Falklands War: Why the battle continues 30 years later

Some 30 years after the Falklands War, Prince William's deployment and the recent discovery of oil have increased attention on the battle between Argentina and the UK for control of the islands.

Jonathan Gilbert
Miguel Savage, a veteran of the Falklands War, at his home in Venado Tuerto, Santa Fe province. Thirty years ago today, Mr. Savage was sent as a 19-year-old conscript to fight against the British and fully supports Argentine President Cristina Kirchner's current effort to regain sovereignty of the Islands from the UK.
Enrique Marcarian/Reuters
People gather at the Malvinas Monument during a ceremony on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War, in Ushuaia on April 1, 2012. April 2 marks the 30th anniversary of the war over the Falkland islands, known commonly in Argentina as 'Las Malvinas.'

On the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War, Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is intensifying her bid to reclaim the islands, uniting leaders across South America against what she calls a "colonial enclave," and souring relations with the UK.

President Kirchner will commemorate the event, which lasted just over two months and killed more than 900 men, in Ushuaia, the southernmost city in Argentina. Thousands have gathered for the vigil to the war's fallen soldiers, and a march to the British embassy in Buenos Aires is expected to take place later this afternoon.

British Prime Minister David Cameron argues that the 3,000 residents of the Falkland Islands have the right to self-determination, while Kirchner denounces his “neo-colonial” attitude. Together with the Mercosur trade bloc, she has condemned the recent “militarization” of the region and says the British government must respect a 1965 UN resolution that calls for the two countries to negotiate sovereignty of Las Malvinas, the name for the archipelago in Spanish.

Tensions over the Falklands intensified in February 2010 when London authorized oil prospecting around the islands. British petroleum companies said they made significant hydrocarbon finds, and Argentina quickly laid claim to a section of the continental shelf encompassing the Falklands and parts of Antarctica, and said ships traversing their territorial waters en route to the Falklands would require a permit.

Thirty years ago, Argentina’s ailing military junta, headed by Leopoldo Galtieri, pounced on a diplomatic crisis in the South Georgia Islands and invaded the Falklands in an attempt to galvanize Argentina in a wave of patriotism. Mr. Galtieri didn’t predict that Margaret Thatcher, the British prime minister, would respond to his move so decisively.

On April 4, a task force of 127 ships was sent by the UK to recover the Falklands. The junta – which originally planned a symbolic occupation followed by a quick withdrawal – was quickly drawn into battle, despite the fact that its troops had only started training two months earlier. 258 British and 649 Argentine soldiers died over the course of the war.

Miguel Savage was a 19-year-old conscript in La Plata, Argentina, at the time. He was ten days away from a return to civilian life when the phone rang on April 2, calling him to the front line.

“The act of sending us [to fight in the Falklands] was in itself a crime against humanity,” Mr. Savage says at his home in Venado Tuerto, a dusty town of 80,000 people in Santa Fe province. “I was a conscript sent to swell the numbers. I’d had just one day of rifle training.”

Argentina’s unprepared forces, which lost 649 men, surrendered on June 14, 1982. Two weeks ago, Ms. Kirchner’s government declassified the long-awaited Rattenbach Report, which analyzes the Argentine defeat. It confirms Mr. Savage’s testimony, explaining that many conscripts received no basic combat training and faced “serious malnutrition.”

The atrocities of Dirty War – during which up to 30,000 people were "disappeared" by the military dictatorship in Argentina between 1976 and 1983 – were extended to the Falklands, where conscripts were abused. “We went to the Falklands with the same guys that were torturing civilians in the 70s,” says Savage, whose commanding officer at the Battle of Mount Longdon, Carlos Carrizo Salvadores, was arrested last year for crimes against humanity.

“We were starving in the trenches,” says Savage, who lost 45 pounds during the conflict. More than 100 veterans of the Falklands War have testified against their officers since 2005 when Néstor Kirchner, the former Argentine president, repealed amnesty laws protecting military officials accused of human rights violations.

Today, Mr. Savage is supportive of President Kirchner’s position on the Falklands and much of Argentina seems to back the cause. Yesterday, referees at two Argentine soccer games wore shirts imprinted with the slogan “The Malvinas are Argentine” – a phrase also graffitied on walls across Buenos Aires. Veterans were paraded on the field before the games carrying banners with the same message and anti-British chants rained down from the stands.

While another invasion is out the question, Ms. Kirchner will continue to push Argentina’s claim to the Falklands. Mr. Cameron says sovereignty is non-negotiable, while Kirchner – who has accrued the support of Hugo Chávez, Sebastián Piñera, and Ollanta Humala, the Venezuelan, Chilean, and Peruvian presidents respectively – launched a formal complaint at the UN over the issue and says her government will take legal action against British companies involved in drilling for oil around the Islands.

“If there were no resources, the UK would not be defending the Islands,” says Mr. Savage. “[Ms. Kirchner] is just going with the law under her arm and persistently asking for dialogue."

Thirty years on from war, the conflict over sovereignty needs to be resolved, says Savage. He says before the British arrived, there was an Argentine gaucho population on the island, and the islanders’ present-day descendants do not have the right to self-determination. “There should be a civilized handover of the Falklands to Argentina,” Savage says.

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