Estimates of deaths running as high as 2,000 and the return of thousands of prisoners of war--many of them confused, emaciated and badly wounded--are bringing home to Argentines the defeat they have suffered in their attempt to take the Falkland Islands.
Accounts of combatants returning from the front lines that have been published here have cast in a harsh light the poor state of Argentina's defenses. Many young conscripts, conspicuously failing to parrot the official government position blaming the military technology of Britain and the foreign policy of the United States for one of Argentina's worst disasters, have said instead that the troops on the Falklands were poorly managed and supported.
"I'll be glad to return and fight over there," one soldier was quoted as saying, "but only if I have a gun that works."
Their reports, and the wrenching sight of returning conscripts with frostbite or gangrene incurred in the soggy, freezing conditions on the islands because they were poorly equipped, have turned many Argentines from a state of shock and bitterness to a painful examination of their own responsibility. In addition, the country's military leadership, along with much of the populace, has begun to focus on the deficiencies in once-praised military and diplomatic tactics, which now are perceived as riddled with misjudgments and misplaced nationalistic arrogance.
As the process continues, two weeks after the surrender to Britain on the Falklands, recriminations, second-guessing and blame-laying have become pervasive elements in the national debate.
For military leaders, the end of the conflict has raised serious questions about the armed forces' professionalism and the tactical and logistical mistakes that left 8,000 Argentine troops surrounded at the Falklands' capital of Stanley without proper equipment, clothing or even food.
Junior officers, in turn, have denounced the leadership of all three services for leading the country into a conflict hastily and with little planning, then continually misreading Argentina's chances of a successful military outcome.
Foreign Ministry and other government officials are suggesting that Argentina should have been far more flexible in the long rounds of failed negotiations with U.S. and U.N. mediators, and should probably have accepted several of the diplomatic settlements that were offered to the ruling junta before the final ground battle began.
Both civilian leaders and much of the rest of the country, meanwhile, are blaming both the government and themselves for what is being called "triunfalicismo," triumphialism, which led to nearly unanimous support for fighting to the end of a conflict that, in the euphoria of patriotism, most Argentines were convinced they would win.
"There is an element of solidarity in that all share responsibility," said Carlos Floria, a prominent writer and political commentator. Added another Argentine social scientist, "This was a national cause, and no one faced up to the reality of the situation."
Meanwhile, in a drab Army office compound in central Buenos Aires, the hardest truths of the military adventure--computer lists of the wounded, missing and dead--finally have been coming home to Argentina.
"All you feel is this tremendous pain in your soul, which rises up and clears away everything else in your mind," said Marta Oviedo, who filed through the Army Geographic Institute at the weekend only to be told that her 19-year-old cousin was one of 2,500 Army soldiers still unaccounted for.
"You can't live, you can't eat, you can't sleep," Oviedo said, standing outside the compound and holding the hands of her two young children. "All the problems that existed here before have now only become so much worse."
Another woman, Celino Franco de Alvarez, repeated what was perhaps the most common reaction of families who have waited anxiously for news from a disorderly and secretive government. "There were so many deaths for nothing," she said, "when we could have had the islands tomorrow without all of the spilling of blood."
The pain of the defeat has dramtically changed what throughout most of the crisis was fervent support among politicians, the press and other leaders for Argentina's initial invasion of the islands April 2 and its subsequent insistence that "sovereignty is not negotiable," a phrase that became a familiar refrain for the ruling junta and civilian leaders.
While the conflict was still at its height, one Argentine politician, Alvaro Alsogaray, was widely denounced as a traitor for suggesting that Argentina should have accepted the final peace proposal of U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar, which called for a U.N. administration for the Falklands with Argentine representation while negotiations between Britain and Argentina took place.
Now, columnists and politicians who attacked Alsogaray have begun praising him and agreeing that Argentina should have accepted the proposal.
The newsmagazine Gente, which strongly supported the junta's hard line, this week published a lengthy analysis of the conflict that suggested Argentina might have immediately withdrawn its troops from the islands after the April 2 invasion, thus returning to the negotiating table after having drawn the world's attention to the problem and stimulating Britain to act.
Within the military, there has been much recrimination about the planning and logistics of Argentina's operations on the Falklands, from the initial invasion to the response to the landing of British troops on East Falkland island May 22.
Much of this debate as been muffled within the barracks where military leaders have been feuding since the Falklands commander, Gen. Mario Benjamin Menendez, signed his surrender June 14. But other military leaders have spoken out openly. One retired general, Carlos Delia Larroca, was reported yesterday to have been placed under arrest for a television appearance in which he harshly attacked the Argentine strategy of fortifying positions around the main town of Stanley while failing to launch a strong attack on British troops when they first landed.
Much of the feuding within the armed forces that brought down Leopoldo Galtieri as president and Army chief and that led to the withdrawal of the Army and Navy from the military government can be tied to the questioning of military and diplomatic policy in the conflict.
As Argentina's preparations for war and supply of proper arms, materiel and trained soldiers to the Falklands is reviewed, much of the blame falls on the brigade generals, on the Army general staff responsible for logistics and the field commanders who planned tactics.
Many of these generals are reported to be furious with being assigned responsibility, however, and have sought to shift the burden to the junta members and top-ranking generals who made the policy decision to launch the invasion and who later misjudged the results of the early battles and believed Argentina did not need a diplomatic settlement. Sources close to the military say it is in large part these tensions that have raised the possibility of a new coup within the Army, a danger serious enough to have been publicly raised by incoming president Reynaldo Bignone last week.
The greatest misjudgments now attributed to the high military command, both inside and outside the services, involve the role of the United States. In the last week, Argentine commentators have for the first time reported that Galtieri and the ruling junta strongly expected that Argentina's good relations with the United States would act as a buffer to any strong British reaction after the initial invasion.
In addition, much of Argentina's reluctance to negotiate a settlement even after the United States backed Britain in the crisis is now attributed to a perception by the government leadership that U.S. officials, worried over ties to Latin America, would ultimately prevent Britain from launching a final military attack on the islands.
But even when these judgments proved wrong, Argentina and its government were carried along by the euphoria and high nationalistic spirit brought on by the initial invasion--a national unity that was endlessly praised during the conflict but is now looked back upon with some bitterness.
"We could have stopped at the beginning and come out with a diplomatic victory," said one political leader privately. "But instead we all gathered in the Plaza de Mayo and cheered Galtieri when he said we would fight to the last drop of blood. We sent our governor and all the politicians over there the first week, and after that, there was no way to get out."