When someone asked the commander in chief of the Argentine Army, Cristino Nicolaides, about Argentina's humiliating loss of the Falkland Islands war, he replied that it "didn't mean anything" -- Argentina "didn't lose anything at all."
A few weeks later, journalists here published an interview with a high military official -- easily recognized as former President Leopoldo Galtieri -- that posed the question of what 1,900 casualties meant to a defeated nation. Answer: "Do you know how many people die each year in traffic accidents?"
This month, a group of Falkland Islands veterans grew worried that their country had never accepted the reality of its first modern armed conflict. They tried to organize an open-air mass, and invited all who cheered on that hysterical adventure to come and contemplate the wounded and dead.
The public gathering permit was denied. "We submitted the application eight days in advance, according to the law," a member of the group morosely explained. "But they told us it had to be eight days not counting Saturday and Sunday."
Welcome to postwar Argentina. Six months after its ignominious surrender at Port Stanley, the country that dreamed up the Western world's most fantastical modern war has found an equally surreal method of recovering from it: "desmalvinizacion."
This is not just the pained sublimation of a national tragedy, and it is not the Vietnam- like rejection of a lost cause that never had full popular support. Instead, what can be found here is something like the psychic inverse of the euphoria that once made Argentines believe they were sinking aircraft carriers and winning diplomatic victories even as a puzzled world watched their defeat.
Argentina still dwells with its own distinctive reality. Its armed forces seem insistent in recording what was once "Latin America's rebirth" as a minor setback that had little consequence for the country. Much of its population, meanwhile, has appeared to awake from a three-month dream of omnipotence with a profound but unfocused depression.
If the dream is now remembered, it is only in bits, distorted and mixed with other, recurring Argentine nightmares. People here are angry. They are desperate and unrelentingly defeatist. They are even nihilistic. But, just as before, almost no one talks about what really happened in the war.
"The great national cause that shook the country as never before . . . now not only seems remote, but even forgotten -- forgotten, we would almost say, on purpose," wrote the newspaper columnist Manfred Schonfeld on the six-month anniversary of the Argentine surrender.
Schonfeld's column was the sole item that mentioned the Falkland Islands defeat in Buenos Aires' five major newspapers that morning. The headlines were about other disasters -- the ravaged economy, the stalled "transition" to democracy, the thousands of disappeared from the military's earlier internal "dirty war." The humiliation of the Falklands may be behind all of these bitter themes; but like a kind of traceless specter, it is the one always left unmentioned.
It was an imaginary war, after all -- 1,000 miles away and so brief, frantic and distorted. No one ever saw what happened beyond the doctored and invented pictures on state television and in the weekly magazines; no one ever heard much more than the flaming propaganda and staccato communique,s, wrapped in strains of victory songs.
A lot of history is still missing, and Argentines often say they find it hard to believe that any of it really took place. There have been no after-action reports, no visible craters to mend, no refugees to feed, no blood on television. Most of the veterans have gone back to military bases or to the poor rural lives they were conscripted from.
Perhaps it isn't surprising that even the veterans remember mainly the myths. A book of soldier's accounts published here is remarkable not so much for its history as for its psychology, its portrait of the Argentine mind.
Here in these purportedly first-hand accounts of the war is a bit of realistic grumbling about scarce food and cold trenches, and a strange, rich outpouring of apocrypha that not even a war-stories label can explain. Much like their frantic commanders in the days after the surrender, the soldiers improbably describe space-age weapons decimating their defenses and eliminating any chance of a man-to-man fight. Massive British losses are described by troops who claim to know first hand what the official war communique,s recounted.
But most commonly, the recruits talk of the Ghurkas, the Nepalese troops used largely as a reserve force by the British task force. Back in Buenos Aires during the war, the Ghurkas were a central part of the collective myth; in Argentina's fevered and characteristically racist imagination, the Ghurkas embodied all of the cold, uncivilized horror of the "colonialistic fleet."
Now, straight from the front, Argentines are reading that their worst visions were true. "The Ghurkas advanced very stimulated, heavily doped, they were killing each other," says one soldier identified as Guillermo. "If another one got in their line of fire they didn't care."
Other soldiers tell of Ghurkas pouring over their lines in human waves, mindless of mines, bombs and all attempts to stop them. Ghurkas are pictured mercilessly cutting down prisoners. Doped Ghurkas, wired to rock music on portable stereos, grin maniacally as they slit the throats of the wounded.
