BUENOS AIRES -- Mounted for stage or screen it would be pure farce: A bunch of puffed-up South American generals, their dictatorship rotting from within, decide to whip up a little nationalistic fervor by seizing a group of remote, essentially useless islands from the fading colonial power that rules them. The empire strikes back, the generals botch everything and in two months a silly little war has come and gone.
But for the nearly 10,000 Argentine young men who lived this scenario, fighting in 1982 with Great Britain over the Falkland Islands, what seems a silly little war was a hell of futility. Outgunned and outmaneuvered, they suffered heavy losses in a humiliating defeat.
Now the Argentine government is building a monument to the 1,300 who died in the war for the Malvinas Islands, as the Falklands are called here, focusing new attention on the way the society sent untrained, ill-equipped young men to fight for a lost cause -- and then shunned them when they came home.
"We knew the truth of what happened out there," said Gaston Marano, a young architect who fought in the war, "and nobody wanted to hear it. They're building a monument to the dead, but what about the living?"
The veterans were promised jobs, education, subsidies, a smooth transition to civilian life. But none of this materialized. Veterans have long complained of discrimination, of being looked at by potential employers as wild, unstable, somehow undesirable.
A recent study by the Ministry of Social Action of Buenos Aires province, where around half the veterans live, showed that only 60 percent had stable jobs. The rest were evenly divided between those who managed only to find temporary work and those entirely unemployed.
The government provided initial medical care for the wounded, but little follow-up. There was no psychological evaluation for the returning soldiers, which veterans' groups cite as a major factor in the more than 40 suicides among Malvinas veterans since the brief war's end.
Like U.S. troops coming home from Vietnam, the young soldiers returning from the Malvinas were a reproach to both government and society. Journalist Daniel Kon, author of "The Boys of the War," a book about the veterans, said: "They were like a mirror. They showed us in all our corruption."
The attempt to take and hold the bleak archipelago off Argentina's southeastern coast seems likely to go down as one of the most badly bungled military adventures of the century.
On April 2, 1982, Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri -- head of Argentina's ruling military junta -- announced that troops had seized the islands, long claimed as Argentine soil. Reinforcements were poured in as Galtieri spoke of his intention to "negotiate" a settlement with Great Britain that would leave the islands once and for all in Argentine hands.
The military had taken power six years earlier in a coup and, through heavy international borrowing, had produced a largely illusory prosperity. But the true economic picture was beginning to become evident, and resentment was festering over the regime's brutal excesses -- about 9,000 Argentines had disappeared or been killed in the "dirty war" against the left. The taking of the Malvinas provided an instant boost of patriotic support.
The troops immediately available to be sent to defend the islands against a British attack, which Galtieri said he believed would never come, were 18- and 19-year-old conscripts just one month into their year of mandatory military service. Since they were such raw recruits, the armed forces also called back the previous year's group.
There was practically no training. Most of the newer recruits had fired no more than a half-dozen live rounds with their weapons. Marano, ostensibly with a company of commandos, had fired two. In Kon's book, soldiers describe almost comical scenes on the islands with officers, noncoms and privates all puzzling over how to go about establishing a defensive position.
From the start, the combat troops -- many of them sent from Argentina's poor northern regions, which have a near-tropical climate -- were cold and wet in the inadequate clothing they had been issued. They were hungry, as supplies were ostensibly sent but somehow never arrived. One veteran told Kon of his shame at having to steal for the first time in his life. With the chain of command in shambles, soldiers organized themselves into packs with the purpose of requisitioning food.
"The minute the fighting started, my lieutenant took off," said Lorenzo Sandoval, who had been stationed in the highlands overlooking the capital of Port Stanley, briefly renamed Puerto Argentino during the takeover.
Most of the Argentine casualties came at sea with the sinking of a cruiser, the General Belgrano. Combat on the ground was fierce, but the Argentines were no match for the British and most of the defending force surrendered quickly.
All the while, Argentines back home were told they were winning the war. Suddenly the Belgrano was sunk, the British were back in control of the islands and "the boys" were coming home not in victory but on the British transport ship Canberra, where many had their first square meal in weeks.
At first there were parades. Then the soldiers began to tell their stories of the hunger they had faced, the lack of weapons and ammunition, the way their officers had failed them. The regime tried to keep them quiet, moving those who talked too much to bases where visitors were not allowed. Still, inexorably, the truth came out.
The following year democracy returned to Argentina, a transition most commentators believe was hastened by the botched military campaign. With new challenges to confront, people lost interest in what the veterans were saying. "The boys" all but disappeared.
When Galtieri and the two other junta members were put on trial for their conduct of the war, few paid attention. They were convicted and sent to prison, but released after President Carlos Menem pardoned them and other military officers several months ago.
Reliable data are scarce, but all indications are that many veterans have had a traumatic readjustment.
"There is the employment problem, the discrimination and the suicides, but we also see a host of minor problems in daily life," said physician Nestor Larsen, who also fought in the hills above Port Stanley and who is president of a veterans' center in the city of La Plata. "We see a lot of people who can't keep a stable spousal relationship or who are abusive in the home. We see a lot of divorces and separations. We see a very high dropout rate among those who went back to school."
Officials at the center hope to be able soon to provide physical and psychological health services, job training and referral and a day-care center to La Plata-area veterans. The provincial government has begun to give some help to the organization, and the group recently was able to give subsidies of about $100 each to families of 91 veterans who were facing financial hardship. "That's the first time in eight years we've been able to give anyone that much," said Rodolfo Carrizo, secretary of the center.
But the group's request to the province to provide minimal pensions for the Malvinas veterans and the families of the dead is gathering dust.
Some veterans have drifted into right-wing groups that support retired Col. Mohamed Ali Seineldin, the leader of a rebel army faction. These former soldiers are sharply critical of Menem's decision to reestablish diplomatic relations with Great Britain, leaving the issue of who owns the islands to be dealt with later.
Now, in downtown Buenos Aires across a busy avenue from a Big Ben-style clock tower -- a present, decades ago, from the British -- the government is building a monument to the Malvinas dead. "There will be a great parade, . . . the least we can do for those who gave their lives," Menem said last November in announcing the monument. The veterans of La Plata are not impressed.
"The society is not complying with any of its promises to the veterans because it does not want to comply," said Marano. "And now they are building a monument. At first it didn't bother me, but I realized it is just part of the same chauvinistic attitude. The monument is only to hide the guilt."