Why do states commemorate past wars?
Argentina and the United Kingdom commemorating the 40th Anniversary of the Falklands/Malvinas War (1982)
Author: Juan F. Dávila y Verdin, FRSA
Translated into Spanish by Silvana Gordillo González
The commemorations and remembrance of past wars in Occident have been part of the rituals carried by the ancient civilizations. Evidence of these usages can be traced back to Egyptian, Greek, and Roman sources. They have been carried as a practice and tradition through the centuries until our days, taking diverse forms and different emotive and social significance.
Nowadays, States frequently use the commemoration of past wars as a social instrument to safeguard the social collective memory, bounding a common and shared feeling around the national values, leaving aside, at least for the time of the commemoration, the internal differences, by remembering those who felt defending the principles and the honour of the country.
In this essay, I will analyse how Argentina and the United Kingdom are commemorating the Falklands/Malvinas War that took place in the South Atlantic from 2 April to 10 June 1982. This would allow identifying multiple reasons why each State commemorates wars.
In order to compare how the war is commemorated in each country, we must go back to its causes and the historical relation between Argentina and the United Kingdom. In May 1810, the Argentine Elite – formerly known as the United Provinces of the River Plate – deposed in Buenos Aires, the Spanish Viceroy after receiving news from Spain that Napoleon has imprisoned King Ferdinand VIII. They decided to form a provisional government in order to start the independence process, which leads to the formal Declaration of Independence in July 1816. Many academics consider that the May 1810 Revolution resulted in what H.S. Ferns called the ‘beginning of the Anglo-Argentine relations’ (1960), when the British troops invaded the River Plate with more than 1,100 soldiers in 1806 and again with 11,000 men in 1807: as Spain was unable to send arms to defend its South American colonies, the local elite organised themselves to expel the British, and later the Spanish themselves.
About this example, Hutchinson (2009) and Howard (1991) agrees that most of the nation-states founded around this period and before the mid-20th century emerged or were influenced by wars or internal violence.
Between 1811 and 1812, General José de San Martín – Argentinian Father of the Nation and Liberator of Argentina, Chile, and Perú – lived in London together with other representatives of the Latin American illustrated freethought elite. They were planning the concrete emancipation of the colonies from Spain with the support of British officials.
Later, the United Kingdom was the first country to recognize the Argentine independence from Spain; in 1823, the British Government established unilateral instruments for friendly relations with the Government of Buenos Aires and supported the appointment of a Consul General. In 1825, a ‘Friendship, Commercial and Navigation Agreement between the United Provinces of the River Plate and His Britannic Majesty’ was signed (Argentine Embassy in the United Kingdom, 2018). It was quickly followed by similar agreements even if, on 3 January 1833, the Government of Buenos Aires complained to London about the constitution of a colony in the Falklands/Malvinas Islands, those islands – dual name used by the Committee of Decolonization of the United Nations (n.d.) – being considered by Buenos Aires as a part of the United Provinces’ territory as heirs of the Spanish rights over the archipelago due to the Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494 with the blessing of Pope Alexander VI and later confirmed and ratified by Pope Julius II in 1506.
Besides the discussions over the sovereignty of the islands became a point of disagreement between the both countries since then, the relationship between Argentina and the United Kingdom flourished in other many areas up to reaching the point that the biggest British community in South America was established in Argentina and sociality, economically and culturally the British influence could be traced in the principal cities of the country; and sports like football, rugby or polo became popular in the country, together with the trains infrastructure developed with British capitals (1960), and the architecture of some of the most emblematic buildings in the country were designed by English. In exchange, Argentine producers have exported meat, leather, and wool – among many other products – to the United Kingdom for many years.
It is only during the last Argentine dictatorship (1976-1983), when the military facto-government were willing to assert by force the global sovereignty of the country, that the discussions about the Falkland/Malvinas Islands resurfaced violently. In April 1982, Argentine forces landed in the islands. The British government reacted by dispatching army forces. The conflict ended with the Argentine surrender in June, making 649 Argentine, 255 British and three civilian casualties. The Dictatorial Junta finished – because of the general the discontent caused by the defeat – on 10 December 1983.
Since the end of the war and even after the reestablishment of the diplomatic relations between Buenos Aires and London in 1990 during the Presidency of Carlos Menem (Hennesy and King, 1993), the Argentine educational system teaches children, starting at primary school, about the conflict. It aims to remember the Argentine claim over the South Atlantic islands. It celebrates the ‘Day of the Argentine sovereignty over the Malvinas, Sandwich and South Atlantic Islands’ (Ministry of Education of Argentina, n.d.).
The British educational system does not include any special reference to the conflict and remembers the period as the time were Margaret Thatcher was the first woman to become a UK Primer Minister. Meanwhile, in the islands, the British students commemorate the ‘Liberation Day’ on 14 June of each year (MercoPress, 2018). Furthermore, two months after, on 14 August, the ‘Falklands Day’ commemorates the first recorded sighting of the archipelago by John David in the 1592 (MercoPress, 2013).
Argentina and Britain keep substantially (La Nación, 2012) different views about the sovereignty of the islands and the arguments are exposed annually at the Committee of Decolonization of the United Nations (2017). This highlights that war may be commemorated as well to attest or to contest its denouement, of course with higher intensity by directly concerned populations and that commemoration is often taught at school, to perpetuate memory.
