In the opening paragraph of their important book on the Falklands War, Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins write: ‘So extraordinary an event was it that, even after men began to die, many of those taking part felt as if they had been swept away into fantasy, that the ships sinking and the guns firing round them had somehow escaped from a television screen in the living-room.’ In their final paragraph the authors say that had Britain left the Falklanders to their fate on 2 April, the British people’s respect for themselves and their confidence in their political and military leadership would have experienced a severe blow. They concede that colonial wars can have dangerous side-effects on the nations which fight them. A people can turn to jingoism as they watch a distant game, played on their behalf by professionals safely out of reach of homes and loved ones. Hastings and Jenkins conclude by opining that the British people were reassured by the way the services performed, and were pleased that a job that had to be done was done so well. National pride and self-confidence were renewed.
Vol. 5 No. 6 · 1 April 1983
SIR: Thank you for Tam Dalyell’s review of The Battle for the Falklands (LRB, 3 March), but surely the time has come to stop his constant confusion of history with political vendetta. Max Hastings and I most certainly do not ‘exonerate the Prime Minister’ of responsibility either for the outbreak of the war or for its conduct. No one reading the political sections of our book – or for that matter the military ones – could possibly draw that conclusion. Mrs Thatcher must bear her full share of blame for Britain’s lack of preparedness in March, despite Franks’s absurd exculpation, but Mr Dalyell’s thesis that she welcomed the invasion to gain political salvation at home in defeating it is preposterous.
This oft-repeated claim forces him to attempt to rewrite whole passages of the Falklands conflict. For instance, there is no shred of evidence that any of the negotiating packages produced in April or May would have secured a ‘complete withdrawal of troops’ by the Argentinians, as Mr Dalyell maintains. The Junta, even Brigadier Lami Dozo, persistently thought it would win, right through to the eve of the final battle. Whatever one’s view of the war, it is a perversion of history to ignore the fact that it was Buenos Aires which picked the quarrel. Once the confrontation had been commenced, the Argentinian regime was simply too weak to back off.
More serious still, our book should not be used by Mr Dalyell to support his claim that the cruiser Belgrano was deliberately sunk by Mrs Thatcher to scupper Francis Pym’s peace negotiations. Whether or not it had this effect – and Admiral Anaya was not remotely in a mood to accept the Peruvian peace plan that week or any other – it is simply not true that this is why the cruiser was sunk. The torpedoing followed an urgent request from the task force commanders, desperate to eliminate what were then regarded as the two major threats to the planned landing: the cruiser and aircraft-carrier groups. Since the fleet subsequently fled to port, it is hard now to realise how much these ships were dreaded by Admiral Woodward. In addition, Belgrano carried a mass of radar equipment apparently intended to assist in directing air attacks into the exclusion zone. It was politically most unfortunate (potentially disastrous) that the ship was outside the exclusion zone when she was sunk, but the reason was military. The most mystifying aspect of the incident is not the motive but the inability of ministers to provide a convincing justification for it in public. The price they pay for their secrecy is Mr Dalyell’s damaging accusations.
Mrs Thatcher’s undeniable lack of enthusiasm towards the various Falklands peace initiatives in April and May was not the result of any instinctive war lust. Virtually alone among her ministers, she was convinced from the start that the Junta would not leave the islands or acknowledge the principle of self-determination for the islanders unless compelled to do so by force of arms. Given her objectives, I believe that her judgment in meeting them was correct. This in no way diminishes the other criticisms of her and her government made in our book.