When they heard that Britain was sending troops to recover the Falklands, many in this country were inclined to laugh. Some farcical anti-climax was expected – Anguilla on a wider stage, with penguins. Events which soon followed, ending with Mrs Thatcher taking the salute at a victory parade, have made it hard to remember why it all at first seemed so comic. But the early incredulity often made points which were lost when solemn passions took over.
I remember an editorial conference, the Task Force scarcely beyond Finistère. Rights and wrongs had not yet come into the discussion; the argument was between those who thought something real was taking place and those who assumed they were having a gaudy dream. The editor sighed. ‘Perhaps it’s just a nursery tea-party. Argentina will have her Falkland biscuit in the end. But if she snatches, she gets her hand slapped and the biscuit taken away until she behaves.’
Some months later, one of my relations sailed home. The warship came up fast out of a squall off Cawsand, but as she turned to port and all the sirens of Plymouth and Devonport began to greet her, we could see the little patches where the bombs had gone in. When the cheers and interviews were over, and the crowd had poured on board and ebbed off again and he was home in his own chair, looking ten years older, he said contentedly: ‘Well, at least there was absolutely no question about the rights and wrongs. The place was ours, and we went and took it back.’
In The Winter War, Patrick Bishop and John Witherow (who went with the Task Force for the Observer and the Times) conclude:
The war had everything in its favour. It was neat and tidy. It had a simple motive and a simple response … No war is to be wished for, but if they have to be fought, this was a better one than most.
There is a world of evasion in those words. These two intelligent young men, who could serve their readers with an adult judgment, are still under the spell of wry soldiers’ talk. And yet it is true that the war was ‘neat and tidy’, if only because it was over so fast – too fast for the anti-war opposition at home to collect its wits and construct a formidable or coherent argument against Mrs Thatcher.
Admittedly, the beginning and the end of the business provided relatively easy meat for that opposition. It was patent that the war had arisen, on the British side, out of conspicuous neglect, misjudgment and stupidity. Most people in Britain probably agreed at the outset that it could have been avoided by courageous diplomacy at the right time, backed – as in 1967 – by a hint of force when necessary. That was hardly in dispute, although the anti-war party was so anxious to concentrate the blame for ‘Thatcher’s War’ that it missed the fact that guilt lay on the entire political establishment – not only on one politician or party, and least of all on the Civil Service and the executive. Peter Jenkins of the Guardian was the first to get it right, when he told a protest rally: ‘This is Parliament’s war!’
The end of the Falklands affair was not difficult to condemn either. The problem of the islands had been rendered far more intractable, lives and treasure had been lost for little or nothing, and a bad British government had contrived to float itself off the rocks on a raft of jingoism. But confident as it became about the beginning and end of the conflict, the anti-war faction never got to grips with the middle.
The middle consisted simply of this question: ‘Now that the Argentinians are on the islands, how do you propose to get them off?’ All the opponents of the war who were brave enough to take up that poisoned challenge soon sank into nonsense. Some said that the Task Force should halt or turn back, leaving United Nations pressure or economic sanctions or diplomatic mediation to coax the Argentinians into compliance with UN Resolution 502. Others suggested various forms of blockade. The Observer said during the Perez de Cuellar negotiations that the positions of the two sides were now too close together to justify bloodshed – a remark which was perfectly true, but forgot that two express trains driven by homicidal maniacs on a collision course are also coming closer to one another. The novelist David Lodge, in one of the earnest but flustered contributions typical of Authors take sides on the Falklands, is more realistic. He writes that regaining the Falklands is not worth one human life. But he then confesses: ‘There is no doubt in my mind that anything short of Mrs Thatcher’s uncompromising policy would have left the Argentinians at the end of the day in possession of the Falklands.’
He is probably right. Only force would have removed them; with the threat of force suspended, a precondition for all the attempts at mediation, the Junta would have lost any interest in conceding. It was remarked in London that Galtieri had won, in that the British eventually seemed willing to talk about the transfer of sovereignty and administration, but was too stupid to realise it. But it was not a discreet victory on points that Galtieri was after. He longed for a knock-out, the sort of British diplomatic surrender which it was absurd to expect. It does not affect the argument to admit that most of the British inner cabinet also became impatient with the mediations and rather hoped that they would fail. In the tango of war, Thatcher and Galtieri showed themselves dazzling partners, each expertly snatching back the other as he or she leaned towards peace.
