If you’re like me you may have found the 1982 Falklands War a bit of a head-scratcher.  Did the Argentines really think that the Brits were going to let them just simply take possession of the Falkland Islands and forget about it?  Did they really think they could hang onto the place if the Brits didn’t?  Any why – despite an otherwise long history of friendship, commerce, and cultural exchange between these two nations – did things suddenly turn so nasty over a dispute that existed as little more than diplomatic posturing for nearly 150 years?

In an echo of  an all-to-familiar theme, 1982 became the year for war because it was the last refuge of an oppressive military regime that had worked Argentina into an economic crisis and needed a popular diversion.  It would, however, be a mistake to assume that the war was afterward swept under the rug along with the deposed generals when democracy returned to Argentina.  For the record, Britain’s 1833 occupation of the islands had its roots in a fishing rights dispute, and – not unlike America’s War of 1812 – came at a time when a fragile new Argentine republic was especially vulnerable to the Empire’s military might.

As I walked on Sunday around the Casa Rosada, Argentina’s White House, I noted among the many banners hanging on the surrounding fence one in support of the veterans of the Guerra de Malvinas.  I’ve since seen posters referring to associations of – and assistance to – Malvinas veterans, but I saw today the most graphic example of the national sentiment which lent itself so easily to the generals’ manipulation.

Remember that Argentina is a place where polo rivals soccer as a national sport… where a B.A. outpost of London’s famed Harrod’s department store was a longtime icon… and where English names crop up so frequently among Spanish in the pantheon of local notables that you’d think you were in Gibraltar instead of Latin America. Beginning in the 1880’s and continuing well into the 20th century, the British contributed by far the lion’s share of the foreign investment capital that fueled Argentina’s economic growth.

Torre des los Ingles, Plaza San Martin, Buenos Aires

Running through the heart of B.A.’s chi-chi Retiro District – separating neighborhoods that feel amazingly on one side like Manhattan’s East Side Midtown and on the other like its Upper East Side is a beautiful urban park that’s technically four grassy plazas laid end-to-end.  Here the Malvinas dispute is played out as if on some life-sized Monopoly board.  From the center of the Plaza Fuerza Aérea Argentina rises a 250-foot clock tower that looks like it belongs in colonial Williamsburg.  It was a gift of the city’s British residents to their adopted city that has stood since 1916 and was until 1982 known as the “Torre de los Ingleses.”  During the Falklands – er Malvinas – War the authorities actually thwarted plots to topple it with explosives and it has ever since been the popular target of desultory graffiti.

Just opposite it on the  Plaza San Martin stands the Monumento a los Caidos de Malvinas.  A monument to those fallen in the Malvinas War, it was dedicated only 8 years after the conflict in 1990 by a popularly elected, post-junta government.  Here an eternal flame is raised above a wall constructed in the fashion of the U.S. Vietnam Memorial and upon which are mounted side-by-side plaques bearing the names of more than 600 casualties.  The wall itself is painted a color that can only be described as blood red.

Malvinas War memorial, Plaza San Martin, Buenos Aires

As I stand between these two monuments, I cannot help but recall standing in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower on the Champs de Mars opposite the Ecole Militaire de Saint-Cyr, France’s equivalent of West Point, where sits just as paradoxically the Peace Monument erected in 2000.

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