Argentinian graves in East Falkland. While soldiers were often characterized as victims of the junta in the war’s immediate aftermath, they are now seen by many as patriots who died for a righteous cause.

Thirty years after it ended, the Falklands/Malvinas War still casts a long shadow over the lives of many Argentinians. A conference marking the anniversary next week will look at how it has been represented in history, literature, cinema and other media, showing how through these we can better understand why Argentina cares so much about the islands.

Exploring how the Malvinas are represented in cultural texts reveals a lot more about what motivates Argentina’s performance on the diplomatic stage.

Joanna Page

A bleak archipelago in the South Atlantic, with a population of around 3,000 and temperatures that rarely rise above 13 degrees, there seems little to commend the Falklands, or Islas Malvinas. Offshore oil reserves have aroused new economic possibilities in the region, but the islands’ main industries remain sheep farming, fishing and tourism. Many justifiably wonder why these rocks are the subject of such bitter diplomacy or why, in 1982, the lives of more than 900 people had to be lost in their name.

Thirty years after the conflict, however, the debate between Britain and Argentina over who owns the Falklands/Malvinas shows little sign of abating – indeed, the anniversary of the war has reignited tensions between the two. At the same time, their attitudes are hardly the same. While Britain continues to stress its commitment to the islanders’ right to self-determination, popular interest in the UK is nothing compared with the passions that the Malvinas arouse in Argentina.

There, when the Government calls for negotiations with the British, it is guaranteed huge public support. In Argentina, memorials to the war and posters reasserting the country’s claim to the islands are a common sight, while young people often get tattoos of the Malvinas in the national colours. Such zeal seems odd in the UK, where a war over a territory that even the Prime Minister’s husband had to look up in an atlas at the time, now tends to feel long-since gone.

The key to understanding Argentina’s very different point of view lies not with what the islands are, nor with natural resources. It is about what they represent. For many British people, the story of the Falklands War is a simple one, in which the country fought for its fellow-citizens and won. Argentinian ideas about the islands are usually much more complex, and often deeply emotional as well.

Since the war, a number of Argentinian writers, poets, academics and filmmakers have expressed, debated and critiqued those ideas and feelings in works which show how central the Malvinas are to the way Argentina perceives itself as a nation. Many of these works will be the subject of a conference at the University of Cambridge on June 9th, five days before the 30th anniversary of the conflict’s end. Academics from Britain, Argentina and elsewhere will join forces to discuss the war’s cultural legacy, because, they argue, doing so allows us to better understand the debates and controversies that the conflict has inspired in Argentina.

Although this will not be an event about rights to sovereignty, Dr Joanna Page, from the University’s Centre for Latin American Studies and a specialist in Argentinian culture, argues that the current political debate over who owns the islands should be informed by a better understanding of the social and cultural weight of the Malvinas in Argentinian history.

“When I go to Argentina, people often ask me about what people here in Britain think about the islands,” she said. “If you tell them that most people don’t really think about them at all, that’s very difficult for them to understand. For them, the memory of the war runs much deeper, it reaches much further into how Argentina thinks of itself as a nation, and those ideas are still evolving to this day.”

“In spite of all the political wrangling, there is not a lot of understanding in Britain about why the islands are so important to Argentina. It doesn’t seem to make sense. When you start looking back through the history and the literature, however, you realize how far they are tied up with ideas about nationhood and identity. Exploring how the Malvinas are represented in cultural texts reveals a lot more about what motivates Argentina’s performance on the diplomatic stage.”

Page’s own research on evolving Argentinian perspectives on the war has been influenced by the work of the political scientist, Vicente Palermo, and the historian, Federico Lorenz, who will be one of the keynote speakers at the conference. Palermo argues that since the country achieved independence from Spain in 1810, its national identity has been founded on a number of clear, fundamental ideas.

Where some countries define themselves primarily in terms of a shared culture, for example, territorial integrity – the land itself – is core to Argentina’s sense of national identity. The nation’s destiny is often represented in history and literature as frustrated by colonial powers who have invaded the land and ransacked its riches. Another key notion that Palermo identifies in Argentine national identity is that of unity, of a cause that brings everyone together.

These ideas sit perfectly with that of the Islas Malvinas: a physical territory, usurped (according to one version of history) by imperial British forces, and now a cause which the nation can unanimously throw itself behind. If, for the British themselves, the islands are curious and remote, to the Argentinians they are a national icon.

As Lorenz shows, however, remembering the war in Argentina is a complicated question. It was perpetrated and lost by a deeply corrupt military junta, which had been in power since 1976 and was guilty of numerous human rights abuses. The invasion of the Malvinas was partly an opportunistic act to shore up its popularity. Some 650 Argentinians lost their lives as a result. Perhaps as many veterans again have killed themselves since.

The dilemma this creates is whether to remember the Malvinas War as just another crime committed by the military regime, or as a legitimate popular and national cause. Argentina’s cultural output since the war reflects this dilemma. “In the years following 1982, the war was associated with the regime and many people distanced themselves from it,” Page said. “They forgot, rather conveniently, that they had poured on to the streets to support it when it began. After defeat, the war was seen as a horrible mistake and it was a relief to many that it could be seen as a chapter that closed with the end of the dictatorship.”

The desire to forget has often been summed up in the term desmalvinizacion, a “don’t mention the war” mentality which presided in Argentina for many years. Literature and film of the period often portrayed the conflict not as a fight with the British, but as an expression of internal strife. The war for the Malvinas became a coincidental backdrop to a battle within Argentina itself.

Often, this was achieved by focusing on how officers (representing the junta) abused and even tortured their conscripts (the ordinary Argentinian) in the freezing conditions of the Malvinas. The 1984 film Los chicos de la guerra, for example, showed frightened adolescents being press-ganged into an absurd conflict not of their making. In 2004, the award-winning Iluminados por el fuego picked up many of these themes.

Ironically, those who fought never approved of such works, even though they claimed to be telling their story. Los chicos de la guerra provoked an angry response from veterans, and even Iluminados por el fuego has come in for criticism because the memoir on which it is based was more ambiguous. As a book, it described exemplary conduct among officers as well. That was conveniently erased in a film which aimed to show the ordinary soldier as a victim of the government, and the war as a cruel and expensive mistake.

What fascinates scholars like Page is that other perspectives on the war are now starting to emerge more clearly. In historical and cultural narratives, the war has often been separated from the broader campaign to reclaim sovereignty over the islands, remembered, in the words of a popular saying, as una causa justa en manos bastarda - a righteous cause in the hands of bastards.

That cause is alive and kicking. Cultural texts on the war – novels, poetry, film and comics – reveal a huge range of responses to the legacy of the Malvinas war and Argentina’s continued campaign for sovereignty. Many do not simply stick to recording the events of the war or its impact then and now, but stray into fantasy or parody. In the view of Carlos Gamerro, another keynote speaker whose seminal novel, The Islands, comes out in English translation this month, the only way to understand the nationalist fictions in which Argentinians present the war is by giving it an obviously fictional treatment. If the history of the islands has been shaped by their mythical role in Argentine nationalism, then history and fiction are not so far apart.

Amid the recent political heat, Page hopes that the conference will help to cast a more dispassionate and analytical eye on the question of how the Malvinas have been imagined within Argentina. “There are people coming to Cambridge on the 9th who feel that the debates in Argentina about the Malvinas are still very restricted, and perhaps more so with the recent resurgence of nationalist feeling about the islands,” Page added. “Just as the past overshadows the politics of the present, the politics of the present define the ways in which we look at the past. One of the things we want to ask is what role culture plays in shaping history.”

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