For those who protested, intellectual safety could only lie in the proposition that if there was no other way but war to eject the Argentinians, they must be allowed to remain on the Falklands. Here the anti-war party produced a variety of reasonings. For the pacifists among them, the rejection of force was no problem. But non-pacifists who took the view, on legal or practical or even geological grounds (one remembers Tam Dalyell expatiating on the Patagonian shelf), that the Malvinas ought to stay with Argentina were in more difficulty: they had to condemn the way in which Argentina had enforced its rights while insisting that these rights had not been forfeited. The crudest but most cogent case against force said bluntly that although the Argentinian occupation of the Falklands was a crime, the islands were not worth fighting for – they were too remote, too poor, too thinly populated, too irrelevant.
This was the argument of marginality, a tempering of principle with common sense. The war cost £1 million per Falklander, and only luck and dud bombs prevented the death roll from exceeding the population of the islands. But Britain’s more hard-boiled neighbours on the Continent, used to regarding this country as a model of pragmatism in postimperial affairs, were thoroughly startled by the moral absolutism of majority British opinion in the matter of ‘resisting aggression’.Those who adopted this ‘marginality’ objection in Britain often preferred not to spell it out in public – only two or three contributions out of over a hundred in Authors take sides on the Falklands take up this line, although the whole anti-war literature abounds in complaints about the poverty and insignificance of the islands and the islanders. It was, of course, a line with some unattractive implications. At the rally already mentioned, Peter Jenkins eloquently made out the ‘common sense’ case but then went on to dismiss ‘these rotten little islands which are nearer to Antarctica than to Britain’, to the horror of a Falklands schoolmistress on the same platform. If it is a social crime to be born on barren islands costly to supply, the Hebrideans can despair. The ‘marginality’ argument also snaps the point off the damaging question of Diego Garcia, raised, in this group of books, by the Latin American Bureau and by Anthony Barnett. If the kelpers were too few and boring to be rescued, what was wrong with throwing the population of Diego Garcia out of their homes to make way for an American air base? The Diego Garcians too were a distant handful, and would have been equally defenceless against this sort of reductionist raison d’état.
Most of the writers canvassed in Authors take sides were against the war in some sense. But there is little to be learned from most of them, beyond proof of the quite terrifying ignorance and political silliness of our cultural intellectuals in 1982. Those who favour the military action tend to say so briskly, without enlarging on their reasons. Several, like Bevis Hillier and David Holbrook, fall straight into Mrs Thatcher’s booby-trap of comparison to the Sudetenland crisis of 1938, apparently unaware that the appeasers of Fascism then were precisely those who argued that self-determination was a paramount principle. The anti-war respondents have cranked out little of greater interest, for the most part thrashing the soft and safe targets of political bungling in the past, Mrs Thatcher’s use of the war as domestic propaganda for her own policies, or the nauseating blood-lust of the popular press. Marghanita Laski lucidly concludes that ‘if no one would have acted collectively on our behalf, then I think it would have been better to let the Falklands go.’ Margaret Drabble angrily refuses the invitation to ‘congratulate ourselves on a principled stand that everyone knows we would not have dared to take on a more dangerous issue … we won, with more difficulty than we anticipated, a very small war that need never have been fought.’ There is not much more in Authors take sides which is worth remembering.
‘Even now that it is all over,’ the Sunday Times team begin their tale, ‘it is hard to grasp the enormity of what has happened.’ Quite so, although the team’s red-hot typewriters seem only to have wanted to say that the happening was enormous. The Falklands War does not try to make out any moral case. Instead, the men and women of the team have provided the first full and factual account of what took place and – as far as they could reconstruct – why. Much of it comes from notebooks filled in Argentina, Britain, Washington, New York and on the islands themselves, while the conflict was still going on. But much, too, comes from a second bombardment of questions skilfully landed on the warriors as they dropped their guard in the dazed weeks after the war ended. John Shirley had the inspiration to travel home with the men of the Task Force by sea; Isabel Hilton intercepted the Argentine airmen and naval officers at the moment when they felt they could speak and Buenos Aires had not yet realised what they might say. Among other small coups of reporting is the transcript of Falklands radio through the night and morning of the invasion as the Governor, the islanders on the phone and finally the Argentine officers communed against the background of breakfast request music.
