Elvis Costello's 'Shipbuilding' is an unusually subtle song. It was inspired by an odd coincidence. Just as Britain was preparing to defend one of the last bits of the British Empire, the dockyards which prepared, refitted, repaired and eventually replaced Britain's warships were on the verge of closure - a closure caused indirectly by the loss of Britain's international role. The fitters and welders and electricians and so forth were on the verge of redudancy, but there was one last pay packet, with which they could purchase "a new winter coat and shoes for the wife / and a bicycle on the boy's birthday". Britain was not finished with their services yet. Some people profit from war who are not themselves evil. There is a long, long chain that becomes misty and faint in the middle.

"The boy said 'Dad they're going to take me to task / but i'll be back by Christmas'" is surely a reference to the task force that was assembled to take back the Falklands, and South Georgia. The islands had been used as coaling stations during the height of the Empire, and although they had no compelling strategic role any more they still belonged to Britain. The people of the Falklands were happy for this to continue. The ships sent to liberate them formed a Task Force, a term chosen for its neutrality. It was not a fleet, or an armada, or a battle group. Those words were either too old-fashioned or too militaristic. Nowadays it would be a Versatile Maritime Force. The Falklands War was itself not a war, it was initially referred to on television as a crisis, and then it was a conflict. It was a task. It is always said that the troops will be home for Christmas, but it was actually true in the case of the Falklands War, which took place at the end of Spring 1982. The ships could not have stayed until Christmas, because they would have been bashed to bits by the South Atlantic.

"Somebody said that someone got filled in / for saying that people get killed in / the result of this shipbuilding". To be filled in is to be beaten up. At first no-one took the war seriously, but people started to die, in batches, as the ships went down, and it was real. In 1982 CND and the peace movement was going through a boom period, but in certain circles the organisation was seen as a treasonous nest of spies and hippies. The mood of the times meant that it was hard to be neutral. The Argies were the baddies, and we were going to hit them for six.

"Within weeks they'll be re-opening the shipyards / and notifying the next of kin". Several vessels were lost during the fighting. They had to be replaced somehow, and the shipyards gained a little bit of extra life from loss. The Argentines lost their biggest warship, the General Belgrano, early in the war, and retired from the naval battle almost immediately. Britain had no choice but to put its ships in harm's way, and the Argentine Air Force was happy to provide the harm. The Falklands War was the first war in which integrated circuits and software were as important as people. It was a relatively high-tech war. Most of the deaths took place at sea, in battles between jet aircraft, bombs, and guided missiles. Programmers for Matra indirectly fought programmers for Racal and Marconi. Britain's frigates and aircraft were packed with computer equipment and radar systems. The Argentine pilots sought to fire their Exocet anti-ship missiles at Britain's warships, whilst operators on boards the warships in turn sought to shoot down the Argentine aircraft before they could attack. I do not know who wrote the software that ran the Exocet, or the Sea Dart, Sea Wolf, and Rapier anti-air missiles, and I do not know in which language the software was written. Sometimes the machines failed; it is said that HMS Coventry was sunk because its air defence system had rebooted during an attack, and was on the fritz. The Argentine Air Force only had a handful of Exocet missiles, and had to drop old-fashioned bombs onto the British ships, but famously their fuses had been set incorrectly, and they often did not go off. Perhaps one day the machines will die for us.

"With all the will in the world". For Argentina, the Falklands War was a series of rational steps down the path of madness; it was a mad spark that led to disaster. Sometimes rational people can be drawn into something which seems irrational, or something which only makes sense incrementally, one small step at a time. And sometimes one act of madness can pick up speed, and gather inertia, and pull rational people in its wake. Each small step seems no less rational than the last, even if the source and destination are themselves insane. Alec Guiness in The Bridge on the River Kwai walked the same path, an insane path made of small rational steps. The Falklands War came about in a spark of madness. The two sides had been wrangling over the fate of the islands for decades. It made sense for Britain and Argentine to wrangle indefinitely; it gave the diplomats something to do and somewhere to go, and it was better than war. But the Argentine junta wanted some cheap glory, and it seemed unlikely that Britain would send a naval force across the Atlantic to take the islands back. They did not expect Britain's response to be so robust. Once the Argentine troops were on the Falklands, Galtieri had more incentive to fight than to pull his troops back, and so the war took on a life of its own. Eventually the junta painted itself into a corner, and collapsed. Galtieri and his cronies went off into obscure retirement. Seven hundred or so Argentine servicemen died, and many more were wounded. The Falklands Islands ended up more British than parts of South London. And the shipbuilders, and aircraft-makers, and rocketeers, and computer programmers, the journalists and politicians, and the doctors and surgeons, and the psychologists and the clergy, they all had work to do.

"What have I done?"


Ship"build`ing, n.

Nav. Arch. the art of constructing ships and other vessels.


© Webster 1913.

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