It is 35 years since the conflict in the South Atlantic that cost hundreds of British and Argentinian lives. Now six veterans of that war have been brought together in a documentary play to explore the traumatic impact it had on them
Andrew Anthony talks to Falklands war veterans sharing their stories on stage
Lou Armour is a special needs teacher, an introspective man with a walking stick. If you passed him on the street you probably wouldn’t notice anything about him beyond his limp. But 35 years ago he yomped across the Falkland Islands and ran through a minefield under artillery fire on Mount Harriet. His section killed several Argentinians in a bloody battle and Armour found himself attending to a fatally wounded Argentinian soldier who spoke to him in English about visiting Oxford. He watched as the young man died.
Gabriel Sagastume is a grey-haired lawyer with sleepy eyes and an easy smile. He was an Argentinian conscript during the Falklands war and was positioned on Wireless Ridge. His unit was short of food and so several of them waded across a river to a nearby house to raid its kitchen. When they came back they were blown up by a mine, planted by the Argentinian army. It was Sagastume’s job to collect the body parts and put them in his blanket.
These sobering anecdotes are recounted in a fascinating piece of documentary theatre about the Falklands war and its aftermath. It features six veterans, three from each side of the conflict, and was devised by the Argentinian artist and writer Lola Arias. It’s currently touring the country, having already been across Europe.
After the two Iraq wars, the Afghan conflict and various military involvements in Bosnia, Kosovo, Libya and Syria, the Falklands war has disappeared into history. It was always a strange and incredible conflict, famously summarised by the great Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges as “two bald men fighting over a comb”.
Until they were invaded by Argentinian forces on 2 April 1982, the Falkland Islands did not loom large in the nation’s consciousness. Most Britons would have been hard-pressed to locate them on a map.
These windswept outcrops 300 miles off the Argentinian coast were home to fewer than 2,000 people back then. Yet in the battle for them 907 people lost their lives and almost 2,000 more were injured, some very seriously.
The invaders were defeated by the British task force sent by the then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. The victory hugely boosted her flagging popularity and led to the downfall of the military junta in control of Argentina.
These are the events that form the backdrop to Minefield, but it’s not a play that explores the rights and wrongs of that conflict or, indeed, any other. What it does is look at the human experience of war and in particular what happens to those who go through it when they return to “normal” life.
The Falklands war was one of the shortest in British military history, lasting just 74 days. But its effects on participants have continued for decades. There’s a line in the play that says the rehearsals for the show went on longer than the conflict. And for Armour those rehearsals, in Buenos Aires, were a difficult process that led to him consulting a therapist for the first time in his life.
Armour’s mother died when he was a year old, and he was brought up in a foster family he hated. He joined the Royal Marines at 16. They became his family. He was part of a Royal Marine detachment that was on the island when the Argentinians invaded. He and 50 or so other marines tried to defend Port Stanley, the capital, but were overpowered by much larger numbers and surrendered. They were sent back to the UK.
Armour was asked if he wanted to return with the task force. He immediately said yes, but is that a decision he’s ever regretted?
“No,” he says. “I was a young section commander at the time. The idea of my section going back and me not being there to lead them, whatever came, was total anathema to me.”
In military terms, it was by no means a straightforward mission. The task force took six weeks to sail to the South Atlantic. Along the way, recalls David Jackson, a tall, ramrod-straight former Royal Marine and now a practising psychologist, the soldiers were briefed on what awaited them. Jackson says in the play that he was told: “We are expecting one in three to be killed in initial landings.”
Despite this grim prediction, the marines stuck to their training schedule and held impromptu disco parties on board ship in the evenings. Routine suppressed fear and doubt – until the real fighting began.
The Falklands war was unlike many modern wars. Yes, there were fighter jets and Exocet missiles and lots of other impressive weapons of destruction. But most of the fighting was like something out of the first world war, with one force dug into its positions and the other seeking to oust them. There were plenty of closecontact battles, sometimes hand-tohand combat. The initial landings were not as lethal as Jackson had been told to expect. Nonetheless if the war was short, it was also brutal and nasty.
Aside from all the casualties on the islands, there was another in Argentina – the military government. Headed by General Galtieri, it had stoked up nationalist fervour, portraying the invasion of the Malvinas, as the islands are known in Argentina, as a great patriotic liberation of an imperially occupied part of the motherland.
Galtieri promised that the British would be defeated and taught a lesson. When that didn’t happen, his government lost its last remnants of credibility. For several years, the dictatorship had suppressed opposition with a ruthless campaign of violence, torture and murder in what was known as the dirty war. Many opponents were “disappeared”, either into secret jails or, often, dumped into the Atlantic.
