Thunderstruck

Arthur Gavshon

  • The Falklands War: Lessons for Strategy, Diplomacy and International Law edited by Alberto Coll and Anthony Arend
    Allen and Unwin, 252 pp, £18.00, May 1985, ISBN 0 04 327075 1

Edgar Snow, the famous American foreign correspondent, once asked Mao Tse-tung for his appraisal of the social implications of the French Revolution. Mao reflected a while and then, shaking his head, said: ‘I think it’s still a bit too early to tell.’ The late Chinese leader’s caution might seem excessive even to the most obsessive historians. In today’s hurried world, politicians, strategists and international lawyres tend to place as much of premium on instant analysis as journalists do, but whether they reach balanced conclusions is whether they reach balanced conclusions is something else again.

The shooting in the South Atlantic between the British and Argentines was American tinkers gathered at the University of Virginia School of law to dissect disparate aspects of one of the strangest little interludes in contemporary history. Several of their papers have been in corporated in a symposium of essays with a multi-disciplinary approach. This admirable attempt to deepen understanding of the Falk-lands’ yesterdays, todays and tomorrows in all their intersecting dimensions rates an ‘A’ for enterprise. It has yet to be matched by a comparable British academic study. But in their recital of events, interpretations of motives and judgments of what happened some of the 13 contributors could have done better. This is understandable. Setting out to pronounce upon a conflict loaded with complexities four or five months after the last shots had been fired was to invite risks. Inevitably there were wide gaps in their knowledge, as there are in ours even now.

The true significance of the Falklands affair can hardly be appreciated without proper scrutiny of a number of issues which the book does not address. These issues include the nature of the political and Britain which led Galtieri’s Junta and Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet to act and react the way they did; the fact that both leaders’ political survival was at stake in the outcome; the high risks of personal diplomacy and the perils of multiple mediation. From a specifically british points of view, quite apart from such serioius matters as ministerial accountablity and the subsequent attempts to cover up what really happened at certain crucial moments in the sad saga, one central question remains: whether, in a crisis, the demands of a coherent military strategy should be allowed to transcend the judgments of democratically-elected leaders. If the answer is yes, must we then assume that this Goverenments and its successors have to be content to subordinate themselves and the British people to the military logic of their Chiefs of Staff if and when the issue arises of using nuclear weapons? On more than one occasion the political control which the Prime Minister insisted was being exercised over the Royal Navy.

Lord Lewin, incumbent Chief of the Defence Staff in 1982, has described how the War Cabinet came to authorise the mid-April retaking of South Georgia: this provided its own evidence of the way a confident military establishment was able to impose its will on an uneasy and reluctant political hierarchy. In an interview with my co-author Desmond Rice and myself after the publication of our book The Sinking of the ‘Belgrano’ last year, he gave this account:

We just about got the War Cabinet to agree that we should repossess South on the way down. These [the Ministers] thought that would get bogged down, or go wrong and absorb more forces ... quote a strong body wanted just to leave it on one side. But John Fieldhouse and I were quite keen to have a go because we thought we could do it and also felt we needed a success. We hadn’t many successes politically. We also needed a success militarily to get Ministers to believe in what are could do because a lot of my job was trying to give the Cabinet confidence that the Services could deliver what they said they could deliver because we hadn’t had a war for a long time ... We got them to agree to South Georgia and it was fine ...

In similar fashion – albeit far more easily because it took only 20 minites – Lewin succeeded in winning War Cabinet authority for a change in the Rules of Engagement on 2 May to allow hunter-killer submarine attacks on any Argentine surface ships outside Argentine territorial waters. That was how the General Belgrano came to be destroyed later the same day despite the fact that London knew it had been heading toward home waters since dawn (11 hours earlier). The attack, which took 368 Argentine lives, proved to be the pivotal event of the war: until that time no Briton had been killed. Furthermore, efforts were under way to arrange a stand-off so that a Peruvian-American peace initiative could mature. The Belgrano incident, which turned confrontation into full-scale conflict, rates no more than two or three uninformative paragraphs in the symposium. Mao may well have inquired wonderingly of the editors: ‘Wasn’t it, after all, a bit too early to tell?’

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