Twenty years ago this week the Falklands War began. During 74 days of conflict 255 British servicemen and around 800 Argentinians were killed. Most of the Argentinian dead were young conscripts. Thousands were injured. Those who were there write of ‘the ballooned faces of badly burned men’ and of the ‘screams in the night in the dormitories acting as refuges for the wounded’. The suffering has continued since.
According to the South Atlantic Medal Association support group more veterans have committed suicide since the war than died during the fighting. All this agony was to save the political face of Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher, and to show that Britain was still a world player.
The Falkland Islands, or Malvinas, are 8,000 miles from Britain. They are a relic of empire and it was, and is, crazy that they are ruled by Britain. Nobody was remotely interested in their fate before the war. Two years previously hardline Thatcherite Nicholas Ridley was proposing a deal to share control with Argentina.
In 1982 the Argentinian military regime was facing widespread internal opposition. It decided to retake the islands to boost its prestige and its claim to control large parts of South America. But when Argentinian troops landed on 2 April Thatcher saw her chance to reverse her own declining political fortunes. A task force was immediately despatched to retake the islands.
It was eventually to involve 28,000 men (average age 19), 200 civilian vessels and 100 Royal Navy ships. Under Blair the obscenity of war has become an almost normal part of political life. But it did not feel like that in 1982. The outbreak of war was met with almost total disbelief in Britain.
There had been military operations in Aden, Northern Ireland and elsewhere. But there had been no war of this sort since the Suez Crisis of 1956. It seemed inconceivable that people were going to be blown apart for a piece of rock encrusted with bird dung where just 1,800 people and 700,000 sheep lived.
To try and justify the war the Tories suddenly started raging about human rights and ‘despicable Latin American juntas’. These same MPs had done nothing when Argentinian leader General Galtieri launched a military coup in 1976. The ‘disappearance’ of some 30,000 people provoked not a whimper.
During April, as the task force sailed towards the islands, a compromise solution to the dispute seemed possible. The president of Peru held negotiations which seemed to be leading to a settlement-and cheating Thatcher of her war. At just that moment the British nuclear submarine Conqueror was closing on the cruiser Belgrano, the second largest ship in the Argentinian navy.
The Belgrano was outside a 200-mile exclusion zone around the islands that Britain had unilaterally declared. It was sailing away from the Falklands. The cabinet heard the Belgrano was in the Conqueror’s sights. Thatcher personally ordered that it was sunk.
Two torpedoes slammed into the battleship and 40 minutes later it sank, along with hopes of a peace deal. Some 323 men died. The Argentinian military hit back by sinking the HMS Sheffield with an Exocet missile. The Belgrano set the pattern for the war. British troops committed atrocities. They executed some Argentinians who surrendered. Dead Argentinians were sometimes carved up for souvenirs.
The British forces used white phosphorus against Argentinian positions, a chemical weapon banned under the Geneva Convention. At the Battle of Goose Green at the end of May Thatcher’s real attitude to the islanders was revealed.
One Paratroop officer asked if he could totally destroy the settlement, and the 100 people who lived there, if it was necessary to win. His superior, Brigadier Thompson, gave him permission because ‘the priority is not the lives of civvies, I’m afraid’. Thatcher had all this blood on her hands. But so, equally, did the leaders of the Labour Party.
Labour was then led by the veteran left winger Michael Foot. Foot described himself as an ‘inveterate peacemonger’. On Saturday 3 April, right at the beginning of the crisis, the Commons assembled for a special ’emergency’ sitting. The Tories were tearing into the working class and had pushed unemployment over three million.
This was Labour’s chance to break Thatcher. Instead Foot cleared the way for mass murder. ‘So far the Falkland Islanders have been betrayed. The responsibility for the betrayal rests with the government,’ he said.
‘The government must prove by deeds-they will never be able to do it by words-that they are not responsible for the betrayal and cannot be faced with that charge.’ Tories fell over themselves to congratulate him. Edward du Cann said, ‘The leader of the opposition spoke for us all. He did the nation a service.’
Patrick Cormack, another Tory, was even more enthusiastic: ‘The prime minister should go forth from this debate strengthened, reassured and grateful.’ The Labour left was also pathetic. Not a single Labour MP spoke against the war in the first debate.
Around 60 of them had voted for Tony Benn to be deputy leader of the Labour Party. The biggest anti-war vote saw 33 Labour MPs rebel. The union leaders were, if anything, even worse.
Moss Evans of the TGWU and David Basnett of the GMB supported the war from the start. Sam McCluskie of the seafarers’ union called for the bombing of the Argentinian mainland. The disgraceful behaviour of the Labour and trade union leaders gutted the opposition to the war.
The biggest anti-war march was only 7,000 strong. But the public was not wildly jingoistic. An opinion poll after the Belgrano was sunk showed 60 percent did not believe the Falklands were worth the loss of a single life.
By the middle of June Thatcher was able to claim victory. The public were instructed to rejoice. At official celebrations the unphotogenic wounded soldiers were either not invited or put in the shadows at Westminster Abbey. Stripped of the lies, the Falklands War was about Britain’s place in the global order. Thatcher and her supporters wanted to send a clear message that the British state was ready, willing and able to defend its property and British companies abroad.
They wanted to prove that Britain was still a power, with nuclear weapons, formidable military forces and the third largest navy in the world. This policy at first upset the US. A few months before the war began the US State Department had described the Argentinian regime as ‘the cutting edge in the effort against Marxist expansionism in Central America’.
Thatcher’s memoirs record her rage that the US did not instantly back her. She says top US officials feared that Galtieri would fall and unhinge their regional strategy. Eventually President Reagan supported Britain and supplied crucial satellite data.
Even then the war was a huge gamble for Thatcher-one she very nearly lost. Several major British ships were hit by faulty bombs that failed to explode. An Exocet missile was headed for the aircraft carrier Invincible. If it had been sunk the whole mission would have been defeated. At the last moment the missile went off course.
Today, as the government prepares for another war, we should remember the horror and the lies of two decades ago. But the opposition to imperialist war has also become larger and very much more confident.
The Tories stopped the truth about the war coming out at the time. Reports from the South Atlantic had to be routed through the military and were censored, delayed and occasionally ‘lost’.
When relations between the press and the navy were at their worst, Michael Nicholson of ITN and Peter Archer of the Press Association prefaced their bulletins with the rider that they were being censored. This fact was itself censored. The Sun needed no prompting to produce the most disgusting copy. The paper was being produced by just 12 executives because of a journalists’ pay strike.
When the Belgrano went down one of them shouted, ‘Gotcha!’ Editor Kelvin McKenzie immediately decided it would make a front page. As news of the huge loss of life came through, McKenzie changed it to ‘Did 1,200 Argies Drown?’ He faced some opposition. Sun owner Rupert Murdoch was in the newsroom. He thought ‘Gotcha’ was just fine.
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