None of it is true, of course. The official reports say the Nepalese saw limited combat and none were killed in action. But no matter. This book, "Los Chicos de la Guerra" (The Boys of the War) by independent journalist Daniel Kon has been at the top of best- seller lists for months and had reportedly sold 30,000 copies by late November. It is the only successful book here on the Falklands conflict. The some 15 other titles available, including translations of histories written in Britain, are already being remaindered, a recent newspaper survey reported.
In the first days after the defeat, newspapers and politicians here called on the government to provide an honest account of what took place, to tell Argentines once and for all the truth about the war. The official answer was largely silence, with an occasional, grumbled "It didn't mean anything."
Finally, a few weeks back, the government established a commission to look into the matter, composed of a few retired senior officers. But there is not so much comment now, in any case, about the need for explanations.
In the aftermath of an event so intangible, so largely imagined, the bitterness and the despair have seemed to fit more easily with more clear-cut, more familiar disasters. And so it is that after a brief period of largely superficial criticism and recriminations, Argentines have passed sequentially through the long record of failures and crimes of their six- year-old military government, previously unpursued and largely undiscussed.
Only weeks after the Port Stanley surrender, but not before the World Cup soccer championships ended, the popular focus seemed to shift back to the economy, and to the "crimes" of the military's parade of economic ministers. From there, as the military rulers feuded and weakened, it was a quick step to the financial scandals: the secret millions made by high officers, the rake-offs on public contracts, the millions wasted on expensive weapons, airline jumbo jets and soccer stadiums.
Finally public attention settled on Argentina's other "war," the one that was fought years earlier on the streets of the cities by the military and its paramilitary allies and that ended with closer to 19,000 than 1,900 casualties. For the first time, Argentines are talking openly and heatedly about the thousands of disappearances during military rule, and the demands for a accounting of that campaign are growing more and more intense. When the promised military departure from power is discussed, it is this "dirty war," not the Falklands conflict, that is seen as the one account that must be settled.
Many politicians and social analysts here believe that it is the anti-military rage brought on by the Falklands defeat that has pushed public attention toward these issues, and there are even those who argue that in that sense, the military's decisive defeat was one of the better things that has happened to Argentina in its recent tumultuous history.
"The Army used to be perceived as a force of order -- bad or good, but as a solid symbol of order," one political scientist here said. "Now the country feels like someone who turned over all their affairs to a surgeon, only to find out that he couldn't even perform his most basic professional skill, that he didn't know what to do with a scalpel." The result, he said, has been a complete loss of the armed forces' traditional authority in Argentina.
But there is more to the popular sentiment than an awakening to the military's ills. There is also a relentless kind of fatalism. Friends and neighbors tirelessly repeat to each other these days the list of Argentina's historic political and cultural maladies, ticking them off with a kind of morbid pleasure. Politicians privately confess they don't really believe the elections they are campaigning for will ever come about.
The country's most popular weekly magazine, which spent much of the war glorifying the "new" Argentina, ran a picture on its cover after the war of a family standing in a trash can. "We are all kelpers," the headline announced, using the slang term for British- protected residents of the Falklands, whom Argentina has always dubbed "second-class citizens."
"I thought of the Canberra, the organization, coordination and respect with which the English operated," a veteran is quoted as saying in Kon's best-selling book. "And I started to wonder: 'What's wrong with us Argentines?' . . . and I didn't find an answer."
Amid all the self-conscious gloom, the mirror-image of the soaring nationalism of the war, there is an escape in the relentless reviews of Army scandals and even of the disappeared. For these were failures that can concretely be blamed on the present government and directly, at least, on few others.
The Falklands conflict is different. When the adventure is discussed here, it is often dealt with as another junta disaster -- the tactical misjudgments are stressed and former junta leader Galtieri is routinely described as "messianic." But the criticims have a hollow ring. The very politicians who demand explanations of the failure backed the invasion to the hilt and toured the captured islands with military leaders, and the newspapers that heap abuse on Galtieri's arrogance themselves have fresh files full of rosy accounts of Argentina's victories and the impossibility of defeat.
The angry crowds that gather now in the streets to demand the military's ouster packed the squares in twice the numbers six months ago to wave Argentine flags and serenade the junta with versions of the national anthem.
This was a disaster that belongs to all Argentina. And so, to rage at the military's economic failings and human rights abuses, to despair over the chances of a return to democracy and to mourn the "insanity" of the Falklands campaign is, in a sense, to avoid once again the hardest realities.
"Surely and instinctively we will look at our neighbors and like the humans we are we will find the first blame in others," Reynaldo Bignone, the modest retired general installed by the Army as president, said in his first speech two weeks after the surrender. But, he urged Argentines, "Let us say first what part of the blame did I have . . . It is this that will obligate us to look inside ourselves and to change."
As it turned out, neither government or public ever followed the president's advice.