Docu­d­rama

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

The Observer - The New Review - - CONTENTS - BY AN­DREW AN­THONY POR­TRAIT BY RICHARD SAKER

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.

PA, AP, Tris­tram Ken­ton

Clock­wise from be­low, Ar­gen­tinian pris­on­ers un­der guard in 1982; Thatcher visit­ing in 1983; the vet­er­ans’ band.

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