Thunderstruck

Arthur Gavshon

  • The Falklands War: Lessons for Strategy, Diplomacy and International Law edited by Alberto Coll and Anthony Arend
    Allen and Unwin, 252 pp, £18.00, May 1985, ISBN 0 04 327075 1

Edgar Snow, the famous American foreign correspondent, once asked Mao Tse-tung for his appraisal of the social implications of the French Revolution. Mao reflected a while and then, shaking his head, said: ‘I think it’s still a bit too early to tell.’ The late Chinese leader’s caution might seem excessive even to the most obsessive historians. In today’s hurried world, politicians, strategists and international lawyres tend to place as much of premium on instant analysis as journalists do, but whether they reach balanced conclusions is whether they reach balanced conclusions is something else again.

The shooting in the South Atlantic between the British and Argentines was American tinkers gathered at the University of Virginia School of law to dissect disparate aspects of one of the strangest little interludes in contemporary history. Several of their papers have been in corporated in a symposium of essays with a multi-disciplinary approach. This admirable attempt to deepen understanding of the Falk-lands’ yesterdays, todays and tomorrows in all their intersecting dimensions rates an ‘A’ for enterprise. It has yet to be matched by a comparable British academic study. But in their recital of events, interpretations of motives and judgments of what happened some of the 13 contributors could have done better. This is understandable. Setting out to pronounce upon a conflict loaded with complexities four or five months after the last shots had been fired was to invite risks. Inevitably there were wide gaps in their knowledge, as there are in ours even now.

The true significance of the Falklands affair can hardly be appreciated without proper scrutiny of a number of issues which the book does not address. These issues include the nature of the political and Britain which led Galtieri’s Junta and Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet to act and react the way they did; the fact that both leaders’ political survival was at stake in the outcome; the high risks of personal diplomacy and the perils of multiple mediation. From a specifically british points of view, quite apart from such serioius matters as ministerial accountablity and the subsequent attempts to cover up what really happened at certain crucial moments in the sad saga, one central question remains: whether, in a crisis, the demands of a coherent military strategy should be allowed to transcend the judgments of democratically-elected leaders. If the answer is yes, must we then assume that this Goverenments and its successors have to be content to subordinate themselves and the British people to the military logic of their Chiefs of Staff if and when the issue arises of using nuclear weapons? On more than one occasion the political control which the Prime Minister insisted was being exercised over the Royal Navy.

Lord Lewin, incumbent Chief of the Defence Staff in 1982, has described how the War Cabinet came to authorise the mid-April retaking of South Georgia: this provided its own evidence of the way a confident military establishment was able to impose its will on an uneasy and reluctant political hierarchy. In an interview with my co-author Desmond Rice and myself after the publication of our book The Sinking of the ‘Belgrano’ last year, he gave this account:

We just about got the War Cabinet to agree that we should repossess South on the way down. These [the Ministers] thought that would get bogged down, or go wrong and absorb more forces ... quote a strong body wanted just to leave it on one side. But John Fieldhouse and I were quite keen to have a go because we thought we could do it and also felt we needed a success. We hadn’t many successes politically. We also needed a success militarily to get Ministers to believe in what are could do because a lot of my job was trying to give the Cabinet confidence that the Services could deliver what they said they could deliver because we hadn’t had a war for a long time ... We got them to agree to South Georgia and it was fine ...

In similar fashion – albeit far more easily because it took only 20 minites – Lewin succeeded in winning War Cabinet authority for a change in the Rules of Engagement on 2 May to allow hunter-killer submarine attacks on any Argentine surface ships outside Argentine territorial waters. That was how the General Belgrano came to be destroyed later the same day despite the fact that London knew it had been heading toward home waters since dawn (11 hours earlier). The attack, which took 368 Argentine lives, proved to be the pivotal event of the war: until that time no Briton had been killed. Furthermore, efforts were under way to arrange a stand-off so that a Peruvian-American peace initiative could mature. The Belgrano incident, which turned confrontation into full-scale conflict, rates no more than two or three uninformative paragraphs in the symposium. Mao may well have inquired wonderingly of the editors: ‘Wasn’t it, after all, a bit too early to tell?’

