Skip to main content
main-content
Top

About this book

The Falklands War of 1982 was a small war, but one with large resonances. The Argentine invasion of the one of the few remaining British colonies on 2 April might have been prevented by a more coherent British foreign policy, better intelligence analysis, and military precautions; and once the crisis began, it could have possibly ended by negotiation. Instead it involved both countries in a short, but intense, conflict which cost the lives of 255 British, and 625 Argentine, personnel.

The Falklands War
- examines the interaction between military force and diplomacy, shedding light on their often hidden relationship
- explores the deeply personal response of the British and Argentine public to the conflict
- assesses the relationship between the Government and the media, and considers the interpretation of the war in Britain
- analyses the effect of the conflict on the concept of 'Thatcher's Britain'

The Falklands War exemplified what one historian has called the 'myriad faces of war'. It was the last war which Britain fought outside a coalition or an international organisation, and, far from being marginal to Britain's key role as part of the defence system against the Soviet threat, it held a mirror up to the face of the British people in the late twentieth century.

Authoritative and clear, this is the ideal introduction for anyone with an interest in one of Britain's most significant military engagements, its impact and consequences.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Abstract
Military historians today generally hold that their subject involves not only the study of armies, weapons, supplies, clothing and tactics, but also issues of legitimacy (as the United States and British Governments are discovering in the Iraq crisis of 2003–4). Lack of legitimacy does not necessarily lose a war, but it makes it hard to win it, or to enjoy the fruits of victory. My method in writing this account of the Falklands War of 1982 is to try to combine what might be called the traditional (and vital) aspects on the conflict — arms and the men — with the kinds of values, national and international that in part (at least) shaped its outcome. I have therefore included many quotations from speeches, broadcasts, books, plays, poems and reports to illustrate the characterisation of the war. This is particularly important, given that the Argentine armed forces had never fought, except for engagement in security/repressive duties, and yet was given the momentous task of recovering the Malvinas and healing the wound of history; while the British, whose army had certainly experienced and was experiencing internal security conflict, had not engaged in ‘regular’ warfare between state and state since the Korean War of 1953, and (more ambiguously) the abortive Suez Campaign of 1956.
D. George Boyce

1. Sovereignty and Self-determination

Abstract
Two of the most commonly used concepts in modem political and diplomatic history are also two of the most problematical: sovereignty and self-determination. As Roger Scruton has warned, ‘It is now unclear what is meant by sovereignty, and the concept seems to focus disputes in political science and philosophy which no dictionary article could possibly resolve’. [194, p. 441] Scruton identifies two main aspects of sovereignty: the external (the recognition of state as having rights of jurisdiction over a particular people and territory and being solely answerable for that jurisdiction in international law); and the internal (the supreme command over a civil society, with legal and coercive powers over the members of that society). Self-determination, by contrast, is more easily defined (the right of a people of common cultural, linguistic, racial, ethnic or other identity to live in their own sovereign state and govern themselves); but is almost impossible to apply in practice: for the idea of self-determination presupposes some prior, identifiable national or racial or ethnic group; and yet such a group might be as yet only in the process of formation (as most ‘nations’ invariably are) or will contain minority peoples who reject the claim of the predominant ‘nation’.
D. George Boyce

2. The British Response

Abstract
One of the most influential facts about the Falkland Islands is that they are some 8,000 miles from the United Kingdom. When this is compared to the distance from, say, continental Europe (which seems a far away place of which the British people still know comparatively little), then the British political and official response to the Argentine invasion was, on the fact of it, a surprising one: surprising perhaps even to the British themselves. When Argentina launched her invasion (code name Operation Rosario) she did in the hope that it would be bloodless, though in warfare the chances of such an outcome are rarely guaranteed. Her troops boarded their landing craft at 05.40 on 2 April and by 06.00 had reached Government House, which they attacked at 06.30. The Argentine desire that the armed encounter would be, as Rear Admiral Carlos Busser, commander of the Argentine marines put it, ‘if possible, without bloodshed’ [151, p. 23] was matched by the instructions issued to the British Royal Marine garrison commander Major Mike Norman by the Governor of the Falklands, Sir Rex Hunt that if the Argentines landed he was ‘to arrest them — not to shoot them, but arrest them’. [90, p. 110] Since Major Norman commanded only 76 men, together with nine sailors and 23 members of the local Defence Force, it might be concluded that his only realistic option was to do neither.
D. George Boyce

3. The Armed Forces

Abstract
The British and Argentine army, navy and air force which would be the instrument of diplomacy and, if need be, of war, reflected the different characters of their societies and functioned in different ways. As Professor Jeremy Black has said, war is inevitably concerned with other sets of attitudes: above all with confronting and justifying (or criticising) loss, suffering, the risk of pain and death. And with attitudes towards hierarchy, obedience, and discipline and towards the readiness to serve ‘all of which are crucial to military capability’. [21, p. 1] The justification of war with Argentine over the Falklands had got off to a good start with the debate in the House of Commons on 3 April; and, despite claims about the decline of parliament, the role of the Commons in defining the British case, and the pleasing, if not complete, degree of success for British diplomacy at the United Nations, gave the British Government much cause for satisfaction. Nonetheless, the Government could not take this for granted; nor could it neglect the vital need to try to shape and mould the public at large. Thus it was not the British armed forces alone that would be engaged in the crisis, and perhaps in fighting; the Ministry of Defence must play its part also. But, whatever the undoubted importance of the propaganda war, and despite the fact that it was politics that constituted the shaft of the spear, the tip must be sufficiently sharp to fulfil the military function.
D. George Boyce

