On April 2, 1982, while Argentina was under military dictatorship, and the United Kingdom was in an economic crisis, the Argentine army launched a military operation on the Malvinas Islands (Falkland Islands) to recover the sovereignty which has been a subject of dispute since 1833, when the British armed forces took control of the Islands.
The attack took the British by surprise, but after almost three months, and despite a triumphalist military discourse, the Argentine commanders capitulated in the face of the British military forces, which were supported by the United States and France, two of its NATO allies. The conflict resulted in 649 Argentine casualties, of which 323 were due to the sinking of the cruiser Belgrano outside of the war zone. Great Britain acknowledged 255 victims, a figure that rose to 1,032 including wounded personnel. The Argentine state has no official figures as to the number of suicides, but among veterans it is estimated that there were around 454 cases.
41 years after the conflict, the Malvinas Islands remain of great geopolitical interest. During the Cold War, Great Britain built a strategic military base on Soledad Island (also known as East Falkland), partially financed by the illegal exploitation of resources and fishing. This generated international interest in a possible alternative route to the Panama Canal. The region is also home to abundant marine resources, metals, and oil. In August 2023, Argentina’s Defense Ministry halted a project by an Anglo-American company to build a space radar in the Argentine province of Tierra del Fuego, on the grounds that it violated national security.
A June 2023 British poll shows that 46 percent of the British “would not be bothered” if if the Falkland Islands stopped being British, while 35 percent would.
Today, 40 years after the restoration of democracy, the Argentine claim to the islands is also still very much alive.
People in Argentina continue to dispute Britain’s claim on the territory, as well as the senselessness of the Argentine military chiefs who dragged the country into a war against a European military power, as the former Malvinas combatant and musician Pablo Garriga told Global Voices. He explained how he felt when he was told he was going to war in Malvinas:
Tuve muchas sensaciones encontradas, por supuesto que miedo a una experiencia que jamás pensé que tendría que enfrentar. Si bien estaba cumpliendo el servicio militar obligatorio y jurado lealtad a la bandera hasta perder la vida, nunca creí que esto realmente sucediera. Ir a una guerra contra Inglaterra (y la OTAN) era impensado y absurdo, por muchos motivos, principalmente que la mayoría de los conscriptos no teníamos la menor idea ni preparación para eso. [Ed.: Aunque no hay pruebas de la implicación de la OTAN en la guerra como organización, es un argumento defendido por gobiernos de Argentina y de los medios en la región].
I had many mixed feelings, of course, fear of an experience I never thought I would have to face. Although I was doing my compulsory military service and swore allegiance to the flag with my life, I never thought it would actually happen. Going to war against England (and NATO) was unthinkable and absurd, for many reasons, mainly that most of us conscripts had no idea or preparation for it. [Ed: Although there is no proof of NATO’s involvement in the war as an organization, it is an argument advanced by Argentinian governments and regional media].
Las hipótesis de guerra siempre había sido contra Chile. Tampoco veía en ese momento que los militares asignados a esa nueva y titánica misión tuviesen la idoneidad suficiente para hacerlo, los veía más preocupados por imponerse o sostenerse políticamente (sobre todo el ejército, fuerza a la que pertenecía, involucrada en la lucha anticomunista en los años 70), que en la búsqueda de una genuina y sorpresiva soberanía nacional en Malvinas. Sin embargo, estratégicamente para sus intereses, esas islas aunaban los sentimientos más profundos de emoción e idiosincrasia patriótica nacional. A pesar de eso también experimenté una sensación de curiosidad, aventura, protagonismo noble y patriótico, propios de mis ingenuos 19 años ; y así … vamos a la guerra!
A possible war had always been against Chile. Nor did I see that the military assigned to that new and titanic mission were sufficiently qualified to do so; I saw them as more concerned with imposing or sustaining themselves politically (especially the army, a force to which I belonged, involved in the anti-communist struggle in the 70s), than in the search for genuine and surprising national sovereignty in Malvinas. However, in their strategic interests, those islands brought together the deepest feelings of emotion and national patriotic idiosyncrasy. In spite of that I also experienced a sense of curiosity, adventure, noble and patriotic protagonism, typical of my naive 19 years; and so … let's go to war!
British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, in a speech delivered during a visit to Santiago de Chile on May 23, 2023, reopened this old wound for Argentines by defending the self-determination of the islands’s residents to remain an overseas territory of the United Kingdom affirmed in a referendum in 2013.
Argentina's Foreign Minister responded to Cleverly's intervention by appealing to United Nations Resolution 31/49, which urges that both parties refrain from taking decisions that introduce unilateral modifications in the situation.
In June 2022, the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization called this case a “special and particular colonial situation” which needs a negotiated solution. For the Argentine government, the principle of self-determination of peoples is therefore not applicable “because the composition of the population of the Islands is the outcome of the United Kingdom’s colonization.”
The government distributed a new map of Argentina in 2020 which includes the Malvinas Islands:
This is the new map of Argentina, with Tierra del Fuego in the center and Santa Fe in the north.
