‘Like an experiment of human resistance’ – fighting in the Falklands

Argentine veteran Miguel Savage tells the PA news agency of his ‘traumatic’ experience as a 19-year-old conscript in the Falkland Islands.

27 March 2022

On April 2, it will be exactly 40 years since Argentine forces invaded the Falkland Islands, beginning a conflict that lasted for 10 weeks and arguably bolstered then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s waning reputation at home.

But for young Argentine conscripts sent to fight, the war proved to be a traumatic one.

“It felt at the time like a sociological experiment of human resistance,” recalls veteran Miguel Savage, 59.

This was because “we had three huge problems on the islands”, he explains.

“We had the islands’ weather – Antarctic. Then we had the British Paras [Parachute Regiment] that came to attack, that were like a rugby team with machine guns. And then the third problem were our own officers, that were members of [the] dictatorship.”

Miguel Savage
Miguel Savage, a veteran of the Falklands conflict, taken in 1982 (PA)

The conscripts were not well prepared. Mr Savage, aged 19 at the time, had had one day’s practice with a rifle 14 months before being conscripted.

“What the dictatorship did in Argentina, it was like picking people off the street and forcing them to fight a professional army,” he says.

Mr Savage says the experience was “beyond traumatic”, with survivors still experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder. Whilst he has been able to move on and have a family, he says, “of course it’s changed my life”.

The young conscripts were not only unprepared, they were sent without enough food – he says he lost 22 kilos in the space of two months, and saw friends die from exposure.

“At the moment of the battle we looked like survivors from a concentration camp. And the Paras were the Paras. They were like Band of Brothers.”

Prior to Argentina’s invasion in 1982, Mr Savage says the islanders had maintained good relations with the Argentines, travelling to the mainland for schooling and healthcare.

At one point, he searched in islanders’ bins to find food in Stanley, hoping to find his schoolfriend, who had already left for London with his family.

“I was like the schoolboy mate, invading him,” he says.

The war was wholly unnecessary in his view, more a power play by two governments trying to solve their “problems” with “jingoism”.

“Both governments had problems, and they both needed the war,” he says.

“Maggie Thatcher won it. And she won politically, in the UK, I understand. So it was us, the Argentine conscripts, plus the British soldiers, who suffered the most.

“And we were all trapped in this sad web of nationalist versus imperialist rhetoric, that should have never happened.”

He has no photographs of the islands themselves, but he does have one of him “running into my mummy’s arms when I got back”.

Miguel Savage
Falklands veteran Miguel Savage greets his mother as he returns from the conflict in 1982 (PA)

The war was “agonising” for his mother, who had English and Scottish heritage – his grandfather came from a generation “more British than the Brits”, who had volunteered as an RAF officer in WWII.

In terms of how the conflict will be remembered now, Mr Savage feels that Argentines today are aware of how they were “cheated” and misled by the dictatorship, led by General Leopoldo Galtieri.

At the same time, this does not dispel the sense that the islands should belong to Argentina.

Miguel Savage
Miguel Savage with his parents in the 1980s in Argentina (PA)

He said: “There’s two ideas. One is what the dictatorship did was horribly wrong. And it brought us back 200 years.

“And second, there is a colonial situation that has to be taught through diplomacy. And the Argentine population is convinced that the islands are Argentine, they belong to the continent.

“They are 8,000 miles away from the UK, so people think that there should be some kind of negotiation and that it is absurd to have a colonial situation in the present.”

He acknowledges that the war has left a “huge wound” for the islanders, who are now “reluctant” to become part of Argentine territory.

“I understand completely what they feel because you know, Stanley was destroyed during the war,” he says.

But he adds: “The islanders understand the huge difference between the professional officers that misguided us and us, the civilians. They see us as victims.”

Miguel Savage on a visit to the Falklands
Miguel Savage on a visit to the Falklands Islands in 2006 (PA)

“Every war is absolutely immoral,” he says, and one anecdote from his experience proves this.

“I think it’s appropriate now with the war that’s happening in Ukraine, of what happened between Argentine and British soldiers on board SS Canberra [an ocean liner operating as a troopship in the conflict].”

Travelling as prisoners of war back to Patagonia, Mr Savage, who spoke good English, acted as interpreter.

Initially, he expected relations between the British Paras and the Argentine conscripts to be tense, given that “we had been killing each other a week earlier”.

But he was surprised to see “two or three of my friends, chatting with two or three of the paras on the deck, respectfully”.

He said: “They were asking each other, how the other side had been.

“And that’s where I understood that wars are anonymous. When you put a face on the enemy, the concept of ‘enemy’ disappears completely. We ended up chatting about music; we used to listen to the British bands – Genesis, Pink Floyd, Supertramp. And about women, and football. The average conversation a 20-year-old has.”

He has written a book about his experiences – Malvinas, Viaje al Pasado – and stays in touch with other veterans, who are “like brothers”.

Mr Savage has also returned to the Falklands three times. His visit in 2006 had particular poignancy – he returned a “lovely English pullover” he had found searching a farm to see if it was transmitting radio to the British.

The conscripts were “literally in tatters”, freezing and hungry, and it was then that he found the pullover “which I put on immediately, and that protected me and made me feel alive again”.

He said: “And when I was leaving the house, I remember I prayed a little bit, and…I felt a presence in the house, like somebody saying, ‘Okay, Michael, you’re going to get back, the war is finishing, and you’re going to survive’.”

In 2006, he met Lisa, the farm owner’s daughter, and returned the pullover.

He said: “Of course we both cried together. And then we had tea. She made scones, and we both got to a closure of the situation.

“She talked about how they had felt the war. And I gave her my point of view and explained that we had searched the house as victims of that dictatorship; we didn’t really want to search it.”

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