"The war is not over," he answered. "Millions are being killed. Europe is mad. The world is mad."
The Falklands War was Britain's other major post-WW2 conflict, and was in most respects an anachronism, fought between two first-world nations, one a nuclear power and founder member of NATO, over a territorial issue. It was blessed by the United Nations, and was generally uncontroversial. The soldiers on both sides fought in military uniform, as part of regular armed forces. There were no atrocities on either side, the three civilian deaths were accidental, and the participants were evenly matched; Britain's forces were more high-tech and better trained, whilst Argentina had the advantage of proximity. It did both countries the power of good, and indeed was the last 'good war', a throwback to an earlier, more gentlemanly age. Militarily it was the first truly high-tech war, in which most of the casualties were caused by microchips, yet conversely armoured vehicles played almost no part in the conflict. It was not the mechanised, nuclear war which Britain's armed forces had trained to fight, whilst Argentina had no experience in amphibious operations, its previous conflicts being with its own civilians. Outside the third world, it was the last war in which the bayonet played a part.
I was six years old when the 'Falklands Crisis' came and went. It was a strange, passionless war, fought against an enemy against which it was hard to feel any kind of hatred. Diego Maradona's controversial 'hand of god' goal in the 1986 World Cup probably turned more people against Argentina than the war, and then because of the act rather than the nationality of the player (Tottenham Hotspur's Argentine midfielder Ossie Ardiles had helped beat Leicester City one day after the invasion, to no ill effect, although he subsequently left the UK for a year of his own volition). It was, after all, a proper war, not like Northern Ireland. You fight and win, and move on.
Much can be written about the political background of the war; I suggest you read Max Hasting's 'The Battle for the Falklands' and Jimmy Burns' 'The Land that Lost its Heroes' for more detail, the books covering events in Britain and Argentina respectively. Essentially, the immediate origins of the conflict grew from a mixture of British defence cuts, political instability in Argentina, British stalling tactics on the subject of the island's sovereignty, overconfidence on the part of Argentina's leadership, and the 1981 UK Citizenship Act which, in attempting to prevent the residents of Hong Kong and Uganda from emigrating en masse to the UK, had the side effect of removing full British citizenship from the Falkland Islanders. All of this combined to convince the Argentine Junta that Britain wanted to get rid of the islands and would not put up a fight if this decision was helped along with an invasion; and that the UN would not side with what had been the ne plus ultra of colonial imperialism. Had the Argentine government waited a year or so, this might have all come true - the aforementioned defence cuts would have removed Britain's ability to project naval power across the world by scrapping its aircraft carriers. At the time, Britain's armed presence on the islands amounted to two dozen Royal Marines although, as fortune would have it, the Argentine invasion coincided with the annual troop rotation, a process which temporarily doubled their strength.
In a comic prelude to the invasion, a group of Argentine scrap metal merchants was landed on South Georgia, before being shooed off by a scientific team and some Royal Marines. Hitherto, South Georgia's only claim to fame had been in 1915, as the final part of Ernest Shackleton's heroic, year-long trek from the wrecked Endurance; "When did the war end?", he asked a whaler.
Argentine forces landed on East and West Falkland at six in the morning on April the Second, 1982, and encountered a garrison of around sixty Royal Marines. After three hours of fighting, in which one Argentine paratrooper was killed, the outnumbered and outgunned Marine were ordered to surrender by the island's Governor, Rex Hunt, in order to spare further loss of life. Although the Argentine soldiers had conducted their side of the war professionally, without assaulting the civilian population, Hunt did not relish the prospect of shells raining down on Stanley, the capital city. Rex Hunt famously refused to shake hands with the Argentine commander, and news footage of the surrendered Marines showed them face down on the road outside, hands behind their heads, a sight which gave the British government no choice but to order a military solution. South Georgia, several hundred miles east, was taken later in the day; a small force of twelve Marines shot down a helicopter, killed four Argentine soldiers, and holed a cruiser before surrendering. A natural history camera team was also captured. The UN cried foul and gave Britain authorisation to use force under Article 51 of its charter. American tried to mediate, but half-heartedly, covertly supplying the UK with much-needed satellite and anti-aircraft equipment. France officially called off sales of Exocet missiles to Argentina, although the mountains of French equipment utilised by the Argentines became a contributing factor to Margaret Thatcher's extreme euro-phobia.