In Argentina, every April 2, the Malvinas conflict is commemorated to show the other side of the story, that of the defeated. For Argentines, it was an unequal war.
Garriga told us in detail about the difficult survival of the Argentine troops, who had little equipment:
Ya en Monte Longdon, después de unos días de adaptación al clima y cavando las primeras trincheras, comencé a padecer el deficiente equipo con el que contábamos, totalmente insuficiente, e incompatible con el lugar: carpas de lona sin piso, para un suelo de turba y piedra empapado, ropa de algodón, zapatillas de lona, cocinas de campaña a leña, en una estepa helada, sin arboles, donde se utiliza ladrillos de turba seca como combustible,y calefacción.
Once in Mount Longdon, after a few days of adaptation to the climate and digging the first trenches, I began to suffer from the poor equipment we had, totally insufficient and incompatible with the place: canvas tents without a floor, a soaked peat and stone floor, cotton clothes, canvas slippers, wood stoves, in a frozen steppe, without trees, where dry peat bricks are used as fuel, and heating
He adds that after the first bombardments, food supplies no longer reached the front. The lack of calories and the cold caused great physical and mental deterioration.
Los soldados comían de los tachos de basura de los isleños, y en muchos casos, teníamos que cruzar un campo minado para ir a “robar” nuestros propios depósitos, o cazar ovejas, para sobrevivir con la amenaza de ser estaqueado como castigo, para no morir de hipotermia. El caso Vojkovic y su grupo es un claro ejemplo.
Soldiers ate from the garbage cans of the islanders, and in many cases, we had to cross a minefield to go “steal” our own storage tanks, or hunt sheep, to survive with the threat of being staked as punishment, so as not to die of hypothermia. The Vojkovic case and his group is a clear example.
Un enfrentamiento en esas condiciones de absoluta desigualdad y desproporción frente a las fuerzas de la OTAN, equipadas con material de alta gama, bolsas de dormir térmicas que les permitía avanzar de noche, con miras infrarrojas para conocer nuestras posiciones al minuto y fotos satelitales. Todo esto, frente a la escasa logística nuestra, hizo que nuestros actos, principalmente el caso de los soldados, fueran de los más heroicos, honorables, patrióticos. Nuestras fuerzas dieron lo mejor de sí, en muchos casos hasta perder la vida en pos y defensa de la soberanía argentina, a pesar de estar abandonados, hambrientos, casi congelados, y en algunos casos, sabiendo con los bueyes que arábamos.
A battle in those conditions of absolute inequality and disproportion in front of NATO forces, equipped with high-end material, thermal sleeping bags that allowed them to advance at night, with infrared sights to know our positions at the minute and satellite photos. All this, compared to our scarce logistics, made our actions, mainly in the case of the soldiers, the most heroic, honorable and patriotic. Our forces gave the best of themselves, in many cases even losing their lives in pursuit and defense of Argentine sovereignty, despite being abandoned, hungry, almost frozen, and in some cases, knowing who we were dealing with.
Today, Argentina's claim is still present within the society, there is no celebration that does not include the claim over the islands.
The mental health of former combatants, who had to sign a confidentiality document when they returned from the battlefield, is also still relevant. Garriga explains:
A todos nos costó años poder hablar algo siquiera de esa experiencia, fuimos islas dentro de un contexto social continental que no vivenció la guerra. (…) Aquí, la reinserción a la sociedad, en muchos casos, fue más difícil que la guerra misma, el estrés postraumático generó más muertes que en el campo de batalla, muertes de las cuales aún no hay estadísticas.
It took us all years to be able to talk about that experience, we were islands within a continental social context that did not experience the war (…) Here, reinsertion into society, in many cases, was more difficult than the war itself, post-traumatic stress generated more deaths than on the battlefield, deaths for which there are still no statistics.
[Este conflicto] fue definitivamente el fin de mi inocencia, razón, entendimiento, para toda la vida. Después de eso y hasta hoy con 61 años, sigo sin certezas, en el sin sentido, y el despropósito de la estupidez humana, que me enseñó esa guerra; sólo con sospechas, sobre quién maneja los hilos de nuestro destino.
[This conflict] was definitely the end of my innocence, my rational mind, my understanding, for the rest of my life. After that and until today at the age of 61, I am still without any certainties, in the senselessness, and the nonsense of human stupidity, which that war taught me. [I am left] only with suspicions, about who is pulling the strings of our destiny.
On June 21, 2023, the Special Committee on Decolonization requested Argentina and Great Britain to “consolidate the current process of dialogue and cooperation through the resumption of negotiations” on the sovereignty dispute. China and many Latin American countries supported Argentina's claim.
Editor’s note: This article was revised on October 19 2023 to correct factual inaccuracies and enhance clarity. A prior version erroneously stated that NATO was involved in the Malvinas war. In reality, NATO countries, including the United States and European nations, supported Great Britain. The updated version also includes a new poll discussing British perceptions of the islands and offers additional context on UN resolutions related to the matter.