Politician’s War

Tam Dalyell

  • The Battle for the Falklands by Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins
    Joseph, 384 pp, £10.95, February 1983, ISBN 0 7181 2228 3

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.

I find this conclusion no less extraordinary than I found the concluding paragraphs of the Franks Committee Report, which altogether failed to engage with the substance of what had preceded them. Hastings and Jenkins produce devastatingly critical facts, and then proceed to exonerate the Prime Minister. How can the British people be expected to show a renewed national pride and self-confidence when we now realise that the so-called military solution in the South Atlantic was no solution at all? That we are back to square one, that Argentina may carry out bee-sting attacks on our unhappy forces, stationed in the Falklands, if there are no negotiations? That negotiations which do not cover sovereignty will never be entered into by any Argentine government, left, right or centre? That at various stages in the campaign the problems which military victory was to bring could have been avoided, by securing an honourable peace, involving a complete withdrawal of troops by both sides?

In reverse order of chronology, I shall use material from this book – far from being ephemeral, it will serve for many years as a prime source – to highlight the extent to which domestic political considerations, rather than the real or perceived interests of the Falkland Islanders, or the military requirements of the campaign, dominated the decision-making of the Prime Minister. And, from mid-April, it was Margaret Hilda Thatcher – supported by a troika consisting of Admiral Sir Terence Lewin, Chief of Defence Staff, Cecil Parkinson, Chairman of the Conservative Party, and Ian Gow, her ever-present Parliamentary Private Secretary, who had been to the Falklands in the autumn of 1978 – who dominated the London end.

The figure of Margaret Thatcher towers over the Falklands drama from its inception to the euphoria of the final triumph. Her personality matched its often eccentric sense of proportion. Her single-mindedness, her belief in the futility of negotiation, even her arch phraseology at moments of crisis, all seemed to armour her against any suspicion that this might be a dangerous, even absurd adventure. ‘Defeat – I do not recognise the meaning of the word!’ and ‘Rejoice – just rejoice’ passed into the Falklands lexicon. In a world that was accustomed to brand war as an ugly obscenity, the Prime Minister was determined that the Falklands Conflict should be seen as a noble and principled crusade. Her longing undoubtedly matched the mood of the nation, and captivated those working around her.

Hastings and Jenkins recall that each of the participants they interviewed made similar remarks.

It was Mrs Thatcher’s War She held us to it. She never seemed to flinch from her conviction about its course. She took the risks on her shoulders and she won. She emerged as a remarkable war leader.

Yet, ten pages earlier, Hastings and Jenkins quote the remark of Perez de Cuellar, the United Nations Secretary-General, after the collapse of his peace initiative in May 1982: ‘It was the sort of problem which would take ten minutes to solve if both sides were willing.’ Friends of mine at the UN were firmly of the view that the Argentinians wanted the sovereignty of the islands, not to recolonise them, and that the British leadership did not care about the islands or the islanders, but wanted a fight. This view is supported by Hastings and Jenkins, whose verdict is that after four days of almost unbroken bad news in the last week in May London needed a tangible victory. ‘If ever there was a politicians’ battle, then Goose Green was to be it.’ Brigadier Julian Thompson, the senior officer ashore at the time, found himself summoned to the satellite terminal at Ajax Bay. The headquarters at Northwood told the Brigadier exactly what to do. The command in Britain considered it essential that the landing force should engage the Argentinians at the first opportunity. Thompson said that he regarded Goose Green as strategically irrelevant: once Stanley fell, Goose Green must also go, which was scarcely true the other way round. He had planned to leave a small force to cover any possible Argentinian sally from Goose Green, and to concentrate on taking Mount Kent, the vital ground above Stanley. Other than politicking at home, what possible explanation can there be of this overriding of the local commander?

During their discussion of Goose Green, Hastings and Jenkins make reference to one of the unsolved mysteries of the war. They say that Argentine defenders fought back fiercely until a white flag suddenly appeared from an enemy position. One of the subalterns of D Company of the Second Para moved forward to accept the surrender. He was instantly shot dead. Hastings and Jenkins say that it was almost certainly a mishap in the fog of war, rather than a deliberate act of treachery: but the infuriated paras unleashed 66 mm rockets, Carl Gustav rounds and machine-gun fire into the building. ‘It was quickly ablaze. No enemy survivors emerged.’ So many rumours are circulating in South America about the British Paratroops burning young peasant boys alive that the facts of the situation ought to be established. I would hesitate to blame the Paras for this act. But I do blame politicians in Argentina and Britain who unleashed the conditions for such horror, without making any effort to achieve the sine qua non of any ‘Just War’: the taking of all possible diplomatic steps to avoid war and to prevent unnecessary escalation.

