It was like two bald men fighting over a comb, Borges famously declared. In 1982, for seventy-four days, England and Argentina fought over an inhospitable, craggy archipelago in the South Atlantic. The islands were known in England as the Falklands, in Argentina as the Malvinas, and the bloody skirmish between the two nations capped centuries of discord over the territory.
Neither country ever formally declared war. Instead, repeated provocations made for lurching brinkmanship. This was how it had been since Argentina first agitated for independence from Spain in 1811 and began demanding its postcolonial inheritance. At that point, the British had presided over the islands in a deal struck with the Spanish crown; the Spanish claimed sovereignty, while the English stayed on to save face decades after a British naval captain had planted a Union Jack there. But that was as far as the deal-making ever went: Argentine independence scrambled the precarious arrangement.
At first, a ragtag band of armed gauchos pitted themselves against the British, who refused to budge. Before long, the warring gave way to a century of saber rattling and even the occasional high jinks. Fervent Argentines staged symbolic airlifts and landings on the British-held islands throughout the twentieth century. General Juan Perón, a self-styled anti-imperialist crusader and opportunist, along with a contingent of pro-patria stalwarts in government, had egged on these activist-stuntmen. The Malvinas were 300 kilometers off their coast, so why should they belong to a faraway empire? Remarkably, the acrimony did nothing to halt the buying and selling of arms between the two countries. Over the course of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, Britain became Argentina’s fourth-largest arms supplier. Diplomatic relations between the two nations continued, haltingly, all the while, until nationalist fervor met political exigency in both countries.
The Argentine junta invaded the islands on April 2. Caught by surprise and promptly sobered, the British launched a counterattack in May; they routed the Argentine forces after some unexpected setbacks, then pushed them out by June. Ultimately, the English traveled 8,000 miles south to defend land most English schoolboys had never heard of, as one journalist quipped. The Argentines, with notably less sea and ground to cover, “retook” an archipelago whose inhabitants spoke broken Spanish with English accents. By the fighting’s end, Margaret Thatcher had a cause célèbre to distract the country from the bitter medicine she’d been dispensing at home. Argentina’s military dictatorship, which had attempted to stave off its own collapse by invading the islands in the first place, limped away disgraced as the public reeled. Two bald men indeed.
The death toll was just shy of a thousand, the overwhelming majority Argentines. This very nearly equaled the population of the islands themselves, which hovered around 1,200 residents. All told, more people were harmed than redeemed. In the three decades since the war, suicides by Argentine veterans have surpassed the number of battlefield deaths. For a war so localized and relatively short-lived, so apparently minor against the backdrop of a century’s colossal carnage, the trauma is outsized.
What the Argentines officially called “war,” the British government dubbed a “conflict”; the Argentines conscripted an “army,” while the Brits organized a “task force.” Whatever the appellation, this was a skirmish without a clear winner. Sovereignty over the islands remains unresolved to this day; if anything, the battle has deepened rather than quelled the controversy. Thatcher eventually intensified her commitment to the islands in the late 1980s, encouraged by the military romp. Her avowedly Churchillian turn-around followed years of cool indifference to the drab and costly islands. Meanwhile, a line of Argentine politicians, with only minor exceptions, have continued speaking of them in soaring, nationalistic tones.