Book Review: “The Falklands War: An Imperial History,” By Ezequiel Mercau
Published by Cambridge University Press, 251 pp. $45.95
Review by 12570 Mike Kennedy
“For us soldier boys it was very simple. The Falkland Islanders were 100% British. They’d been invaded by a Fascist thug and we were going to set them free. My men thoroughly understood that and we had no problems.”
Major General (ret) Michael Scott, CB, CBE, DSO
Commander of the 2nd Battalion, Scots Guards in the Falklands War
In 1764, French explorers established a tiny settlement on a remote archipelago of islands located approximately 300 miles due east of the southern tip of modern-day Argentina. Over the next 70 years, control of the islands was held at various times by the French, Spanish, British, and Argentines. In 1833, Britain reasserted its hold on the islands, which became known as the “Falklands”, a name likely derived from a town in rural Scotland founded around the year 1200. For nearly 150 years thereafter, residents of the Falkland Islands – the “Kelpers”, as they referred to themselves – enjoyed a comfortable existence, subsisting off an economy based almost entirely on sheep farming, and snugly isolated by the treacherous waters of the South Atlantic from the rest of the world and its troubles.
The Falklanders’ world abruptly changed forever on the early morning of April 2, 1982, when ships of the Argentine navy appeared off their shores, ready to mount an invasion. The islands’ tiny garrison of Royal Marines and sailors attempted to mount a spirited defence, but in the face of overwhelming odds they were quickly forced to capitulate, and by nightfall the Falklands were securely in the hands of the enemy. Just three days later, a British naval task force set sail from Portsmouth, intent on liberating the islanders and avenging the Argentines’ transgression.
What followed was ten weeks of undeclared war which would cost a total of nearly 1,000 lives on the two sides, and end with a decisive British victory. In The Falklands War: An Imperial History, Ezequiel Mercau, an academic at the University College Dublin, examines the events leading up to the conflict, and discusses the larger historical and geopolitical context of the conflict.
For decades leading up to the 1982 invasion, the Falklands had been the object of inconclusive diplomatic bickering between Britain and Argentina. Because of the islands’ proximity to their country, the Argentines believed that the Falklands – which they referred to as the “Islas Malvinas” – rightfully belonged to them. The residents of the Falklands, who at the time were almost entirely of British decent, saw themselves as being British citizens, and made no secret of their desire to remain associated with the Mother Country. For the British themselves, the Falklands posed a thorny problem. While many Britons sympathized with the Kelpers’ viewpoint, the islands themselves were of no strategic or economic value to their nation. Moreover, some influential British politicians were growing increasingly weary of providing economic aid to the Falklands at a time when they had much more pressing issues to deal with at home.
Although the 1982 invasion caught the larger world by surprise, as Mercau’s book shows, the twenty years that preceded it saw numerous efforts to negotiate a settlement between Britain and Argentina that would allow for an orderly transfer of control over the islands. All of these initiatives ended in failure. The Argentines continued to press for terms that were unacceptable to the British, and the islanders themselves made it clear that they were staunchly opposed to any plan that would place control of their destiny in the hands of their South American neighbors to the west. Many Kelpers lived in fear of the possibility that the two countries might conclude a deal between themselves, and effect a transfer of authority without the approval of the Falklands’ population.
On occasion, the seesawing back and forth was punctuated by incidents that were almost comical. A case in point occurred in September 1966, when a gang of armed youths hijacked an Argentine DC 4 passenger aircraft and forced it to divert to the islands. Upon landing near Stanley, the largest town in the Falklands, the hijackers disembarked and proclaimed Argentine sovereignty. The “invaders” were soon rounded up and sent packing, and once back home they faced the music in the criminal courts. The short-lived incident was thankfully resolved with no injuries or loss of life, but still, it served as a chilling reminder that many Argentines doggedly clung to the belief of the legitimacy of their nation’s claim over the Falklands.
By the time of the invasion, Argentina was ruled by a deeply unpopular military junta that had seized power in a coup d’etat not long after the death of former President Juan Peron in 1974. The military government was widely reviled for its human rights abuses, and the country’s economy was rapidly careening towards a cliff. In late 1981, amid growing civil unrest, General Leopoldo Galtieri ascended to the Presidency. Desperate for something that would divert the population’s attention from Argentina’s increasingly dire domestic problems, Galtieri and his colleagues apparently concluded that reclaiming the Falklands by force of arms would give the government some much-needed credibility in the eyes of the citizenry.
In taking this drastic step, the members of the junta gambled heavily on the assumption that the 8,000 miles of ocean that separated the Falklands from Great Britain made it unlikely that the British would attempt to retaliate. What they seriously underestimated was the reaction of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the “Iron Lady” whose government had been elected in May 1979. Showing the same steely determination as had Elizabeth I when she stared down the Spanish Armada in 1588, Thatcher and her colleagues quickly decided that irrespective of how little material value the islands themselves represented, under no circumstances could Britain afford to ignore what amounted to a grievous affront to the nation’s pride. Hence, Operation Corporate, an endeavour which would eventually involve participation by over 100 ships and thousands of personnel from all branches of Britain’s armed forces, was quickly approved.
