This week’s headline rewords the title of the book Small Wars You May Have Missed, a chronicle of Latin America’s lesser conflicts in the 19th and early 20th century written by the late and great Andrew Graham-Yooll in 1983, just a year after the South Atlantic conflict starting 40 years ago today. That war might be a cut or two above the little league of Andrew´s book but nevertheless mercifully rates as extremely small fry swimming in the vast sea of human blood throughout history with its uniquely low three-digit death toll. No doubt even tamer clashes are to be found in and beyond Andrew’s book but in all my historical studies I can recall offhand only one less bloody conflict – Switzerland´s civil war of 1847 bringing to a rapid end the secession of the Sonderbund (seven Catholic cantons) with only a double-digit death toll.
“Two bald men fighting over a comb” was the pithy epitaph of Jorge Luis Borges and in the last 40 years I have not found a better way of describing this war – even if one of the two sides was neither bald nor a man and there would no doubt be some British Will Smith willing to swing a fist at anybody implying that Margaret Thatcher was the former.
Small or not, the South Atlantic conflict was one war I did miss – as a newsman at any rate because I wrote my first article for the Buenos Aires Herald nine months after the surrender of Argentine forces in the port sharing the same name as the new United States ambassador (I understand that some Index of Prohibited Words regarding the Malvinas has been issued so I have to tread carefully here). In fact I was not even in Argentina during the war – I would have been because the year of 1982 started with plans of a homeward journey for my bride of 18 months with me in tow, but first the approach and the fact of war delayed our arrival until October. So strictly speaking, the 1982 war does not warrant inclusion in this series of columns relating current topics to newsroom memories but hopefully today’s special anniversary allows me to cheat.
So where was I in the second quarter of 1982? In Hamburg, Germany, with my main news on the war coming from BFBS (British Forces Broadcasting Service) radio for the squaddies then still occupying the northwestern part of a divided Germany – hardly the most objective source (Rod Stewart’s ‘We Are Sailing’ all the time). In that period I continued to shun television until I finally succumbed to the temptations of the 1982 World Cup in Spain, which started the day before the war ended. Nor did our local newspaper Hamburger Abendblatt have very much to say about the islands where the German admiral Graf Spee came a cropper in 1914 – for the Hanseatic press this was a small war which they mostly did miss.
Despite such scant sources of information, my radio listening did regale me with one gem concerning the shuttle diplomacy of Washington’s Secretary of State Alexander Haig (who the previous year had laid claim to the presidency when John Hinckley shot Ronald Reagan on the grounds that those higher up in the line of succession were not in DC at that time). When a reporter asked him why he was returning to Buenos Aires for the umpteenth time when it was obvious that war was not going to be averted, Haig replied: “I keep coming because the stakes are great” (or at least I can only infer that this was the way he intended to spell “stakes”).
But in general 1982 took the form of all too many people finding the spectacle of a British husband and an Argentine wife to be an occasion for some predictably silly jokes for several months as from today’s anniversary (they don’t have the expression “chiste alemán” around here for nothing).
For that and other reasons I was in denial about the war before, during and afterwards. I was apparently not the only one who did not think push would ever come to shove – some time later I learned that the Herald had been toying with the idea of honouring April Fool’s Day (Britain’s equivalent of Día de los Inocentes which is marked on the first day of the month yesterday) with the headline “Argentina invades the Malvinas,” never imagining that this would be the real lead only two days later.
Nevertheless, I had less doubt that Margaret Thatcher would pick up the gauntlet once push did come to shove – while I then knew little or nothing about Argentine politics, I was mindful of her dire opinion polls, so much so that there was a winter by-election where the Conservative candidate lost his deposit with a single-digit percentage (which should never have happened to the party ruling Britain for 61 years of the 20th century, even if it was a Labour stronghold in Lancashire, the county of the red rose). I thus never had the least doubt that the fleet would sail. The suggestion was reportedly made to the Leopoldo Galtieri junta that they should allow the Royal Navy to sail all the way down to the South Atlantic and then pull the troops out of the islands at the last minute, thus leaving the British looking very red in the face (and red in the fiscal ink too). But unfortunately that suggestion was ignored if indeed made and the red ended up coming from the blood.
Impossible to ignore today’s anniversary when a round number like 40 falls on the very day we publish but I would like to see this unnatural conflict consigned to what Leon Trotsky called the “dustbin of history” and what Reagan called the “ash heap of history” (strange how the rhetoric of such ideological opposites can overlap). Perhaps one day it will be included in a new version of Small Wars You May Have Missed, written by a future Andrew Graham-Yooll.