Friday, 28 December 2012

Gotcha! How the Argentinians won the Falklands war

If I ever decided to pick a particularly inglorious day from within the span of my lifetime (not a pastime I’m inclined to indulge at all often), 4 May 1982 would be right up there with the worst.

At the time I was in the delightfully ironic position of teaching part-time in the French department of King’s College, University of London, where I had previously contrived to fail a physics degree. On Monday 3 May, as I was walking along the Strand towards the College, my eye was struck by the headlines in the evening papers: the Argentinian warship Belgrano had been sunk by a British submarine the day before.

As a rule, I tried not to talk politics in class, but on this occasion I couldn’t avoid an outburst.

‘Hang your heads in shame! A bunch of kids who had the misfortune to be doing their military service were killed by a sub yesterday, in our name, as part of the campaign to recapture a bunch of rocks we’d barely heard of a few weeks ago.’

My words were met by stony, embarrassed silence. That really shocked me. Students, in their late teens or just 20. And they cared that little?

But the worst mortification was reserved for the following day. In its issue of 4 May, the Sun, which likes to masquerade as a British newspaper and, inevitably, belongs to the Murdoch stable, carried the headline ‘Gotcha!’ 

The depths of infamy? Delighting in death

The then editor, Kelvin MacKenzie, later had a change of heart and came out with a different headline about how many Argentine casualties there had been, but since he used the word ‘Argies’ he’d barely moved a notch above the depths of playground language the original had plumbed. And ‘Gotcha’ was already out there.

It was a reminder of just what the glorious practice of war can do to an otherwise relatively civilised society. There are certainly needs so pressing that they can only be met by war, and perhaps the imposition of foreign military occupation on a bunch of peaceable islanders who’d done nothing to deserve it, falls into that category. But war remains a last resort, never a matter of joy or celebration. 323 young lives had just been snuffed out and we proclaim ‘Gotcha’? That’s pretty much the pits.

Why am I writing about all this today? Because the British thirty-year rule means that a large number of previously secret government documents have just been released. They include papers showing that then Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher was taken unawares by the Argentine invasion and was open to a negotiated end to the conflict, even if it involved a continued Argentinian presence on the islands, up to well after the sinking of the Belgrano.

That last piece of information rather does her credit, I have to admit, through gritted teeth. A diplomatic solution would have saved lives, though it would have cost her the credit she gained from being a ‘victorious’ war leader.

She never denied any of this information so it’s not really news. It simply comes as a reminder of a dismal time, specifically the tipping point in the Falklands war that came with the Belgrano sinking. That was the moment when the Argentinian victory was secured.

‘Argentinian victory?’ I hear you cry. 

Yes, because though they lost the Falklands, they gained freedom from a brutal military dictatorship. Many in Britain, on the other hand, completely ignored Thatcher’s unpreparedness for action and her willingness to negotiate, greeting her as the greatest female military leader since Elizabeth I, or perhaps Boudica. Her popularity sky-rocketed.

In 1981, Labour had been consistently in the lead in the opinion polls; as it tore itself apart in needless, senseless, in-fighting, it drifted into a position in which it alternated between a small lead and a small deficit in early 1982. It seemed that only if Labour pursued its insanity would Thatcher be re-elected; otherwise, she was going to be a single-term Prime Minister.

Then the Belgrano was sunk and some voters, indulging instincts as bloodthirsty as the Sun
’s, gave her a double-digit lead for the first time since the previous election. Within a year, that lead was firmly established, and at the next election, she was returned with a 15.2% majority in the popular vote.

The sinking of the Belgrano wasn’t just a shameful moment, it was the point at which the survival of the Thatcher government, with all its cruelty and divisiveness, was assured for another eight years.

So what is my prayer now, under another deeply unpleasant Conservative administration (masquerading as a coalition)? That no tin-pot dictator decides to invade any piece of territory held by Britain. Or at least, no tin-pot dictator this government could possibly hope to defeat.

Postscript. What to do about the Falklands?

It’s well known that the Falklands are known in Argentina as the ‘Islas Malvinas’ but not everyone knows that ‘Malvinas’ comes from the French word ‘Malouines’, identifying the islands as belonging to the glorious city of St Malo in Brittany. That port was one of the great centres of the long-haul shipping trade that opened up the prospect of globalisation, and it was malouin sailors who set up the first anchorage in the islands.

So it strikes me that the most imaginative solution to the Falklands problem is to hand them back to St Malo. That way neither Britain nor Argentina could gloat over the other. The French would be so taken aback that they’d forget to put on any airs either.

A neat solution, or what?


andy said...

Very short minded view of the situation

Mrs thatcher took the decision to sink the Belgrano as she was certain it was operating in a suspicious way. 25 years after the war the captain finally admitted he was looking for a way to get a shot at the British flagship with Prince Andrew on board so that he could launch his French built exocet missiles, and make the UK think twice after a crowned prince was killed.

Mrs T was brave, this was for Crown and Country not for her position. Any leader worth their salt will not give up the islands who have a right to remain British until they choose otherwise.

Argentina have no claim on the islands, even if they did, they lost that right after signing various paperworks at the end of the 19th century.

If Argentina continue to use tactics that damage the islands, i believe the only way to resolve it is to take direct action against the Argentine mainland, something that I consider the only mistake Mrs T did, which was not to release the Vulcan Bombers over BA.

Argentina should be concentrating on their own future, paying back debts and sorting their social issues

David Beeson said...

Oh, I favoured the counter-invasion of the Falklands, for no other reason than that I saw no reason why a military force should be allowed to trample over the wishes of a local civilian population.

Where I don't agree with you is that I think Argentina does indeed have a claim on the islands and no document signed when it was struggling for recognition in the world and Britain was the most powerful nation on earth can be cited against it. I don't know how strong the claim is, but it's there and it has to be at least as good as that of a country several thousand miles away which lacks the resources to make anything of the Falklands (remember that Thatcher had even withdrawn the lone Royal Naval warship that was patrolling the area).

But in any case no claim is stronger than that of the local population, which is the top priority, in my view.

As for Thatcher, I'm afraid I can't forgive her for the damage she did to local communities, her hectoring and cheapskate attitude to Europe, her ill-judged privatisations (who thinks highly of BT or the long-acquired British Gas today? What ever became of rail privatisation?), her contempt for the poor. And the war strengthened her hand to do things like inflict the poll tax on us all.

The war did those islanders a lot of good, these islanders far less.