A British task force was hastily assembled and sent off in mid-April, with much flagwaving and cheering from the docks at Portsmouth. The ships arrived in the vicinity of the Islands in mid-May; on May 2nd, the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano - an American vessel from WW2, and a survivor of Pearl Harbour - was sunk with much loss of life, prompting the only enduring controversy of the war. Britain had set a 200-mile naval exclusion zone around the islands, and any vessels within this zone were fair game. But the Belgrano was not within the zone, and furthermore it was steaming away. Nonetheless, it was deemed a strategic threat, and HMS Conqueror became the only nuclear submarine to have officially fired a torpedo in anger. Two torpedoes, in fact, killing over 300 Argentine sailors, most of whom burned to death. It was the greatest single loss of life in the entire conflict. 'The Sun' newspaper ran the infamous headline 'GOTCHA' after news of the sinking broke, to widespread disgust, although at the time the death toll was unknown. The destruction of the Belgrano, and that of HMS Sheffield later the same day, finally brought home to the people of Britain that it was a real shooting war, with actual deaths.
Amphibious landings on the Falklands Islands began on the 21st of May, during which period the Argentine air force did their best to try and sink the task force, the 25th of May being the high spot of Argentina's campaign, as this is Argentine's day of independence from Spain. Between the 21st and the 25th HMS Ardent, HMS Antelope and HMS Coventry were sunk and several other ships damaged, many sailors were killed and disfigured, and twenty Argentine aircraft were shot down. The end result favoured Britain and the landings were a success. Whilst the Argentine Air Force threw itself against the British with extraordinary tenacity, Argentine land forces on the islands did nothing at all to oppose the landings, and remained passive throughout the campaign. The Argentine navy, meanwhile, stayed in port. This was a result of the confused power structure in Argentina at the time, with each branch of service riven by political rivalry.
Under political pressure to achieve quick results, Britain's 2 Para retook the island's second largest settlement, Goose Green, in a fierce fight on the 28th of May, a fight eventually decided by a Harrier air strike. After this the Paras and the Royal Marines moved east, and were reinforced by the Welsh and Scots Guards, who were landed by troop carriers on the 8th of June. At two in the afternoon the single greatest loss of life on the British side occurred, when the landing craft 'Sir Galahad' was bombed; 50 servicemen, most of them Welsh Guards, were killed in the explosion and fire. During all this the Argentine press were fed with images of victory taken during training exercises, whilst Britain's press was restrained by geography from the kind of 24-hour digital coverage commonplace today. Video and electronic news transmission were both in their infancy, the few satellite phones being primarily reserved for the military. Footage from Buenos Aires, however, showed crowds of jubilant Argentines celebrating the nation's success, temporarily obliterating coverage of women mourning the 'desaparecidos', male relatives who had been 'disappeared' by the junta.
The final phase of the conflict started on 10th June, and took place over a series of hills leading to Port Stanley; 'Kent', 'Two Sisters', 'Harriet', 'William', 'Sapper', 'Wireless Ridge', 'Longdon', 'Tumbledown'. The capital was surrounded on the 14th of June, at which point the Argentine forces, mostly conscripted soldiers, surrendered. Arguments still rage in Amazon.com's reader reviews section, between British and Argentine pundits, as to the relative performance of each side. British troops remained for a few months to keep order, and subsequently a much larger army base and airstrip were been built on the islands at a cost of two billion pounds. The island's economy is based around on fishing rights and wool, being famously more populated with sheep than people. Oil exploration continues and is a controversial issue; the islands may or may not be sitting on a huge amount of oil, which may or may not be economical to drill.
