Falklands 30: how it has changed Britain.April 2nd, 2012 |
I believe it was a man from 45 Commando, Royal Marines who said “give me 120 men and I could have died of old age holding these hills.” He was referring to the battle for the hills surrounding Port Stanley during the Falklands War in 1982.
The statement wasn’t a crude dig at the perceived lack of skill or tenacity at his Argentine foe for they were hamstrung by an often brutal and pathetically weak chain of command. Rather it was a statement that if they had more fire in their bellies, and on Tumbledown and Wireless Ridge the Scots Guards and 3 PARA were made to pay for their spectacular victories, the Argentines could have held on for as long as they wanted.
This statement of fact only rams home just what a spectacular feat of arms the British response to the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands was. It was an emphatic answer to the question of whether Britain, a modern democratic power, should be pushed around by a brutal and desperate dictatorship.
Thirty years to the day the Falklands was the last great British military adventure. It was the very last time Britain goes to war on its own in a major conflict without substantial help from an ally and served to cement Britain’s place in the world albeit on a temporary basis. It is now ancient history but its lessons are as relevant now as they were decades ago.
Britain must only engage itself in conflicts that offer not only a clear objective but a clear danger to British interests. The Falklands was about the free determination of 3,000 people in the South Atlantic and their wish to be allowed to chose their own destiny. The first Gulf War was fought along the same principles and Kosovo was fought on the basis that a monster should not be allowed to stalk the Balkans unmolested. It was wrong that the world should tolerate the actions of bully boy dictatorships in South America and the Middle East and it was wrong that Europe should tolerate mass murder in its own back garden. Clear objectives. Clear dangers to British interests.
However invading a country on the pretext offered in 2003 was then and is now still madness. Only now are we just comprehending the horror of such folly in such an undertaking. That 10,000 men be asked to administer an area roughly the size of Austria for example was a disaster waiting to happen. Britain chose to go to Iraq with America even though it did not have to. We had the chance to follow in the footsteps of Harold Wilson but we didn’t and thus we paid the price.
The same goes for Afghanistan. Both were unnecessary conflicts exacerbated by a lack of support at home, in those countries themselves, weak leadership and inadequate manpower fighting against highly motivated foes who unlike those shivering conscripts hiding in the hills around Stanley in 1982 were more than willing to exact their pound of flesh from the NATO forces in their midst.
And what has the Falklands meant for Britain’s place in the world? It made it relevant again. Britain may well have financial woes (who hasn’t?) but it feels more assured and confident in today’s world in taking a principled stand and mucking in to help in a multinational effort. It’s views are respected on the world stage and could you say the same for the so called “sick man of Europe” that begged for an IMF bail out in the 1970s? Today’s world listens to the Camerons, Blairs and Browns but yesterday’s world certainly did not pay any attention to the Callaghans, Heaths and Wilsons of Britain’s darkest hour.
But despite a confident showing on the battlefield it has led Britain gradually to accept its role as a firm middle power. It punches above its weight much like France or Germany but it understands now that it must work alongside others in order to get its gains or simply sit out altogether. A century on from Britain’s avowed aim of “splendid isolation” in foreign affairs and it may well acheive it through a skillful opt out of continuing European integration and seeking to diversify its relationships with Asia and its former Colonial partners.
And its people? The British today are far more respectful of its armed forces than they were decades ago but are far more dismissive of the wars they must fight. In the wake of Afghanistan and Iraq there are no such things as “just wars” or even “unjust peace” only abstract and opaque conflicts in which nobody is quite sure where the finishing line is or even if a difference is made.
All the same we will applaud our men and women and mourn the dead and while we feel far more emotional about the departed than we did even a decade ago we accept that wars will happen. For all the idealism of the million man marches we rely on clear heads and steady nerves in the corridors of power to prevent the next reckless military adventure.
And perversely it is the Falklands that may have spelt doom for the British military at least for the next decade. Afghanistan and Iraq has exhausted all three service arms asked to do ever more work with ever diminishing resources. An incompetent Ministry of Defence as left a gaping hole in its budget billions of pounds wide in which an ever rising number of decommissioned ships, scrapped tanks and sacked personnel must be used to plug. If neither conflict happened, if Britain provided only minimal assistance after 9/11 it is argued that the pace of cuts could have been far slower.
And so we turn to the final and most important lesson of the Falklands: that it is impossible to plan for the future and this goes for soft power as well as hard. Britain in 1982 was focused on fighting a Soviet invasion of Europe via Norway. Its ships were geared towards hunting down Russian subs and protecting the vital Atlantic sea lanes which would carry American help to a Western Europe under the red cosh. It did not expect to be battling an enemy trained by America and armed by a combination of NATO powers. As one Royal Navy Officer pointed out at the board of enquiry into the sinking of HMS Sheffield: “the Russians do not have exocet, sir.”
We can try all we can to predict the next major conflict but we will inevitably fail. We may not take part at all but we must prepare for it all the same. Because the greatest impact on a nation and its people is as the great Harold MacMillan once said: Events dear boy! Events!