Life under siege in Britain’s last outpost
Fortress Falklands Fortaleza Falklands
In early 1986, shortly after arriving in the Falkland Islands for my dissertation research under a Fulbright-Hays fellowship, my wife and I took a hike into the hills west of Stanley, the Islands' capital and only town. Hoping for a panoramic view of Stanley Harbour and the countryside, we ascended the flanks toward the summit of the 1093-ft (333m) Mount Kent but, as we approached, we found our way blocked by good-humored British squaddies. After the 1982 conflict in which Argentina invaded the Falklands, only to be dislodged after 74 days, the mountain had become home to a Royal Air Force radar station.
Whether the squaddies might have been quite so jovial had they known my wife was an Argentine – she traveled to the Islands on her US passport – I rather doubt. Still, I couldn't help thinking of that when, as I read Graham Bound's Fortress Falklands ( Pen and Sword, 236 pp., paperback, $US 33), the author repeatedly bemoaned his lack of access to the British military command and the RAF's Mount Pleasant facilities, which also serve as the Islands' international airport.
It's not as if Bound might be an Argentine agent – Falklands-born, though he now lives in London, he's been a military correspondent for the BBC in far riskier environments, such as Afghanistan. Certainly
he has the credibility to make judgments on the Islands' defenses without giving away confidential material but, as the sensitive 30th anniversary of the Argentine invasion approached, he apparently got stonewalled and had to rely on retired military and his own online research for that specific topic.
That's unfortunate, but it barely detracts from a book which, despite its rather sensationalist subtitle focuses as much or more on a distinctive people who have inhabited their insular homeland for up to nine generations. In fact, he is one of them, descended from a family that arrived in the 1840s; he founded Penguin News, the Islands' only newspaper, and there's probably nobody better qualified to present an insider's viewpoint while simultaneously providing an outsider's critical observations.
Since the 1982 war, the Falklands have become a prosperous place, thanks to fishing, tourism and (potentially) oil, but Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner's irredentist jingoism continues to trouble a population that would welcome constructive engagement with a country that, among other measures, has prohibited charter flights over its airspace, harassed Islands-bound cruise ships and fishing vessels, and withdrawn from marine conservation efforts that were mutually beneficial.
At the same time, the author even-handedly discusses local society's achievements and weaknesses. The standard of living has risen dramatically since the 1980s but, while some local entrepreneurs have earned previously unthinkable fortunes and unemployment is virtually non-existent, there is growing economic inequality. As the traditional rural life on sheep stations has declined, the lifestyle has become more sedentary, and health problems such as obesity are becoming a concern. The oil industry is a potential threat to the abundant wildlife and maritime resources, but the Argentine government's withdrawal from fishing agreements menaces the migratory Illex squid stocks on which the Islands' prosperity depends.
Until the recent selection of Pope Francis I in Rome, the recent Falklands referendum in which Islanders overwhelmingly affirmed their desire to continue as a “self-governing British territory” made huge headlines in Argentina, where president Fernández and her administration went out of their way to dismiss its legitimacy – even declaring that Falkland Islanders did not exist. In his book, Bound stresses Islanders' concerns that Argentina will moreover continue to make things difficult and could even take military action.
It's not just solidarity under occupation by Argentina's brutal military dictatorship that suggests the Islanders are a people. In one chapter, Bound posits a “soul of the Falklands” to describe an hospitable lifestyle that, despite dramatic changes since the 1980s, still survives. That began to change when I lived there, as some farmhouses became guesthouses for tourists intrigued by penguins, elephant seals and other wildlife - until then, it would never have occurred to anyone to charge a guest for room and board.
I would have liked to see him analyze ethnographic traits that characterize the Islands such as their distinct accent. While not everybody speaks with a thick Falklands accent, there's no doubt it's unique: one Islander who worked on ships around the world told me that people often inquired about his accent, but no one was ever able to guess his origins. Challenging even for some native English speakers from other countries, it's probably closest to New Zealand or Australian speech, but even that is misleading, and there's a local vocabulary that takes some learning.
As it happened, Islanders voted by a margin of 1,513 to three to continue their current political status. On the basis of my own experience, I would say this was no surprise and consider the near-unanimous results credible. In fact, I can think of at least two Argentine residents (with dual nationality) who I am almost certain voted “Yes.” The last time I was in Stanley, there was even one Argentine woman in the local police force.
And while some Islanders and Bound himself consider Argentina a military threat, I am less convinced. President Fernández mistrusts the military and has reduced the budget to a shoestring, to the point where one mothballed warship recently sank at the Bahía Blanca naval base. In a recent email, Bound agreed that he may have overstated the probability of another invasion. Argentina will continue to try to isolate the Islands, though, perhaps even withdrawing permission for the weekly LAN Airlines flight from Chile.
Still, any rhetorical retreat on Argentina's part is unlikely, at least in the near future. As Spinal Tap's Nigel Tufnel might say, the volume may go up to 11.