But a great deal is not yet known. The authors do their best to fill the gaps – sometimes with that imperious ‘Insight’ style of guesswork, but usually employing a few fresh bricks of fact to hold their constructions together. One enduring mystery is left out entirely: the whole affair of the helicopter which landed in Chile and the operations of British special forces on the mainland. But the political and diplomatic narrative, especially, confirms many existing doubts and introduces new ones.
The Falklands War powerfully reinforces the case for saying that the war should never have started and that neither leadership gave the various mediations much of a chance when it was in progress. The mutual misperception at the outset was almost total. The Argentine Junta did not expect the British to fight, while the Foreign Office, at the beginning of the year, thought the Argentines were more concerned with getting negotiations started than with a time-limit for completing them – the reverse of the truth. Later, it seems that a clear intelligence warning of the impending attack was sent to London as early as 24 March, only to get diluted and obscured in the Joint Intelligence Committee. At this point, the book abandons neutrality to ask a simple and damaging question. Why did Britain in this phase never say to Argentina: ‘If you invade, we will take action’?
The most serious allegations against Mrs Thatcher emerge from the book’s account of the sinking of the General Belgrano. In the first place, the cruiser was not only outside the exclusion zone but – according to her surviving officers – steaming westwards towards Ushuaia rather than towards the Task Force on the other side of the Falklands. This suggestion that the cruiser presented no direct menace is supported, as the Sunday Times authors point out, by the way the decision to attack her was taken: ‘she was clearly of no immediate threat to the submarine or the rest of the Task Force, since the decision as to what action to take was referred to Northwood and, in turn, to Mrs Thatcher’s war cabinet.’
The war cabinet nonetheless ordered the attack. To be fair, we do not know on what grounds, or with what motives. The result, however, was to wreck one of the most promising possibilities for a negotiated peace. President Belaunde Terry of Peru, with some help from Alexander Haig, had advanced his proposal that both sides should withdraw (the British landings had not yet taken place), that a third party should temporarily administer the islands, and that a settlement should be reached within a fixed time-limit. The matter of sovereignty was left in suspense. In Buenos Aires, Costa Mendez, then Foreign Minister, exclaimed: ‘We have an agreement! We can accept this.’ Two hours later, the news of the cruiser’s sinking arrived and – according to the Sunday Times writers – the chances of the Belaunde Terry plan disintegrated.
In view of the Junta’s chaotic way of deciding policy, and especially in the light of the manner in which Costa Mendez was overruled by its tougher members before and after the General Belgrano affair, the plan would probably have been wrecked in Buenos Aires anyway. This scarcely diminishes suspicion about the London war cabinet’s motives in ordering the sinking of the cruiser. The most sinister of all the questions raised by the Falklands war still gapes open.
The book’s account of the fighting is detailed and moving. Some passages will no doubt be challenged: the Sunday Times writers select one among several competing explanations of why the Bluff Cove disaster came about, while Admiral Woodward – whose hair is not red but brown – may feel hard done by in the chapters about squabbles among Task Force commanders. But The Falklands War conveys well the driving impatience, the rivalry for chances of martial glory, which possessed many politicians and officers and which, on several occasions, led to avoidable casualties. Northwood, the book claims, had difficulty in preventing the main Marine force from attacking South Georgia out of sheer energy and excitement. Bluff Cove’s ‘great leap’ may not, after all, have shortened the war. And the military reasons behind the legendary attack on Goose Green by 2 Para are hard to find. Major Keeble, who took over command there when Colonel ‘H’ was killed, is reported to have said that its motives were not military but political. The authors of The Falklands War suggest that either Northwood or Downing Street urged this assault on a position which might better have been bypassed because the commanders in London could not wait to test the fighting ability and resolve of the enemy. In The Winter War, Patrick Bishop and John Witherow back this version in some detail, recording a telephone call to London by Brigadier Thompson which obliged the commanders on the spot to stifle their doubts and proceed with the Goose Green operation.
