Argentines Reassess Their Role In Decade-Old Falklands `Mistake'

Officials concede the war was shortsighted, enhanced debt burden

TWO-YEAR-OLD Jonnattan loves to play with his father's medals, pinned on an olive-green military jacket. Oscar Poltronieri, his father, is the most-decorated soldier among the Argentine conscripts who fought in the conflict with British troops a decade ago.

Mr. Poltronieri had never heard of the Falklands before the April 2, 1982, Argentine invasion of the windswept islands, which Argentina calls the Malvinas. His son, however, already knows about them and is bound to hear many war stories in the family's one-room home.

But most Argentines have tried hard to forget the suffering and humiliation of the 74-day armed conflict over the archipelago.

Now, 10 years after the ill-fated invasion - and just as the scars begin to heal, both military and civilian leaders are for the first time publicly admitting that the war was a mistake.

"The Argentine troops that fought on Malvinas were doomed to fail from day one," says Gen. Martin Balza, head of the Argentine Army, who fought south of Port Stanley in the 1982 conflict. "Improvisation and thoughtlessness were the key factors throughout the war."

President Carlos Saul Menem, who supported the invasion at the time, said on the occasion of the anniversary: "The Malvinas war was obviously a mistake."

"Historic shortsightedness, the inability to foresee the course the world would take in just a few years, or the mean ambition to stay in power must have taken those who ruled the country into that irresponsible adventure from a military and political point of view," President Menem said. General's plan backfired

It was Menem, however, who, shortly after taking office almost three years ago, pardoned Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri. General Galtieri, who had ordered the invasion, was serving a 12-year sentence for mishandling the war. Other military leaders convicted for negligence during the conflict were also pardoned.

Galtieri's efforts to stay in power backfired to the point that most Argentines today believe his decision to invade the islands brought about the restoration of democracy. Argentina's defeat on June 14, 1982, was followed by the downfall of the military regime that had ruled Argentina since 1976.

"Galtieri wanted to blow new air into the military regime and [instead] shot it to death," says Atilio Boron, a professor at the University of Buenos Aires.

Government officials now publicly admit that the war did more harm than good. Six hundred and twenty-five Argentine soldiers - mainly teenage recruits with little military instruction - and 295 British soldiers were killed. The conflict cost Argentina between $5 million and $15 million - increasing its foreign debt burden.

Moreover, years of bilateral negotiations for a peaceful transfer of the islands to Argentina came tumbling down like a house of cards. Argentina has been claiming the archipelago since 1833.

The foreign minister at the time of the conflict, Nicanor Costa Mendez, broke a long period of silence in Buenos Aires on the anniversary of the invasion to take his share of the blame.

"I think I made many mistakes, before, during, and perhaps after the hostilities," he said. "I should have tried to make use of all possibilities for a diplomatic solution."

Full diplomatic relations between London and Buenos Aires were only reestablished under Menem in February 1990. Menem's government has since made great efforts to improve ties with the United States, Britain, and the rest of the developed world.

Most Argentines didn't expect a change in the status of the Falklands, even if the Labour Party had won last week's elections in Britain.

"Labour and Conservatives have the same foreign policy in essence," adds Carlos Escude, an adviser to the foreign minister. "Neither of them is going to hand the islands over to us or do the islanders any harm."

Foreign Minister Guido di Tella has recently said Argentina would be ready to take into account the "wishes" of the islanders, though this would not mean granting islanders a veto over decisions concerning the islands.

Argentina has always upheld it would only take into account the "interests and rights" of the islanders and not their "wishes," which London insisted had to be considered.

"This goes a step beyond admitting the war was worse than a mistake," Mr. Escude says. "We are taking a little step further."

Argentine negotiators have a freer hand as time has taken the Malvinas issue down the list of priorities for the ordinary citizen.

According to recent opinion polls, the issue does not appear in a list of Argentina's 15 most pressing problems. Another survey suggests 87 percent of the population believe the conflict had negative consequences for Argentina while 1 percent supports it. Not in history books

One decade afterward, however, the war has not found its way into school history books, and Galtieri refuses to give his account of the events.

Galtieri, once one of Argentina's most powerful men, now spends his days in his apartment of Villa Devoto, a middle-class neighborhood in Buenos Aires, pedaling his exercise bike, watering the plants on his balcony, or playing with Facundo, his two-year-old grandson.

The general lives on his $1,500 monthly pension, a lean allowance but still 10 times what the largely forgotten Malvinas war veterans make from the state.

Poltronieri has two jobs to make ends meet and no home of his own. "For all my medals," he says bitterly, "I get a monthly war pension of $150 just like everybody else."

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