New Revelations from Argentina’s Falklands Campaign
Earlier this month, the Argentine army declassified documents showing that some officers abused other officers and soldiers under their command and subjected them to excessively harsh disciplinary measures, including torture, during the Falklands War of April to June 1982. Reportedly, this included beatings and mock executions. One lieutenant described how “another officer tied his hands and legs to this [sic] back and left him face down on the wet sand of a cold Falklands beach for eight hours.” Though declassified, these documents remain in the army’s archives, requiring a trip to Buenos Aires for anyone who wishes to read them.
Argentine Lieutenant General Benjamín Rattenbach, however, presided over an inquiry just after the war. The Rattenbach report, which Argentina’s Servicio Privado de Información, an independent news agency, has made available online, presents the junta‘s history of the Anglo–Argentine dispute from 1833 to 1982. The report critically reviews the junta’s strategic and operational planning that preceded its decision to invade the Falklands (which Argentina refers to as Las Malvinas) in 1982, and summarizes the negotiations that occurred both before and after the war. It contains insights that help us understand what was going on and why it led to some Argentine officers’ and soldiers’ maltreatment.
Why Did the Argentines Invade the Falklands?
The Falklands lie approximately 1,000 miles southeast of Buenos Aires in the South Atlantic. Both Britain and Argentina have claimed these islands, as well as South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands further southeast, since British forces occupied them in 1833. A small British population — nearly 3,000 today — continues to live on the islands, whose economy revolves heavily around sheep and fish.
As journalists Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins have related, in what remains an authoritative account of the war, intense diplomatic conflict between London and Buenos Aires over the status of the islands began in the 1960s. Britain was decolonizing, withdrawing its naval presence “east of the Suez,” and dealing with an intransigent prime minister in Rhodesia when Argentines took their case to the United Nations and secured Resolution 2065 in December 1965. This resolution asked the two governments to negotiate an immediate settlement. Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s government (1964–1970 and 1974–1976) was inclined to recognize Argentine sovereignty, as was the Foreign Office. As Lord Chalfont, Wilson’s minister for arms control and disarmament, whose portfolio included Anglo–Latin American relations, grasped, the Falklands had become “politically and economically untenable in the long term,” and London would have to reach an accommodation with Buenos Aires sooner or later.
In a clear case of the tail wagging the dog, however, Falklanders complicated the Wilson government and its successors’ ability to withdraw. The islanders found powerful leverage: self-determination, which Resolution 2065 charged both British and Argentine governments to respect. And since the mid-1960s they have repeatedly and unambiguously rejected Argentine rule and chosen to remain British subjects.
Governments from Wilson to Margaret Thatcher floated a variety of proposals: The two nations could agree to set the issue of sovereignty aside and develop economic and cultural ties between Argentina and the Falklands instead; they might establish condominium, or joint sovereignty; or Britain could transfer sovereignty to Argentina with the understanding that Buenos Aires would lease the islands back to London for 99 years or some other mutually acceptable timeframe. Argentines would likely have agreed to one or more of these proposals, but successive British governments encountered strong pressure from Falklanders, who formed an interest group in Parliament that always included at least some of the opposition. The dispute thus remained unresolved in 1982.
The Falklands long represented a highly charged, emotional issue in Argentina. Rattenbach’s opening lines confirm this: “On 2 April 1982, the Nation and the world was surprised to learn that the Argentine Armed Forces had disembarked in the Malvinas … reaffirming our sovereign rights after 150 years of British usurpation. … This date will remain recorded in history: THE MALVINAS, WHICH REMAIN PART OF THE REPUBLIC OF ARGENTINA, HAD RETURNED TO THE FATHERLAND.”
The junta also viewed the problem geostrategically. The entire chain of archipelagos, from the Falklands to the South Sandwich Islands, dominated the Atlantic entrances to the Magellan Straits and Beagle Channel. These islands also served as naval bases that enabled Britain to conduct military and scientific operations in Antarctica, parts of which Argentina claimed. The entire area was rich in natural resources, the junta believed, including offshore oil reserves, which, unsurprisingly, remains a sensitive issue. The junta, like most Argentines before and after it, wanted all of this to fall within Argentine sovereignty.
