The Falklands War – Victory or Catastrophe?

By Michael Carberry

This month marks the fortieth anniversary of the invasion of the Falkland Islands by Argentina on 2 April 1982. The Falklands, known in Spanish as Las Malvinas, are a tiny, rugged and inhospitable group of islands off the south-east coast of Argentina. A British Crown Colony since 1841 when, having forcibly expelled the resident Argentine administration, they were annexed by the UK to provide a coaling station for British whalers operating in the Antarctic, the sovereignty over the islands has long been disputed by successive Argentine governments. Following the invasion and occupation by the Argentine military the government of Margaret Thatcher in London despatched a Task Force which, following a brief war, won back control of the islands for Britain on 14 June when Argentine forces surrendered. The anniversary has a particular resonance for me because in April 1982 I was working as a British diplomat in south-east Asia whence our Deputy Head of Mission, Rex Hunt, had recently been transferred to Port Stanley, as Governor of the Falklands. Knowing Rex as a colleague and friend I followed the unfolding events in the South Atlantic with particular interest.

At the time, the victory was perceived as a great triumph which won Margaret Thatcher a landslide electoral victory and two further terms in office. The British government, it was said, had stood up to dictators, and the victory had “made Britain great again”. But was that really the case? Forty years on we can perhaps take a more objective look and try see the Falklands conflict in a more balanced way.

On the eve of the war, the total population of the islands was 1,820. Not one British person in a thousand knew where the Falkland Islands were, that they were a British colony, or anything about the Argentine claim. The first they heard about the islands was when the Argentines invaded. The war lasted 74 days and resulted in 904 persons killed - approximately one death for every two Falkland islanders - and 2,864 casualties - 50% more than the total population of the islands. The UK lost six capital ships and 34 aircraft. Argentine losses were much greater. Total costs are difficult to assess but have been estimated at £2.778 billon or approximately £1.5 million per inhabitant. For two countries to engage in a full-scale war over a barren and windswept archipelago with a tiny population which was of no economic or strategic value to either side was always crazy. It was, as one Argentine writer described it, like two bald men fighting over a comb. How could such an absurd situation have come about?

Before the war, Britain’s objectives regarding the Falklands were twofold. Firstly, to find a way to de-colonise the islands and rid the UK of the responsibility for defending a remote archipelago on the other side of the world in which we had no strategic or economic interests and which we could not prevent Argentina from seizing whenever it wanted. Secondly, to protect the interests of the handful of settlers on the islands who had strong ethnic and cultural attachments to the UK and who wanted above all to remain British. Common sense demanded that some form of compromise deal be reached allowing for a prolonged transition period and ultimate transfer of sovereignty to Argentina with substantial compensation for anyone who did not wish to remain to settle elsewhere.

Negotiations had dragged on for years without success largely because of the intransigence of the islanders themselves. As late as 1980, the Foreign Office Minister, Nicholas Ridley, had gone to the islands and tried unsuccessfully to sell a scheme, originally proposed by the previous Labour government, which would have given nominal sovereignty to Argentina while allowing the islanders to carry on with their way of life under a lease-back arrangement. Although most people in Britain knew nothing about the colony there was a vociferous Falklands lobby on both sides of Parliament and on his return Ridley was roundly attacked by his right-wing Conservative colleagues who accused him to trying to effect a “sell-out”. Ridley reportedly exclaimed that if we did not do something, the Argentines would invade and Britain could do nothing to stop them. Despite the opposition, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) pressed on and put forward its proposals for a settlement. Lord Carrington, the Foreign Secretary, who had with the greatest difficulty persuaded Margaret Thatcher to agree a deal on Rhodesia, made clear that he was not prepared to even put the proposals to the Prime Minister because he knew what the answer would be. The talks were accordingly broken off. After the invasion, Lord Carrington, a man of great integrity, felt that he had personally failed in not anticipating the invasion and trying to persuade the Prime Minister to agree to a settlement. He resigned his position.

Before then the government did two things, both of which made a bad situation worse. As part of the Defence Review it was decided to withdraw the armed icebreaker Endurance, the only naval defence which the islands possessed. The captain pointed out that this would send the wrong signal to the Argentines, who were known to be contemplating an invasion, but the decision went ahead for cost reasons. The government also withdrew full British citizenship from the Falkland islanders, reducing them to the status of British Colonial citizens and without the right of residence in the UK. The legislation was not in fact directed primarily at the Falkland Islanders but rather at the four and half million Hong Kong residents who held British Passports. The government was terrified that the return of the territory to China in 1997 would see a massive influx of Hong Kong Chinese into the UK and wanted to prevent that. The change in status of the Falkland Islanders was simply collateral damage and was quietly reversed after the war. But again, the Argentine Junta read this as indicating that the British government had no interest in protecting the islanders.

So, the stage was set for a confrontation, but there were other factors which came into play. Economic problems and human rights abuses in Argentina had made the Junta increasingly unpopular. It was felt that a quick and bloodless military action to re-possess Las Malvinas would divert attention from problems at home and give a boost to the popularity of the Junta, which indeed proved briefly to be the case. Convinced from all the signals they had observed that the British government had no interest in defending the islands, the Generals felt they had nothing to lose. In London, Margaret Thatcher’s government too was intensely unpopular and the Prime Minister’s position very precarious. In the wake of the invasion, a senior Cabinet colleague, Michael Heseltine, told her to her face: “If the Task Force does not sail, this government will fall!” Finally, there was the Navy. If the proposed defence cuts went ahead, the Navy would no longer be able to mount the kind of task force required to recover the Falklands. For the Navy Chiefs it was an opportunity to prove the continuing value of naval power. In that they were correct, the cuts were shelved and the sale of a warship to Australia was quickly cancelled.

