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Monday, 1 April, 2002, 00:50 GMT 01:50 UK
The Argentine military's lost cause
British landing ship the Sir Galahad burns after an Argentine air attack off the Falklands June 1982
Most Argentines had expected a bloodless invasion
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By the BBC's Peter Greste
line

Every day for the past decade, an honour guard of Argentine sailors has raised the national flag over a monument to their comrades who died defending the South Atlantic cluster of islands they call Las Malvinas, and Britain call the Falkland Islands.

At the end of the short but solemn ceremony, two sailors are posted as honour guards, standing rock-still day in and day out in front of a vast granite panel with names of the 649 dead Argentine servicemen chiselled into it.

The stone is a symbol of the country's commitment to those who perished and to the islands they were fighting for.


We lost a lot more than the war... we lost our culture of respect for the authorities, and that's something that you can't get back easily

Daniel Alfonso
Argentine war veteran

The war was brief - barely three months from the moment the first Argentine troops stepped foot on the islands in the early hours of 2 April until the Argentine troops surrendered on 14 July.

And as far as wars between nations are concerned, there were relatively few deaths.

But it profoundly changed the South American country and led to the downfall of the military regime that ordered the original invasion.

Just before the war, the President, General Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri, was struggling to hold on to power.

British troops on Falklands
Argentina never expected British troops to launch a counterattack
Large parts of the population had lost their fear of the brutal regime and had begun turning out in huge anti-government protests.

The economy was faltering badly and the government needed something to galvanise the nation and regain respect.

Its solution was to recapture the Falkland Islands - a British colony since the 1700s but an archipelago that Argentines passionately and fervently believe is rightfully theirs.

The regime engineered a dispute over scrap metal and sent in the troops.

The very next day, General Galtieri appeared on the balcony of the presidential palace, before a huge and jubilant crowd, declaring that "whatever the cost, we will never give up 'Las Malvinas'".

Patriotic feeling

"At first I was shocked," said war veteran Daniel Alfonso.

"I thought 'What is this, what madness are they doing?'.


Most of us, myself included, thought the Americans would step in and mediate to avoid a war

Senator Antonio Cafiero

"But then, like all Argentines, I felt proud that we had reclaimed what is ours, and that we were defending our fatherland. It was natural."

He was a 25-year-old, just beginning a career as a hydraulics engineer and already past his military service.

But when police knocked on his door at one o'clock in the morning a few days later to deliver his call-up papers, he had no choice but to dust off his uniform and report to barracks.

"I never really thought we would ever actually have to fight," he now confesses.

Margaret Thatcher
For Margaret Thatcher, the war was a political and personal triumph
"We were so convinced of the justice of our cause that it wasn't something we seriously considered."

Senator Antonio Cafiero agrees.

He was not in government at the time, but as an active member of the Peronist Party he was close to the inner workings of the military junta.

"Only a few people inside the government thought the British would come," he said.

"But most of us, myself included, thought the Americans would step in and mediate to avoid a war.

"You have to understand that our soldiers, the commanders, were not prepared to shoot a single British soldier, not to have a single casualty because they thought an agreement was just around the corner and that in a few weeks we would all be home with the Argentine flag flying over the governor's residence."

Bad planning

General Galtieri calculated that the then British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, who was struggling with union strife, plunging popularity and a faltering economy, would not risk a military adventure for the sake of a remote pocket of territory that most British had never heard of.


We didn't know anything about the terrain, nobody knew what weapons the British might have with them - anything about what we might be up against

Daniel Alfonso
Argentine war veteran
It now seems to have been a spectacularly na´ve misjudgement, and it was to have tragic consequences.

Daniel Alfonso said nobody had properly thought through the island's defence:

"When we arrived, we were never prepared for the cold.

"Nobody expected the freezing and wet conditions, and we didn't have the clothing or the shelter to cope. We didn't have enough food, and we never had anywhere near enough ammunition.

"The worst failure was the intelligence service. We didn't know anything about the terrain, nobody knew what weapons the British might have with them - anything about what we might be up against. I can't forgive them for that."

But he and other veterans like Arturo Vallejos from the Argentine War Veterans Association remain convinced of the justice of their cause.

Belgrano sinking
The sinking of the Belgrano symbolised the loss of Argentinian military pride
Mr Vallejos insists the war was not a mistake. He also blames the military rulers of the day for mishandling the situation and the senior officers for abandoning their front-line fighters in the field when the British counter-attack finally came.

But he also insists he would return again if need be.

"Of course if it was necessary I'd fight again for my country, whether it was for the Malvinas or for any other part of the territory that was occupied by an invader," he said.

That is not likely to happen within the foreseeable future though.

Argentines not only lost the war but, according to Mr Alfonso, they lost a good deal more.

"Its not just about territory. We didn't 'lose' the islands. They're still there and they'll always be there, and I'm convinced that one day they'll be ours again somehow.

"But we lost a lot more than the war. We lost our self-respect. We lost our culture of respect for the authorities, and that's something that you can't get back easily.

"Nobody has any faith in the military any more and I don't think they'll ever do it again."

See also:

15 Mar 02 | UK Politics
Britain hails its 'friend' Argentina
18 Mar 02 | UK Politics
The Falklands: 20 years on
21 Mar 02 | Americas
Timeline: Argentina
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