As British soldiers sailed to war with Argentina 20 years ago this month to dislodge Argentina's illegal invasion from the Falkland Islands, many just prayed to survive. But paratroop officer Christopher Keeble had other ideas. The father of four prayed that it would be a spiritual experience.
As second-in-command of the elite 2nd Parachute Battalion, his faith was put to the test when his commanding officer Col. “H” Jones was killed in an attack during the Battle of Goose Green. He found himself facing an Argentinean force three times the size of his own and holding 112 islanders hostage.
With the 20th anniversary of the Falklands conflict and England's World Cup soccer defeat of Argentina earlier this month both rekindling memories of the two nations' military showdown in 1982, the 61-year-old former colonel told Register correspondent Paul Burnell about his spiritual journey to the South Atlantic and his continuing debt to a saintly French soldier-turned-priest.
It is said there are no atheists in a foxhole — did you always have a strong Catholic faith?
I was educated at Douai, a Benedictine boarding school north of London, and went straight to Sandhurst [the British equivalent of West Point]. I had always been pretty serious about my faith, even since prep school. My relationship with God and Christ as a way of life was also very important and had always been an essential factor for me in understanding how I would live in the world.
When you knew you were going to war, how did you pray?
I went up to the hills surrounding my home, knelt down in the grass and committed myself to this endeavor in the hope that this experience would be essentially a spiritual one. I did not see it as a military experience at all.
I had this amazing sense of committing myself, and the whole experience, to my spiritual progress. I had a great sense of the Holy Spirit.
At the Battle of Goose Green, your commanding officer had just been killed, half of the battalion was elsewhere, it was hand-to-hand combat and you were outnumbered. What thoughts went through your mind?
I don't mean to sound ruthless, but there is a job to do and it is important to keep one's emotions well under control. You have to be a professional. You have to know the tactical position. You are carrying the greatest burden. You have to make decisions so that you don't lose your friends when you have to fight. You are risking everybody's life. The much more demanding decision is how to act in a way that could be justified afterward: Did you act ethically?
I understand the prayer of Charles de Foucauld was very important to you.
I had read about him and knew something of his life. He was a French soldier who was quite well-bred. He committed himself to the Arabs after experiencing warfare in Algeria and came across the Tuarag Arabs. He had some kind of conversion and dedicated himself to being a Christian presence among the Tuarag. His contribution was to become one of them, to be poor as they were poor. He was a Trappist priest. I read this fabulous prayer by him:
“Father, I abandon myself into your hands; do with me what you will. Whatever you do I thank you. I am ready for all. I accept all. Let only your will be done in me. I wish for no more than this.”
I had it laminated many years ago and always carried this plastic card with me. I prayed that prayer in a very dark time when there was nobody else. I didn't know what options were available, I did not want to go on killing people — it is not the best position [to be in]. I knelt down in the gorse and said that prayer.
That was when the most remarkable experience happened. I suddenly knew exactly what I needed to do, something which had never occurred to me.
I needed to have a conversation with the enemy to see if there was a possibility to invite them to surrender, which for a paratrooper was counterculture. It was the most influential moment of my life and a very significant moment of my turning in a new direction.
Practically what happened was that along with this inspiration came a doubt, which didn't go away, which was curious. I remember talking to a Bedouin Arab who once said to me, “Trust in God and tether your camel.” I had never forgotten that.
In other words, I had to do something.
I got hold of two POWs and said I was releasing them and explained what I wanted to do, so there was a bit of tethering the camel — I didn't just put my rifle down and head toward enemy lines.
Is it true you also appealed to your common Catholic faith with the Argentinean officers?
I wrote them a note [saying] something like, “we are both Christians” and here they could remove this stalemate and release the prisoners they held unjustifiably. I wrote that we were paratroopers who would fight to the death and that we both had a common responsibility.
They surrendered. I was offering something that they wanted anyway but I could not have known that when I said the prayer.
What is interesting is that a few years later I reflected that we had resolved this difficulty by negotiation. I wanted to persuade my general to do the same thing for the rest of the Falklands, but it wasn't possible.
What did the experience teach you about reconciliation?
A few years after the war, I was contacted by Horacio Benitez, who had fought against my battalion in one of the last actions of the war. He came to the UK asking for forgiveness for himself and his people, saying he needed to be forgiven by the people he fought against.
When I got out of the car I looked him in the eyes and saw the tears there. He just held out his hand and embraced me. I told him, “You have done nothing wrong; I hold nothing against you but if that is what you feel I forgive you.” I told him if the war had not been fought the Junta [Argentina's former military government] would still be in power and people would still be disappearing.
I told him we were both on the same side and as Christians we had to go through this miserable suffering in order that the greater good would be achieved.
Paul Burnell writes from Manchester, England.