I write this in a spirit of reconciliation…as my readers know, I am currently working on a book covering Operation Rosario – the invasion of the Falkland Island on April 1st-2nd 1982. It is quite a task, first-off. Whilst I am known for a very ‘first-hand’ style taken from the men there at the time, none of the people I have ever written about before has actually been alive! So much of my stuff has been Napoleonic, sometimes ancient and the most ‘recent’ I ever wrote about was for a lecture I gave on recipients of the Victoria Cross from a military academy…the last of those was in World War Two. And he is dead as well.
So the chance to write about soldiers who are still very much alive has been amazing and, as people might know, it was unexpected. I was asked to write this book. I didn’t decide to! First-hand ‘interview-based’ history is tricky stuff. Memories can fade, there is the inevitable ‘fog of war’ to contend with, nobody quite agrees as to what happened and when. I suppose the Duke of Wellington was right when he said that the history of a battle is like giving the history of a grand ball or a party – who said what, to whom, when, why, in what spirit….everyone has their own piece and the pieces never fit exactly! – Now try doing that from both sides; British and Argentine. It would scare most of my military history peers!!
However, we get ahead of ourselves. The purpose for this blog post is to publicly reconcile a few views and, in particular, it is directed towards my Argentine friends and those veterans who have been helping me with this project, without whom so much of this would simply not be possible. One in particular, Diego Garcia Quiroga, is perhaps the most consummate gentleman I have met on either side of that conflict, and his help, support and accounts deserve my gratitude immeasurably.
Let’s get this straight first: I am not a Falklands War historian. I have written upon everything from Megiddo in 1479BC (the first recorded battle in history) up until the second world war. My fortes are the Napoleonic Wars, 30 Years War, 7 Years War, the campaigns of Hannibal and Caesar, the military art in general – I’m what they (sometimes ungraciously’ call a ‘Kings and Battles’ historian . In my case not specifically Kings, but focusing upon one central character, be he Alexander the Great or Napoleon or whoever, and then his campaigns and battles. True, I take every opportunity to throw the reader into the action ‘first hand’ with accounts of the soldiers, but I’m not a modern warfare specialist. That said, history is history. Men are men. If you can apply the same theme and personal ethos then you can do it in any age.
I have been called upon to defend my position with this work in light of other posts, opinions and more…that is fair. One thing about me is that I am, quite intentionally, very ‘visible’ – I will talk to anybody on any subject, honestly. Of course, as I have also found out, this does leave me open to the usual run of cyber-bullies and what they term ‘trolls’ which anyone will attract in any walk of life if they are open about themselves. I always answer them back, even the most offensive or aggressive – on whatever subject, with as much courtesy and grace as I can. Education can cure ignorance…well, sometimes!
And so let us come back to the whole crux of the storm brewing around my head. Something we British use a term for – “The elephant in the room” – the ‘great unmentionable’ and I mean of course, the Falklands debate. I would like to explain my position and my book – and I am happy to answer any questions on it – there is a ‘Comments’ section so all can see. I approve all comments too!!
Firstly, let this answer all points, other posts, conjecture and the ‘but what about this?’ stuff going on. This isn’t – or it should not be – about who is right or who is wrong. I don’t think anybody anywhere is going to say “Yes I admit it, our side is wrong.” – Nobody will. Now, do I support the British side of this debate? – Yes, of course. But even then it isn’t that simple, and here is where we need a little education – and it is a big subject!
I am British. I am not a Falkland Islander (by the way, they don’t like being called ‘Kelpers’ it’s derogatory) – I can’t just go there to live. It is a foreign country. Britain doesn’t ‘own’ the Falklands, it protects them. Britain takes not one penny from any non-self-governing territories. They pay a voluntary contribution, if they want to, towards defence and foreign affairs. It isn’t mandatory. In technical terms (and stay with me, this is going somewhere, I promise) an NSGT (non-self-governing territory) is a territory whose people manage their own affairs, tax, governance, business, laws and everything any other country has. However, not being of the size, wealth or stature as their parent state, they look to that state by what is termed as ‘free association’ to provide for its defence and foreign affairs. That is the entire difference between an NSGT and a country.
But the Falklands are not Britain. Britain cannot tell them what to do. They have a constitutional right to simply ignore anything Britain says. The Falklands are a country. I would need a VISA to go there and, if I stayed longer, I would be arrested as a foreign national overstaying his welcome. It is as hard for a British person from the mainland to go there and live there as it is for an Argentine citizen. Hence ideas of ‘colonialism’ or whatever are at least 70 years too late. If anything, they have us at their mercy, not the other way around.
Now, we can go into decolonisation commissions, what UN Resolution said what and even, as I have, the laws of territorial acquisition. It doesn’t make us better people though, does it? And I mean all of us. The outstanding thing about the Falkland Islanders is that they want to be left alone by everyone. You and me. All of us. They don’t want to be that interesting! Theirs is a home which, if we are all being honest, is cold, windy, a little lonely probably – and ultimately the kind of place most of us wouldn’t want to live. The fact that they do, that they like it, that they prefer it…well, it’s a credit to them. I would love to visit there; they seem such nice people. But no, I don’t want to live there. They do and I am happy for them.