The junta began planning to occupy the Falklands and other islands in January 1982, when it lost patience with British negotiations. The British navy was planning to withdraw HMS Endurance, an ice patrol ship, from the South Atlantic, which the junta interpreted as London’s signaling its departure from the region. The Reagan administration, meanwhile, was cultivating the junta as an anticommunist ally in Central America, and Argentines believed they could therefore count on Washington’s support. As Rattenbach recognizes, they read too much into these events.
The Rattenbach report criticized the junta‘s political decisions, its ad hoc operational planning, and its commanders’ multiple failures in execution. In short, it found that the Falklands campaign represented an ill-conceived, poorly planned, and terribly implemented military operation, especially in the area of logistics.
The junta‘s multiple errors in judgment began becoming apparent just before its invasion began. As the report notes, “On 1 April, late in the evening, [Secretary of State] General [Alexander] Haig told Ambassador [Esteban] Takacs in Washington that he was aware of the invasion that was taking place. He asked that the operation, which would place two powers friendly to the United States at war with each other, be stopped. He offered to mediate the dispute and he warned him that if war were unleashed, the Reagan administration could not remain neutral. It would necessarily side with Britain.” Reagan telephoned the junta‘s leader, General Leopoldo Galtieri, reiterating this message to no avail.
Thus the junta‘s errors in judgment included its failure to anticipate and plan for Washington’s granting British forces use of American-controlled airfields on Ascension Island. But the junta‘s errors in judgment went deeper than this. It believed that by occupying the islands, it would force Britain to negotiate, and that would be the end of the matter. It did not plan for a British military response. Indeed, it did not begin planning for one until the Royal Navy had already put to sea.
The Rattenbach report also concludes that “logistical operations did not unfold in an acceptable manner.” In fact, Rattenbach and his colleagues describe an unmitigated disaster. When they began their investigation, they soon discovered that it was “useless to seek any coherence” in the junta‘s logistical planning before it launched the invasion, and they could discern only improvised logistical operations afterward. They cite the 5th and 12th Infantry Regiments to illustrate what this meant on the ground. These units lacked vehicles and in many cases, ammunition. There was no internal transportation system to move the supplies they did have. This reduced their combat effectiveness by 40–50 percent before anyone had even fired a shot. “LOGISTICS CANNOT BE IMPROVISED,” Rattenbach aptly insists in all caps.
How Does This Help Us Understand the New Revelations?
Argentine junior officers and soldiers experienced the worst of the inadequate planning in logistics, and this led to their mistreatment. “There were deficiencies in the preparation and distribution of food, which had a negative impact on the troops’ physical state and morale,” Rattenbach and his colleagues acknowledge. They say nothing else on this issue. But these few words connect the Rattenbach report with the new revelations and more.
These words support veterans’ ongoing complaints against their superiors in Buenos Aires. The breakdown in discipline and morale ultimately derived from the operation’s logistical failures. As one veteran told journalists several months ago, “Some of us were tortured because we were starving and tried to grab some cookies or to butcher a sheep.”
All of this paints a very dreary portrait, revealing a failure of leadership that went well beyond the junta and the armed forces’ planners in Buenos Aires. The Rattenbach report singles out the 3rd Infantry Brigade’s commander for special criticism. This commander seems to have buried his head in the sand and chosen to remain “profoundly ignorant of the state of the forces under his command.” He took up residence in a home in Port Stanley and was simply “absent.”
Other officers, much closer to the troops, witnessing one operational and logistical failure after another, clearly mistreated the officers and soldiers in their charge, as veterans have long alleged. Some of these officers, incredibly, employed methods they had learned and practiced during the dirty war against the Argentine left in the late-1970s. This shows how seizing power and waging the dirty war had corroded the professional officer corps and degraded its efficiency. It impaired its judgment in international and military affairs, and it left some of its officers in such a state of depravity that, when confronted with a breakdown in discipline and morale of their own making, they deemed it appropriate to torture their own men.
James Lockhart is a PhD candidate in American foreign relations and world/comparative history at the University of Arizona. He has lectured at Embry-Riddle University’s College of Security and Intelligence since 2014. He specializes in United States-Latin American relations, particularly southern South America.
Image: Argentine prisoners of war — Port Stanley. Photo by Kenneth Ian Griffiths.