Thursday, 14 July 2011


A couple of months back, I finally broke a long-held duck. Emerging from a metaphorical cork-lined room and real decade-long grapple with the recondite philosophy of Monsieurs Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, I actually went and did what an academic is supposed to do, and gave a conference paper. Mental, eh? This paper I gave bore the deliberately grandiose title of ‘The Text as “Desiring-machine”: Minoritarian History in Tomás Eloy Martínez’s La novela de Perón’, something I mention only to indicate what a colossal waste of time it all was (I mean, I could have been doing something useful, maybe even something ‘scientific’, like designing more efficient ways to murder people ‘legitimately’, or synthesizing medicines whose prohibitive costs further cement the deprivation of a health underclass – one to which I belong, incidentally).

Anyway, it was during the course of the Conference of the Association of Hispanists of Great Britain and Ireland (AHGBI) that I attended a plenary session on the topic of the Falklands-Malvinas Conflict in which Professor Bernard McGuirk, internal examiner of my (still-unmarked) doctoral thesis, held a ‘conversation’ with Major Mike Seear, commander of the troops that carried out the southern pincer movement that took Tumbledown in the advance on Port Stanley, which turned out to be the war’s final battle.

With Professor McGuirk having himself established, personally, a now well-respected research body within the University of Nottingham called The Centre for Post-Conflict Studies, he also undertook one of its major projects, spending five years researching the (surprisingly scanty) literature on the events. The result, Falklands-Malvinas: An Unfinished Business, combines McGuirk’s equally astute and delicate commentaries – sprinkled liberally with high theory, of course – with fragments of prose and poems, in part or in full. 

But Falklands-Malvinas (and yes, both McGuirk and Seear agree that this is the best name for it, signalling – appropriately for the Centre’s ethos – a desire for reconciliation and understanding, one that has been tenaciously sought by these two men and tentatively embarked upon by Seear’s one-time adversaries from Argentina) was not about literature, much less about theory. Not principally. Not then, anyway.

As with all wars, it was about blood and death; and it was about resources. (Very few wars are about principles, of course, even though they are invariably packaged that way; it is only when a belligerent’s “principles” are indicators of them denying future access to resources that our “principles” are invoked as jus ad bellum: a just cause for war.)

Much as I found it difficult – indeed, I squirmed in my seat, literally – to reconcile Seear’s starchy, almost cold-blooded professional militarism (essentially, his complete subjugation to the demands of the British State, a true cog in the machine) with his desire to orchestrate a reconciliation of the soldiers who fought on those wind-pummelled South Atlantic rocks, it was nevertheless fascinating to hear from this embodiment of apolitical military discipline about the political difficulties that both he and McGuirk had faced in trying to engineer a reunion between ex-combatants. 

Major Mike Seear meets Thatcher at the launch of Hors de Combat

Not only is El caso Malvinas still a very, very raw affair in Argentina, associated as it is, perhaps rightly, with colonial occupation, but the Falklanders themselves have stymied any attempts to organize a rapprochement on the islands. As for those unemployed working-class Brits whose restiveness the war was partially designed to pacify, the aggression-quelling effects of the triumph were compensated for – and then some – by Maradona’s goal in the Azteca Stadium. 

Why the need for – and resistance to – such a face-to-face reconciliation? Isn’t it all done and dusted, that war, and thus best left in the past? Haven’t the mental wounds long since healed over? It would seem not, whence the penultimate word in the title of McGuirk’s book: Unfinished… 

Forensic psychiatry recognizes the irreducible connection between trauma and locale: the intended ‘reunion’ on the Falklands/Malvinas was designed to exorcise demons that, in the post-traumatic stress complexes afflicting the veterans, are profoundly connected to the terrain, the territory. If you will forgive my own diversion into theoretical abstraction, they are what Monsieurs Deleuze and Guattari would call territorializations, a concept implying above all else a repeated site for the investment of desire, or fantasy (irrespective of how pleasurable or painful they may be…and in masochism, of course, the two are so deeply intertwined as to be indistinguishable). Honey traps; pleasure prisons.

By far the most shocking thing to these ears in Major Seear’s paper was the following fact: that the numbers of ex-combatants on both sides who had succumbed to their suicidal urges – still evidently strong so many years after the gunboats had left the Falklands beyond their visible horizon – had now surpassed the aggregate figure of those who had died in battle. A total of 906 soldiers perished in the seventy-four day long war: 649 Argentines and 257 from the British forces. One can easily understand this phenomenon afflicting the losing side; the ‘shame’ of defeat and tales of veterans being shunned by their country are familiar to us from dozens of Vietnam movies. But it is a major surprise – to me at least – that the same tendencies are also present on the victors’ side. The conclusion? That the result of war is insignificant as far as the psychological effect on the combatants is concerned. 