What I do not understand about the Argentine claim – be it in the past or those who espouse it today, is what it achieves. The chances are you – whoever you are – do not want to live there either! Just like me, it is not your home, it is their home. So what that it is closer to Argentina? I have never been to the Faroe Islands. I don’t want to go there. I don’t want to live there. They are Danish and yet, they are much closer to Britain than to Denmark. It really doesn’t upset me. If the people there like it and want to be Danish well then, great! – My point is this…we could produce pieces of old paper or the injured rights of men long-since dead, or a quote from somewhere or even a piece of current law. Does it matter? Some 3,000 peaceful people, living in the only home they have ever known, that they and their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and going back sometimes nine generations, have called home. It is their home.
I understand the war and the causes for the war. I understand why some in Argentina might have felt aggrieved and, if it was just barren rocks with nobody there, I don’t think anyone would care who they belonged to. But it is 2016 and people are important. Not land. I’m not going to say that anybody was wrong or indeed that anybody was right – that is to get into politics. Surely people – whoever they are and however they got there – as a multicultural society as Argentina knows well, have a right to call that place home and to damn anyone who tells them otherwise. Argentina did this in 1810, definitely by 1816 and was only recognised in 1863 by Spain. Argentina was not Spain. The Falklands are not Britain. Argentina speaks Spanish. The Falklands speak English – I think you have a lot more in common than you know!
Argentina seems like a beautiful country. Every Argentine person I have ever met in person has been wonderful. In the little village of Stockbridge in Edinburgh where I lived for eight years, there were three Argentine people I knew. One, though in his late-forties, was the star of the local Rugby team. Sergio the local tailor is from Buenos Aires and I have never met a man who could make me actually cry with laughter like he can! Once, out to dinner with him, I had to hide under the table, I was laughing so hard! I am a huge fan of Tottenham Hotspur (the greatest football team in the world, as we all know) which has enjoyed a timeless relationship with Argentina – our manager Pochettino is Argetine, we are a club whose hero and mascot is Argentine player Ossie Ardilles who also became our manager and even the star of a famous song about him, and I myself am named after Ricardo “Ricky” Villa – the Argentine player who came over with Ossie. My dad, a Tottenham fan, liked the name. On another day, my name might have been ‘Ossie’!
Argentina has always seemed like a fantastic place. I remember watching the fateful 1986 World Cup and collecting the stickers for my album. The Argentine players were always the hardest to get, and the most prized. Burrachaga became an instant favourite of mine and the rarest stocker in the world was Maradonna. My Mum spent hundreds of pounds towards the end on stickers, just so I could finally get his sticker! – One week later he was less popular in England, certainly! But it didn’t matter. I had the Maradonna sticker and the other kids at school begged to see it! Argentines and British seem to get on so well. We share a love of football, rugby, polo – I hear Argentina has a half-decent cricket team too? Cricket, of course, is an institution not to be taken lightly!
So this one issue over some islands which over 99% of people on both sides have never been to and will never go to. Isn’t it silly? The one thing we do share – and this sadly, is a war. It should not have happened. The men I have spoken to from both sides were not championing a cause…fighting men don’t generally do that. They fought for their friends, for the men beside them and a few so their families weren’t going to be ashamed of them. They all had families. Many have told me that they had resigned themselves to the fact that they were going to die and were hoping for the strength to face that inevitability. This is not uncommon; I have read this and written it about soldiers from every country and from every time. Only the Spartans seemed to enjoy it.
The men who have contributed to this book…well, they are the heroes. I am just the guy who weaves a narrative through their personal stories to bring them to life and set the scene. It is not and it was not, to those men, about who was right or wrong politically. I see very little hate on either side. Certainly less than in the ‘keyboard warriors’ of either side who were not born then and who assert what ‘we’ are going to do (again on both sides_ and the fighting men who were there laugh and tell me that, if it came again, ‘we’ would not include the people who write so passionately for other people to do that job.
I accept that my attitudes and opinions have changed as this has progressed. There is no bad feeling in the fighting men because they did their jobs. Anything bad that night and into the morning came out of the end of a rifle. They were Marines and soldiers, not politicians. When you start to talk to ‘the enemy’ and realise they are the same as you, when you talk to veterans with PTSD (which I myself have had) or people who were just scared, as we all have been…well, we all become more human.
In reconciliation I write this book because the guns are gone as are those politicians who, rightly or wrongly, through action or inaction, set in motion the course of events which saw this conflict unfold. Only the people remain; those Marines, soldiers and sailors whose lives were thrown together that day of April 2nd 1982 and whose stories, from all sides, I am daily enthused by and always more compelled to tell. And then there are the Falkland Islanders – a nice, quiet, sometimes funny and sometimes insular bunch of people whose example is probably one of the best to follow. For it is they who look out on this vast, two-hundred year old struggle, wonder what all the fuss is about and wish, seemingly beyond hope, for the world to leave them alone again so that they, just like the rest of us, wherever in the world we are, can cling to that little piece of the planet that they call home.
And at the end of the day, whoever and wherever you are, we all deserve a place we can call home. I think that’s all they ever asked for.