Thursday, July 9, 2009

War Stories 4: Personal Chronicles from a 10-Week War

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

Last month marked the 27th anniversary of the end of the Falkland (Malvinas) Islands conflict. And this is the fourth and final part of an on-going literary piece about that ten-week war. It is a collection of snapshots of certain moments during that confrontation between Argentina and Britain, 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, this, then, is the fourth and last chapter in a series.

As naval action begins and the General-George-Patton-wannabe drunk wearing the presidential sash of office and his erstwhile Anglophile-gone-rogue sidekick, the Foreign Minister, have finally begun to realize that you can’t pull the British lion’s tail and expect it to roll over and play dead, troops out on the islands are digging in for what now promises to be a fight to the finish.

I have begun to understand the phrase “rumors of war”. I am amazed at the unbridled hearsay that is not only circulating among news people, but that is also finding its way into agency copy and hardcopy stories that are making it into print on both sides of the conflict.

I recall a quote…something like, “Truth is always the first victim of war,” or something to that effect and decide to look it up for possible use in an editorial that is taking shape in my fevered, sleepless brain. Most of the references I find accredit it to Hiram Johnson, a California Republican who served 30 years in the US Senate from World War I until his death in 1945 – oddly enough, on August 6th, the very same day that the United States dropped its first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. An isolationist, he said it in 1917, with reference to US intervention in The Great War, and the exact quote was, “The first casualty when war comes is truth.” But then, I find another quote, this one by Ancient Greek dramatist Aeschylus (525 BC – 456 BC), which goes: “In war, truth is the first casualty.” And this makes me think that Senator Johnson just had a sound classic education and a good memory.

So I sit down at my Olivetti Lexicon and start hammering out an essay about the difference between truth and speculation. However, once I have enough crumpled balls of discarded paper in my trash can to amply defend myself in a week-long spit-wad battle, I decide to take a different approach. I write it as a conversation, verbal crossfire among a huddle of newsmen. The result is ironic, mordant, highly critical and sure to raise hackles. It portrays foreign and local journalists alike gossiping about what they’ve heard rather than what they know, within reasonable limits, to be fact. It shows them convincing themselves that such uncorroborated claptrap is something akin to truth and thus printable. The huddle is fiction, but the snatches of conversation are all real, all things I have heard and overheard since the war began.

More than mildly satisfied with it, I play with some headlines: The Battle for Truth…The Battle for Information…The Information War, etc. I eventually choose one, pencil it in at the top of the first page of the copy and scrawl in the body-size and typeface next to it, then drop the piece into the tray by the Night Desk for the print shop with a diagram of the layout for the op-ed page.

Caption: Senator Hiram Johnson (c.1917) - "The first casualty when war comes is truth." Photo: California State Archives, Sacramento, CA.

I think of the piece as no more than a slightly clever commentary. Despite my outward aggressiveness and frontal style, I tend, as a writer, to be somewhat self-effacing and it often takes me by surprise when I discover that people have actually read what I write. So the next evening when I come into the editorial department from a press conference I have just attended, I am pleasantly surprised when Andrew, who has dropped by to visit the associate editor, who is an old friend, walks up to me smiling and says: “Dan, they tacked your op-ed piece up on the bulletin board in the foreign press center at the Sheraton.”

“Really?” I smile back at him hopefully, thinking that perhaps he has decided to bury the hatchet and be friendly again. But then he lays the punch line on me: “Yes, they’re using it for a dartboard.”

Though it bothers me a little that we can’t seem to get past this ‘elephant in the room’ and be friends, or at least respectful colleagues, I strike back as he brushes past me to leave, and to the back of his head I say: “Good! It means I hit a nerve, so I must be doing something right.”

I don’t know it yet, but this is the last time I’ll see Andrew before he heads back to London.


It’s a chilly, humid, late-autumn evening in Buenos Aires, and Andrew is taking a shortcut, walking briskly across Plaza San Martín toward Avenida Leandro Alem, where the Sheraton stands on the corner facing Retiro Station and the Torre de los Ingleses, which – yet another victim of wartime jingoism – is now being dubbed the ‘Air Force Tower’. Night is falling and even despite the sodium-orange streetlamps illuminating the walks, the shadows beneath the huge old trees in the plaza are deep.

