Forgiveness Out of War
04 April 2007
The Falklands War, 25 years ago, faced Major Chris Keeble with the sternest test of his military career. It led to a turning point in the war, and an unexpected outcome. Michael Smith recalls his story.
The first and bloodiest land battle of the Falklands War was fought over 27 and 28 May, 1982. Fifty-five Argentine troops and 17 British soldiers lost their lives during the battle for Goose Green, the coastal settlement where Argentine forces had mounted a large garrison. General Galtieri's military regime had invaded the islands, to lay claim to 'Las Malvinas', as they are known in Argentina. In response, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had dispatched a task force to 'liberate' the British islanders in the South Atlantic.
The fighting was intense, as the men of Britain's 2nd paratroop battalion edged their way down a narrow isthmus of land towards the settlement. Suddenly the words that Chris Keeble will never forget crackled through on his radio: 'Sunray is down'. Their commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel 'H' Jones, was dead – killed in action as he stormed an Argentine gun position.
As second-in-command, Keeble took charge of over 400 men: 'My heart beat faster. It was an immense responsibility.' By nightfall the battalion was running out of ammunition. 'We had been fighting for 40 hours and we were very tired. It was bitterly cold. One in six of us was either injured or killed, and we had no reinforcements. I went back to my group of leaders and it was quite clear that they were looking to me for solutions.'
They were surrounding Goose Green, 500 to 600 metres away on the far side of a ridge. Keeble knew the Argentines could bring in reinforcements under cover of darkness and mount a counter-attack. He also had reports that they were holding 112 civilians captive in the community centre. A sustained bombardment was out of the question.
'We were in a perilous position, and the responsibility for getting us out of it lay with me. I had no idea what to do. I walked up a gully to be alone for a moment to try and think. I put my hands into my pockets and my fingernails caught on a piece of plastic. It was a prayer which I had typed out and had laminated as a kind of deal with God – you know, "I'll carry this prayer if you'll look after me" stuff.'
Keeble knelt in the gorse and said the prayer, written by the desert mystic Charles de Foucault: 'My Father, I abandon myself to you. Do with me as you will. Whatever you may do with me I thank you, provided your will is fulfilled in me. I ask for nothing more.'
Keeble found it, in the midst of battle, 'a terrifying, almost impossible, prayer to say. But to my amazement, I went through a real transformation. Instead of feeling frightened, uncertain, cold, miserable, confused, I suddenly felt joyful, happy, warm.'
Above all, he had 'immense clarity' about what he needed to do. He returned to his men and told them that at first light he would walk down across the battlefield, 'and invite the Argentine commanders to surrender.'
His men were, 'pretty astounded by this very unmilitary kind of solution. We were a unit that was designed to bring violence to produce a solution and I was offering one that was completely the reverse.'
At 6am Keeble returned two Argentine prisoners of war to their commanders at Goose Green, with the stark message: 'Surrender or accept the consequences of military action.' Within the hour they reported back that their commanders were willing to talk.
At dawn, accompanied by his artillery officer and BBC journalist Robert Fox, Keeble approached the Argentines. 'I remember walking down the hill thinking this is rather nice, like a country stroll. I learnt later that we had walked through a minefield.'
They met the Argentine army commander, Lt Col Italo Piaggi, and his air force counterpart, Vicecomodoro Wilson Pedroza. 'We told them that what they were doing was crazy,' recalls Keeble. 'The alternatives were too awful because we weren't going to go away. They might defeat us. But there would be another battalion or brigade and they would be assaulted.' Keeble appealed to their common Catholic faith to put an end to the killing.
By midday the Argentines had agreed to surrender, but with dignity. They held a formal parade, sang their national anthem, and laid down their arms. 'I think that is what was most significant,' recalls Keeble. 'I was offering them something that they wanted anyway. But I could not have known that when I said that prayer.' Keeble and his men were astounded by the size of the Argentine garrison: over 1,500 Argentine troops had surrendered to 450 British paratroopers.
The surrender saved many lives and set the tone for the rest of the war, boosting morale throughout the British army and signalling that Argentina's conscript soldiers, poorly trained and malnourished, had no stomach for war. Goose Green was, says Robert Fox in a recent article, 'a tipping point' in the war. Three weeks later Keeble halted his men at Stanley race track – the first British soldiers to reach the capital for Argentina's final capitulation.
For a year after the war, Keeble was caught up in the adulation of victory. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel; there was a reception at the Prime Minister's residence, 10 Downing Street. He was selected for a seven-month sabbatical at the National Defence College and his future in the army looked glittering.
Yet the war had led him to reflect on his priorities and, 'the way I was living my life. It wasn't until I went to war that I experienced human beings working together in such a profound and powerful way. Perhaps it was the circumstances. There was a love for each other which I hadn't experienced in peacetime. I don't mean love in the common sense. It was an acceptance of who you were, and yet a challenge to become more than you normally were. For me on my life's journey I just hadn't met that. I was supposed to be a Christian and embrace love, yet I hadn't. So I had great unease and felt shallow.'
He began to question his role in the army and felt that, instead of pursuing his own ambitions, he needed to 'contribute to other people's growth.'
During his sabbatical he visited the then British Leyland car plant at Longbridge: 'I was absolutely astounded by the trauma in which people were being asked to work to produce beautiful cars.' It was a world away from the comradeship he had experienced in the army. The visit sowed in his mind 'a germ of an idea that I could contribute to the way things are in the commercial world in terms of the development of people.'
It was a short, but painful, step from there to his decision to leave the army in 1987. Two years later he and two colleagues established a small consultancy 'to balance the ethic of business transformation with the ethic of peoples’ flourishing', as he puts it.
In July 1987, shortly before he left the army, Keeble received a phone call from an army padre. Would he be willing to meet an Argentine war veteran who was on a personal mission to the UK seeking reconciliation and forgiveness? Horacio Benitez, a 19-year-old conscripted sergeant during the war, had been left for dead on the battlefield with a bullet in his skull. A British army doctor noticed he was still alive. His helmet had saved his life. 'As the Paras streamed off the mountains into Stanley, the pity of a passing combat medic cradled the dying Sergeant back to life,' Keeble writes.
As Benitez recovered, he had traumatic memories of emptying two machine-gun magazines into advancing British soldiers. 'You ask yourself how many fathers you may have killed. And you ask yourself "Why?",' he told The Guardian newspaper. Now he wanted to seek out those in the British military to whom he could express his regret. The Ministry of Defence declined, but Keeble responded.
In The Guardian interview Benitez described their encounter: 'It was very, very important for me to meet Chris. I was very worried. I didn't know what he would think meeting me, "the enemy". But he just held out his hand, then embraced me. It was so emotional I couldn't speak. I think this was the moment the war really ended for me. It was the strangest feeling. He seemed like an old, very deep friend.'
Keeble believes that thanks to their rapprochement Horacio found the absolution he was seeking. As he explained to Keeble, without the war the Argentine military junta of General Galtieri would still have been in power, democracy would not have been restored, death-squads would still have been operating and the numbers of the so-called dissident 'disappeared' would have increased. Keeble said to him: 'Horacio, we were both on the same side'.
As with Keeble, the war changed the direction of Benitez's life. He went on to run a cooperative for Argentine war veterans in Buenos Aires, bottling detergents. Profits from the cooperative went to a charity which served to unbottle the memories of war for those suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. Some of them had been abandoned, homeless and disgraced, for having lost 'Las Malvinas'.
In this 25th anniversary year Keeble goes with his family to revisit the Falklands for the first time since the war. He has 'a crazy idea' that, one day, he and Benitez will also be able to visit the Falkland Islands together.