One of the questions I ask the Argentinian members of the cast when we meet at the Royal Court theatre in London is whether it was worth losing the war to get that outcome. “It’s a fact,” says Sagastume, “that the dictatorship fell because of the war. Even in Argentina where we discuss politics all the time, this is not something everyone believes in. In my opinion, from an institutional point of view there was nothing else fighting the dictatorship. There were women walking around asking for their kidnapped children, but no big demonstrations. It was the war that really ended the junta. There was big support for the war among the people. And when the war was ended, they were ashamed that they supported the war in the beginning.”
There are in a political sense two ways of viewing the war that remain at the centre of ongoing debates about international conflict. From one perspective it was an imperial endeavour, a jingoistic effort to defend the union jack in a far-off place about which few Britons knew or cared. Another argument is that it was a fight against fascism and in favour of democracy. After all, the Falkland Islanders themselves wanted to remain under British jurisdiction. And they certainly had no wish to be taken over by a military dictatorship.
On the whole, progressive sentiment subscribed to the first reading of the war, and saw the second as a fig leaf. Certainly the second case was not helped by the stringent controls
‘The idea of my section going back and me not being there to lead them was total anathema’
imposed on the media by the Thatcher government. Almost no news emerged from the conflict zone that wasn’t first approved by the government censors. Nor was the anti-fascist cause made any more credible by the murky past relations between the British and Argentinian regimes.
As Julian Barnes put it, reflecting on the war many years later: “The fact that we’d traded with the junta, welcomed its leaders and sold arms to them, but now realised that it was a filthy dictatorship after all, was swallowed without a burp. The fact that there were a mere 1,800 islanders, and that their way of life was preserved at the cost of 1,000 British casualties and 1,800 Argentinian ones did not seem a grossly stupid and expensive way of conducting foreign policy; it proved that freedom is indivisible, tyranny will be defeated, and the wishes of the loyal locals sovereign.”
However, to the soldiers involved it wasn’t an intellectual debate, it was a matter of life and death. At least during the course of the war. Afterwards survival became a mental issue, and one that may have been made more difficult for the British soldiers by how obscure and absurd the war seemed to many of their fellow citizens, and for the Argentinian soldiers by the fact that, although it meant a lot to the Argentinians, they were defeated.
“Many people now don’t even know that we fought in the Falklands war,” says Jackson. “It’s not in people’s consciousness.”
But it remains in his mind. When he came back to the UK, he felt alienated in the company of civilians. He found himself crying alongside a veteran Spitfire pilot at a party held to celebrate his return. Although his non-military friends were often well meaning, he struggled to relate to them.
“In some ways I was lucky,” says Jackson, “because I then focused on my relationship with my first wife, who’d been having an affair when I was down in the Falklands. The war became nothing compared to that.”
But he began to suffer from post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety. In the play he says that he was particularly angry because more Falklands veterans had committed suicide than were killed during the war. This has been a widely accepted fact, but in 2013 a Ministry of Defence statistical study found that the suicide rate among veterans was no different to the general population. What did he think of the report?
“I don’t buy that report, based on anecdotal evidence. But anecdotal evidence doesn’t make research papers. It’s a contentious issue and I’ve sort of let that go now. To me now, one suicide is too many from any war.”
Minefield’s Marcello Vallejo, who was a private working with heavy mortars in the Falklands, made a drunken suicide bid of sorts in 2002. He was on antidepressants and he threw himself into a reservoir unable to swim. Some fellow veterans managed to pull him out. Two years previously, after a long period of alcohol and cocaine abuse, he had been sent to a military hospital, following a breakdown. He stayed for three months and painted an image of Mount William, the Falklands landmark on which he fought. His close friend Sergio Azcarate had been blown up and killed beside him.
“I didn’t realise I was sick,” says Vallejo. “I was just feeling that no one understood. Everything brought me back to the war. I’d feel furious.”
After his failed drowning, he decided to learn how to swim. It was a turning point, he says, the beginning of a very slow change. Subsequently he’s become a competitor in triathlons. On stage he appears in his sports gear, a lean, saturnine figure with a haunting presence.
The play offers a forum in which these stories of pain and loss can be told, but it’s not a glum-fest at all. Far from it. One of the uplifting aspects of the performance is the use of music.
