By San Carlos Water

Neal Ascherson

  • Authors take sides on the Falklands edited by Cecil Woolf and Jean Moorcroft Wilson
    Cecil Woolf, 144 pp, £4.95, August 1982, ISBN 0 900821 63 9
  • The Falklands War: The Full Story by the Sunday Times ‘Insight’ Team
    Deutsch and Sphere, 276 pp, £2.50, October 1982, ISBN 0 233 97515 2
  • The Winter War: The Falklands by Patrick Bishop and John Witherow
    Quartet, 153 pp, £2.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 7043 3424 0
  • Iron Britannia: Why Parliament waged its Falklands war by Anthony Barnett
    Allison and Busby, 160 pp, £2.95, November 1982, ISBN 0 85031 494 1
  • Falklands/Malvinas: Whose Crisis? by Martin Honeywell
    Latin American Bureau, 135 pp, £1.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 906156 15 7
  • Los Chicos de la Guerra by Daniel Kon
    Editorial Galerna, Buenos Aires, August 1982
  • A Message from the Falklands: The Life and Gallant Death of David Tinker, Lieut RN compiled by Hugh Tinker
    Junction, 224 pp, £3.50, November 1982, ISBN 0 86245 102 7

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.

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