As it proved, the politicians escaped the main burden of the horror by the delay which ensued, in contradistinction to the Vietnam experience, over the arrival of pictures at home. If the Galahad episode reminded ministers and service chiefs of the hazards of fighting a war under the public glare, the pictures in question did not reach the British viewing public until after the event. Who can forget the television image of a survivor being rushed from Galahad on a stretcher, the stump of one leg projecting bloodily into the sky? Such graphic pictures only reached London after hostilities had ended. Had the pictures reached London within 24 hours, there would, in my judgment, have been an overwhelming recognition that the objects to be achieved in the Falklands were out of all proportion to the horrors involved, followed by a demand for a negotiated peace.

At an earlier point, in the view of various Argentinians, Peruvians and Americans, had it not been for the sinking of the Belgrano, the old USS Phoenix, survivor of Pearl Harbour, a negotiated peace would have been achieved. Elsewhere I have deployed the as yet unanswered case that Mrs Thatcher ordered the sinking of the Belgrano to create an incident and scupper the Peruvian-American-UN peace plan. Hastings and Jenkins implicitly support this argument by producing a number of little-known facts. For example, they say that on the afternoon of 1 May, Captain Christopher Wreford Brown DSO of Conqueror reported that he had sighted the General Belgrano and two escorting Exocet destroyers. The Government’s White Paper claims that Conqueror sighted Belgrano on 2 May. I know from talking to members of the crew of Conqueror that the authors are right and the While Paper wrong. This timing is all-important. It helps demonstrate that, at the time she was torpedoed, Belgrano was no longer any threat to the task force – if she and her escorts ever were. The difference between Saturday 1 May and Sunday 2 May was that by the Sunday morning Margaret Thatcher knew full well that the Argentine Army Council and Navy had agreed to withdraw from what they saw as the Malvinas, and that the world would expect her to do the same. Mrs Jeane Kirkpatrick, the US Ambassador at the UN, with many Latin American contacts, and a Spanish-speaking deputy, Jose Sorzano, had had many meetings with the Argentinians. But, as Hastings and Jenkins point out, ‘it was politically unthinkable for the Government to consider abandoning operations in the South Atlantic.’

Equally, the attack on South Georgia had been geared to political timing. Hastings and Jenkins produce a devastating account of how the troops were sent into the most appalling weather conditions, losing their helicopters: this was later to be described by Lord Lewin as his worst moment of the conflict. ‘The decision to press ahead against South Georgia,’ say Hastings and Jenkins, ‘like so many others of the campaign, was primarily political.’ ‘Rejoice, just rejoice’ on Sunday evening, 26 April, at the entrance to Downing Street, was timed to frustrate the peace initiative of the Organisation of American States, due to meet the next day.

Earlier still, we find evidence of Mrs Thatcher’s determination to have a military solution. Of Haig’s first Peace Shuttle, Hastings and Jenkins write that the British were by no means pleased to see him. American treachery was already being whispered in Whitehall, and ‘even-handed’ negotiators on a matter of clear principle were viewed with suspicion. Haig’s mission had received the prompt support of Costa Mendez, but Mrs Thatcher would only agree to it on the understanding that Resolution 502 would be honoured before any negotiations and that Haig would be ‘supporting efforts to this end’. To ram home this point, the Cabinet announced a 200-mile maritime exclusion zone round the Falklands from the following Monday – the estimated date of the arrival in the area of the submarine Spartan. The zone was declared while the American Peace Mission was actually mid-air. Mrs Thatcher could not even hold her horses until she had heard what the US Government, whose hemispheric relations were involved, actually had to say.

No one who wanted peace would have behaved as Mrs Thatcher did. That is why Michael Foot was temporarily out of his mind, in an excess of misplaced chivalry, to tell the Commons on Monday, 14 June, after 10 o’clock in the evening: ‘I can well understand the anxieties and pressures that must have been upon her during these weeks, and I can understand at this moment those pressures and anxieties may be relieved. And I congratulate her.’ Sitting just behind Michael, my heart sank. Unlike my Leader, I believe there should be a major inquiry into the conduct of the Falklands conflict, like that which followed the Crimean War or the Jameson Raid during the Boer War. I believe that such an inquiry might reveal Mrs Thatcher in her true colours – as a leader who spurned many chances of peace, in favour of personal and political domestic objectives. Jenkins and Hastings have provided much raw material for such an inquiry.