The following day Ignacio phoned my hotel and asked to see me again. He had bought my book and read it in one sitting and wanted to talk things over with me. He picked me up that evening and we headed for a bar and stayed there till five the next morning. I liked Ignacio very much, and that was a little awkward for me because Ignacio had been an officer in the Argentine army and I had always cast Argentine officers, because of their treatment of the conscripts, as the real villains of the war. But I know that Ignacio never treated any of his men badly. I just know that.
Fourteen years on, Ignacio still carries his burdens of war – like all of us, I guess. His main one concerns three British soldiers that he saw one morning silhouetted on the skyline. He lifted his rifle and aimed and began to squeeze, but then stopped. He couldn’t do it. He felt it would have been murder, even though no-one on the planet could have accused him of such. Now he lies awake, or stops during the day, or thinks at traffic lights, and wonders how many Argentine lives those three British soldiers ended up taking. If, of course, any.
And all I could say to console him was that either way he was a loser. If he had killed he would be worrying today that he had taken a life unjustly. And both of us realised that all of us had lost as soon as we’d set foot on the islands. Except not really. Because my side had won by over two-an-a-half to one.
On my second Friday in Buenos Aires, my birthday, I was invited to meet some Argentine veterans who had actually shot bullets at me, or at least people dressed very like me, at Goose Green. We were to meet at a restaurant on the Avenue Belgrano, and, like the good soldier I still sometimes am, I arrived five minutes early.
I was met at the door by the woman who had arranged the meeting, Julia Pacheco, and was surprised to realise that I had met her five days before at the Buenos Aires book fair. Small world. Ms Pachenco is an author and she has just published her second book in Argentina on the Falklands conflict, ‘Malvinas: What next?’
I was shown to a table at the back of the restaurant, pointed to a seat, and introduced to a veteran, who was sitting opposite me; a translator, who sat next to the veteran; and another man, who was in his sixties and balding. I never really got to discover who he was.
When I shook hands with the veteran I felt, maybe because of his grip or the briefness of the contact, that he didn’t want to do that. His problem, hey? Then, via the translator, he asked his first question: “How do you sleep at night?”
Now me, I think that there’s a bit of poor translation going on here and what he must mean is: “How do any of us sleep at night, after what we all went through, during those terrible days?” But no. His face said something very different. It said: “How do you sleep at night after what you’ve done?” And once again, I think: “His problem, hey?”
Before I could get my: “What do you mean by that?” out, the room suddenly becomes very bright. I hear voices behind me, turn and come face-to-face with a television crew being followed by a whole pile of people. And they are not happy people, because they are all screaming in emotional Spanish – and whatever it is they are saying, it is aimed at me. Suddenly the veteran in front of me starts shouting, I turn, look once more into his eyes, and then I become scared. And I still don’t know what it is I am supposed to have done. Over the noise the translator tries to explain that I am a murderer, a war criminal. That I executed an Argentine soldier after the cease-fire.
And for about half a second, I think, thank Christ, they’ve got me mixed up with someone else. But no. Almost as one, three or four of them pull out photocopied pages from my book and start waving them and screaming at me a whole lot more.
And I become frightened. And a bit of my brain gives thanks that a TV crew are there because at least – hopefully – they can’t lynch me in front of the cameras.
To my left a female voice starts shouting and I turn to see what are for sure a whole group of mothers. And I pray, dear God, please don’t let them be the mothers of soldiers who died on Wireless Ridge. Please. And now I’m really scared.
At one point I stood to get something out of my pocket. A hand was placed on each of my shoulders and I was forced back down again. I stood again but was hit in the back. It didn’t really hurt and I turned to stand eyeball-to-eyeball with the veteran who had hit me. And I thought, and I don’t know why – training I guess – palm up fast under his chin, then smash his skull backwards in the wall 12 inches behind him. But I held back and I sat down again.
How it all ended now is a blur – they all arrived as one and, with a few exceptions who had then pulled out, they left as one, fists waving, screaming all the way to the door.
Then I got to have my somewhat shaken say to the TV cameras, though the first question took me back a little. In fact, a lot. I had just been accused on national television of committing war crimes, and the first thing I was asked was whether I believed the sinking of the Belgrano was a crime against humanity. And I wanted to scream at the TV journalist: “Listen, I was a fucking nobody with a rifle. What the fuck has the sinking of the Belgrano got to do with me?” But of course I didn’t say that. I said I didn’t know. Our Parliament had been lied to, for sure, but I didn’t know. Then I refuted the allegations that had been aimed against me. The Argentine soldier was armed and I was a professional soldier. If I had not shot him I truly believe that he would have shot me.