Though many Britons endorsed their government’s crusade to rescue the Falklands, support for the endeavour was by no means universal. The war itself was hotly debated in the pages of the nation’s newspapers. Proponents of military intervention, such as the firebrand Jean Rook – otherwise known as the “First Lady of Fleet Street” – asserted in the Daily Express that the war had “re-raised and unfurled our spirit, self-respect, comradeship, and guts.” On the other hand, opponent of the war, such as the historian R.C. Mowat, countered that “as a mature post-imperial power we should surely be ready to forego the pride in “sovereignty.”.” The Thatcher government’s argument that military action was necessary to protect the Falklanders’ right to self-determination also strained relationships with certain key political constituencies, such as the Scottish nationalist movement, who were still smarting over the failure of a referendum in 1979 that sought to create a legislative assembly in their country.
Throughout his book, Mercau suggests that a key factor underlying the Thatcher government’s decision to fight fire with fire was the legacy of British Imperialism, a concept which he styles as “Greater Britain”. In the 40 years that preceded the Falklands War, Britain’s great global empire, which had reached its zenith during the early years of the 20th century, had largely evaporated. Many former colonial possessions had gained independence in large part because they were home to sizeable indigenous populations that craved self-rule. By the early 1980’s, the Falklands were one of the last remnants of the once-glorious Empire. And because of the fact that the Kelpers were almost exclusively descended from true-blue British stock, they were distinctly different from almost any of the other colonies that Queen Victoria had once ruled over.
In this respect, in the minds of many in Britain, Mercau argues that the war itself was about more than simply regaining control over an obscure British protectorate that had been unjustly wrested away by the Argentines. Under the concept of “Greater Britain” the Falklanders were essentially viewed by many Britons – and indeed, by the Kelpers themselves – as being every bit as British as their cousins on the Isle of Albion, an integral part of a people united by a common language, heritage, and set of beliefs. Indeed, throughout the conflict, it was frequently noted that the war was as much about protecting “kith and kin” as it was about avenging the slight to Britain’s sense of national honour.
Under these circumstances, Mercau concludes, once the Argentines had effectively thrown down the gauntlet, the British had almost no other alternative but to take up arms and swiftly punish the interlopers. Indeed, at one point during the war, the righteousness of the British cause was underlined by a Padre serving with the Scots Guards, who invoked a quote from the 5th century theologian St. Augustine of Hippo, “It is the injustice of the opposing side that lays on the wise man the necessity of fighting just wars.”
The war itself quickly led to two very different outcomes for the belligerents who were involved. Following their victory in June 1982, the British basked in a glow of national pride, and the popularity of the Thatcher government skyrocketed. Almost overnight, the Prime Minister’s image was transformed from one of a miserly, mean-spirited old woman to that of a resolute and fearless warrior queen, a 20th century incarnation of the medieval heroine Boudicca. Thatcher proudly proclaimed that the triumph in the South Atlantic had “put the “Great” back into “Great Britain””, and the “Falklands Factor” helped her Conservative Party to cruise to a landslide victory in the 1983 general elections.
Meanwhile, for Argentina’s military rulers, the decision to invade the Falklands turned out to a disaster. In the wake of their humiliation at the hands of the British, Galtieri and his cronies were quickly driven from office. Four years after the war, a number of senior military commanders, Galtieri figuring prominently among them, were convicted of mishandling the war and sentenced to prison. Their reprieve came in 1989, when they were pardoned by Carlos Menem, shortly after his election as Argentina’s new President. Galtieri himself would be destined to live out the rest of his life in ignominy on a modest military pension; he died of a heart attack at his home outside Buenos Aries in 2003, at the age of 76.
Today, nearly 40 years after the war, in certain respects the Falklands are a very different place than they were in 1982. The islands are now home to a sizeable, well-equipped British garrison that makes the prospect of a second Argentine invasion extremely remote, and they are enjoying newfound economic prosperity as the result of the growth of a blossoming fishing industry. As well, the population has grown significantly, and become more ethnically diverse.
But events since that time would also suggest that in their all-important hearts and minds, the Kelpers remain every bit as British as they have ever been. As recently as 2013, a referendum on the status of the Falklands as an overseas territory of the United Kingdom provided clear and irrefutable proof of the islanders’ desire to main their ties with the Mother Country. A whopping 99.8 percent of ballots cast supported continuation of the relationship that has now existed for nearly 200 years; just three people (probably just as well that they remain nameless) voted against this notion. When the results were announced, residents were jubilant, parading through the countryside in vehicles festooned with the Union Jack.
I would suggest that in many respects, the Falklands affair of 1982 served as a prototype of the kinds of wars armies of the future will be called upon to fight, specifically, localized conflicts of comparatively limited scale, as opposed to the broad-ranging, multi-theatre operations that characterized the two World Wars. The Falklands were the first real test of British arms since the Korean War, and by all accounts, those who participated rose to the challenge and performed magnificently. The eventual victory was a compelling testimonial not only to the skill and courage of the fighting men who confronted the Argentines, but also to the remarkable effectiveness of the massive logistical support that was needed to sustain their efforts.
Mercau’s book presents an interesting contrast to many other works that have been written on this conflict. Rather than focusing on details of the operational aspects of the campaign, the book concentrates mainly on examining details of the events leading up to the war, and the larger political backdrop against which it was fought. Perhaps most importantly for serving officers, the book is an important reminder that in order to lead effectively, they must not only be proficient in the warfighting aspects of their chosen trade, but also be capable of understanding the larger political forces that underlie the battles they are ordered to fight.
As an overall assessment, I found The Falklands War to be a comprehensive, well-researched contribution to military literature. This is a book that is highly recommended for anyone with an interest in the history of that conflict.