t Makeup and Special Effects have done something about that? I wondered. Then I saw some of the battle scenes, with synthetic limbs blown off and ketchup-smeared guts spilling everywhere, and I accepted that the film wasn’t made on the kind of budget reserved for the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

Encouragingly, though, Iluminados Por el Fuego did seem to be an anti-war film. The bulk of its 100 minutes running time was spent in foxholes with the fearful Argentine soldiers, post-invasion, as they waited for the British forces to show up. The miserable scenes of suffering were deftly interspersed with archive footage. One minute I was watching starving Argentine conscripts freeze to death. The next, I was watching Margaret Thatcher chortle as she fired a big gun, her hairdo swathed in a decorative scarf. It’s hard to say which was more disturbing.

The film did a bang-up job of depicting the coveted islands as a desolate and dreary hellhole, full of peaty bogs and rust-rotten Nissen huts, which surprised me. Snow fell on the shivering soldiers as they crawled like strippers on hands and knees while sadistic, barking sergeants christened them señoritas. There was a charming little scene in which the heroes chased down and slaughtered a native sheep to the welcome strains of Bach. But then a soldier stared too meaningfully at the sheep’s blood, and the metaphor was double underlined with a sledgehammer.

Nevertheless, I found much of Iluminados Por el Fuego quite affecting. It’s not fun watching professional British soldiers bayonet clueless young men to death as they lie terrified and alone on harsh, unfamiliar terrain, screaming for their mums. Especially as, in this case, a scene of that sort is not just another naff war movie trope. When Argentine soldiers are shown staring at crumpled photos of their families, caressing them with dirty thumbs, or crying on last phone calls to their frantic mothers, you know it’s for real. Family is everything here, and lest we forget that the teenage boys portrayed in this film were sent to their senseless slaughter by an evil regime.

It does seem incredible that any of this horror was ever a thing, wouldn’t you agree? What was it all for, anyway: seal-hunting rights? I just don’t get it.

His forehead burned the colour of his nation’s Presidential palace

My driver finally turned up at the airport and en route to the vineyard, we got to talking. I asked him if he liked Godoy Cruz, Mendoza’s first division football team, and he stabbed a finger in the air. “No, Hilton! I do not like Godoy Cruz. I love Godoy Cruz!” Then he side-eyed me in a suspicious sort of way. “Hilton, do you know the name of the stadium where Godoy Cruz play their home games?” I pretended I didn’t, and he thrust out his chest, saying, “El Estadio Las Malvinas. What do you think of that?”

I shrugged. “It’s fine by me.”

“Uh-huh,” he said, grinning to himself. Then he turned his attention back to the road. “Now we must take a short cut.”

Swinging a hard right onto a deserted dirt track in the middle of the Valle de Uco, he skidded the car to a halt, pointing towards the skewwhiff street sign. “Look, Hilton. Look!” 

I looked. We were on Calle Las Mavinas, of course.

That night, my shattered host at the Finca turned in early, so I opened another bottle of Malbec and sat in front of a roaring fire, watching TV. Surfing past the hundreds of football talk shows, I came upon a documentary called La Forma Exacta de ls Islas, about — well, take a random guess.

I was tired and a little high from all the wine, so I wasn’t entirely certain what was going on. The first thing I saw was two Argentine men in a guest house in Port Stanley swigging from cans of Guinness, which seemed odd. It reminded me of the final scenes of Iluminados Por el Fuego, which, in a first for an Argentine film, were shot on location in your neck of the woods. The scenes included what I hope were real-life kelpers, and not trained actors, because the performances were more wooden than an oak-barrelled chardonnay. 

Most of La Forma Exacta de las Islas appeared to have been shot on a bog-standard video camera, and the whole mood of the film brought to mind The Blair Witch Project. Eerie music accompanied creepy shots of garden gnomes, of which your islands appear to have a major surplus. What’s that about?

Generally, though, it was too windy to film outside. You couldn’t hear anything anyone was trying to say, on account of the gale-force air currents vibrating the microphone’s diaphragm. Also, there appeared to be no ozone layer. One of the Argentine men went outside for half an hour, under a cloudy sky, and his forehead burned the colour of his nation’s Presidential palace. Also, he was attacked by a swooping bird of prey.

I noticed that you have a Thatcher Drive on the islands, then mercifully, the documentary crew moved indoors to interview a Dutchman called Rob, who was severely depressed. Rob’s wife had died during the making of a film about Charles Darwin, and he spoke of being “marooned” and “stranded” in the middle of the South Atlantic. 

“Life is not always that easy here,” he said. “People are still traumatized. The remoteness is not easy. It is like a shell that closes.”

After which, the documentary abruptly ended, so I dragged myself to bed, hoping not to dream.



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