In the middle of the park, a small band of paramilitary thugs intercepts Andrew. They pounce on him, beat him to the sidewalk and then start kicking him. As they do one of them says, “We know who you are, hijo de puta.” And then they tell him he has a choice: Leave or die.

Andrew takes their advice and heads back to England without delay. In a subsequent commentary, he will quip that he was “kicked out of Buenos Aires”. We run an editorial in which I criticize the regime for the illegitimate, lawless mob that it is and say that if they had any hope of cleaning up their act and trying to show themselves to be tolerant of the press – and particularly of the foreign press – even in the midst of war, they just blew it, by going back to the roots of repression and murder that have made them infamous the world over. They’ve shown that their death list still stands, that they are just as capable of murdering people for what they think or say as they were at the time of the coup six years ago. The editorial praises Andrew as a journalist and writer of international renown and blasts the ruling military junta for abiding these strong-arm tactics. I suggest that this highlights precisely what is wrong with thinking that this regime possesses the legitimacy to make international claims in the name of the Argentine people. No matter how right anyone thinks the country’s claim to the islands is, the military rulers are a de facto government that has trampled the right of Argentines and foreigners alike and I suggest that the only way the armed forces’ action could be considered sovereign and legitimate would be if the military were subordinate to a democratically elected government.


Since the outset of the crisis, I have been seeking some semblance of objectivity. It hasn’t been easy. On the one side are my Argentine friends and in-laws, and on the other, my American and British colleagues and acquaintances. The print shop is all Spanish-speaking and all traditional Argentine. They look on us English-speakers with a certain degree of suspicion. The editorial staff is divided between foreigners like myself and fluently bilingual Argentines, with a few other nationalities thrown in to complicate the mix still further. No one but I can do this thing – set policy, I mean. That is, if I’m going to keep a steady hand on the rudder throughout the war.

The view of local management (only 40% of the firm’s capital, but directly in charge of running the paper and the descendants of the original founders, who were Anglo-Italian-Argentines) is pretty clearly pro-Argentine, if somewhat apologetically so. Foreign management (60% of the share package) can’t help but be extremely Anglo-American in its view. At the Charleston Evening Post Publishing Company, the executive suite is known as “Battleship Row”. The editors and publishers are all Old Navy and very much of the “good ol’ boy” persuasion, if somewhat intellectually enlightened. (On a visit to the US parent company in 1979, for instance, I was introduced on several occasions as “Dan Newland, a Yankee boy that’s one of our editors down in Buenos Aires”). The executive editorial offices are occupied by naval ranks from retired rear admiral down to reserve commander in the US Navy. Their mutual club dates back to the early 1800s and looks onto Fort Sumter in the Charleston Harbor. Clearly, it would be a miracle if any of them was to think that Britain should do anything other than give Argentina a sound “ass-whuppin’” or that the United States should do anything but help Britain do it.

The Herald readership is bound to be split. Garden variety bilingual readers will think the Herald should forsake its British maritime past entirely and make a clear-cut stand in favor of Argentina’s “sovereign right to the usurped islands”. The Herald is fond of saying that it’s ‘an Argentine paper written in English’. These readers will think that it is time for us to put our money where our mouth is, stand up and be counted. The old Anglo community will be torn between the Argentina they love and the Britain to which they have always pledged allegiance. Many have dual citizenship. Many of the older men, for instance, men now in their sixties and seventies, were volunteer combatants for Britain during World War II and some of them distinguished themselves as British officers and NCOs. Our senior reporter, for example, though Uruguayan-born and Argentine-raised, was a British military intelligence agent during that war, and was recently awarded an OBE title by the queen. Our Anglo-Argentine farming columnist was a British bomber pilot and was recognized for his bravery under fire. And these are but a couple of examples of people with links to the Herald, as readers or contributors, who have given much more than lip service to their British heritage despite having been born and bred in Argentina and Uruguay, back in the days when ‘The Argentine’ still looked like a country that would someday be a world power. The international diplomatic corps, which forms another major segment of our readership, will also have a variety of opinions, but the majority will be pro-British.


I eventually decide to forget all of these pressures that I am under and return to the basics of long-standing Herald policy: Observe the situation and decide as feasibly as possible what the ‘objective truth’ is. Or rather, what an objective truth is. Because as far as I can tell, from the outset of the conflict, this is what has been lacking.

