Friday, April 24, 2009

War Stories 2: Personal Chronicles from a 10-Week War

Falkland (Malvinas) Islands Conflict: April 2 – June 14, 1982

This is the second part of an on-going literary piece about the Falkland (Malvinas) Islands conflict of 1982. It is a collection of snapshots of certain moments during that confrontation, when I was acting editor-in-chief of the English-language daily, the Buenos Aires Herald, as culled from my personal memories and journals from those days. In remembrance of those times and how we lived them on a day to day basis, I will be publishing subsequent installments of these ‘War Stories’ from now until June, the month that the South Atlantic Conflict ended. This, then, is the second in a series.

Our British Editor, James Neilson makes a surprise return from Montevideo. It’s only 11 a.m. and my regular hours at the paper as News Editor are flexible, but usually from around 4 or 5 in the afternoon until midnight or one in the morning. Sometimes more, sometimes less, but these are extraordinary times with a war brewing, and I’m practically living at the Herald.

Jim is furious with me. Fuming. His eyes are narrowed, his pipe is clenched tight in his teeth and he is red in the face. He’s holding the paper signed by him placing me in charge of the newspaper and of policy in his absence, the paper by which I have become interim Editor-in-Chief. He has removed it from the bulletin board where I pinned it up in the editorial department as soon as he decided to hightail it to Montevideo to sit out the war.

Up to now, we’ve always had a clear understanding. When threats from the military regime ran former Editor Robert Cox out of the country three years ago, Neilson was Associate Editor and was promoted to Editor (with Cox remaining on the masthead for some time as Editor-in-Chief “in absentia”). Back then, in 1979, Jim asked me to be his second, to run the editorial department and do a share of the writing on the editorial and op-ed pages. Up to now, it has gone like clockwork: I run the editorial department, do the public relations stuff, sort out the everyday problems and write when I can; he shuts the door to his office and writes his columns and five of the unsigned editorials each week (I write the other two, plus a regular business column, plus an irregular social issues column, plus whatever other op-eds I have time for) and takes final responsibility for setting policy. We work well together and don’t get into each other’s way. We are – as my commanding officer back in the Army used to be fond of saying – familiar but not chummy. We respect one another. We have a good working relationship and we share certain key convictions. Period.

But momentarily, the relationship has soured. Neilson feels hurt, angry, upset. He feels I’ve tried to displace him, steal his job. Why, I ask him, does he think I asked him to sign that paper in the first place. He says he figured I wanted to keep it on hand in case anybody questioned my authority. I say if he knew me at all, he would know that I don’t work that way. That would be the understated English way of doing it. I’m a pushy, aggressive, frontal Yank. I don’t want the question of who’s in charge even arising. If he wants quiet and discreet, as he should already know after years of working with me, he’d best get some other sucker to fill the volatile slot of Editor of an English-language daily in Buenos Aires during a war between Argentina and Britain.

“They’ll be coming after you next,” he says, rather peevishly and, I feel, rather threateningly.

“That’s comforting,” I say.

“Americans, I mean.”

“A risk I’ll have to take,” I say, shrugging. “I live here and I’m a newsman. Besides, it’s different for me. I don’t have kids. You do.”

“Well, I still set policy, Dan” he says, as if to reaffirm the fact.

“Of course you do, as long as you set it.”

He still looks singularly pissed off.

“Look, Jim,” I say, “relax, I’m not after your job. I just don’t want to get the paper thrown into my lap and have my hands tied.”

“But I set policy!” He insists.

“Like I say, as long as you set it. Are you staying?”

“I can’t. The family’s over there,” he points toward the River Plate, which is, basically, a block away, since our offices are half a block from the Customs House and a long block from the waterfront. On the other side of the estuary is Montevideo, where his family is holed up.

“Do you want to run it from there?” I ask. “If you do, fine, but I’ll go back to being just plain News Editor. You write the editorials, you call the shots.”

He shakes his head – a little fiercely. “It wouldn’t work.”

“Okay. All I want is for everybody to know where we stand. And as soon as you leave, that…” I point at the signed document in his hand, “…goes right back up on the board, okay?”

