Argentina?s failed crusadeJimmy Burns
- 6 April 2002
When Argentine troops claimed the Falkland Islands 20 years ago, they were encouraged to see it as a holy crusade. This aspect, and the subsequent part played by the Pope in bringing peace, has been under-reported.
TWENTY years ago this week, a military junta in Argentina invoked a 150-year-old territorial claim and invaded the British-ruled Falkland Islands, some 300 miles off the South American mainland.
The self-delusion of a corrupt military dictatorship combined with the hurt nationalistic pride of Thatcher?s Britain contributed to transforming a diplomatic crisis into a war which cost the lives of 255 British soldiers and 746 Argentines. The sending of more than 1,000 men to their deaths in order to enable 1,200 British citizens to keep the govern?ment of their choice raised an issue of proportionality.
Nevertheless, there was a convincing argument ? accepted by democratic nations worldwide ? that a de facto British territory was attacked on 2 April 1982 and that therefore a prima facie right existed to a military response under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, which provides for the ?inherent right of individual and collective self-defence if armed attack occurs?.
Over the years the euphoria of victory has given way to a more questioning account by some of the soldiers who fought and survived of what they did and how they did it. But as one Falklands veteran put it to me, thinking of Afghanistan and the ?war on terrorism?, it was at least a clearly defined conflict that had a ?beginning, a middle and an end, and a positive outcome?.
In Argentina, the war led to the collapse of the military regime. In Britain and elsewhere, lessons of principle outlasted Margaret Thatcher?s revived premiership. Out of it emerged a new world order struggling to reconcile security, freedom and self-determination.
Around this twentieth anniversary much has and will no doubt continue to be written. For those of us who lived the conflict at close quarters, perhaps one of the most interesting and under-reported aspects of it was the extent to which God and the Virgin Mary were used to justify the war, and to bring it to an end.
The military regime which decided to invade the islands did so in the knowledge that it counted on a powerful body of opinion within the Argentine Church to give it its blessing. The attitude of the Argentine Episcopal Conference to the regime that came to power in the 1976 coup had been equivocal. Pastoral letters had held back from public condemnation of human rights violations, and suggested that the ?common good? could be served by dealing with the moral and social disintegration that had characterised the previous civilian government of Isabelita Per?n.
Only a minority of bishops, priests and nuns condemned the thousands of ?disappeared?, and the complicity of those who pandered to national Catholicism. Those who survived the repression, like Bishop Jaime de Nevares of Neuqu?n, Bishop Miguel Hesayne of Viedma, and Bishop Jorge Novak of Quilmes, distanced themselves from the nationalistic fervour which surrounded the ?reconquest of Las Malvinas?.
They remained, however, in a minority. From the outset of the Falklands War, the partnership between Church and State gave the Argentine soldiers and their generals a sense of a moral crusade, and the junta the certainty of political cohesion. History was revisited and revised to provide justification for the equation between Argentine sovereignty and holy conversion.
Memories were revived of the first Spanish missionaries to the Falkland Islands, the priests portrayed as picture-book saints laying the sacramental rock on the heathen land. The subsequent British colonialism was reduced to a caricature of spiritual emptiness when, in fact, both the Anglican and Catholic faiths had retained an enduring presence on the islands.
The mixing of nationalistic and religious mythology was prevalent in the first crucial hours of the Falklands conflict. On the eve of the invasion, Argentine commanders agreed that the military operation to take Las Malvinas, initially planned under the codename Azul, should be renamed Rosario, in honour of the Virgin of Rosario. According to Argentine cultural tradition, the Virgin had brought her graces to the population of Buenos Aires in the early nineteenth century before an invasion by British troops was successfully repulsed. She has been venerated passionately ever since.
On 7 April, the new Argentine military governor of Las Malvinas, General Mario Men?ndez, was sworn in during a ceremony at which Archbishop Desiderio Elso Collino, the chaplain general of the armed forces, officiated. ?The gaucho Virgin is Mother of all men, but is in a very special way the Mother of all Argentines, and has come to take possession of this land, which is also her land?, stated Collino.
For the rest of the war a succession of military chaplains ensured that the crusading spirit of the Argentine troops was kept alive in language reminiscent of the speeches delivered to Franco?s forces during the Spanish Civil War. In the fight against the English ?heathen? no Argentine churchman was more fanatical than Fr Jorge Piccinalli.
The young priest rode through the troops? encampments on a motorcycle and shared the trenches, comforting his Argentine heroes by blessing their redemption in death. ?We the Argentine people who are Catholic...have ensured the reconquest of a piece of territory on behalf of a nation that has Christianity in its origins?, he said in one of his sermons.
From that moment on, Argentine pilots hung rosaries round their sights before shooting missiles at the British task force, bits of Harrier jets were dedicated to the Virgin of Luj?n, and soldiers carried Bibles to protect themselves from bullets.
The sanctification of the Argentine military enterprise was pursued with equal vigour in Buenos Aires by publications such as the Catholic weekly Equi?. One editorial written by Bishop Manuel Men?ndez of San Mart?n claimed the Fourth Commandment was ?telling us to love our country and, if necessary, give up our lives for it?. He added: ?In the present circumstances, the commandment is quite clear: if they [the British] attack us, we have to defend ourselves.?
In common with the bulk of the Argentine political class and trade union movement, the Argentine Episcopal Conference exonerated their country from charges that the military invasion of 2 April was a flagrant violation of the island population?s right to self-determination, and international rules of law. The cause of Las Malvinas was a just one, the bishops insisted, involving the necessary recovery of sovereignty after nearly 150 years.
During Sunday Masses, priests dedicated their sermons to a call for a generous contribution to the ?Patriotic Fund?, which was collected by the military for their war effort, although never publicly accounted for. In their only major joint statement during the war, the Argentine bishops expressed their fear of a war of ?unforeseeable consequences?, and referred to papal condemnation of military conflict. But by their emphasis on defence of Argentina?s sovereignty claims, the bishops implicitly gave the green light to the junta to prolong its warmongering if it saw fit.
The few Argentines who spoke out against the war, such as Adolfo P?rez Esquivel, a committed Catholic layman and the 1990 winner of the Nobel prize for peace, was ostracised by the military regime and had little impact on domestic public opinion.
By contrast, the local English Catholic chaplain, Mgr Daniel Spraggon, proved a tower of strength among the islanders, offering them encouragement and acting as a mediator with the Argentine authorities. Although Catholics were in a minority among the island population, his Sunday Masses, with the church doors always open to uniformed Argentines as much as local civilians, became a symbol of Christian reconciliation.
A resident of the islands for ten years, the straight-talking Tyneside-born Spraggon was a hugely popular figure among the islanders. He also happened to be directly appointed by the Pope, with the title of prefect apostolic of the Falkland Islands. He was thus a key local influence and the Argentine military had little option but to engage with him ? if only to ensure they did not provoke an excommunication from the Pope.
Spraggon was, unsurprisingly, not universally liked by the Argentines. Intelligence officers suspected him of mounting a potential resistance and some of the more fanatical military chaplains considered him something of a heretic for condemning the invasion.
For his part, Spraggon never hid his dislike of the politically charged nature of the Argentine chaplains? religion and considered at one point complaining to the papal nuncio in Buenos Aires, even though he did respect some of the Argentine priests who comforted young conscript soldiers traumatised by the war.
There is no evidence that Spraggon ever encouraged the islanders to take up arms against the Argentine forces. But he did devote much of his time to defending their interests, complaining to the authorities whenever they were mistreated by Argentine soldiers. Spraggon?s reputation as a courageous individual, who brought hope where there was despair, grew as the conflict reached its conclusion.
The role of the Vatican in a Falklands War that had Catholics fighting on both sides was a complex one. It began disastrously, on the eve of the invasion, with the papal nuncio in Buenos Aires, Archbishop Ubaldo Calabresi, failing to heed a desperate last-minute request from President Ronald Reagan to urge the Argentine President General Galtieri to call off further military action.
The nuncio was in bed when he received the call from Washington. Calabresi agreed to ring up the Argentine foreign minister, Nicanor Costa M?ndez. When he was told by the minister?s secretary that Costa M?ndez was at a meeting and unavailable, the nuncio went back to bed. Within hours Argentine troops had invaded the islands.
The Vatican subsequently found itself in a quandary over the Falklands which no amount of diplomatic skill seemed for a time able to resolve. An historic visit to Britain by the Pope had been planned before the Falklands War had become even a remote possibility.
There was now the risk of progress towards ecumenical dialogue being undermined by the heavily charged political atmosphere in Britain. At the same time the Vatican had to maintain its links with the Argentine military regime for fear that any direct criticism of Argentina?s claim to sovereignty would undermine the peace treaty the Pope had mediated in the country?s territorial dispute with Chile over the Beagle Channel.
When war broke out over the Falklands, the Vatican sent word to the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Basil Hume, that the Pope was postponing his visit. Hume, along with many other Catholics in Britain, was bitterly disappointed, regarding the Pope?s journey as of enormous importance for efforts aimed at building bridges with the Church of England.
Rather than accepting the Pope?s decision as final, Hume set out secretly to change his mind, consulting a small group of individuals whose views he admired as how best to do it. The advice from a group that included Derek Worlock, the late Archbishop of Liverpool, and Tom Burns, the then editor of The Tablet, was that the Pope should not only visit Britain but also Argentina, and that a Mass should be jointly celebrated by British and Argentine bishops in Rome.
The idea was transformed into reality, and the Pope?s visit to Argentina proved a decisive spiritual chapter in the final stages of the Falklands War. The papal visit was, for me, one of the most memorable collective occasions I have ever witnessed as a journalist, with Argentines in their millions accepting what the Pope had come to tell them.
For the first time since the 1976 coup, the slogans of death and war gave way to messages of consolation, hope, and peace. In Luj?n, the Pope paid tribute to the Virgin not as a warrior queen, but as a messenger in troubled times. He meditated on the cross, on the themes of sacrifice, suffering, and love that united mankind.
As an Argentine commentator remarked at the time, the Pope spoke from a position of serene authority to a people who for three months in 1982 had lost all sense of serenity. In Argentina, at that moment in history, the papal visit meant not only the end of the war, but also the collapse of the military regime that had proclaimed it as holy.
Jimmy Burns worked as a journalist in Argentina from 1982-86. His extensively updated and extended account of the Falklands War and its aftermath, The Land that Lost its Heroes, has just been published by Bloomsbury.