The total death toll rose to roughly a thousand servicemen dead and four thousand wounded, a total casualty count twice as high as the civilian population of the islands; the ratio was 3:7 in favour of the British. The Argentine air force inflicted the majority of British losses. Armed with French Mirage III interceptors, American A4 Skyhawks, British Canberra bombers and indigenous Pucara prop-driven ground-attack aircraft, they sank or badly damaged five British warships and a container transport, the Atlantic Conveyor, containing all but one of the Task Force's Chinook helicopters. This latter vessel was one of Britain's many 'ships taken up from trade', the most famous of which were the QE2 and Canberra luxury liners, painted grey and used as troop carriers. In return, British Harrier jets armed with American Sidewinder missiles inflicted heavy losses on the Argentine air force. The Special Air Service claimed a dozen aircraft during a daring raid on the airstrip at Pebble Island, north of the Falklands, and performed and devised various other missions which typically fill the first third of SAS autobiographies. A figure of 91 aircraft shot down or blown up on the ground was released, roughly a third of the Argentine air force's entire combat strength. In contrast Britain lost eleven helicopters and nine Harriers.
Despite the damage wreaked by the Sex Pistols and Cannon and Ball, Britain was still perceived in 1982 to be a first-world nation, in a military sense at or near the top of the second division. Although many decades had passed since the British Empire could claim to rule the waves its armed forces retained their Cold War eminence in technology and training, if not manpower. The thought of Britain going up against a nation most thought of as an up-tight version of Spain seemed comical, notwithstanding the difficulty of the task. The war was not an easy victory, and most analysts have since placed the onus for its outcome on the Argentine forces, in that their failures were of more import than the British successes. The steady trickle of British ship losses, the footage of burning destroyers, had an unnerving effect at home, but much less effect from a military standpoint; the majority of ships sunk were air defence destroyers, vessels designed to put themselves in harm's way.
But had the Argentines shelled or gunned the landing beaches, they would have won; if they had stationed aircraft at Port Stanley, they would have won. If a single Exocet had hit one of Britain's aircraft carriers in a vital place, the war would have been over then and there. If the Argentine army had moved from their positions to engage British forces, accompanied by aircraft and shells, they would have at least caused unacceptable losses. We have no way of knowing how far Britain's government were willing to go in order to win the war, but the 4,000 or so British soldiers could only sustain so many losses before they too would have been confined to trenches. It took Argentine reinforcements three hours in a helicopter to arrive from the mainland. In contrast, Britain was a month-long cruise away, there being no British runways in the vicinity.
This is not to belittle the British effort. With a depleted navy, converted civilian transports - including the world's largest and most conspicuous luxury liner - unsuitable aircraft and no attack helicopters, no early warning radar, no long-range artillery and no main battle tanks, Britain managed to conduct the largest amphibious assault since Inchon in the Korean War. Outnumbered British soldiers repeatedly assaulted entrenched Argentine troops without the benefit of armoured fighting vehicles, often without cover, or up rocky hills. For all the lack of motivation and training displayed by the majority of the Argentine soldiers, their machineguns worked perfectly and they were not short of ammunition. The Harrier jump-jet was seen with the same jaundiced eye as the American A-10 a decade later, before the Gulf War; a slow, gimmicky, defenceless dead-end in aircraft development. The Argentine air force ignored it, concentrating on their strike missions, and lost twenty-three aircraft and nineteen aircrew because of this, for no air-to-air losses on the British side.
Had Britain lost - an unfamiliar experience for a country which had managed to be on the winning side for over a century - the consequences would have been enormous; in the best-case scenario a repulsed landing would have resulted in the Task Force returning home in shame, whilst in the worst case both the Royal Navy's operational aircraft carriers, two-thirds of the elite Parachute regiment, 4,000 soldiers and billions of pounds worth of equipment would have been destroyed or captured, 8,000 miles from home. The British electorate would have gone to the polls a year later facing a choice between a bunch of warmongering incompetents, a far-left Labour party and the SDP-Liberal Alliance, who would probably have won. Quite how Britain would have been transformed is unknowable; whether a young Tony Blair might have defected to a party which held more appeal for him than Contemporary Labour is unknowable.
The war had the political effect of boosting the popularity of Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government (especially given that the Labour government of the time were in favour of nuclear disarmament); increasing sales of the French Exocet anti-ship missile and of the British Rapier SAM; proving the worth of a new-generation Sidewinder and of the Stinger portable surface-to-air missile; and selling many thousands of Airfix models of Harrier Jump Jets. Furthermore, the Parachute Regiment - who bore the brunt of the fighting, especially at Goose Green - received an immediate superfluity of volunteers, and the Royal Navy had a reprieve in the face of sweeping budget cutbacks. British people had a chance to feel good again after the lengthy decline of the British Empire, and of course we won, that is enough. It ensured that Spain would remain polite over Gibraltar. The war even had a happy ending, of sorts, in that the murderous military junta of General Galtieri fell to bits immediately afterwards, to be replaced by a good decade of solid democracy, although the future of this seems in doubt. Even America wanted to get in on the act, with Ronald Reagan's curious invasion of another British island, Grenada, coming only a year later.