He rather reluctantly hands the paper back to me, but he seems to have understood my point, even if, stubborn Scot that he is, he’s not willing to concede it completely. We brusquely shake hands and wish each other luck, before he is off again, to “cross the puddle” as they say here, for the duration.

Now, after pissing Jim off, I am, unequivocally, on my own for the rest of the war. As if to come to terms with that reality, I stride over to the bulletin board and once again tack up the signed “change of command” document, while Neilson’s footsteps are still echoing on the flight of stairs down from the editorial department to the street.


Two weeks into the occupation of the islands by several thousand Argentine troops and the British naval task force is definitely on its way. A US news magazine is calling this “a lovely little war” in reference to the anachronistic nature of a conflict that is being staged in someplace as remote as the Malvinas. It’s been so long since anything like this happened that everybody’s caught off-guard, except, perhaps, military strategists and war buffs on both sides, who clearly realize this isn’t going to be the “walkover” that Britain is trying to make it out to be. There are all kinds of strategic problems to consider: After all, the Falklands colony is 8,000 miles from Britain! Walkover? Sounds like one hell of a stroll to me.

All of Britain’s aircraft and vessels – it says here (I mean I haven’t got a clue, other than what I read and I’m reading everything I can get my hands on) – have been created for NATO, in preparation for the possibility of war in Europe, not for fighting an enemy that is already entrenched at the other end of the map. In other words, Britain is no longer equipped as an expansionist imperial power. As the Empire has been downgraded to a Commonwealth, London has shown its good intentions by not “re-tooling” to keep up with the latest in “active offensive” technology. It has become a defensive nation, as has the rest of Europe – with the glaring exception of the Soviet Union – since World War II.

We start getting lessons, in the press and from our own sources, on British-held Islands in the Atlantic. Seems the staging ground for Britain’s planned attack to recover the Falklands will be a place called Ascension Island. Nobody but NASA, which used to use it as a tracking station and the BBC, which has a re-transmitting station there for the overseas service, has heard of the place since World War II, when Britain let the US set up shop with it there to detect possible German naval movements. The fact is that practically nobody in Britain even knows where the conflictive Falklands are, let alone this Ascension place. Surveys run by a couple of newspaprers in England have confirmed this. Where are the Falklands? “Haven’t the foggiest, guv.”

The British are making Acension sound close-by, convenient for purposes of this war, but when I look it up, I find out that it’s a good 3,800 miles from the Malvinas. I look at it on a map and decide that if the world has an anus, it is not, as I had previously surmised, the Falklands, but perhaps Ascension Island, which is, basically, a kind of burned-out volcanic knob sticking out all by itself, smack in the middle of the vast expanse of Atlantic between – sort of – Rio de Janeiro in South America and the coast of Angola in Africa.

But for naval purposes during the Second World War, it served as a kind of floating fuel dump and supply station, and now it is going to serve that purpose again.

Even the British fleet is going to have to refuel and restock there before sailing on to engage the Argentine Navy. I kick myself for never having learned anything about aircraft: I was in the US Army a decade back, but even despite having served my last tour with the Army Air Defense Command in Europe, just never could seem to muster any interest whatsoever in warplanes. I’m pretty sure, however, that there’s nothing out there that could fly, say, eight hours in one direction with a load of bombs on board, drop them on the target and fly eight hours back. I make myself a note to ask our military sources about this.


Foreign correspondents, stringers and free-lancers anxious to make a name for themselves as war correspondents start showing up in Buenos Aires in droves. Predictably – as in just about any place in the world where trouble is brewing – they set up shop in the Sheraton. One of the first ones to contact me is a guy called Jimmy Burns from the Financial Times. We get together for coffee and he picks my brain about the ins and outs of Argentine politics and the military government. He leads me to believe he is a new arrival, although I later find out he has been around for several months, but just hasn’t “gotten it yet” regarding things a good newsman should have had down pat by that time. This is particularly surprising because he doesn’t have to deal with the language barrier, since, as I will find out later, his father is British but his mother is Spanish and he went to school in Spain and has worked there. Or in other words, he has a better than working knowledge of Spanish that should get him in a lot faster than other British correspondents who are arriving here without a clue and without being able to readily communicate.