The Winter War is a personal record: the impressions – with some conclusions – of two young reporters from a generation to whom war and even soldiering had become a puzzling theme of distant history. Suddenly they were guests in a world of frightful exertions, unpredictable terrors, idiotic jokes which seem so funny when you are shuddering in a wet hole in the peat, unbearable carnal lusts for a pan of sweet tea, displays of selfless courage and generosity fit for any embarrassing old picture-book. They write with a haste which often reduces their story to a confusing jumble, but they kept their eyes open. Sometimes they saw what they expected to see: ‘It is extraordinary the extent to which people behave in a war in the way that the war films would have you believe … the war was a profound experience but not a particularly revealing one. On the whole, it tended to confirm the truth of clichés. It did bring out the best in people …’ Sometimes they were astonished. The superstition of soldiers and sailors took them aback: after Canberra killed a whale, the ship was seized by rumours that a French clairvoyant had predicted that the sinking of a white whale (the ship’s nickname) would lead to the final world war, a tale strengthened by the fact that Canberra’s postal number was the same as that of the Beast in the film Omen – 666. The kelpers disconcerted them even more with their ‘dismal, exploited lives’, their glum reserve in contrast to the enthusiasm of the soldiery streaming past them. This was supposed to be liberation, but something was wrong. ‘The case for going to war over the Falklands diminished rather than grew the more you saw the place and its inhabitants.’
Bishop and Witherow seem still too overwhelmed to pass judgment on it all. But pangs of outraged common sense evidently troubled them. With some respect, they record how the Chinese crew of Sir Geraint finally grew tired of being bombed and went ashore. ‘When a soldier urged them to return to the ship and think about Britain, they replied: “Fuck Blitain!” ’
Anthony Barnett’s Iron Britannia, first published as a special number of New Left Review, takes as its text Mrs Thatcher’s speech at Cheltenham in July about ‘the spirit of the South Atlantic’ which was now to be kindled for peace, in a ‘nation which has begun to assert itself’. On the whole, this was a silly, conventional speech already peeling from memory after a few months: what war leader has not proclaimed that the charge with the bayonet will now become the charge with the spanner, weeding-rake or inkwell? But a line or two may endure. ‘The lesson of the Falklands is that Britain has not changed … ’ Barnett pounces. ‘Other people,’ he says, ‘might have thought this was precisely the problem.’
Iron Britannia is not about the fighting. ‘I am interested,’ Barnett explains, ‘in … what the Falklands war can tell us about Britain today.’ Neither is it simply anti-war pamphleteering. It is an analysis, a furious, sometimes gleeful and often witty polemic against the decaying British political system which the conflict revealed. Anthony Barnett is not saying ‘Fuck Blitain!’, either in the manner of Chinese seamen or of those gnat-brained demonstrators who hopped about London chanting ‘One, Two, Three, Four, Argentina Win the War!’ He is saying that Britain still has a political culture held together by, and revolving round, the axis of national war.
He puts forward the concept of ‘Churchillism’. This does not refer to what Churchill personally believed. Churchillism is created by a grand historic rite, the political culture’s spring festival of self-renewal performed around the altar of war – a rite celebrated once again in 1982 on the pretext of the Falklands conflict. Barnett describes Churchillism in the last war as ‘a social and political amalgam which was not a fusion – each component retained its individuality – but which none the less transformed them all internally’, a coalition which could include ‘imperialists and social democrats, liberals and reformers’. To secure this compromise, Labour politicians permit a corporatism which defuses the class struggle, while the Right, in turn, prevents the emergence of a genuine and dynamic capitalist party. In short, the excuse of war perpetuates a Britain fortified against radical and divisive politics, and against any real change in its archaic institutions.
Mrs Thatcher, says Barnett, was presented with all the necessary symbols for a reenactment of the Churchillian rite: ‘an island people, the cruel seas, a British defeat, Anglo-Saxon democracy challenged by a dictator, and finally the quintessential Churchillian posture – we were down but we were not out.’ All the old strands could again be gathered together: ‘Tory belligerents, Labour reformists, revolutionary anti-fascists, the liberal intelligentsia, an entente with the USA … and a matey relationship with the media’.
