A touching memorial to a pointless war

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The Independent US

Why is it that on these bleak moorlands where Britain and Argentina fought one of the more pointless and avoidable wars of modern days, a wry old saying from Communist times keeps coming to mind? "The future is certain," disbelievers in the coming Marxist paradise would joke as history was rewritten one more time. "Only the past is in question."

Why is it that on these bleak moorlands where Britain and Argentina fought one of the more pointless and avoidable wars of modern days, a wry old saying from Communist times keeps coming to mind? "The future is certain," disbelievers in the coming Marxist paradise would joke as history was rewritten one more time. "Only the past is in question."

The past in question here? Surely not? Whether or not the 1982 battle for the Falklands might have been prevented by abler diplomacy and a modicum of patience is one thing; but the outcome banished all argument, a victory that secured the islands' future under the British crown.

Almost two decades on, most of the outward scars of 1982 have healed. Argentina may have written sovereignty over the Falklands into its constitution but otherwise relations with Britain are normal. And since 1999 a monthly flight, albeit run by the Chileans, links the islands with the mainland 300 miles away, permitting relatives to visit their dead buried at the Darwin cemetery in East Falkland.

It is a deeply touching place, a small plot, surrounded by a white palisade fence, containing some 250 graves. Some bear messages from relatives, others the inscription: "An Argentine Soldier Known Unto God." All have a white cross at the headstone and bunches of bright plastic flowers.

Now, however, the Argentines want to embellish it with a monument. Nothing has been officially proposed, but published accounts suggest it would be built in marble of white and blue, Argentina's national colours, and tower over the treeless landscape. And, unsurprisingly, the locals will not have it. Part of the problem is a clash between Latin grandiosity and a British fondness for understatement, in death as in most things in life.

This is where they fought the battle of Goose Green, but only a cairn and some white-painted stones, arranged in the rough shape of a human body, mark the place where Lt-Col H Jones was killed by a sniper, in the action for which he was awarded a posthumous VC. The monument near by to the fallen of 2 Para, staring out over waters glinting gold and silver in the late afternoon sun, is scarcely more elaborate.

For poignancy and restraint, however, even these memorials cannot match the one on Sealion Island. The island's colonies of penguins, sealions and wild birds make it the Falklands' most remarkable civilian tourist attraction. On 4 May 1982, HMS Sheffield was hit some 40 miles out to sea by an Exocet missile fired by an Argentinian Super Etendard.

Standing a few yards from colonies of cormorants and rockhopper penguins is a small stone monument, virtually indistinguishable from the cliffs and crags. It bears a plaque with 20 names. Beneath, in a glass case against the tearing winds, are small wreaths of plastic red poppies, faded nonetheless. There is nothing else, and as you gaze out into the icy and boundless southern ocean, nothing else is needed.

All this is one reason why the planned Argentinian monument would be out of place. But there is more. As Communists well understood, fights over the past are fights about the present and the future.

Falklanders will tell you that 1982 is history. They point to the booming local economy, the lucrative fishing industry and the prospect of substantial oil finds, as evidence that the future is rosy. And, indeed, apart from a monument by the waterfront, and the streets named after Margaret Thatcher and Jeremy Moore, the commander of the invasion, the tiny capital, Stanley, carries hardly a trace of the war. In fact, however, it intrudes everywhere - from the lecture every incoming passenger at Mount Pleasant Airbase receives about mines, to the fenced-off minefields themselves; from the trenches and foxholes still visible at Goose Green to the fragments of shot-down Argentinian planes and other detritus of war, gathered up into makeshift museums out in the settlements.

Less tangibly, the argument over the Darwin monument is part of Argentina's unrelinquished claim of sovereignty. Officials in Buenos Aires may hate to deal directly with the local island council, because it undermines that claim. But under the 1999 agreement with Britain over the Falklands, they have to. So the structure, in the form the islanders have rejected, comes across not so much as a shrine to the fallen, but as a giant Argentinian flagstaff proclaiming to the world that, fleeting facts on the ground notwithstanding, las Malvinas son nuestras.

"Yes we'll keep talking, and they are entitled to their monument," one of the councillors told me. "But we don't want a 30ft cross in blue and white, complete with a chapel and the Virgin Mary." It may safely be said that they will not get one.

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