Fortress Falklands: A Book Review

In early 1986, shortly after arriving in the Falkland Islands for my dissertation research under a Fulbright-Hays research fellowship, my wife and I took a hike into the hills west of Stanley, the Islands’ capital and only town. Hoping to glimpse the panorama of Stanley Harbour and the East Falkland countryside, we ascended the flanks toward the summit of the 1093-ft (333m) Mount Kent but, as we approached, we found our way blocked by polite but firm British squaddies. After the 1982 conflict in which Argentina invaded the Falklands, only to be dislodged after 74 days, the mountain had become home to a Royal Air Force radar station that was not open to the public.

Whether the squaddies would have been quite so jovial had they known my wife was an Argentine – she traveled to the Islands on her US passport – I rather doubt. Still, I couldn’t help thinking of that when, as I read Graham Bound’s Fortress Falklands, the author regularly bemoaned his lack of access to the British military command and the RAF’sMount Pleasant facilities, which also serve as the Islands’ international airport.

It’s not as if Bound might be an Argentine agent – Falklands-born, though he now lives in London, he’s served as a military correspondent for the BBC and has worked in far riskier environments such as Afghanistan. Certainly he has the credibility to make judgments on the Islands’ defenses without giving away any confidential material but, as the sensitive 30th anniversary of the Argentine invasion approached, he apparently got stonewalled and had to rely on retired military and his own online research for that specific topic.

That’s unfortunate, but it barely detracts from a book which, despite a rather sensationalist subtitle (“Life Under Siege in Britain’s Last Outpost”) focuses as much or more on a distinctive people who have inhabited their insular homeland for up to nine generations. In fact, he is one of them, descended from a family that arrived in the 1840s; he founded Penguin News, the Islands’ only newspaper, and there’s probably nobody better qualified to present an insider’s viewpoint while simultaneously providing an outsider’s critical observations. He is also a longtime acquaintance of mine; though I haven’t seen him face-to-face since 1995, when he made a speaking tour to present the Islanders’ case to Argentines in Buenos Aires), we have remained in somewhat irregular communication.

Since the 1982 war, the Falklands have become a prosperous place, thanks to fishing, tourism and (potentially) oil, but Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s irredentist jingoism continues to trouble a population that would welcome constructive engagement with a country that, among other measures, has prohibited charter flights over its airspace, harassed Islands-bound cruise ships and fishing vessels, and withdrawn from marine conservation efforts that were mutually beneficial.

At the same time, he even-handedly discusses both the achievements and weaknesses of local society, where the standard of living has risen dramatically since the 1980s but, while some local entrepreneurs have earned previously unthinkable fortunes and unemployment is virtually non-existent, there is still a notable economic inequality. As the traditional rural way of life on sheep ranches has declined, the lifestyle has become more sedentary, and health problems such as obesity are becoming a concern. The oil industry is a potential threat to the abundant wildlife and maritime resources, but the Argentine government’s withdrawal from fishing agreements menaces the migratory Illex squid stocks on which the Islands’ prosperity depends.

Until the recent selection of Pope Francis I in Rome, last week’s Falklands referendum in which Islanders overwhelmingly affirmed their desire to continue as a “self-governing British territory” made huge headlines in Argentina, where president Fernández and her administration went out of their way to dismiss its legitimacy – to the point of declaring that Falkland Islanders did not even exist. In his book, Bound stresses Islanders’ concerns that Argentina will continue to make things difficult and could even take military action; certainly, the Argentine government is deaf to the worries of a people who were outnumbered at least five to one during the 1982 occupation. To get an idea of what the Islanders experienced then, imagine Argentina occupied by the entire population of Brazil.

It’s not just solidarity in the face of occupation by Argentina’s brutal military dictatorship that suggests the Islanders are a people. In one chapter, Bound posits a “soul of the Falklands” to describe an hospitable lifestyle that, despite the dramatic changes since the 1980s, still survives. That began to change when I lived there, as some farmhouses became guesthouses for tourists intrigued by penguins, elephant seals and other wildlife – until then, it would never have occurred to anyone to charge a guest for room and board.

I would have liked to see him analyze some other traits that characterize the Islanders such as, for instance, their distinctive speech. While not everybody speaks with a thick Falklands accent, there’s no doubt it’s unique: one Islander who worked on ships around the world told me that people often inquired about his accent, but no one was ever able to guess his origins. Difficult even for some native English speakers from other countries, it’s probably closest to New Zealand or Australian speech, but even that’s misleading, and there’s a local vocabulary that takes some learning.

As it happened, Islanders voted by a margin of 1,513 to three to continue their current political status. On the basis of my own experience there, I would say this near unanimity was a legitimate result, though it led to speculation or even gossip, in a small community, as to the dissenters’ identity. It’s worth adding that “No” votes not did not necessarily favor Argentina – rather, the voters in question may believe in independence or some other option not on the ballot.

Personally, I know quite a few Islanders, some of them mentioned by name in the book, and I consider the near-unanimous results credible. In fact, I can think of at least two Argentine residents (with dual nationality) who I would be pretty sure voted “Yes.” The last time I was in Stanley, there was even one Argentine woman in the local police force.

While some Islanders and Bound himself consider Argentina a military threat, I am less convinced. President Fernández mistrusts the armed forces and has reduced their budget to a shoestring, to the point where one mothballed warship recently sank at the Bahía Blanca naval base. According to the Buenos Aires daily Clarín, a congressional report has noted than fewer than 20 percent of its air force planes are in flying condition. On one expat newsgroup, I read the following sardonic assessment of Argentina’s military capabilities:

“For all practical intents and purposes, Argentina has no military. Yes, it has the legal entities representing the Army, Navy and Air Force, respectively, but that is it. Those are just empty shells. Its ships can’t sail, its planes can’t fly and its army has no ammo or fuel. To get troops to the Falklands, Argentina would have two choices: 1) The Argentinian invading forces could all take a bus to Santiago, Chile, and from there book a flight on LAN to Port Stanley. It would probably take several flights to get a significant number of troops over there. So the soldiers that arrive there first would probably have to book rooms at the local hotels and wait, which would add additional costs to the invasion. Also, the AFIP [tax agency] would need to approve the expenses in advance and provide the currency, which can also be an issue.”

Even given the obvious hyperbole there, I view any Argentine military action as improbable and, in a recent email, Bound agreed that he may have overstated the small probability of another invasion. Argentina will continue to try to isolate the Islands, though, perhaps even withdrawing permission for the weekly LAN Airlines flight from Chile (Bound mentions a surprising local proposal to seek an alternative airlink from Miami, which could avoid overflying Argentine air space).

Still, any rhetorical retreat on Argentina’s part is unlikely, at least in the near future. As Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel might say, the volume may go up to 11.

For readers in the Southern Cone, Fortress Falklands is available in translation as Fortaleza Malvinas, at least in bookstores in Uruguay, but not in Argentina.