We have seen Argentines in general become suddenly, blindly and stubbornly dogmatic about a “belief” that they have learned by rote since their earliest school days. It has long been the mantra of a nation, one of the few points on which practically all Argentines agree, and now it has become a war cry: “¡Las Malvinas son Argentinas!” (The Malvinas – Falklands – are Argentine). Suddenly, all is forgiven with the military. More than half a decade of tyranny, murder and corruption, erased overnight, because they have ‘defended Argentina’s honor’ against British imperialism.

The British, for their part, have suddenly remembered that they have a possession called the Falkland Islands. Most Britons have no idea where on earth they are, but if the “bloody Argies” have taken them over, a vast majority of Britons are all for taking them back. On both sides, the confrontation takes on the language and mentality of a sort of deadly World Cup soccer game. Suddenly, after years of waning, British imperialism has staged a comeback with a renewed vigor and popularity that almost match those boiling over with anti-British sentiment in the streets of Buenos Aires at the other end of the map.

At the time of the takeover, the estimated population of the islands is about 1800. Around 1200 to 1300 of these are actually Falklanders by birth.

This whole thing seems to have blown up overnight, but in point of fact, the feud has gone on since only about 20 years after Argentina’s declaration of independence from Spain (1810). The first British nationals settled in the Malvinas – two main islands known to the British as East and West Falkland and a couple of hundred smaller islands surrounding them – around 1830. And in 1833 London laid claim to the area as a British possession. Argentina has disputed the claim ever since, saying that the archipelago was usurped.

The situation, then, is basically this: that 150 years ago, when the British Empire still dominated the seas and took whatever it wished in the world by force, these islands were incorporated into imperial holdings, despite the fact that they form part of Argentina’s continental shelf and are just 300 miles from its Patagonian coast, while they are 8,000 miles from the British Isles. On the other hand, for a century and a half, British nationals have made their home there and consider themselves Britons by right of birth in a British territory – unlike the North American colonists who eventually considered themselves “Americans” and rebelled against the Crown. Here there is no question of rebellion or non-rebellion, since a “nation” of 1800 souls in the midst of the remote and inclement South Atlantic obviously can’t stand alone. Complicating matters still further is the fact that in recent years the Falklands have basically been run by one of the imperial-type trading companies of old and really have been all but forgotten by the British Crown as such. At the time of the outbreak of the conflict, the only air link is to Argentine territory and all medical emergencies that can’t be handled on the islands get taken care of on the Argentine mainland. Most recently, the British have given a further signal of their growing lack of interest in the islands by removing the one warship that they had assigned to patrol the surrounding waters and protect the islands from incursion. And on the day of the Argentine invasion, the Royal Marine garrison stationed on the islands numbers under 100 men.

Nor do the British consider the “kelpers” (as they are rather contemptuously referred to by ‘real’ Britons) to be fully-fledged citizens of the UK. They are, instead, ‘subjects’ of the crown but with no right to go live in Britain should this strike their fancy. It’s not that the English have anything against the islanders. And, let’s face it, the simplest solution would be to let Argentina have this collection of windswept rocks and hills and just absorb the 1800 kelpers – or as many of them as weren’t willing to accept Argentine rule. But there are 6 million Hong Kong Chinese with the same kind of second-class rights to ‘British’ nationality as this handful of (admittedly) Anglo-Celtic descendants. And when Hong Kong is handed back to China at the end of the century, as by treaty it will be, what on earth will the British do with 6 million Hong Kong Chinese if they are considered as British as anyone born in London? How does a country the size of the UK absorb 6 million extra-cultural citizens overnight, should they all decide to make good on first-class passports and migrate to Mother England?

So my editorial strategy becomes one of logic and reason and the basic premises are these:

1. First and foremost, Argentina’s pre-emptive invasion of the islands is wrong, particularly considering that, although wildly popular, the decision was made by an illegitimate de facto regime that has been violating its own citizens’ human and civil rights since 1976.