Three general themes running through the essays deal with the historical and legal aspects of the 153-year-old dispute and the 1982 war: the failed search for a diplomatic settlement before and during the crisis; and the political and military implications for the international system. Uniting them is the worrying realisation that there were then (and still are) 18 active territorial disputes in and around the six continents, 14 active island disputes and nearly three hundred maritime boundary disputes of which 49 were (and are) active. David Colson, a legal adviser in the State Department, observes that the Falklands crisis was ‘an example of how not to control or resolve a sovereignty dispute between states’: he goes on to relate how some countries have set aside doctrine and pride in order to resolve, or live with, their problems, adopting stopgap solutions and a collaborative approach. Among the examples he offers are the treaties governing the Spitsbergen archipelago (which is under Norwegian sovereignty) and Antarctica (where seven countries including Britain and Argentina have claims). The American and Soviet super-powers are parties to both arrangements. Among the many morals to be learned from the events of 1982 is the need for member-states of the United Nations to reinforce the Charter’s absolute prohibition on the use of force, as an instrument of change; as for the contenders in the Falklands dispute, they should now, Colson suggests, pursue a collaborative approach. This would require on Britain’s part ‘substantial concessions’ towards an ultimate transfer of sovereignty and, on the Argentine side, a display of greater flexibility by the elected government of Raul Alfonsin.

In a wind-up chapter Coll supports this thesis. He argues that it would be in the British national interest to disengage from the huge and open-ended commitment to defend these remote islands from another Western-oriented power. As for the eighteen hundred or so kelpers and their wish to remain British, ‘prudence suggests,’ Coll remarks, ‘that such wishes ought to be disregarded in view of more important considerations.’ He does not spell out those ‘more important considerations’ but a glance at the quantifiable material costs of a ‘Fortress Falklands’ policy shows that three years after the conflict Britain’s garrison on the islands numbers about four thousand, with hundreds more on Ascension; that 10 per cent of the Royal Navy’s escort ships remain committed to the Falklands; that the RAF contingent comprises Phantoms, Hercules, Harriers, Gazelles, Chinooks, Sea Kings, Wessex and Lynx helicopters plus maintenance and specialist crews deployed from British home units and from Germany. Quite apart from the estimated £2000 to £3000 million cost of the war itself, total capital, equipment and recurrent garrison spending in the five years ending March 1988 seems certain to be of the order of £3400 million – or approximately £2 million per islander. These estimates do not include the salaries of servicemen on the grounds that they would be incurred anyway. In the meantime Britain’s contribution to the defence of the Nato area remains weakened.

The American contributors to the symposium display something of an Establishment bias that reflects the influence of Ronald Reagan and Alexander Haig, who, from the outset, identified philosophically and geopolitically with Mrs Thatcher’s cause. They had their own good reasons for doing so. After all, Mrs Thatcher had taken the initiative among European leaders in supporting the US policy of introducing Cruise missiles to counter the Russian SS20s. The Prime Minister had also backed Reagan’s controversial strategy of militant anti-Communism in South and Central America and elsewhere. Washington well knew that a disenchanted or hostile Britain would have imperilled Nato, which is at the centre of US foreign policy. Without American political, logistic and communications back-up – and access to the indispensable air and sea staging facilities on Ascension – the repossession of the Falklands would have been improbable and Mrs Thatcher’s downfall highly likely. In such a situation, the rise of a Labour government committed to shutting down US nuclear bases in the United Kingdom was a strong possibility. There was another factor too. Galtieri’s Junta and its predecessors had hardly commended themselves to the liberal constituency in the United States, pledged as it was, since Jimmy Carter’s Presidency, to a restoration of human rights in Argentina. The horrors of the ‘dirty war’ were no secret to inquiring Americans.

Professor Thomas Franck, in a chapter headed ‘The Strategic Role of Legal Principles’, argues that Britain rallied the support of many UN states by invoking concepts of law and morality. To disregard the Argentine takeover, these countries were warned, would be dangerously to weaken accepted principles of legitimacy and such a precedent could be used in the future by other countries coveting their neighbours’ territory. Another principle at stake, British leaders and diplomats constantly insisted, was the right of the Falklanders to self-determination: if that right were to be prejudiced or removed, they said, it would cut across a basic provision of the Charter. All this was, of course, music to the ears of delegates representing small, vulnerable countries and, around the world, there are 62 of them, with populations of under one million. But, as Franck rightly acknowledges, the selective assertion of fine principles tends to strip them of their nobility. Refusing to reward aggression and support for the rule of law have since World War Two been among the principles which the great powers, including Britain, have least often observed. The British did not honour their treaty commitment to resist Turkey’s invasion of one-third of Cyprus in 1974. No Task Force defended the black majority in Rhodesia, when Ian Smith illegally seized power in 1965. Britain did not identify with the East Timorese or the people of West Sahara when they were taken over by the Indonesians and Moroccans in 1975 – even though 50,000 Timorese died in a genocidal disaster defending the same right that Britain claims for the Falklanders. Nor was much democratic nonsense heard about rights of self-determination in the 1960s when the United States negotiated a treaty to set up a nuclear base in the British dependency of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. The 1400 Diego Garcians were secretly shipped to Mauritius 1000 miles away and, in an attempt to compensate them, the British paid out about £2200 per islander for the privilege of overriding their wishes in perpetuity.

