For ever Falkland?
‘Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.’ I suggest that this is an appropriate motto, not of course for the unfortunate men of the Task Force, but for those who sent them to the South Atlantic. It characterises the whole operation – an operation, as I have tried to show in this journal,[*] which was conceived in an emotional spasm, by the injured pride of the House of Commons, on that hysterical Saturday morning, 3 April 1982. A task force had to be assembled, because it had to be assembled, to do something about the dreadful Argentine Junta, who had taken advantage of our negligence in withdrawing the survey vessel, HMS Endurance, with her peashooter of a gun. No blow-mouth, that Saturday morning, had the remotest idea of what he, or more particularly she – and there was not only Mrs Thatcher, by a long chalk, in this latter category – wanted to do, once the task force had arrived, and, by appearing on the horizon, had automatically shunted the dago intruders out of our island. No one had the haziest notion of what their rational, long-term objective should be. When I interrupted Mrs Thatcher’s opening speech to inquire who our friends were in South America on this issue, she could not name one, even then. But MPs collectively were in no mood to care.
The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 4 No. 14 · 5 August 1982
SIR: There is doubtless a reasoned case to be made out against the Falklands war, but I am becoming increasingly alarmed by the way that its opponents feel that any argument, however disreputable, is good enough, and by the resulting stridency of their language, which becomes a kind of inverted mirror image of the notorious Sun headlines. In the LRB of 17 June Tam Dalyell talks about a possible ‘holocaust’. Even at the time of writing (before the British victory) the word was hysterical, and its use, in its lack of proportion, an insult to those many Jews who lost relatives in the concentration camps. One recalls that the bombing of the Sir Galahad with some fifty deaths was compared in Parliament to the Gallipoli disaster in which 40,000 Allied troops were killed or missing. In the next issue Malise Ruthven was tempted to call the Thatcher Government ‘a junta’, on the grounds that it ‘increasingly resembled its Argentine counterpart in shrillness and implacability’(is fascism just a matter of tone?). I am not aware that Tony Benn or the editor of the LRB has yet faced the prospect of torture, and wonder what the families of the ‘disappeared ones’ would think of the analogy. I accept the right of the LRB to take a persistently anti-Falklands stance which I do not share, but can it at least be espoused with intelligence and a sense of moral balance? Above all, such crude and careless propagandist language should be eschewed at all times. It devalues civilised discourse, and leaves us without the proper linguistic resource when the real evil arises.
Chairman, Classical and Medieval Studies, School of European Studies, University of Sussex
Charles Martindale’s letter abuses us for writing abusively about the Falklands campaign, and talks darkly of torture (Letters, 5 August). He appears to have the academic’s liking for high-toned sneers, and for the professional cant which warns of a debasement of the language. Let us look, then, at his own language. He talks scornfully of Tam Dalyell’s use of the word ‘holocaust’. The word means massacre, sacrifice, and this is what Tam Dalyell used it to mean. There is a recent sense, largely a creation of the media, whereby the word refers, with a capital, to the Nazis’ destruction of the German Jews, and Charles Martindale here, without warrant, assigns the media sense of the word to Dalyell, thereby enabling himself to suggest that Dalyell has insulted the relatives of those Jews. There is no doubt much to be said both for and against Mrs Thatcher’s Falklands policy: we took the view that hundreds of people would be killed and maimed if there was to be a swift retaliatory action, and a foreclosure of negotiations, and that the reasons that were given did not justify this. Only the most serious issues of territory, property, nationality and prestige could possibly justify such loss of life. We need to remember that politicians have often been good at persuading people that sacrifices are worth it: some were, but huge numbers were killed between 1914 and 1918 in a war less ‘reasonable’ than the Falklands campaign – a war which, according to A. J. P. Taylor on a later page of this journal, ‘had no purpose, except to defeat the other side’. The London Review also claimed that the early commitment of the task force was full of risk, and subsequent information has done nothing whatever to discredit that claim. Many of those who are pleased and proud, or merely relieved, that a victory was obtained must be prepared to grant (together with at least one Service chief) that the Fleet sailed close to disaster – that the campaign very nearly produced, at Britain’s expense, what even Charles Martindale would have considered a holocaust.
Editor, ‘London Review’