Ruben Otero was on the General Belgrano, the Argentinian cruiser that was sunk by the British outside the 200-mile exclusion zone, an act that made certain that there would be no last-minute peace agreement. He was 19 at the time and he spent 41 hours at sea on a lifeboat.
Otero went on to become a drummer in a Beatles tribute band. He enters the stage singing With a Little Help From My Friends, explaining: “Since I’m the drummer, I sing the songs Ringo used to sing.”
It’s a line that brings a laugh but it also tells a story about the things that unite us. Otero has been to the UK before with this band, and he loves the Beatles. To see him and Vallejo, Jackson and Sagastume rock out on stage with electric guitars, bass and drums is to witness four men in late middle age doing what plenty of men of that vintage do. The difference, of course, is that at one point, for reasons that none of them held that dear, they were trying to kill each other. Now they seem the best of friends.
“For myself,” says Armour, “the play just reinforces what I already knew. People in conventional forces are just the same. We’re not driven by a crazed ideology. I knew they [the Argentinians] were going to be good people. I wouldn’t be able to say the same if I was fighting Isis. Lola was worried that there might be some serious rows and disagreements. But the war wasn’t really driven by hatred. Why were we fighting? Because the Argentinians had invaded and we thought it was illegal. Why were they fighting? Because they thought it was theirs. We both knew that. But of all the problems in the world, have our countries got to go to war over this island? What were we doing?”
Perhaps, as Armour implies, the play doesn’t break any obviously new ground. We all know that war is hell. And we know that politicians make the decisions and the soldiers pay the price. But as Jackson points out: “There are lots of good plays about wars, and lots of good films. But they tend to look at the polarities of either victims or heroes. There’s never room for the people in the middle who just get on with their lives.”
The play is not just a compelling discussion of these topics, it’s also a kind of therapy in action. Perhaps the most intriguing character featured is Sukrim Rai, a Gurkha in the Falklands who now works for G4S security. He found rehearsals for the play in Buenos Aires extremely gruelling. “The Falklands war was not hard for me,” he says. “I know what the army is. I know my job, my duty. But when I went to Buenos Aires, I didn’t know. I lost it. I couldn’t sleep for three days. What is my job?”
He often seems an almost bemused onlooker as the others discuss their problems and their traumas. There was no normality for him to return to, no home from which to feel alienated. You sense that the play is the first time he’s ever been able to examine his feelings about war.
Armour feels ambivalent about the idea of the theatre documentary as therapy. He says it’s helped in some ways and not in others. He loves being on stage, loves the acting, which he sees as an extension of his work as a teacher. But he doesn’t like performing in front of a home crowd. “You just know there’s going to be veterans,” he says. “You don’t want to look like a Charlie or give the forces a bad name.”
He says that the final song of the show makes him feel particularly uncomfortable. It’s a real punk primal thrash in which he sings about the horror of war. It’s aimed directly at the audience with lyrics that ask if you’ve ever been to war, ever seen a man on fire, or held a man dying in your arms.
Some critics have found it too confrontational in tone, and Armour says he doesn’t like singing it. But the rest of the group say it’s their favourite moment, a piece of supercharged catharsis that expresses their deepest frustrations. “It’s the best stress-buster in the world,” says Jackson. “The audience during that song represents both societies. There are journalists who take it personally – suck it up, buttercup. It’s a challenge about politicians and societies sending young men to war.”
No doubt young men will continue to sign up to the military and politicians and societies will continue to send them off to war. The play isn’t going to change that, and in any case, it’s not overtly anti-war, though few could watch it and come away thinking that war was a good idea.
What it does do, says Jackson, is change our perceptions about those who take part. “Someone said to me, ‘I will never look at a war veteran the same way again.’”
To go to a place in which it’s legitimate to kill and maim people, to watch your friends die in horrific ways, and then come back to a place where none of those things is acceptable is not a journey the mind can easily make.
Minefield vividly shows us that beneath the veteran’s demilitarised appearance, there may be many dark and buried memories waiting to explode.
‘We’re not driven by a crazed ideology. I knew the Argentines were going to be good people’
Minefield is touring the UK, including 15-17 November in Brighton; then Newcastle, York, Cardiff and Manchester (12-14 April 2018). For details, visit liftfestival.com/minefield-tour
From left, Falklands war veterans Marcelo Vallejo, Sukrim Rai, Ruben Otero, David Jackson and Gabriel Sagastume on stage in London, and right, Lou Armour in Minefield.
Clockwise from below, Argentinian prisoners under guard in 1982; Thatcher visiting in 1983; the veterans’ band.