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Make Peace in the South Atlantic

The author of Iron Britannia revists the arguments over the Falklands War to observe that what at the time seemed to be a mixture colonial throwback and nostagic re-enactment of the spirit of 1940 proved to be a harbinger of the post Cold-War hi-tech 'projections' of force. 

Anthony Barnett
2 April 2012
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Falklands-Malvinas & the next 30 years

Cross-posted with thanks from the New Statesman 

The Falklands war is hugely important. Especially on the left, many try to pretend otherwise. The episode was an accident, a bizarre throwback to colonial impulses, a tragic joke. American support was vital so all the talk of ‘our winning it alone’ is nonsense. Also, it has nothing to do with us on the left (True, Labour supported it, and when it finally got to power 15 years later it fought in Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, committed itself to renew Trident and build new aircraft carriers - but really Labour is not militaristic).

The list could be lengthened. I’m pretty sure that most New Statesman readers prefer to shrug or sigh, i.e. repress, rather than embrace the ongoing significance that the Falklands conflict has for politics and power in the UK.

At the time I argued that the impulse to war emerged from what I called Churchillism. It was only 36 years from the end of the Second World War and the Cabinet had either grown up during the war, like Thatcher, or had served in it. The formative moment of 1940 shaped the mentality of British politics including the left - Labour, Liberals, Communists - in its consensus. The NHS was born then too.

Thatcher turned her Falklands victory into a coup against this range of Churchillism’s legacy – crushing its humanity with the bellicosity that was also part of it.

Today, thirty years after the Falklands War, Britian's current generation of political leaders have a similar youthful memory of the formative moment of 1982 as Thatcher’s generation did of 1940 and 1945.

They may be uneasily conscious of its anachronistic tub-thumping. But they are the bearers of its active legacy. Far from being just a throwback, as it seemed when it was happening, the Falklands conflict became a harbinger, above all because it was a rare victory.

That victory was so close… Had the bombs that hit the Royal Navy been properly fused; had Argentina mined the landing areas; had its army defended slightly better and dragged out the land fighting by a week (the winter arrived the evening of the surrender, with 100 mph winds of hail and sleet, and the British had only two days of ammunition left); or had they simply delayed the invasion by three months, Thatcher would have been out on her ear.

But luck goes with the grain and the victory was immensely consequential. Mentally and in terms of the military budget, the UK re-attached itself to a global role, rather than pulling back to the European theatre as was planned in 1981.

The victory gave birth to the double-headed monster of militarism and market-fundamentalism signalled in Thatcher’s Cheltenham victory speech, when she proclaimed that she would bring the war home to make it “the real spirit of Britain”.

It re-forged military intelligence relations between the US and the UK at the level of their, or should I say “our”, deep states. It saw the first experience of embedding journalists. Since then, the apparatus has learnt to orchestrate a manipulative militarism, with the cult of soldiers doing their job irrespective of the cause (in the words of this Christmas’s hit by soldier’s wives: ‘Wherever you are . . . may your courage never cease.’)

The Falklands achieved these things because although it was a brief war it was not at all a low-intensity one of the Northern Irish kind or a colonial style occupation we see today in Afghanistan. On the contrary, in a short blast of ferocious fighting it was a high-technology, full-spectrum clash of arms, pioneering long-range missiles, the use of nuclear submarines, the latest air-to-air armoury - all tested for the first time in actual combat to the delight of the arms industry.

It became a crucial learning experience for the post-Cold War interventions of ‘projecting’ force at a distance and cashing in the tabloid popularity at home. Cameron captured the script perfectly early on in his premiership, speaking to the troops at Camp Bastion in Helmand, “During the first and second world wars and during the Falklands War, there was real support in our country for the military. We want to put you front and centre of our national life again . . .” 

To which we should reply: “make peace in the South Atlantic”. The UN Charter stipulates an obligation to protect the “interests” of the Falkland Islanders, not to obey their “wishes”. The islanders want the revenues from the oil being discovered there. We should recognise it as Argentina’s black gold, not “defend’ it with more British lives.

Anthony Barnett’s Iron Britannia was a minor best seller in 1982 and is being re-issued shortly by Fabers, in its Faber Finds imprint, introduced by a sweeping new overview on 30 years of British militarism, in a Kindle edition for £5.00.

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