2. Any decision by Britain to prosecute a war and thus place peace in the region and the world in jeopardy at a time when Moscow and Washington are rattling their sabres at one another would be foolhardy, dangerous and similarly wrong. Both sides should agree to return to pre-April 2 conditions but convoking immediate peace talks, with neutral mediation and with Argentina handing its military positions over to a UN or multi-national peacekeeping force.

3. If this doesn’t happen, both sides must be ready to face the consequences of their rash decisions not only on their own situations and relations, but also on world peace.

4. The Herald will stand with neither side and will seek to be vocally critical of both with regard to every action taken that does not lead to a negotiated peace.

It is with these four premises in mind that I write my editorials and signed op-eds from the start of the war. It seems to me a totally logical way of seeing it. But I will be amazed at how hard it is to make people on both sides, in the heat of nationalist fervor, see it my way.


May Day: An appropriate situation for this date with its panic-button name. The British have carried out their first bombing run on the airstrip at Port Stanley, which, since April, has been known as Puerto Argentino. Britain’s amazing Harrier fighters, jets that can take off with a straight-up liftoff like a helicopter from a carrier’s flight deck, have also flown raids on Stanley and Goose Green, where Argentine troops are dug in as well.

As the day wears on, the British Navy starts softening up Puerto Argentino by pounding it with artillery fire. Before the day is out, three Argentine aircraft are shot down while seeking to inflict some damage on the Royal Navy or on the fighter planes the task force is deploying.

All of this information reaches us in disjointed long-distance fashion and surrounded by speculation, confirmation, denial and reconfirmation. It reaches us so manhandled that it’s hard to tell what level of veracity any of it has.

The truth about the coverage of the war on both sides is that the foreign “war correspondents” are covering it from the safety and comfort of the Buenos Aires Sheraton, a thousand miles away from the front and so are most of the local media, thanks to the fact that the Argentine Armed Forces have selected a pair of journalists that they consider “manageable” to be embedded with them and the British have done the same, selecting less than a score of newsmen to travel with them on the ships carrying their troops and ordnance. More than 150 British journalists have applied to go, but the handful on board are those that military intelligence considers “worthy”.

For instance, there are two on the HMS Invincible who are understood to be assigned to cover nothing but Prince Andrew, Queen Elizabeth’s younger son, who has come to the South Atlantic in his role as a helicopter fighter pilot. So much has been made of his royal presence, that on this very May 1st, when the British suggest Argentina should surrender before things get ugly, Argentine military governor General Mario B. Menéndez responds saying: “Bring the Little Prince and come get us.”

Nor is this a war that journalists can get to on their own. If the warring sides won’t take you with them, there’s nothing for it but to sit on the sidelines and try to figure out what’s true and what isn’t from a distance. Hence, my eagerness to get out there, but, alas, my gear and cameras remain in the filing cabinet and it’s definitely too late now to hitch a ride. The British have made no bones about their censorship, which is thorough and unbending. Several British journalists including a couple from the BBC have commented to me personally on this when they’ve come to the Herald to pick my brain. Locally, most of the media is already so used to self-censorship under the military regime that they are willing to wait around for the government to put out “the official story” and run it as is.

We can’t do that at the Herald. Wouldn’t if we could. We’ve always been there with the truth when nobody else would say anything. But what is the truth under these conditions, when there’s no possibility of getting close to the action and seeing things for yourself? The answer is, you just don’t know. But we start making every effort – an effort that isn’t often being made elsewhere on either side – to corroborate information before we publish it. And when we can’t, we either don’t print what we’re not pretty sure of or we add enough “allegedlies” and “reportedlies” to let our readers know we have our doubts. Our advantage is that we have sources on both sides and by listening to both, we can sometimes reach a middle ground where a semblance of truth might reside. I am given to understand that the BBC is seeking this same kind of neutral coverage, as are some of the more professional papers on both sides. But there’s also a lot of jingoism, triumphalism and just plain lying going on.

The irony is that despite our best efforts to tell the truth from a neutral position, we get lambasted by criticism on both sides, each accusing us of being lackeys for the other.


On May 2nd, UN Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuellar and the government of his own country (Peru), in the person of President Belaúnde Terry, are making an eleventh-hour effort to bring peace to the region. When they hand their proposal over to Argentina’s latest dictator, General Galtieri gives his preliminary acceptance with a few modifications of the text. It has already been made fairly clear that he never really expected the British to come. The foreign minister, Nicanor Costa Méndez, managed to convince him that if Argentina just grabbed the islands, Britain would state its indignation and call for negotiations. This was clearly wishful thinking and now that Galtieri knows it, this gives him an out, a chance for negotiations after the fact. This is looking, I believe, like there might be hope for a solution if Britain decides to play along.