Following the invasion, in an attempt to reach a settlement, the FCO again put forward a re-hashed version of their earlier proposals. The Prime Minister’s response was to reject them out of hand and sack the new Foreign Secretary, Francis Pym! Meanwhile, I, like other British diplomats around the world, spent much time lobbying the local foreign ministry and briefing the local press to present the British case. It was a tough call. Despite some support from European countries, notably France, there was little support for the UK. The United States, for whom Argentina was an ally and an important bulwark against communism, remained officially neutral, although they did provide some help with intelligence. For most UN member states the Falklands were logically a part of Argentina Even many Commonwealth countries were lukewarm; few ex-colonies were keen to support the former colonial power’s attempts to cling on to the last vestiges of empire. Nevertheless, as the Task Force approached the islands and in the light of a UN Security Council resolution condemning the use of force by the Argentines and calling for a cease fire and negotiations, pressure grew to reach a settlement. However, despite heroic efforts by the UN Secretary General Perez de Cuellar, the refusal of the UK to even contemplate the eventual transfer of sovereignty meant the Argentines could not withdraw without considerable loss of face. Then any vestigial hopes of a settlement were scuppered by the sinking of the Belgrano on 2 May.

The Belgrano was an old and obsolete World War II cruiser which the US had sold to the Argentine Navy. It was cruising south of the islands far away from the approaching task force and outside the 200-mile exclusion zone declared by Britain when it was spotted and shadowed by a British nuclear submarine. Although it posed no immediate danger and the Prime Minister was warned that sinking the cruiser would escalate the war, Margaret Thatcher ordered it sunk, resulting in the deaths of over 350 crew, more than half of the total 644 Argentine fatalities during the war. The immediate Argentine response was the sinking of HMS Sheffield on 4 May, causing 20 deaths and 24 serious injuries. From then on, any compromise settlement became impossible and the war became a fight to the finish.

There is no doubt from a purely military point of view the Falklands operation was a remarkable achievement. Conditions in the South Atlantic winter were extremely difficult. Success was by no means guaranteed but in the end the advantages of a professional and well-equipped army against poorly trained and poorly equipped conscripts carried the day. There were many acts of personal courage and valour. But we should not let these blind us to some of the more unpalatable aspects of the conflict or to question the popularly accepted narrative. Apart from several British soldiers killed accidentally by their own side, all the civilian deaths during the war were the result of British action. including three British women (one over eighty years of age). The highest-ranking casualty on the British side was Lieutenant Colonel H Jones, who was killed leading his troops against an Argentine position. Hailed by the tabloid press as a hero after the war, Colonel Jones was given a posthumous Victoria Cross and his widow was, rather tastelessly, paraded at the Conservative Party conference. But at the time his fellow officers were scathing. “The colonel’s task”, two of them told me angrily, “was to deploy the forces under his command to achieve his battlefield objectives in the most effective way with minimum casualties. It was not to get himself killed leading a vainglorious charge against the enemylike something out of a ‘Boys Own’ comic, leaving his men leaderless and a gaping hole in the command structure.” For them his action was not heroic, just bad soldiering.

Today the islands profess to be self-financing but that is a fiction. Most people are employed by the government largely in connection with the 1000-strong military garrison (one third of the population) maintained by the UK for the defence of the islands and which represents a massive subsidy to the local economy. Ironically, perhaps the only real beneficiaries of the war were the Argentine people, since the defeat triggered the collapse of the Junta and the progressive demilitarisation of the country. In other respects, very little has changed. Despite an instruction from the United Nations to resume negotiations on sovereignty, that has not happened and the diplomatic stand-off continues. The islands are effectively cut off from their nearest mainland and the issue remains a running sore in UK relations with the whole of Latin America and a permanent embarrassment in the United Nations. Meanwhile, UK taxpayers are shelling out £76 million per year, (more than £25,000 per islander) for the defence of the islands. Neither of the combatant countries have obtained any of their original objectives and the conflict has merely perpetuated a situation which neither side wanted. In that respect the war was a total failure.

War is always a lose-lose situation. But the Falklands conflict was particularly so. The human cost in lives lost or permanently damaged, the ships and aircraft destroyed and the vast amount of money poured out by both sides was grotesquely out of proportion to the issues at stake. Could it have been avoided?

Once the Argentines had launched their invasion it would have been difficult for the British government to do other than what they did. Although one can argue about the British lack of flexibility on sovereignty or whether the sinking of the Belgrano was justified or sensible, it was important to resist attempts to change the status quo by military force and ensure that aggression should not succeed. The real failures came much earlier: the failure of successive British governments to grasp the nettle and persuade the islanders that their best future lay in an increasingly close relationship with the Argentine neighbours; the failure of the Foreign Office to read the thinking of the Argentine military and push through an agreement which could have defused the situation and deprived the Junta of an excuse to resort to military action. After forty years we can perhaps begin to see beyond the military victory and appreciate the Falkland’s conflict for what it really was: a series of lamentable political and diplomatic failures leading to a human catastrophe which could and should have been avoided.

That is not something of which the British should necessarily feel proud.