Britain is, of course, by no means alone in the manipulative recourse to principle when a national or a specific governmental purpose needs to be served. The people of Afghanistan were not consulted by the Russians. India didn’t check out the wishes of the Goans before taking over that Portuguese colony ruled from Lisbon for 450 years. The Americans actually helped to arrange the detachment of Papua New Guinea (West Irian) from Holland and its transfer to Indonesia; and before they intervened in Grenada, a Commonwealth state, they did not even confer with their British allies let alone the Grenadians themselves. ‘One might conclude that the principles for which Britain purported to fight in the South Atlantic are bunk, to be trotted out when convenient, then forgotten when not,’ Franck writes. ‘International law is an illusion created by lawyers to gull the naive into serving somebody else’s self-interest.’ Nevertheless, he adds, principles can rally people and nations, and overcome countervailing perceptions of self-interest and alliance politics. One strategic consequence of the Falklands crisis was that it ensured Argentina’s diplomatic isolation and limited its ability to obtain weapons and credit in the international marketplace.

There are other criticisms here of Britain’s stance over the Falklands, although most are kindly couched. They seem to mirror America’s own ambivalence on some fundamental issues which are certain not to vanish unless and until each contender tempers its rigidity. In this context one of the most telling observations is attributed by Coll to Sir Herbert Butterfield, the great Cambridge historian, who said that most wars have been contests not between right and wrong but ‘between one half-right that was too wilful and another half-right that was too proud’.

‘It is difficult to ascribe moral and political responsibility to one side without perceiving also the other party’s acts and omissions that contributed to the final military showdown,’ Coll writes. ‘Both adversaries showed ample reserves of obduracy, pride and nearsightedness and political wilfulness in their relations with one another before and during the war.’ He correctly catalogues the many flaws in Argentina’s post facto rationalisations for invading, and then for failing to comply with the binding withdrawal provision in Security Council Resolution 502. He is gentler, however, in dealing with various British acts of omission and commission chronicled without effective challenge in Lord Franks’s ‘Falkland Islands Review’, in The Sinking of the ‘Belgrano’ and in Clive Ponting’s The Right to Know. There are too many to list here, but they include the Thatcher Government’s failure over a 30-month period to heed more than a dozen (accurate) warnings of Argentine intentions to resort to force if thwarted over the sovereignty issue; the War Cabinet’s decision to sink the Belgrano when Northwood Naval Battle Headquarters had evidence showing that the cruiser was ambling away from the British Task Force; and the subsequent ministerial cover-up of the factors that led to the sinking. Coll pinpoints two controversial matters: first, that Resolution 502 was as binding for Britain as for Argentina in calling on the parties ‘to refrain from the use or threat of force’ (my italics). The Resolution gave Britain no authority to take enforcement action. Argentine non-compliance rendered the Resolution ineffective, leaving intact Britain’s inherent right of self-defence. Coll suggests that the British acted legally in invoking that right, although other authorities have argued that as soon as the British Task Force set sail southward the process of non-compliance by both parties proceeded in parallel: in other words, the steady approach of British ships constituted a manifest ‘threat of force’.

The second controversial issue which Coll raises is the extent to which the actions of an offended country exercising its right to self-defence should be in proportion to the degree of aggression it has suffered. Excessive counter-force would tarnish the cause of the victim of attack. That presumably was why Sir Michael Havers vetoed a plan for bombing raids on mainland Argentine targets. And that would explain why the Thatcher Government went to such extreme lengths to portray the destruction of the Belgrano as a military necessity undertaken only to protect British lives and ships.