The memories are still fresh for those who have participated in or supported the war. The Argentine soldiers that fought in Malvinas were 18 to 22 years old and are now turning 60. The millennials born after the return of the Democracy are still listening to those vivid episodes of the life of their parents and grandparents. The same for the young population living in the islands, while it is more distant for the British public in the mainland.
Additionally, it is important to highlight the role of the media in fuelling the obsession with the commemoration of the war to develop a convenient market of best-seller books, TV specials, documentary and film releases, publications, exhibitions and tours to and around the island’s battlefields (Evans, 2006) .
The Falklands/Malvinas war also creates fascination and rivalry in other fields: many Argentines and Britons are still talking about the ‘Hand of God’ of Maradona during Mexico World Cup, but many prefer to forget its picture wearing a Union Jack T-shirt in 1981 (a year only before the war) when the band Queen played in Buenos Aires (FeelNumb, 2014) , or David Beckham wearing the Argentine national t-shirt while playing with children in Buenos Aires in 2015 (The Telegraph, 2015) . Commemoration does not only take place in official events but also the collective memory and personal stories, modelling the country’s image and collective identity.
For a still-young country like Argentina, the war of 1982 can be considered as one of the bounding points on the national being. This is different in the United Kingdom, as the country has a rich millennial military history and many other battles around the world as a colonial power fighting for sovereignty over a specific piece of territory. Again, the importance is given to war commemoration highly depends on the impact it gave to the country historical trajectory.
Since 2015, Argentina and the United Kingdom started a new chapter of productive relations and symbolic gestures. Recently in 2018, Boris Johnson, in the representation of Her Majesty’s Government, paid tribute to the fallen soldiers in Buenos Aires (HM Government, 2017). While a representative of the Argentine Government saluted the memory of the British soldiers in London, setting a historical precedent twenty years after the first Visit of State of an Argentine Head of State in the UK. Commemoration not only reminds divergences and forges national identity, but it may also celebrate cooperation and shared views.
Indeed, the United Kingdom and Argentina do not only commemorate opposition between themselves. Even if the press of both countries most easily focuses on the South Atlantic sovereignty issue when considering the relationship between both countries, Argentina also fought alongside the British forces.
According to the Anglo-Argentine Society (2017) – a charity founded in London in 1948 – and to the Argentine British Community Council (n.d.) – a charity founded in Buenos Aires in 1939 – 700 volunteers from Argentina fought during WWI, and 530 died on the battlefield. 4,000 Argentines fought in the British Army (BBC, 2005) during WWII, of which 237 lost their lives. In total, 767 Argentine soldiers lost their lives during both World Wars, more than the 649 Argentine casualties reported during the Falklands/Malvinas war.
Those Argentine soldiers did not receive special consideration by the public because the Argentine government remained neutral during both world wars, only breaking relations with the Axis powers on 26 January 1944, declaring war on 27 March 1945 (Galasso, 2006). Recently in 2018, they received mediatic attention with the commemoration of the centennial anniversary of the Armistice of the WWI and the tribute paid by the Chamber of Deputies of the Argentine Parliament for the commemoration of the 73rd anniversary of the end of the WWII (Infobae, 2018).
Events being commemorated or messages during commemorations may progressively evolve to match with the present trends and targets, offering historical causes to more recent developments.
As illustrated by the different and evolving usages of the commemoration of the Falklands/Malvinas War, respectively, in the UK and Argentina, States do commemorate past wars as a form of revindications of their values as nations, setting milestones to explain their history and their present decisions.
Commemorations also develop collective tools of cohesion inside the country or across borders. Their practices, establishing and maintaining ritual dates, spaces, and ceremonies, at official places, around monuments or in individual’s lives, underline the historical continuity of the State, and give emotive and social significance to the past. Present efforts are given to the State.
List of References
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Author’s short bio
Juan Francisco Dávila y Verdin, FRSA is currently taking part in the Master´s Program in International Law and Diplomacy jointly organised by the University for Peace – United Nations Mandated – (UPEACE) and the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR).
In addition, of being the Founder and Managing Director of FuturED, an educational online platform created to contribute to the fulfilment of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, he also serves as a Senior Consultant for TESH Invest S.A., where he is a Board Member of the company. He is also a Board member of the prestigious British San Martín Institute (BSMI), where he manages Communication and Events.
Multilingual, with a background in Finance and Administration and over ten years’ experience in Project Management, Juan worked in international environments with private, public companies, and non-governmental organizations. He has a deep understanding of organizational structure along with the breadth and depth of international experience, which proves his keen ability to navigate through extraordinary challenges.
He is MBA graduated with honours from the International University of Monaco. Juan is also BA (Hons.) in Global Politics and International Relations from Birkbeck, University of London, and is also Bachiller Universitario in History from the Universidad Nacional del Litoral (UNL), in Argentina. In 2021 Juan was awarded Fellow of the prestigious Royal Society for Arts, Manufacturers, and Commerce (RSA), and was elected Member of the Royal Historical Society (RHS) in the United Kingdom.
Recently, Juan Dávila y Verdin represented the University for Peace – United Nations Mandated – (UPEACE) at the UN Climate Change Conference COP26, that took place from 31 October to 12 November 2021 in Glasgow, United Kingdom.
PLEASE NOTE THAT ALL OPINIONS EXPRESSED IN THIS ARTICLE ARE THOSE OF THE AUTHOR ONLY AND DO NOT REPRESENT THE OFFICIAL POSITION OF THE UNIVERSITY FOR PEACE