But Britain’s response comes in actions that speak louder than words and is categorical. Before the day is through, a British sub, the HMS Conqueror, torpedoes the Argentine naval cruiser, the ARA General Belgrano (the former USS Phoenix). The engagement takes place a full 30 miles outside of the exclusion zone declared by Britain, in supposedly neutral territory. There is little doubt that the Royal Navy’s aim is to sink rather than cripple the battleship, since the Belgrano is hit by three torpedoes. The cruiser rolls over and goes under. Early reports say it has gone down with all hands – a thousand officers and men – but later reports indicate many managed to get into life rafts and be saved. Still, the final count is 368 dead, a stunning tragedy to all of those who thought of this as barely more than a football match.

At this point, as I see it, Argentina has an opportunity to reflect and back down. It can say that Britain fights dirty, that while its troops did everything in their power not to cause a single British death during the takeover, Britain has shown cruel and unusual disregard for life by ruthlessly sinking a ship that it could have forced to surrender, thus bringing the deaths of 368 young men in one swath. The government could say that while the importance of winning back the islands is a priority, preserving the lives of its men is more important still, and call for a negotiated settlement.

Instead, the following day, Galtieri rejects the UN peace proposal out of hand, citing the sinking of the Belgrano.

  • Jingoism in the press: In London The Sun sensationalizes the sinking of the Belgrano with a frivolous "Gotcha" to mark the deaths of 368 Argentine seamen in a single engagement.


I’m thinking that perhaps none of us really believed the world would permit this to escalate to full-fledged war. But I now realize that we are on the verge of just that and I start trying to imagine the consequences. There are reports of Soviet naval movements in the region and rumors that the Russians are secretly feeding information to Argentina to counter the strategic help Washington is contributing to the British effort. There are also rumors that Margaret Thatcher may be talking to her military strategists about the feasibility of bombing mainland Argentina, perhaps even Buenos Aires, if the war looks like dragging on indefinitely.

I fear that a lot of people are still not clear on precisely what’s at stake here, the fact that small wars like this one have often sparked major international confrontations, especially wherever clashing US and Soviet interests are also involved. To bring this home, to underscore just how dangerous and tragic this can get, I write, not without what I think is artful irony, that now that Galtieri has shot off his mouth and drawn a line in the sand, there’s no choice but to fight to the last man. My point is that this would be idiotic, because with the US and Britain joining forces, the only thing Argentina stands to get out of this is a really sound beating.

But the irony is lost on just about everyone, even on people who should know better. My boss, James Neilson, maintains his stony silence in Montevideo, letting me fend totally for myself. Former editor Robert Cox accuses me of “printing fatuous lies” and of “selling out” to the Argentine military. He appears totally sold on the manipulated, clearly one-sided information that the foreign press in the US and Britain is selling the public and to consider us to be naïve and unprofessional enough as to fall into the propaganda trap. This is, of course, not the case at all and I am so angered and offended by his words that I don’t bother to respond to such ludicrous accusations.

I feel more and more isolated all the time and it doesn’t help that the Herald is receiving almost daily threats by phone and written messages, a fact that I keep from the rest of the staff so as not to further undermine morale. I have even recently received a threat in English, a pro-British threat. It is disconcerting but underlying this is the feeling that we must be doing something right if fanatics on both sides are threatening to do us harm.

Representatives of British diplomacy operating out of the Swiss Embassy that courted me at the beginning of the war, hoping to have the Herald cover the unfolding of events the way an English paper would, now will no longer talk to me.

Meanwhile, one of the political secretaries from the US Embassy asks to parley with me. It is clear to me that he has orders to try and turn my editorial policy frankly British. He says that the British are our allies. He doesn’t get it, he says. The Herald has always been against the dictatorship. Still is, I say. Hasn’t he been reading the editorials? I’m calling it an illegitimate dictatorship. But I’m also saying that Britain is wrong, that you don’t solve the stupid moves of a dictatorship by precipitating a war in an area of the world where you could provoke an international crisis. You go instead to multilateral organizations and promote the peace. Escalation is madness.

