Twenty five years ago, the Argentine military regime, led by General Galtieri, launched a military adventure and invaded the Falkland Islands/ Las Malvinas. The Argentinean generals launched this assault in a desperate bid to whip up nationalistic sentiments, appealing to the powerful anti-imperialist mood which exists in Argentina and throughout Latin America. It was a calculated move aimed at heading off the growing revolutionary movements in Argentina against the military rulers. British imperialism, feeling its prestige damaged, retaliated. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher dispatched a military task force to recapture the islands.
After heavy fighting and hundreds of deaths, the majority Argentineans, Thatcher and Britain Imperialism were victorious and the Argentineans surrendered. In Argentina, the military defeat opened a new wave of mass struggle against the military, whose authority, having fought an ill-prepared war, collapsed. In Britain, Thatcher’s’ victory paved the way for her further victory at the subsequent general election, on the back of a ‘patriotic wave’.
Ken Lukowiak’s powerful and moving account, first published in 1992, is a devastating depiction of the brutality of war, in all its forms. The British novelist, John Le Carré, urged, "The next time you hear your child sing ‘Rule Britannia’ read him this".
Pulls no punches
This book pulls no punches, makes no attempt to idolise the role of the soldiers and the bloodbath they were involved in. The author’s style is contemplatory, sometimes almost poetical, and also employs the often crude, swearing language of British paratroopers. The personal, human dilemmas facing the soldiers are shown in a series of contradictory outbursts and emotions.
Following the news of the sinking of the Argentine battleship, The Belgrano, in which 300 were killed, the author recounts how he and the other troops cheered. This was after the soldiers watched the British military ship, HMS Sheffield, take missile hits and casualties. But then Lukowiak tells how the same cheering troops, in private conversations, expressed sorrow that so many soldiers were killed on both sides, and the horrific way they perished in the freezing Atlantic seas.
One of the recurring themes in the book is the stark class divide in the British army. Through often ‘black humour’, the rank and file soldiers express the bitterness they feel towards their "superiors".
In one incident, Lukowiak recounts struggling with other British soldiers up a mountain, after suffering casualties. A helicopter lands in front of them and one of its occupants leans out and asks : " ‘Can we give you chaps a lift?’ Major Jenner shouted a reply, ‘Are you sure?’ You mental bastard I thought. We’re all dying halfway up a f***king mountain, these guys want to save us and all shit for brains can say is, ‘Are you sure?’. I had the thought that any more comments like ‘Are you sure?’ from him and I was going to witness a re-enactment of the last scene from the movie Caesar - the Final Days."
In another incident, Lukowiak described that when he was in a trench with a group of soldiers a helicopter circled and landed. Out stepped a general and a general’s adjutant. A sergeant shouts out: "Well, f**k me if it isn’t one of our glorious leaders. I wonder what the f**k this mentally retarded w****r wants".
Lukowiak goes on: "The general then asked if I liked the Falkland Islands and was I enjoying it here? I’ve been asked a few stupid questions in my time, but this was number one, it really took the biscuit… My mind pieced together a suitable reply before my lips did.
"Well sir, I’m 8,000 miles from home, in a place that has proved itself to be the arsehole of the earth. Four of my friends are dead, I’m up to my neck in shit, mud and water, the killing is still going on and just to top it off, it’s started to snow. How the f**k do you think I feel, shit for brains."
Eventually, the general left with his helicopter and "as it lifted off and disappeared over the horizon, a sergeant next door made his final comment: Where the f**k’s the Argentine Air Force when you need the bastards"
Class issues in army
Some of Lukowiak’s revelations are quite surprising and reveal how the class struggle and events outside the army were affecting it. Lukowiak was in the Parachute Regiment and served in Northern Ireland and later in Belize. He expresses his surprise at one officer, a Captain Woods, who was a socialist - something of a rarity in the paras.
Pinned down by a sniper in one battle, Lukowiak writes: "As I lay petrified beyond belief, a naïve thought entered my mind. I thought that if Margaret Thatcher and her Tory cabinet were lying where I was, and General Galtieri and his military junta were on the other end of the incoming mortar fire, this shit would stop instantly".
His describes the horrors encountered as he and his fellow soldiers come across the dead and dying Argentine conscripts. Evidently quite emotionally affected by what he sees, some passages read almost like poetry.
"The right side of this boy’s brain lay halfway down his face. As I looked at him his left eye took focus on me. Without really knowing what to do I took and began to unwrap a shell dressing, while Bill took off his helmet to look for morphine". A British sergeant then arrives and pushes them aside, deeming the young Argentine conscript almost dead and machine guns him.
Lukowiak cannot make his mind up if the sergeant was right to put the conscript out of his suffering or not but concludes: "I know this though; please listen. If you ever feel you must take a man’s life, because his cause appears a lost one, try not to shoot him in the back from ten feet. Sit next to him, hold his hand, ask your Lord for understanding, and put a bullet through his brain. Though be sure it is the left side because it controls the right. To help convince myself that I am still a good man I ask God to look after the mother of the boy with the head wound. The one-eyed, lying, crying, dying boy from Argentina."
The brutalising effects of war are also revealed in Lukowiak’s narrative. Having captured terrified, crying, wounded teenage conscripts, he just loses self control and is at the point of machine gunning one of them, until stopped by a friend.
Later, Lukowiak kicks the leg of a wounded conscript. He asks: "I have often wondered why I kicked the boy. Which is strange because I always knew others were watching. I may have helped save him but I wasn’t soft, I was still hard. See, I just kicked him. I was still a man."
When he comes face to face with an Argentinean officer, Lukowiak reveals: "I thought back to the dead bodies of yesterday. I thought back to the dead bodies I had just walked past, lined up against the hedgerow outside. The bodies all had two things in common. All of them were Argentines and none of them were officers… I had seen more dead Argentineans than I could count but I could count the dead officers amongst them. Nil."
In this powerful narrative you will not find a political analysis of the brief war between Britain and Argentina, which was fought twenty five years ago. You will find an honest, powerful description of the horrors and brutalising effects of war and the class divisions in the army and the consequences for the lives of those involved.
After the conflict, Lukowiak eventually visited Argentina. To his shock, Lukowaik was greeted with bitter hostility by those whose soldier sons had been killed.
Lukowiak was angry, but sympathetic. He is trying to make sense of it all. Years later, still confused, Lukowiak visits British Legion clubs, gets drunk with old soldiers and "brags of the glories of war, but with the part of me that has seen a war knows its true horror, the stupidity of it and feels an inner unrest for having witnessed it".
He concluded: "I know that as long as the majority of us continue to act out the plays that have been written for us by politicians, their priests and the men of this world who control the money, then we shall never be able to put an end to the horrors of war."
One can only imagine what the effect of the current war in Iraq is also having on rank-and-file soldiers sent to fight it.