Barnett, it seems to me, lets Mrs Thatcher off more lightly than he means to. Anxious to deny her the dignity of consciously determining events, he presents her in the left-wing manner as something of a puppet in the hands of greater collectives and vaster historical forces. He blames Parliament for insisting, in the fateful debate of 3 April, that she perform the full Churchillist rite and giving her the opportunity to transform the British image in the world ‘from phlegmatic bobby to enthusiastic commando’. He attributes her social policies to an enduring struggle within the middle class, fought inside the Tory Party between ‘stricken patricians and over-confident arrivistes’. But then he turns to Michael Foot and – too furious to be consistent – denies him any protection from this ‘tool-of-social-forces’ approach. Instead, Foot gets both barrels fired straight at his moral sensorium, and the shotgun thrown at his head as well. ‘Foot was Churchill and Foot was Bevan rolled into one. He was the John Bull of the Labour Movement … he delivered the country into [Mrs Thatcher’s] hands.’ It was Foot who transformed the Task Force into ‘an Armada sailing at the behest of the House of Commons’. It was Foot in that April debate who sang the hymn of ‘moral imperialism’, of Britain’s right to interfere globally in the name of resistance to aggression. Foot, not only Thatcher, must be compared to Galtieri, because his oratory about an anti-fascist struggle was ‘the mirror image in hypocrisy’ of the Junta’s claim to be fighting colonialism. And so on.
The ‘Churchillism’ idea remains much the best thing in this essay. Another hit is Barnett’s joyous savaging of the British press: the gloating screams of the Sun, the surging moral orgasms of the Times (that ‘we are all Falklanders now’ leader must be saved for some great sottisier of British journalism), the ruralist yearnings aroused by the open air of the Falklands. Nobody, Barnett suggests, would have cared a toss for the kelpers if they had all worked in one Antarctic cotton mill. And as for the astonishment registered by the war correspondents at the generosity and courage of British soldiers, all the hacks really showed was that they had never encountered working-class life in their own country. Iron Britannia is full of well-flung darts like these. But on the war itself, Barnett can lose his aim. For instance, he dismisses the Junta as ‘a lying and murderous lot who cannot be trusted’ and recites a quantity of evidence for the corresponding madness and duplicity of the British Government, only – some pages later – to produce a ‘Barnett Plan’ for a Falklands settlement, with the meek commentary: ‘Such an agreement would have ensured peace because it would have met the rational demands of both sides.’ Anthony Barnett is trying to stick his cake up his Junta and eat it.
Falklands/Malvinas: Whose Crisis?, a compilation of essays by the Latin America Bureau, is a useful work of documentation for the whole post-mortem debate. Its critical history of the British claim to the islands shows conclusively how weak it is by the standards of international law, and why the Foreign Office prudently fell back on the defence of ‘prescription’, justifying continuing British possession only by the fact that British settlers had remained on the island for 150 years without interruption. But the Latin America Bureau also discloses the rapid internal erosion of the settlement in recent years, covering the subject-matter of the first Shackleton Report with a much more acid emphasis. This was a society which had almost ceased to produce its own food, which was increasingly demoralised and impoverished by the export of Falkland Island Company profits and by the exploitations of absentee landlords, in which the gap between the growing number of high-salaried expatriates and the native population barred from such posts by their lack of education or training was steadily widening. Alone among these books, Falklands/Malvinas: Whose Crisis? provides a proper summary of Argentine history on the theme of ‘foreign control and nationalism’. But the authors are shakier when it comes to the 1982 conflict itself. Once again, we read an attack on Mrs Thatcher’s belief that ‘there was no alternative,’ but once again the alternatives which are put forward – ‘a Nato package of full sanctions’, for example – are not very convincing. There is also a strange account of the ‘scrap dealers’ and their landing on South Georgia, which seems to imply that Davidoff acted in complete good faith and without the encouragement of the Junta. The Sunday Times book proves this view untenable.
Those who can read Spanish should try to lay hands on Los Chicos de la Guerra, a collection of interviews published in Argentina. The journalist Daniel Kon is talking to men back from the Malvinas, and they tell without restraint their bitter story of muddle, hunger, neglect and terror. These were conscripts, often young and untrained boys with little more than naive patriotism to protect them against war and weather. Certainly their officers, at base and even in the front line, did little to help them, and the book has won its huge success in Argentina as part of the popular indictment now being drawn up against the Junta’s incompetence and the heartlessness of military government in general. These soldiers talk as eloquently as civilians, which of course is what they were. No doubt professionals like the Task Force troops button their lips more tightly. But it is curious that no British writer is prepared to let the ordinary rifleman tell his own story in his own words. Defeat is for the defeated, but victory is apparently for the journalists.
