Comment and Discussion from the SAC
The Comments section of the SAC website, which is being developed as and when individuals submit comments, is intended for short statements, in contrast to the longer Occasional Papers. All comments published on this website represent the personal opinions of the authors and are provided as a contribution to debate. Publication does not imply they are endorsed by the SAC membership collectively or individually.
A Personal Perspective on the South Atlantic Conflict
By Tom Jones, 4 July 2013.
In 1982, millions of people of two great nations focused on an unnecessary and very costly short war over the islands of the South Atlantic. I am English. I have a small personal stake in Argentina – my Scottish father-in-law worked there for three years as a railway engineer in the late 1920s – but until 1984 I never expected to go there. What follows is the story of my encounters with four men, Charlie Malone, Jorge Molina, Horacio Benitez and Colonel Luis Balcarce, each of them part of a narrative through the nine visits I have made to Argentina since 1984.
* * * * *
For six years in the late 1960s, Charlie Malone was a doctor on the Falkland Islands. One of his sons was born while he was there. Originally from Fife, Charlie returned from the South Atlantic to join my brother-in-law's medical practice in Kirkcudbright, south-west Scotland, where I now live. When Argentine forces occupied the Islands in 1982, Charlie wrote a letter to our local newspaper. There was fury in that letter. Later, on several occasions, I was to visit the country that so offended him. I would talk to him before going and debrief him on return, telling him of the people I had met. His anger against Argentina never changed to his dying day, yet it was his anger which led to my first going there.
In 1983 I was, as each summer, at an international Moral Re-Armament conference in Switzerland. I shared a meal with two couples from Uruguay and told them about Charlie and how he felt about the Falkland Islands. "Yes, but try telling that to an Argentine", was their response. There was indeed a young Argentine businessman, Jorge Molina, at the conference and the Uruguayans made sure that I met him. Another meal was arranged, this time with an interpreter. I felt some trepidation, aware that this might be a significant encounter. Jorge had already come up against other British people. An older English colleague, who had spent many years based in Latin America, suggested I be myself, perfectly natural, a humble Englishman! I was not sure I had that quality.
Jorge and I shook hands and sat down. He at once asked me what I thought about what had happened in 1833. Luckily I knew the significance of that date, when a British warship had taken charge of the Falkland/Malvinas Islands. Without too much reflection I simply replied: "We were strong at the time and it was in our interests". There was no further discussion on the point, although Jorge's attitude as an Argentinian was clear. With some emotion we each expressed our grief at the terrible loss of life and limb on both sides of the recent war. We became friends and later exchanged gifts.
Plans were made for an international conference of Moral Re-Armament in Buenos Aires the following year, 1984. The initiators of the conference were Elinor Salmon, Norwegian widow of the former British head of Duperial, the Argentine arm of ICI, and Dr Jorge Molina, a distinguished agricultural academic and father of the man I had met in Switzerland the year before. Following the events of two years previously, Señora Salmon and Dr Molina were determined there should be British people at the conference. Late in the day, word came that Jorge Molina Jnr had specifically asked for me to be invited, and I decided to go. With hostilities between our two countries still not formally ended, British participants were fortunate to obtain visas.
It was a new and strange experience to go to Buenos Aires just 100 days into democratic government, after years of civil strife, military dictatorship and repression, and an on-going situation of galloping inflation.
The conference was held in the Santa Casa de Ejercicio, a Jesuit convent on Calle Indepencia, a beautiful peaceful setting and one of very few original colonial buildings remaining in Buenos Aires. The presence of a range of people from Uruguay, Chile, Brazil, the USA and western European countries gave the event a global perspective. For me there was the reality of meeting the 'other side' and being welcomed with open arms. One day a few of us were taken out for the day to an al fresco 'asado' on an Estançia near Bragado. I saw the huge expanse of the pampas with livestock grazing as far as the eye could see.
In 1987 I was invited to return to Buenos Aires in the company of David Howell, a member of the South Atlantic Council. He took me to meet a number of people one of whom was Maria Laura Avignolo, a journalist who wrote for British papers. As we were leaving she told us we should meet a war veteran, one of the thousands who had been sent to the Islands as a conscript. This young man, Horacio Benitez, called us next day and we met at his work place, an abandoned garage/workshop. It had been given to him by the city, as a base for the group of unemployed war veterans he had brought together in a workers' co-operative, UVIM – the Union de los Veteranos de las Islas Malvinas.
