After the war

Diana Gould

  • Another Story: Women and the Falklands War by Jean Carr, introduced by Jane Ewart-Biggs
    Hamish Hamilton, 162 pp, £7.50, October 1984, ISBN 0 241 11391 1

Jean Carr’s book, Another Story, is about the plight of the wives and mothers of the men who did not return from the Falklands War, or who returned wounded in body or mind. In the telling of the story another woman, also a wife and mother, looms large, the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. The introduction is written by Jane Ewart-Biggs. Lady Ewart-Biggs speaks for those throughout the country who listened with growing dismay to the debate in Parliament on 3 April 1982 which culminated in the despatch of the Task Force with all-party support. Those people thought in terms of men and families, not ships and aircraft. They remembered Mrs Thatcher’s confident reply to yet another woman, Madge Nichols of the Beaconsfield Conservative Association. She had questioned the Prime Minister on the imminent withdrawal of HMS Endurance. Mrs Thatcher’s reply had given the clear impression that we were not willing to afford some three million pounds a year to keep this ship on station. They had also understood that the Government was not willing to grant British nationality to the Islanders: now they discovered that the islands and their inhabitants were worth defending no matter what the cost was to be in lives and money. Lady Ewart-Biggs says that she realised dissenters would be regarded as traitors. I also thought that anyone found guilty of expressing doubts about the wisdom of sending a Task Force would be branded as unpatriotic. I discovered, however, that if you expressed your feelings honestly, many would agree with you who had feared to speak up before.

Jean Carr’s book tells the story of those who paid, and are still paying, the full price of our moment of nationalistic glory, the story of Mrs Thatcher’s ‘boys’ who went to war and for whom the aftermath has been so bitter. It shows how sadly many of them and their dependents were let down. In the telling, however, the bravery of the men and their devotion to duty, as well as the generosity of the British people who raised millions of pounds to help them, shine through like the silver lining of a very dark cloud. A contrast is drawn between the competent way in which 28,000 men were mobilised for war and the apparent lack of thought in dealing with the casualties. Ms Carr is a journalist, currently a feature-writer on the Sunday Mirror, and she has used her professional expertise in interviewing many of the wives, mothers and widows and in battling on their behalf to get them the help they badly need. Queen’s Regulations forbid members of the Armed Forces to criticise the Services publicly or to speak directly to the media, which explains the major role played by women since the end of the war.

The women speak about the anxieties they were forced to endure whilst waiting to hear news of their men; about the insensitive way in which many were given the news they were dreading to hear and the lack of help when they needed it most. One cause for these grievances appears to be the clash between the public’s need to be informed of the progress of the conflict, with the loss of ships and aircraft and casualties incurred on land and sea, and the actual contacting of the relatives of the men involved. Another factor which contributed to the lack of help for the men and their families was the way in which the South Atlantic Fund was administered. Jean Carr explains that the decision was taken to distribute the sixteen million pounds through the three main Service charities: the King George’s Fund for Sailors, the Army Benevolent Fund and the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund. These charities are administered mainly by retired senior service personnel, the appeals secretaries being respectively a naval captain, a brigadier and an air commodore, whose attitudes are naturally governed by the years they themselves spent in the Forces. She contrasts the distribution with that of the Penlee Disaster Fund. Just weeks before the Falklands campaign public outrage ensured that the Penlee Fund was shared promptly and equally among the bereaved and that the money was not given to the RNLI to be distributed according to future needs. I hope Jean Carr’s book will be widely read and will help to bring about a change in attitude about the distribution of the South Atlantic Fund money. (As the mother of an 18-year-old casualty said, ‘the South Atlantic Fund did not have separate collecting-boxes marked 10p for married men and 1p for single soldiers.’) However, the fact remains that when the wounded men and their families needed help most, at the beginning of their rehabilitation, it was not forthcoming.