In the darkness before dawn on 12 June, so The Falklands War relates, a group of British officers on the hills above Port Stanley saw a brilliant light, much like the headlights of a car, moving rapidly along the shore. Presently it turned out to sea and gathered speed. This was the land-based Exocet missile which struck HMS Glamorgan in the flight deck, killing 13 men, among them a young Naval lieutenant named David Tinker.
His father, Hugh Tinker, has collected and edited David’s letters home. He has done so not just to make a memorial to his son, but to let a dead man testify: for both father and son came to believe that this was an unjust war fought only to save the careers of politicians. Lieutenant Tinker died at his post, carrying out his duty in an enterprise which he considered morally disgraceful. Those who carry responsibility for the war should read A Message from the Falklands and endure at least some nights of bad sleep.
David Tinker seems to have been an unusual but very English person. He was throughout his life a modest but persistent poet. He weathered the hardships and crudities of Naval training, but never quite internalised the Service’s values. The exercise of authority had troubled him ever since he declined to be a prefect at his public school, and continued to repel him in the Navy. Had he lived, he would probably have resigned within a year or two. This we learn from earlier letters to his parents and his wife: records of a dreaming inner personality within a busy and efficient outer shell.
His imagination was fixed in the past. He thought a great deal about Cromwell, ‘nationalist and democrat’, and regretted the republican spirit of the Commonwealth. But his fascination with the First World War, or, rather, that war as seen by its poets, was more powerful still. If Tinker’s passion for the English countryside recalls the generation of Rupert Brooke rather than the attitudes of his own contemporaries, his ideas of war were drawn above all from Wilfred Owen. For most people, the Falklands campaign seemed brisk, even high-spirited. Tinker, from his private world, saw in the events at San Carlos or Goose Green the shadows of Gallipoli and Loos.
At first, it was ‘This is great fun,’ and ‘the thrill of some real confrontation’. But as he sailed south, Tinker began to be impatient for the expected compromise. ‘At times the situation seems so absolutely silly … the ideal is most praiseworthy: the wishes of a tiny people being supported by the might of a large industrialised state. Everything else is quite ludicrous.’ After the first battles with the Argentine fighters, his mood hardened quickly. ‘What is happening here is barbaric and totally unnecessary … A war for a flag … I think Mrs Thatcher sees herself as a Churchill, and as for Nott …’
David Tinker’s anger continued to sharpen against the British politicians, until he could write home about ‘a fight on a “principle” between two dictatorships’. He described the naval war to his father with zest and humour – this was in no way a man losing his nerve – but continued: ‘The pity for us is that there is no cause for this war, and, to be honest, the Argentinians are more patriotic about the Malvinas than we are about the Falklands.’
By the time of his death, he had become convinced that the war was not merely a mistake but an unpardonable crime. He wrote to a friend about ‘the tragedy, anguish and horror of the British lives that have been lost; which have been spent quite willingly by Mrs Thatcher and Mr Nott to make up for the political ineptitude and pig-headedness of the Government’. He told his brother, an Anglican vicar, that the Prime Minister ‘had become a complete dictator, ordering war without consulting Parliament, and she is dragging the masses, shouting and cheering behind her.’ And he went on, presciently enough: ‘If we do recapture the islands we will still have to talk to the Argentinians, and I doubt if Mrs Thatcher will compromise at all: in which case we will have to provide a garrison of about three Servicemen to every one inhabitant and spend millions of pounds on all the military installations that will be necessary.’
He began to write poetry again, though all seems to have been burned in the explosion. How would he have written, this determined young man who watched the war as if through the ghostly eyes of Owen and Rosenberg, as if Mrs Thatcher were Horatio Bottomley and Rupert Murdoch a bloodthirsty Northcliffe come again? It is not respect for his ghost, and still less any softening of judgment because of his death, that will make the reader of these letters stop and wonder whether it is Lieutenant Tinker’s odd vision or this moment in Britain that is anachronistic. In a letter which arrived nine days after he was killed, David Tinker wrote: ‘I cannot think of a single war in Britain’s history which has been so pointless.’