Two State Department officials provide insiders’ accounts of how Alexander Haig sought in vain to mediate between the British and the Argentinians. Douglas Kinney and David Gompert fail, however, to acknowledge that the Haig mission was doomed from the moment he assured Thatcher that the United States would line up foursquare behind Britain if the crisis reached the point of a military showdown. That assurance, coupled with the provision of US logistic facilities and the use of Ascension, meant that there was no obligation on Thatcher to yield ground in the quest for an accommodation. Haig was plainly in two minds about the entire venture. On the one hand, Argentina was expendable and Britain was not. On the other hand, a successful mediation would have enhanced Haig’s status and influence, whereas a failure would ensure, as proved to be the case, his dismissal. His own European sympathies as well as his interpretation of US vital interests compelled Haig to work with the Thatcher Government to the point where collusion was suspected, causing Admiral Jorge Isaac Anaya to accuse him of being ‘a spy, a British spy!’ In mid-1984 Lord Lewin told Rice and myself that around the third week in April 1982 Haig gave the War Cabinet the impression that the Junta was incapable of delivering a settlement which the British Parliament could accept. ‘He went back to Washington and was getting ready to publish two statements which had been agreed. It had been agreed that he would publish something to show how reasonable the British had been and how intransigent the Argentinians were which would justify the Americans coming out on our side ...’ At the time the mediation process was still on. But, as Lewin recounted it, by 23 or 24 April (one week before the Belgrano was sunk) ‘from my point of view that was the end of negotiations.’

Even as Haig announced the end of mediation on 30 April two things happened. Thatcher’s War Cabinet ordered the sinking of Argentina’s lone aircraft-carrier, the 25 de Mayo; and President Fernando Belaunde Terry of Peru launched his belated peacemaking initiative. Haig picked up the ball and helped. Kinney’s account is accurate but incomplete. He seems to be unaware of the fact, as told to me by Haig himself, that the British Ambassador Charles Wallace was in the President’s office while Haig and Belaunde were working out the details of the peace plan, through 1 and 2 May. If this was the case and Wallace was reporting to London (which Wallace denies), Thatcher would have no grounds for insisting, as she has done, that ‘authoritative’ indications of the peace proposals reached London only after the Belgrano went down. The discrepancies have yet to be resolved.

That critical weekend, the would-be peacemakers were racing against time. British units tried, but failed, to locate the Argentine carrier. Air and sea attacks were launched on Argentine positions on the islands, inflicting 56 casualties. Action ended on Saturday, 1 May with the failure of Argentine counter-attacks. At dawn (South Atlantic time) the next day, the Belgrano, already well outside the Total Exclusion Zone, turned towards home waters. Around the same time the War Cabinet met informally at Chequers and approved Lewin’s request for a change in the Rules of Engagement permitting hunter-killer attacks on any or all Argentine surface ships anywhere in the South Atlantic outside territorial waters. A few hours later Francis Pym, then Foreign Secretary, met with Haig and talked about the Peruvian peace proposals, with Pym showing little interest. He knew a British offensive was imminent. They broke up around noon (Washington time) and soon afterwards re-met at a British Embassy lunch. Haig still was in touch with Belaunde.

When Haig got back to his office Belaunde called to say Galtieri had accepted the peace formula and expected it to be approved by the whole Junta that evening. The Peruviuan urged Haig to try for a stand-off to permit the peace process to develop. Haig telephoned the British Embassy at once to pass this on to Pym. But Pym asked the Ambassador, Sir Nicholas Henderson, to take the call because, he explained later, he was on the point of leaving for New York. Haig put two things to Henderson: first, given that a Junta decision was only a few hours away, could a military stand-off be arranged? Secondly, what would Henderson expect the British Government’s reaction to be if the Junta ratified Galtieri’s acceptance?

On the evidence of Haig’s associates, Henderson replied to the first question by saying he doubted that the War Cabinet would relax its military pressure on the Argentines. As for the second question, he himself felt that Britain would find it difficult to reject the Peruvian proposals if Argentina approved them. Haig put down the telephone and turned triumphantly to one of his top aides and said: ‘We’ve got them! We’ve got them!’ He took Henderson’s response to be a virtual commitment to accept the peace proposals he had worked out with Belaunde. Some of Haig’s advisers were not so sure. But his euphoria was catching. One of his chief advisers, Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Thomas Enders, felt so relieved that he left the office early for the first time in weeks. He went home and changed for a jog. Three hours later he returned to find Haig on the line with the news that the Belgrano had been sunk. ‘Haig was thunderstruck,’ my informant told me. ‘He was simply thunderstruck.’