The war provided much fodder for writers, and many dozens of books came from it; about the war, the technology, and the people who fought it. Twenty years on, there seems to have been a revival of interest in the conflict, with many television documentaries coming and going. Nonetheless, very few films have been made of the conflict, although there was a controversial BBC drama called 'Tumbledown', starring Colin Firth, that told the tale of a soldier, brain-damaged by a sniper's bullet, adjusting to life after the war. The Falklands Play was also controversial and deserves a writeup of its own. Grant Mitchell from 'Eastenders' was supposedly a Falklands veteran, a piece of backstory forgotten nowadays.
Rather like the storming of the Iranian Embassy by the SAS in 1980, the Falklands war is a small but significant part of early 80s British culture, a curious cloud of darkness over a time most now associate with Adam Ant. Britain's armed forces have traditionally been professional, volunteer organisations; conscription and national service were brought on in extraordinary circumstances by the world wars. The war did not have a direct impact on British civilians at all. Its impact on pop culture was surprisingly transient, amounting to a clutch of computer games ('Harrier Attack' being the most famous), some pop songs (Elvis Costello's 'Shipbuilding'), Roger Waters' Pink Floyd album 'The Final Cut', a few more recruits for CND and the Young Conservatives, and a heroic figure in Simon Weston, a badly burned member of the Welsh Guards who, with skin grafts and an iron will, went on to lead a normal life. The media adored him, unsure how to deal with an uncontroversial war unmarred by atrocity or obvious tragedy, as his burned face suited their agenda. He was a victim of 'war', rather than of a particular side. A series of television documentaries followed him ('Simon's War' being the first). For many, that's what the 'crisis' amounted to; a beefy six-foot Welsh soldier, his skin seared, crying as the doctors tried to remove his dressings without causing more damage.
There's an odd statistic often bandied around - supposedly, more veterans, both Argentine and British, have committed suicide since the war than died during it. I have no idea whether this is true or not.
- The very first British air raid of the war took off the deck of HMS Invincible on May 1. BBC reporter Brian Hanrahan was forbidden to divulge the number of planes involved, and came up with the ingenious phrase "I counted them all out and I counted them all back in".
- The 'Black Buck' missions flown by the RAF's Avro Vulcan bombers - space-aged v-shaped 'Dan Dare' relics of the early Cold War, originally designed to ferry nuclear missiles - deserve a writeup of their own. Flying over 8,000 miles from Ascension Island, on the other side of the Atlantic, the bombers were given their only chance to fight in a war, only a few years before they were to be decommissioned. Although the damage inflicted made little impact on the conflict, it was the thought that counted.
- There were persistent accusations of BBC bias and incompetence ranging from the carping - newsreaders described the British forces as 'British forces', and not 'our forces' - to the genuine cock-up which led to the BBC World Service broadcasting news of the assault on Goose Green whilst British troops were still on the march.
- In sinking the Belgrano, HMS Conquerer became the only nuclear-powered submarine to engage in combat, at least overtly (during the conflict the Argentine diesel-electric submarine 'Santa Fe' - another ex-American naval vessel, originally 'USS Catfish' - was critically damaged and grounded at South Georgia).
- The 'conflict' was not a 'war' because the area of engagement did not involve either the British or Argentine mainland. The only attack on mainland Argentina proved to be abortive; a small SAS force was flown via Sea King into southern Argentina in order to destroy parked aircraft and kill their pilots, with the helicopter - unable to return to the Task Force for lack of fuel - then flying on to neutral Chile. Navigational errors meant that that the SAS team were landed miles from the target, after which they extracted across country, also via Chile. Plans to land a British Hercules transport aircraft loaded with SAS right on an Argentine air base, in some kind of suicidal Entebbe homage, reached an advanced stage before being abandoned.