By Michael Carberry
In my article in Only Connect on 20 April 2022, The Falklands War – Victory or Catastrophe, I concluded that, taking an objective look at the Falklands conflict after forty years, it appeared less of a great victory than “a lamentable series of political and diplomatic failures resulting in a human catastrophe which could and should have been avoided”. Commenting on the article Mr William Knocker wrote:
“That is your view & dissing H. Jones while you are at it…another Captain Hindsight methinks.”
The comment is revealing, parroting as it does UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s favourite jibe against his opposite number when he can think of nothing better to say. The implication is that it is easy to be wise after the event. In the case of the Falklands conflict, it suggests that Argentina’s invasion and the costs of the subsequent war could not have been foreseen and therefore avoided. But that view is simply not supported by the facts.
The Argentine government had laid claim to the islands for a very long time – indeed ever since they were seized by force by the British in 1841. As Britain’s great power status and global command of the seas declined, the threat of an Argentine invasion steadily increased. In the 1980s the Labour government were acutely aware of the danger and took active steps to defuse the issue. They had some success in building confidence measures; increasing contacts and exchanges; and in working up the proposed lease-back scheme which would have transferred nominal sovereignty to Argentina while allowing the islanders to continue with the traditional way of life and allegiances. But the realisation of the scheme was frustrated by the nationalist Peronist government in Buenos Aires which, for its own domestic political reasons, whipped up anti-British sentiment and would not contemplate any less than full transfer of the islands. With changes of government in both London and Buenos Aires, the Conservative Foreign Office Minister, Nicholas Ridley was again acutely aware of the danger and tried to revive the scheme with the military Junta but that too was frustrated by members of his own party.
As my previous article goes on to explain, time and again there were opportunities to take steps which might prevent the war or help achieve a negotiated settlement which were either ignored or not taken seriously. That is not just my “view” i.e., a matter of opinion. It is a matter of fact or at least the facts as I have been able to ascertain them. I am very willing to listen to anyone who disagrees with my assessment but only if they can come up with some hard evidence to substantiate their conclusions. I have little regard for someone who dismisses an argument simply because it does not fit in with their prejudices.
The “Captain Hindsight” epithet was no doubt intended as a slight but I would regard it rather as a compliment. As young schoolboys in the late 1950s my friends and I used to pore over some large volumes in the school library entitled “The Great War.” Published in the years immediately following the armistice of 1918, the books were a collection of selected photographs and numerous artists’ impressions showing the “glorious victory” of the gallant British and French allies against the brutal and cowardly “Hun”. The photographs showed smiling allied troops drinking tea, or doing their washing or polishing their weapons. The artists’ impressions showed acts of valour such as allied soldiers leaping into the enemy trenches and sticking bayonets in the defenders. There was no mention of the appalling conditions in the trenches, of the shell-shocked men shot for “cowardice in the face of the enemy” or imprisoned for “lack of moral fibre”, nor the wholesale destruction of large areas of Northern France and Belgium and the senseless slaughter of millions of young men for war aims which had largely been forgotten or become irrelevant. With hindsight we tend to take a different view of the conflict. Hindsight is important. We need constantly to re-evaluate our history if we are ever to learn from the mistakes of the past. My point was that after 40 years – and with the benefit of hindsight - it is time we took a more objective look at the Falklands conflict.
That re-evaluation of the past is especially important where it makes us feel uncomfortable or challenges our pre-conceptions. Which is why I specifically included the anecdote about Lt. Col. H Jones. Like most of the British public I would have been disposed to accept the newspaper accounts of Col. Jones’ action at face value - as an act of exceptional gallantry. So, I was surprised at the vehemence of the criticism express by the two officers to whom I spoke on the very morning after the Colonel’s death was reported. Here it seemed to me, was an alternative view which needed to be considered. I have never been a soldier and do not know the details of the incident, so I have no axe to grind and certainly have no interest in “dissing” Col. Jones’ reputation. But I am interested in the truth, and in trying to establish that, I am inclined to give more weight to the professional views of the Colonel’s military colleagues than those of the British tabloid press.
Because the truth matters. False narratives have been the stock in trade of demagogues and dictators throughout the ages It is all too easy to tell people what they want to hear, playing on their fears or prejudices and exploiting their loyalty and patriotism. It was Hitler’s rants about the Jews, which enabled the Holocaust, Donald Trump’s ludicrous assertions about the US presidential election having been “stolen” which provoked the attack on the Capitol building, and Putin’s absurd claims about a “Nazi” regime in Kyiv which has persuaded most Russians to acquiesce in the invasion of Ukraine. In the present international climate, when the internet is awash with disinformation, conspiracy theories and downright lies, it is incumbent upon those of us who speak and write about events, past or present, to be scrupulously, even brutally, honest. And if telling the truth about the Falklands War offends the susceptibilities of people like Mr Knocker then so be it. We owe that much not just to future generations but also to the memory of those who fought and died in the south Atlantic forty years ago.