4. Diplomacy and War

Abstract
The echoes of a peaceful diplomatic settlement of the Falkland Islands crisis always rang in the ears of the British Government, however strong its resolution to restore British sovereignty; and that resolution was less strong in at least one member of the War Cabinet, Francis Pym, who had replaced Lord Carrington as Foreign Secretary. There was also the nagging question of proportionality; the question of what losses the British could sustain before the task of freeing some 1,800 islanders was accomplished (the War Cabinet had in mind the figure of 1,000 lives). As Professor Charles Townshend remarks in his history of the Anglo-Irish war of 1919–21, ‘The Army is only the spear point; it is the shaft of the spear and the force behind it that drives the blow home’. [210, p. 206] Yet the spear point had, to some degree, a life, or at least a momentum of its own. This would be no ‘war by timetable’, yet the Task Force’s own needs and priorities could play a significant role in the outcome of the crisis. The power of decision must lie with the Government; yet the decisions taken could hardly be divorced from the requirements of the Task Force. The Chief of the Defence Staff, was determined ‘that we should not make the mistakes of Suez. The military must have a clear operational directive from ministers as to what they expected us to do, and we would carry it out’.
D. George Boyce

5. From the Belgrano to San Carlos

Abstract
The failure of the Haig mediation attempt did not render armed conflict inevitable; but it pushed the initiative closer in the direction of confrontation. Mrs Thatcher feared that persistent attempts at mediation would remove the power to make decisions out of her hands. She was particularly concerned about the role of the United Nations: ‘in the longer term’, she wrote, ‘we knew that one had to try to keep our affairs out of the United Nations as much as possible’; there was a real danger that, given the anti-colonialist attitude of many nations, that the United Nations Security Council would ‘force unsatisfactory terms upon us’ [203, p. 182]
D. George Boyce

6. From Bridgehead to Goose Green

Abstract
The diplomatic efforts that had continued and intensified after the sinking of the General Belgrano were, in the opinion of Admiral Woodhouse, almost another dimension of what he feared most in the days and weeks before he received his orders to proceed with landing on the Falklands: the attrition that was threatening to undermine his command On the day that HMS Sheffield was lost a Harrier was shot down by a ‘Blowpipe’ missile while strafing Goose Green airstrip. Two days later he lost his two Harriers in what was believed to be a mid-air collision. Fortunately, additional Harriers had been converted, at speed, for in-flight refuelling and these now flew directly to Ascension Island, taking nine hours to cover the journey. Some were embarked on the Atlantic Conveyor, but others flew on south, again being refuelled in flight, to bring the Task Force’s air element up to strength. The air war continued in a desultory fashion. Harriers attacked ground targets and engaged in brief clashes with Argentine Mirage fighters. There were a few minor British successes, such as the shooting down of a Puma helicopter near Stanley; Vulcans made bombing runs from Ascension Island. Argentine Skyhawks on 12 May attacked HMS Glasgow, damaging but not sinking her. [179, pp. 90–1] But all the time Woodward chafed at his static position, one imposed on him by the War Cabinet.
D. George Boyce

7. Victory

Abstract
When Mrs Thatcher heard of the beginning of the fighting at Goose Green she remarked, ‘Now that the battle has started on land, there will be an international demand for a ceasefire, which may include some of the countries that have hitherto supported us’. She added that the Commander-in-Chief should be told that ‘I can hold the political arena. There will be no political meddling in the conduct of the war. It is up to him to conduct operations as he thinks best’, though, she added in an important afterthought, ‘I would be grateful if he does not delay things longer than necessary’. [56, 17 Jan. 2002] The Prime Minister’s instinct was right: for there were many and good reasons, in the minds of the states and institutions observing the conflict why compromise might yet be tried again. Alexander Haig was anxious that Britain should not humiliate Argentina. The United States suffered strong criticism from the Organisation of American States. A meeting was called to consider the imposition of hemispheric sanctions on 27 May, and the United States had to use its influence to prevent the imposition of mandatory sanctions; but it did not vote against a resolution, which was passed by 17 votes to nil (with four abstentions) two days later, which condemned the ‘unjustified and disproportionate armed attack perpetrated by the United Kingdom’ on the Falkland Islands, and called for the United States to halt aid to Britain, and to lift its own sanctions against Argentina.
D. George Boyce