Unfortunately, the maternal, caring, compassionate and, therefore, peace-orientated instincts of women are not the ones that will make them into world leaders. To become such a leader, ambition and aggression must play a great part – and the old idea that if women were in charge wars would cease has little validity. In fact, it would appear that the ideal formula for tough, uncompromising leadership is to put a woman in command, ‘ironise’ her, and make her feel that the slightest hint of compromise would be shown up as womanly weakness. This is what appears to have happened with Mrs Thatcher. However, the strain of her inflexible attitude, with its insistence that her way is the only way, may well be telling. Sometimes the mind blots out reality and compensates by believing only what it wants to. Perhaps it was not just a wilful desire to misinform that led Mrs Thatcher to insist, in a confrontation with myself on Nationwide in May 1983 (a confrontation which never happened according to her journalist daughter’s book, Diary of an Election), that the Belgrano was sailing towards the Falklands. Her insistence came months after she knew the opposite to be true, and she also declared that the change in the Rules of Engagement announced on 23 April 1982 covered the sinking of the Argentinian cruiser on 2 May. She maintains this, moreover, in a letter, written last month, to George Foulkes, a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. She does so in spite of the fact that in a Panorama programme, on 16 April 1984, Admiral Lord Lewin, Chief of Defence Staff and a member of the War Cabinet at the time of the conflict, explained why that change in the ROE’s did not cover the sinking. Perhaps she can only accept this action, with the loss of hundreds of lives – the first killings of the war – the scuppering of any peaceful settlement and our own grievous casualties, if she really can make herself believe the Belgrano was an immediate threat and had been given adequate warning, and that she therefore had no alternative. The result of Mrs Thatcher’s present inflexible attitude is that she has given the Falkland Islanders something denied to all other British citizens. This is the right to follow their way of life in situ, no matter what the cost in money or wasted young lives. This right has been denied to the miners, for example, who have seen whole communities destroyed.

The Islanders, on reading the book, might contemplate the debt they owe to those who fought and died for a ‘dispute over a rock with a village population’, to quote the words of one of the dead, Lieutenant David Tinker RN. Perhaps on reflection, and with realistic offers of compensation and, if desired, resettlement, they might accept a lease-back solution to the sovereignty problem. Presumably this would be easier for those who, according to Jean Carr, complained to the bereaved families when they visited the Falklands about the inconvenience of no longer being able to use Argentine hospitals or to send their children to secondary schools on what they referred to as ‘the mainland’, and who felt they were more accustomed to dealing with the Argentinians than with the British. At the end of September this year it was learned that one of the Falkland Island Councillors, Mr Terry Peck, has decided to resign from the Council in Port Stanley and quit the Falklands for a new life in Scotland. What price the lives of those who died because his Council would have no constructive negotiations with the Argentinians? Echoes of his action are found in the words of another Councillor: back in November 1980, Bill Luxton is alleged to have said that he had long suspected that if the Argentinians had come to his shepherds and offered each of them ten thousand pounds in cash and an air ticket to the country of their choice, he would have had to close his farm.

The Argentinians, including President Alfonsin and his elected government, have reiterated that the Malvinas belong to Argentina. They base their claim on the Spanish Succession and seek to implement the Resolution passed at the United Nations Assembly in December 1965, which sought to end colonialism in all its forms and called on the United Kingdom and Argentina to negotiate with a view to finding a peaceful solution to the problem of the Falkland Islands. In a recent London Review of Books, Tam Dalyell has highlighted the vast increase in the armaments the Argentinians possess compared with what they had in 1982. Paul Rogers, defence analyst at Bradford University, can show that 74 strike aircraft lost by the Argentine Air Force during the Falklands campaign have been replaced by 107; that the number capable of delivering air-to-surface Exocets has been increased from five to 24; that the number of these Exocets has quadrupled. The Argentine Navy, too, has obtained new destroyers, frigates and submarines. On our side we have spent and are spending millions of pounds on Fortress Falklands.

All this is to preserve the way of life of a few hundred families, a way of life, to judge by their own comments, that had already been destroyed by the conflict and what followed it. All the men who fought in the Falklands, and those Jean Carr writes about who died or are now maimed, will be betrayed if, in the future, there is to be more bloodshed and if more families have to suffer as theirs have done. Their sacrifices should not be used as an excuse for refusing a compromise.