And I felt I was in a horrible position, because for me to say: “Please listen, the Argentine soldier who I killed on Wireless Ridge was a pop-up target. No more. No less.” Seemed callous, cruel even. But it’s true. And this is also true: my mind at the time I put paid to his future may have been having a thousand thoughts and my heart may have been in a state of complete panic, but my right index finger wasn’t getting involved. As it squeezed the trigger on my SMG 9mm, it remained calm, as did the rest of my body. And then the word “calm” worried me. Because added to “killing” or “killer”, it turns it up a notch or two. It forced me to wonder if I really was the cold, ruthless killing machine that so many books and paper articles say that members of my Regiment are.
The news crew left. I sat down, stunned, as if I’d just come out of combat. All I wanted then was to leave. But I could see that, outside, the veterans and mothers were still huddled on the pavement. Then the restaurant door flew open again and back came three of the mothers – who, I was about to discover, had all lost sons on the Belgrano – screaming and sobbing and heading my way. They reached my table, stood in a line facing me, and the one who had been the most vocal before, started pointing and shouting into my eyes all over again, while the other two provided backing vocals. And they held so much anger and hate, so much grief that they reminded me of a group of Bosnian peasants I had seen, distressing to camera while their village burned on a hillside out of focus in the background.
One of the ladies, still crying, still accusing, still hating my way, fumbled in her purse. She pulled from it a small black-and-white photograph and held it under my nose. It was of her son, standing proud in his white dress uniform. He looked about twelve, and I wanted to say sorry he was dead.
And I wanted to ask: “How old was he? Please?” But she didn’t want to hear it. The other two brought out similar photographs of their dead sons. And they cried so much I wanted to hold them.
But there was no way that I could. And then, shame on me, I got angry with them for what they were putting me through, and I wanted to jump up and shout back. “Don’t you understand – your son was me and my mother was you.” But that was not really true. Their sons were dead and I was one of the men aboard the MV Norland who had cheered the day they had died. Three hundred less of the bastards to worry about.
The mothers then left, with one final show of anger, and I pleaded with the translator to tell me what they had said. “Really, you don’t want to know.”
Eventually I could no longer see anyone through the restaurant glass and I left. And quickly. Outside, further up the pavement, they were still giving talking heads to the TV news crews. Just as they spotted me, I jumped into a cab, and looking out of the rear window all the way, I returned to my hotel. I checked out immediately, and sought sanctuary for the night at the house of some Argentine friends. They told me that on television the veterans had called for my immediate arrest and detainment to await a war-crimes trial. They were horrified for me and tried to cheer me up with a bottle of birthday champagne and wishes for my future, but my thoughts were elsewhere. Everywhere. And I couldn’t stop pushing them through my mind.
A lot of my thoughts were angry. I wish that I had shouted at the veterans: “Shame you weren’t this brave in back 1982.” I also really wished that I had thought to say: “You outnumbered me back in ’82 and I wasn’t fucking scared of you then, and I’m not fucking scared of you now.” Though, of course, this would have been a complete lie. I was very scared. Especially back when we were killing each other. No messing. No words.
And no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t stop imagining things I might have said: “You want to ask me anything? Ask me about the wounded, screaming Argentine soldier that Bill and me had run out to under shellfire – your shellfire, I might add – to pull into cover. Or go find the Argentine sergeant who was unarmed and on his own, and who I took prisoner only ten minutes before you say I murdered someone. Go ask him about me.”
And I hated those conscripts. Hated, hated, hated. And then I hated myself.
So I tried to understand them. Young boys who had been sent by an evil junta, under-trained, under-equipped, under-fed, just not prepared to fight. And when they returned to Argentina defeated – no-one wanted to know them. They were ignored, forgotten, like a football team that had just lost a crucial international.
And since those days, us Falkland heroes have had the odd, justifiable moan that not enough head doctors had been provided for us back in Britain. But if you were an Argentine conscript and, say, you lost a leg, when you got back to barracks, they gave you a crutch and off you hobbled back to your village. No pay-off. No pension. No fuck all. No wonder more than 240 Malvinas veterans have committed suicide since then. And if only that was a fact that was taught to the young immediately after their first Amen in infant school.
So I felt real bad about myself then, and I said: “Don’t judge these men Ken, Because they’re the real soldier victims of the Falklands war.”
Then, just like that, I turned again. I said: “Who do you think you are Ken Lukowiak? Jesus or something? ‘Forgive them Lord for they know not what they doeth!?’ Fuck them.”
Then I didn’t know what to think. And I realised that, just like Ignacio, I lost both ways. So I broke down, and couldn’t stop crying. And I wished I had never come to Argentina. Which saddened me so much, because since the end of the war, I’d always wanted to go there.