The Falklands

The Falklands was a freak of history which today to me, and probably to you, seems almost as remote as the Boer War.   Its most important lesson , which Tony Blair has learned the hard way, is that success justifies all.  Especially since Lawrie Freedman’s exemplary official history was published last year, we now know just how serious were the blunders by the Thatcher government which led up to the conflict.  At every stage, there were warnings that the Argentina junta was up to no good.  The British government failed to respond either by diplomatic surrender not by military deterrence.   Lord Carrington has  described how, when he tried repeatedly to persuade Mrs.Thatcher to address the Falklands issue by negotiation with Argentina, she wagged her finger and said: ‘Peter, it is absolutely typical of the Foreign Office that you want to give British things away’.  But for all her declared firmness of purpose, the Prime Minister failed to adopt the logic of her own policy, which was to put forces in place, even a single submarine, to respond to the escalating Argentine military threat.  If Britain had lost the Falklands War, there is no doubt in my mind that the subsequent inquiries would have concluded that defeat was the result of deplorable policy failure by the British government, in their way as serious as those which caused Britain to become entangled in the Iraq catastrophe in 2003.  But, as we know, Britain did not lose in 1982.  Following the Argentine invasion of the islands, Mrs.Thatcher launched one of the most remarkable military adventures in modern British history, to save her own political neck and, incidentally, the honour and credibility of her country.   If that sounds a harsh verdict, consider what would have happened if she had not dispatched a task force to the South Atlantic.  Both she and her government in the spring of 1982, were vastly more precarious than we sometimes remember, even before the Falklands crisis broke.  Many people believed that she would lose the next general election.   Many Tories were still deeply sceptical about both her record and her intentions as prime minister.  There is almost no doubt that, had she chosen to acquiesce in the Argentine invasion, she would have been obliged to resign as prime minister.  There would have been no legend of the Iron Lady.  There would have been no political epitaph for her, as Britain’s greatest peacetime prime minister of the twentieth century.   It may be said of the Falklands War that the issue itself was quite irrelevant to the interests of the Britain in the last 20 years of the 20th century.  It was a tiny, almost ridiculous hangover from empire.   It caused us to invent, after the fact, a strategic interest in the South Atlantic which we never recognised before the war, and to fortify it at a cost which today has reached a grand total of £3 billion, to justify post-facto the fighting of the war.   But it might also be argued that it was cheap at the price, because it provided Margaret Thatcher with the political power base from which she was able to do extraordinary and historic things for Britain during the years which followed.

But what I am really going to talk about tonight is not the politics, but the nature of that quite extraordinary military adventure, which for me and many others who sailed to the South Atlantic proved one of the great romantic experiences of our lives.   The day we heard of the Argentine invasion of those islands, I was sitting at home in the country, working on a book about D-Day in June 1944.  I was trying to make the leap of imagination essential to all writing of that kind, to think what it must have been like, to be crouched in a landing craft heading for a hostile shore.    When I first heard that Mrs.Thatcher was sending a task force, I thought it sounded crazy.  The idea that we might fight a war in the year of our lord 1982, for a meaningless piece of real estate at the opposite end of the Atlantic sounded beyond bonkers.  I was more or less out of the newspaper business at that time.  I had not been to a battlefield since the fall of Saigon seven years earlier.  I had no plans ever to do so again.  I was 36, which is getting a bit old for running very fast in either direction under fire.  But the more I thought about it, the more I came to believe that if Britain was to send a task force to fight what would surely be the last colonial war in its history, I had to be there to see it happen.  I had always regretted not being alive to go up the Nile with Kitchener to the war with the Dervishes in 1898.  Having missed that experience, the next best thing seemed to be to go to the South Atlantic, by proxy at least with Mrs.Thatcher, to fight the Argentines.  I moved heaven and earth to get a berth with the amphibious force.  All my friends among the veteran war correspondents thought I was crazy.   They could not believe there would really be a war.  Several said to me: ‘Max, you’ll waste weeks of your life sailing in circles round the Atlantic, and then come home having done nothing’.  They believed that they could do what most star reporters do in these situations – sit and wait while the long diplomatic game was played out, then fly out to join the action if war really beckoned.  It never occurred to them, or even to me, that this would not happen;  that the only journalists who would be allowed, indeed privileged, to witness the war in the Falklands would be those who sailed from Southampton that Easter weekend of 1982.  We were a small group among whom some of the broadcasters were very experienced war reporters like Michael Nicholson of ITN.  But the newspapermen were news desk hands dispatched by their titles to keep the story warm, so to speak, until the time came to send their stars, if things got serious.