Be that as it may, he says, we need to side with the policies of our allies. I ask who we is, since the Herald isn’t British and doesn’t belong to the US Government, so I set my own policies. He says, true, but the Herald is 60% owned by a traditional American company and this is cause for concern. He plans to talk to the owners in Charleston…or rather, the embassy does.

I say he should talk away, if he feels like it, that if Charleston had wanted to shut me up, it would have by now (all they had to do was fire me), that caving in and becoming either clearly pro-British or clearly pro-Argentine in this situation is a disservice to peace and our policy is to avoid a bloodbath or a protracted war if at all possible.

Then he looks at me with his icy blue eyes through his steel-rimmed glasses and says something that gives me pause. He says, “Listen, Dan, I can envision a situation in which, if this thing goes all wrong, there could be US Marines disembarking in the Port of Buenos Aires. And you don’t want to be on the wrong end of that, do you?”

I am nonplussed. I had never thought of this possibility. But the US government (Secretary Haig? The Pentagon?) evidently has. There is already, as they term it, “a contingency plan” for that. I recover my footing quickly and say, “No, in that case, they would be on the wrong end of things, and the first wave of armed resistance they would meet in the port would include this US Army veteran.” Admittedly, it isn’t the most diplomatic thing I could have said and I probably would have done well to keep it to myself, but I have resisted threats by experts, while criticizing the ruling junta over the past several years and I am not about to be bullied into writing to a script that my own government dictates.

The embassy guy says that if that’s my attitude, the conversation is over.

I keep hammering away at the dangers of escalation and possible internationalization, but it falls on deaf ears. And there is a point at which it becomes too late to do anything but report the day by day mayhem as the war unfolds and then try to place it in perspective on the editorial pages.



My policy is generally misunderstood even by some people within the Herald itself, and I learn a great deal about how people’s attitudes change in wartime. No one can visualize objectivity any longer. No one seems capable of the referee’s position. Everyone chooses sides and labels as their enemy anyone that “fails” to see things their way. Even some otherwise intelligent and apparently free-thinking people appear to lose their sanity in a wartime situation – in this one, clearly. By siding with neither side, I am widely accused by sympathizers of each of siding with the other, of selling out.

Over a decade later, a study carried out by communications researchers at the University of La Plata will vindicate the policy I set during the war and the Herald’s coverage. It will conclude that the paper’s was some of the most objective coverage, foreign or domestic, of the entire war, and that the policy turned decisively so when I took over as interim editor.

It’s a comfort to me, even if the people who eventually saw that report could probably be counted on my fingers and toes.

Neilson comes back from Uruguay as soon as Argentina surrenders. I welcome him and turn over the editorship to him immediately and unequivocally. He makes it clear that he won’t write about the Falklands. I say I don’t know why not. His answer is vague and understated, but suggests that I’ve spoiled the topic for him.

It bothers me that he brings it up, because I’ve been as genuine and open in returning his office to him as I was in taking it over when he decided to leave. This bone of contention will remain like something unspoken between us and, for me, will become intolerable, so that, at the end of the year, I decide to continue as a columnist but to step down as news editor, effective three months later in March of ‘83.

I will return two and a half years later to replace Neilson as managing editor, when he leaves to take that same post with the Diario Río Negro daily in the province of the same name. When I come back I am excited and happy to be back in a place that I call “home”. But in the end, though my plan is to stay until I retire, I end up resigning a year and a half later, at the end of 1987, five years after the war. Over time I realize that nothing was ever the same again after Malvinas. The war and the wounds it left in me and in the people I had worked with, never really healed and though we did good things and produced some creative work in that year and a half that I was managing editor, like the unsung veterans of that conflict, we never really got over the hurt that it caused us.

I just had to quit and move on.


1 comment:

G.Wechsler said...

Excelentes cronicas, preclaros y sabios comentarios. Creo que aun falta mucha madurez civica e individual en Argentina (mi pais de nacimiento) para digerir, asimilar y poder construir sobre un hecho del pasado reciente que habitualmente produce tanto dolor a nuestro ego que nubla la razon. Espero tus nuevos posts !