We meet several more times in the next few days and I do my best to get him “up to speed”, as I do with any other foreign news person who seeks information and advice from me. When I later read some of the unmitigated bullshit that he writes about me, however, I realize that all he was doing was “getting a handle” on me. His biggest bone to pick with me (although he never says this face to face, in which case he is all “innocents abroad”, acting naïve and playing me for his own purposes) seems to be that I’m not frantically waving a union jack and blindly supporting Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s insistence on going to war. I mean, if the Argentine Junta and this whisky-soused cartoon general, Leopoldo Galtieri, are insane, she’s decided to be twice as insane. She appears to feel that she isn’t being taken seriously by the Junta because she’s a woman and seems to want to show them that if they think that her female condition precludes her from getting into a pissing contest with them, they have another think coming.

I have been editorializing about this, calling on Britain to be the calm voice in this mad affair, to seek intervention by the UN, to call for peacekeeping forces, anything but precipitating a war. Burns, for his part, is obviously subscribing to the wave of outdated but spontaneously revived jingoism that is accompanying Mrs. Thatcher’s thirst for blood as a not-so-secret remedy for flagging confidence in her government at home, and is taking a with-us-or-against-us attitude. As a result, he will eventually picture me in some of the things he writes as having “sold out to the Argentine military government”. This is, of course, a load of crap, as witnessed by repeated, clear messages from the dictatorship in the past three years that they would be glad to see me dead and/or gone.

His unfair criticism bothers me at first, since I was sincere and candid in giving him my help, but then I realize that he’s just another opportunist on the band wagon, down here to wave the flag and get himself a shot at a bestseller. [Although I have no way of knowing it yet, by the end of the war, he will be considered a prestigious “expert” on the Falklands War and will win a Somerset Maugham Non-Fiction Prize for his book about it, while I will only have the bittersweet satisfaction of knowing that, in my case at least, he has proven himself a liar and a fraud].


Speaking of waving the flag, today there was a bit of comic relief in Plaza de Mayo. Every day lately, the Plaza has looked like a gathering for a major sporting event, with people out there rallying around the Armed Forces, trying to get news about “what the score is”, showing their solidarity with the war effort, lining up to make donations, some even handing over their jewelry and other family heirlooms to help support the cause. It's all pretty disgusting and disquieting, because the British fleet's on the way and something tells me that once it arrives, things won't be pretty.

In the midst of it all, a guy shows up that I know from some of the events in the Anglo community here in Argentina. He is really a character out of a Saki story, one of those Britons of the Empire days in Africa, India or Burma. With his military-cut moustache, Beefeater’s face and build, gin-ruddied complexion and Terry Thomas accent, all he’s missing are a pith helmet and riding crop to make him the perfect caricature of a late 19th-century honorary lord consul far from Queen and home in “The Bloody Argentine”. In point of fact, I’m not at all sure that he wasn’t born right here, like a lot of other Anglo-Argentines that continue to cling to the Empire days in “the forgotten colony”.

There are cops dressed in riot gear everywhere, just in case, because with the war on, sentiments are running high. So it’s difficult to get very close to the front of Government House, where TV cameramen and photo-journalists are standing behind a police barricade filming the scene in the city square. But this guy, “Reggie” is his name, manages to work his way right down front facing the press and with his back to the rest of the crowd.

And just as the crowd starts jumping in place, thousands strong and chanting, “AR-GEN-TINA! “AR-GEN-TINA! “AR-GEN-TINA!, a smiling Reggie unfurls a huge union jack and waving it in the air, starts shouting, “The Falklands are British! The Falklands are British!”

Suddenly, Reggie is surrounded by six huge and heavily armed riot cops. He grins and asks them hopefully, “Are you going to arrest me?”

They disappoint him and say, “No sir, we’re here to protect you.”


No comments: