“Coming back was very hard. Veterans were not received as they should have been—their effort and their bravery were overlooked.” explains Captain Juan Carlos Ianuzzo, a veteran himself and administrative secretary for the Malvinas’ Veterans Association (AVEGUEMA).
“Veterans returned to the country ‘at night and through the back door’. Afterwards, conscripts that had completed their duties were dismissed from the military service. And they would not be employed anywhere because people believed veterans were crazy”.
The failed Malvinas campaign precipitated the military junta’s imminent demise. But, above all, defeat was as unexpected as it was dreaded: throughout the war, newspapers’ headlines –and the mainstream media- claimed the national army victorious.
In the political, social and economic turmoil that marked the start of the new democratic era, the country was neither ready to face defeat nor ready to cope with the consequences of war. Dr. Martín M. Bourdieu, a veteran, psychiatrist and director of the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Centre Malvinas Argentinas, explains: “Back in 1982 we were overwhelmed. There was a gap in the general assistance system caused by a lack of knowledge.”
Veterans returned with physical and psychological wounds. Many had suffered mutilations, burns and been through painful/traumatic experiences, only to find their problems worsen in an unwelcoming society. Former conscripts were mostly forced to beg in the streets to meet their basic needs and the number of suicides ascended to more than 450 since the war officially ended. And this figure is close to Argentine casualties during the conflict: out of the 649 victims, 336 died in the island and 323 in the sinking of the school-ship ‘General Belgrano’.
Moreover, post-traumatic stress disorder, a severe anxiety disorder caused by the exposure to a traumatic event, added to veterans’ discomfort. “This type of condition, if not treated in time, tends to get worse,” explains Dr. Viviana Torresi, part of the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Centre staff.
“Patients have developed other pathologies related to post traumatic stress disorder as a means to alleviate symptoms. One of the most common is insomnia, so they retort to alcohol as a sedative. Alcoholism, and many others addictions, is an answer to the lack of therapeutic treatment and professional care. (…) The most painful experience these people had to go through was social abandon, and that was the only way many could cope with it”.
Swept under the rug
Historians, experts and veterans have failed to identify a single explanation for the nearly two decades of national silence that followed the war. However, there is a general agreement with what French political scientist Alain Rouquié called ‘de-Malvinasation’ process.
In a controversial interview with magazine Humor in 1983, Rouquié pointed out that the Malvinas/Falklands issue should be ignored to prevent another military coup. “Of course it is a respectable historical claim, but [Malvinas] is not just that: political focus on the Malvinas will create a time bomb in the Casa Rosada.”
Intentionally or not, Rouquié’s action plan was successfully implemented. The ‘de-Malvinisation’ process was deepened by political actions such as the eliminating ‘Malvinas day’ from the official calendar in the 80s. Increased labour flexibility and social vulnerability in the 90s also exacerbated veterans’ problems: low wages were not compensated by subsidies, unemployment escalated to 20.9% in 1995, and the public health system fell apart due to a lack of funding.
The Malvinas issue was replaced by increasing socio-financial problems and eclipsed by stories about corruption and impunity in the government. Schools hardly covered the subject, the media reduced its coverage to mere commemorative features and international politics were deviated to other priorities.
“Years before the conflict, people did not even know what the Malvinas were,” states Ianuzzo of AVEGUEMA. “However, Argentina collaborated with the islanders in terms of shipping, air transport, fuel, etc. There even were Federal Oilfield (YPF) units in the island, student exchange programmes, and many islanders came to Buenos Aires to be treated in the British Hospital. (…) After the conflict, people ignored the subject again,” adds Ianuzzo.
Veterans were not only neglected, but also victimized. They became known as “the boys of the war” (los pibes de la Guerra), an allegory referring to the young conscripts who fought in the battlefront. Conscripts might just have been approaching manhood in 1982, but their victimization hides the fact they were selflessly doing their duty as stated in the Constitution. And while landmark films such as ‘Iluminados por el fuego’ (Enlightened by Fire) portrayed Argentine soldiers’ pain during the conflict, they fail to meet veterans’ wishes to be acknowledged for their heroic actions.
Victimization finally resulted in segregation. Dr. Torresi explains prejudice regarded many veterans as intractable when in fact they represent a highly receptive population that has been continuously fighting against labels, economical hazards, de-historization and lack of moral recognition.
The veterans’ plight has improved in the last decade. As democracy matured, different provinces and the national government started to grant a series of honorary pensions to veterans. “First, these were only given to soldiers and civilians who had been involved in the conflict. Then, in 2005 the national government broadened the national honorary pension programme to include officers and sub-officers,” says Ianuzzo.
Today, 17 out of 23 provinces provide economic aid and health assistance through the National Institution of Social Services for the Retired and Pensioners (PAMI). Also, as part of last decade’s new national focus on human rights, veterans gained access to credit lines and housing programmes as well as jobs in the public administration system.
As for the psychotherapeutic care, the recognition and redefinition of post traumatic stress disorder as an illness has lead to great improvements in the mental health system. Specialised, high-complexity centres have been established in Corrientes, Córdoba and in the city of Buenos Aires, three nodal points in terms of veteran population. These centres provide integral treatments free of charge.
However, there are still some unresolved issues, including the current controversy over the very definition of veteran. Approximately 9,500 former conscripts, who fulfilled tasks in the continental deployment area from the city of Trelew in Chubut to the city of Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego, demand their recognition as Malvinas’ veterans.
However, military sources explain the veteran status is determined by law from intervening in the South Atlantic Operations Theatre (TOAS), which includes the islands, continental shelf, air and underwater space. And, according to ex-combatants, veteran status is only gained by engaging with the enemy; they feel that regarding those who were not in the islands as veterans is unfair to those who fought and died in combat.
Continental troops have been camping in Plaza de Mayo and in front of the National Congress for more than two years and have been subject to various incidents. During a recent demonstration on 10th March, a former conscript threatened to commit suicide if legislators did not receive them while others tried to break into the congress.
Almost 30 years on, the government’s and society’s understanding of the war and its consequences is still incomplete and this translates into ongoing controversies. From violent episodes as described above to the Bicentennial celebrations in May 2010—where veterans were left out of a war commemoration—Malvinas is still an open wound in the country.
As Dr. Torresi points out, “it is not about forgetting Malvinas, but historicizing the conflict. It should morph into a memory, an experience that is part of veterans’ history and past”.
The Malvinas conflict is not only veterans’ history and past, but Argentina’s too. And if a country chooses to deny and forget its history, it will hardly be able to defend the rights of those who shaped it.