Many Argentines returning from the war suffered post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) without access to proper treatment, and not a few committed suicide. For weeks before being involved in battle, they had lived in the open, in a hostile climate, often short of food. In the final hours of the conflict Horacio, a sergeant, was leading his unit near Port Stanley. The paratroop commander on the British side was amazed how, when others were beginning to falter, Horacio followed orders and courageously led his men in an attack uphill under fire. Some of his companions were killed and Horacio was left for dead with a serious head wound – he has a bullet lodged in the side of his head to this day. He was rescued because a British soldier, clearing up, saw tears in his eyes. Later, after his discharge and return home, he suffered serious PTSD. The creation of UVIM was the consequence of what he had lived through, an attempt to alleviate the continuing suffering of fellow veterans.
The day after his call to us, Horacio came with two veterans to the final session of our conference and spoke with passion about what he had been through in battle and since. The three were particularly grateful to meet British people, one of them a British veteran from World War II, who had suffered in atrocious jungle conditions in Burma. This man signified much for Horacio and his colleagues.
Some time later Horacio realised an ambition to visit Britain, and he met the Commanding Officer of the paratroops against whom he had fought – a profound moment for both men.
Listening to Horacio at the meeting in Buenos Aires in 1987 was a former cavalry officer, Colonel Luis Balcarce. We had met him through Elinor Salmon who had friends on the Falkland/Malvinas Islands. Before the war, Colonel Balcarce had been the Argentine government representative to the Islands and had arranged scholarships for young islanders to attend English-language schools in Argentina. He was a regular member of the annual delegations to the United Nations in New York, arguing the Argentine case in relation to the Islands. A man with an old-world dignity, he would be remembered by older residents of Port Stanley.
I wondered if Balcarce had been shocked by what he had heard, so passionately expressed by Horacio. I phoned him, was invited for dinner in his home and we became friends. Over succeeding years when I visited, and once when he was in London, he would suggest that I should visit the Islands and 'change' the islanders' attitude to Argentina. My answer was always that the Argentines would have to do that!
The last time I saw Colonel Balcarce, he called briefly at the flat where my wife and I were staying. He told us he was past 80, that he no longer had any official position and that he thus spoke to us in a personal capacity. He said the Argentines should, for the time being, do one thing with regard to the Islanders and one thing only – make friends with them and nothing more. Then he left. Was this a last wish from a man who had had the opportunity to know and respect the Islanders? He had told me earlier that he knew nothing of the plans for the occupation/invasion of 1982 and had been shocked when it happened.
I have often thought about what he said that last time.
My view is that at present sovereignty is the wrong issue. Feelings on both sides are too sharp and deep, exacerbated by what happened in 1982. The time must surely come when regard for shared interests and interdependence, with mutual respect between the mainland and the islands, will become normal. Meaningful conversation between all interested parties may then be possible.
About the Author, Thomas J Jones
Tom grew up in and around Sevenoaks, Kent before graduating from Oxford in 1962. He then embarked on a management career with British Rail, based in the north-east of England. Prior to this, Tom had attended a Moral Re-Armament conference in Switzerland, which was to influence the rest of his life's work. In 1966, invited by Rajmohan Gandhi, a grandson of the Mahatma, he left the railways and spent ten months in India. As a full-time MRA worker since then, he has lived and worked in London, Paris, Switzerland and on Tyneside. Tom and his wife eventually settled in her home town, Kirkcudbright, south-west Scotland.
A Note on Moral Re-Armament (MRA) / Initiatives of Change
Now known internationally as Initiatives of Change (IofC), MRA grew out of the work of Frank Buchman, an American Lutheran Pastor from Pennsylvania. In the early part of the 20th Century his work was known as The Oxford Group – many of Buchman's original associates were graduates from Oxford University. In 1938, as Europe prepared for war, Buchman called for a 'Moral and Spiritual Re-Armament'. In the years after 1945, MRA had a direct influence on post-war reconciliation with Germany and Japan, and later helped enable peaceful transition in countries gaining independence from colonial powers. Mid-century, large international teams travelled the world with plays and films. From the 1990s, there has been outreach into Eastern and Central Europe through the IofC programme 'Foundations for Freedom'. In different parts of Africa and the Middle East as well as in west European and North American cities there has been an emphasis on building relations of trust between different religious and ethnic communities. Annual international conferences in Caux, Switzerland, which have been taking place since the end of World War II, continue with hundreds of participants coming from every continent.
Originally from Christian roots, the work has always focused on the need for moral change and renewal in the individual, based on the common spiritual values of the main world religions. Buchman always emphasised the importance, from his own experience, of individuals taking time to reflect in silence, believing that everyone can experience providential leading through life.