British soldiers' reunion at Tumbledown, 2007

Thus, the subject of the paper was the post-traumatic stress disorder felt keenly on both sides, a condition that united the soldiers in a profound way and one that is scarcely comprehensible to politicians. (As a perhaps indirect consequence of the war, Seear’s marriage and private life collapsed amidst nervous breakdown, and he moved to Norway to start up his life anew.) And it was this common experience that formed the basis of the reconciliation – their mutual suspicion and wariness melting away through a shared contempt of the politiqueros that had led them there: Galtieri, to shore up a brutal military dictatorship that was six years into a murderous Proceso de Reorganización Nacional (Process of National Reorganization), little more than a euphemism for State terror that continued long after the leftist urban guerrillas had been “disappeared” (i.e. kidnapped, drugged, and dropped in the Atlantic on the infamous ‘death flights’); Thatcher, to win a tricky election after two years of domestic ‘reorganization’ of her own.  

President Leopoldo Galtieri

Anyway, Professor McGuirk’s efforts at reconciliation – specifically, holding a conference at the University in November 2006 – were not straightforward. The demeanour of the British officers bore a certain unintentional authority that their Argentine counterparts, often drawn from the lower middle-classes, in large part lacked, the initially mute encounter thus doing little, albeit unconsciously, to smooth out any lingering friction. Nevertheless, amidst this awkwardness, a peculiar solidarity was crystallized as the two sides exchanged stories of that cold, unforgiving night of 13 June. 1982.

Offering particular succour, and ultimately leading to a breakthrough, a thawing of the tension, was the British officers’ detailed explanation of the meticulous preparation that the Ghurkhas and Scots Guardsmen had undergone for the battle, preparation borne of a deep respect they had for their opponent. Finally garnering respect for their courage and their efforts – something they had not adequately received from the political class that sent them, underprepared and under-resourced, to fight – meant the world to them. Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to claim that such recognition was a matter of life and death…

Earlier, I said that the war was not about literature. Not then, it wasn’t. Then it was about oil and fish (whence the final word in McGuirk’s book’s title); it was also about ‘pride’ and perhaps about the tangible uneasiness that ‘one’ feels on one’s skin if, like Schopenhauer’s porcupines, an undesired other is getting just a little too close – in sum, it was about commerce and desire: political economy and libidinal economy.

We know that in the matter of war it is a universal rule that it is best not to listen to the exhortations of politicians. Perhaps, then, it is better to recollect, in quiet contemplation, the wisdom of a literature that reminds us again and again and again that international wars are always a game of chess between elites (Kings, Queens, Knights, Bishops and their modern analogues), elites who may or may not be identical with sovereign States, who may express transnational organizations and interests, and for whom patriotism is merely a vehicle for rabble-rousing and/or suppressing, as the situation dictates. And in this game, the pawns captured en passant will be the Joe Bloggs (the Juan Lópezes and John Wards) of the smart bomb-fodder masses.  

At the end of Seear and McGuirk’s conversation, the latter – having pointed up the fishing and oil interests that Thatcher’s government had there (Falklanders are the richest, per capita, in the sovereign British territories) – captured this oft-repeated but never hackneyed sentiment with a reading of one of the few works written by a major author that appeared in the immediate aftermath of the Falklands-Malvinas conflict: Jorge Luis Borges’s magnificent poem, ‘Juan López and John Ward’. 

Jorge Luis Borges

Juan López and John Ward

It was their fate to live in a strange time. 

The planet had been carved up among various countries, 
each one provided with loyalties, cherished memories,
with a past undoubtedly heroic, with rights, with grievances,
with its own mythology, with forebears in bronze, with anniversaries,
with demagogues and with symbols.
Such an arbitrary division was favourable to war.

López had been born in the city next to the motionless river;
Ward, in the outskirts of the city through which Father Brown had walked.
He had studied Spanish in order to read Quixote.
The other professed a love of Conrad, revealed
to him in a classroom in Viamonte Street
They might have been friends, but they saw each other just once 
face to face, on islands only too well known,
and each of them was Cain, and each one, Abel. 
They were buried together. Snow and corruption know them. 

The story I tell happened in a time we cannot understand. 

Jorge Luis Borges
Clarín, 26 August 1982 


Juan López y John Ward 

Les tocó en suerte una época extraña,
El planeta había sido parcelado en distintos países, cada uno provisto
de lealtades, de queridas memorias, de un pasado sin duda heroico,
de derechos, de agravios, de una mitología peculiar, de próceres de bronce,
de aniversarios, de demagogos y de símbolos.
Esa división, cara a los cartógrafos, auspiciaba las guerras. 

López había nacido en la ciudad junto al río inmóvil.
Ward, en las afueras de la ciudad por la que caminó Father Brown. 
Había estudiado castellano para leer el Quijote. 
El otro profesaba el amor de Conrad, que le había sido revelado
en un aula de la calle Viamonte.
Hubieran sido amigos, pero se vieron una sola vez cara a cara, en unas islas
demasiado famosas, y cada uno de los dos fue Caín, y cada uno, Abel.
Los enterraron juntos. La nieve y la corrupción los conocen. 

El hecho que refiero pasó en un tiempo que no podemos entender.