8. The MOD, the Media, and Public Opinion

Abstract
The first parliamentary and public reaction to the Argentine invasion of the Falklands gave the British Government a fair wind as the Task Force was assembled and set sail for the South Atlantic. The Times claimed to speak for the nation when on 3 April it declared that Argentina’s action was ‘as perfect an example of unprovoked aggression and military expansionism as the world has had to witness since the end of Adolf Hitler’, and one that ‘threatens the right of self-determination of all island peoples throughout the world’. On 5 April it issued a ringing call to arms, declaring that, We are all Falklanders now’, warning that to oppose aggression ‘will not be easy’ but recalling that ‘in 1939 we stood by Poland and went to war’. No-one would say that the Poles did not suffer the consequences of that decision; but ‘a moment had come in Europe when the consequences of not standing up to the aggressive policies of a dictatorship would have been worse than not standing up to them’. Moreover, ‘the Poles were Poles; the Falklanders are our people. They are British citizens (sic). The Falkland Islands are British territory’. Such a cause had positive, invigorating effects: ‘The national will to defend itself has to be cherished and replenished if it is to mean something real in a dangerous and unpredictable world’. The British were ‘an island race’ and ‘one of our islands inhabited by our islanders’ had been attacked.
D. George Boyce

9. War and the State of ‘Thatcher’s Britain’

Abstract
‘We have ceased to be a nation in retreat’, Margaret Thatcher proclaimed at Cheltenham on 3 July 1982:
We have instead a new-found confidence — born in the economic battles at home and tested and found true 8,000 miles away. We recognise that Britain has rekindled the spirit which has fired her for generations past and which truly has begun to burn as brightly as before. Britain found herself again in the South Atlantic and will not look back from the victory she has won. [203, p. 235]
And not only the nation had regained its rightful place; one historian argued that the Falklands War which ‘so notably revived her political fortunes, was the moment of truth for Mrs Thatcher’s political leadership. She was subsequently taken at her own valuation and she subsequently felt an unshakeable confidence in her own judgement, which she was ready to back against all-corners’. Peter Clarke went on to argue that the war’s successful outcome fed her ‘wild streak of moral authoritarianism’, [47, pp. 316–17] temporarily solving all her political problems, but also forming the ‘seedbed’ for a style of Thatcherite triumphalism that came to caricature her earlier successes: ‘hubris was inexorably succeeded by nemesis’. [47, p. 321 ]
D. George Boyce

10. War and the Falklands

Abstract
The shadow of Wilfred Owen and the other Great War poets hangs over narratives of war in British history. Kevin Foster, in his Fighting Fictions, confessed that, though no poet, his purpose was to take up the torch lit by Owen and his fellow poets, and to write a narrative ‘no less admonitory’. [82, pp. 155–6] But in a review of a collection of books about the First World War in the Times Literary Supplement of 16–22 September 1988 Nicholas Hiley wrote that:
It is often forgotten that war is an abstract concept which can only be understood through other abstractions such as nationality, honour and duty. Because the concept of war has to be taught to each succeeding generation it has been reduced to a few simple ideas which can fit easily within the dominant ideology. This naturally produces a wonderful unity of purpose during wartime…
But because war was an abstraction, people can carry different and conflicting images of it in their mind at the same time: ‘An image of war as destructive and barbaric can easily exist alongside another of war as noble, just and heroic’.
D. George Boyce

11. Retrospect

Abstract
The Falklands War can all too easily be dismissed as a ‘colonial war’: a throwback to the wars of the Victorian age and the early twentieth century that were the means by which the British acquired and retained their empire. It seemed too short and marginal to effect the great changes in British society that the First and Second World Wars did (though its critics alleged that its part in raising Mrs Thatcher’s popularity and establishing a firm hold on the machinery of government facilitated the monetarist policies that were the hallmark of her Downing Street years). [174, p. 247] It was the subject of hard-hitting, but ephemeral plays and films; but it produced no poetry of lasting significance, such as Wilfred Owen’s or Siegfried Sassoon’s. Personal accounts by soldiers were in some cases impressive, but not original, perhaps because this war, unlike the great watershed in wartime experiences, Vietnam, did not provoke disillusionment and alienation among those who fought it. The novels that it inspired were ‘superficial thrillers’. [138, Ch. 6]
D. George Boyce

Conclusion

Abstract
The Falklands War, Sir John Keegan has said, marked the point at which Britain’s ‘late twentieth century renaissance as an international power may be dated’ (231, p. xiii). If this is so, it is in one sense hard to understand. It was a small war fought at a great distance from the European Continent, whose proximity to the British Isles obliged the United Kingdom to engage in two world wars. It can be seen as an aberration, a diversion from the real needs of British defence policy, or even as a re-enactment of the colonial wars that should have disappeared with the dissolution of the British Empire. But its importance lay not in the theatre of war, nor even in its cause, the clash of sovereign claims, but in its political control and operational techniques. It was the first British campaign since the Second World War in which all her armed forces combined against a regular, if not especially effective, enemy: airplanes, ships and soldiers met in formal combat, so different from the wars of imperial retreat or the political complexities and murky killings of counter-insurgency and counter-terrorist operations. The relationship between politicians and public, civil servants and ministers, soldiers and civilians were tested in real war conditions. The services fired their weapons, old and new, against an enemy equally well armed, and in some respects using superior arms.
D. George Boyce
Additional information