Later today, figures on the number of suicides since the early eighties among British armed forces personnel who served in the Falklands Conflict are due to be revealed. The headline figure on casualties of the fighting is clear cut: 649 on the Argentine side, 255 British and 3 Falkland Islanders for a total of 907 human souls lost over a rocky outcrop or two thousands of miles from the supposed “mother country” UK. Arguments may well wax and wane over the correctness of Britain’s historical claims to the Falklands, or Malvinas as they are known in Argentina. A rhetorical question often asked goes along the lines of: how would the British national psyche take it if Jersey or Guernsey, for instance, were to be claimed as sovereign territory by, say, Peru? It’s a hypothesis that perhaps doesn’t get us far, other than maybe to provide an insight into the sensitivity of feeling over the Falklands/Malvinas issue for the citizens of Argentina.
Whatever the true cost in lives of the Falklands conflict, what seems indisputable is that the military operation and its success in terms of objective achieved certainly boosted a Tory administration that had seemed in terminal decline at the time of the Argentine invasion. It has been alleged that the British Government had prior intelligence of a pending military operation planned by General Leopoldo Galtieri‘s ruling junta, the implication being that Thatcher’s cabinet saw the political potential of a decision to war-war rather than jaw-jaw, and so elected not to nip the situation in the bud. The extent of the mess that this government found itself in is difficult to over-state; had they successfully deflected any threat of invasion, or had they launched a diplomatic initiative in the wake of the Argentine occupation, it is doubtful whether the impact on the subsequent general election would have been as great. Pragmatically, “war” (even an undeclared war) was a better option than “jaw” – or so the conspiracy theory goes.
On the Argentinean side too, there appeared to be significant political advantage to be gained from a successful re-acquisition of Las Malvinas. The Argentine economy was in an even bigger hole than that of the UK, and the effect of the invasion was a major boost to patriotic sentiment and the consequent short-term popularity – or at least acceptance – of the previously despised junta. The historical precedent of a convenient war, to arouse jingoistic feelings and a surge in national pride, is there for all to see. Both sides will have been well aware of the stakes, and a certain amount of brinkmanship may well have been at play. This was probably more the case on the Argentine side, where it seems likely their military operation was calculated on the basis that the British would have neither the will not the logistical capability to mount a response in kind over such a long distance with all the problems of cost, supply lines and communications. In the UK, the swiftness with which that response actually materialised was a tell-tale sign that Thatcher’s government were not only willing, but eager to launch the most emphatic counter-strike possible, and the fervour with which the public hailed the departing task force was a massive encouragement to the hastily-assembled War Cabinet.
The attitude on the part of the British forces seems throughout to have been one of belligerent determination and ruthlessness. Despite the problems of distance (mitigated to a large extent by the availability of the strategically-located Ascension Island as a stopping-off point), the task force had the inestimable advantage of its professional make-up; the troops were regulars, hardened pros, and many feared for the fate of the Argentinean rag-bag of conscripts should they ever meet in direct combat. In the event, the Argentine forces fought bravely and effectively, leading to unexpectedly bloody and costly land engagements such as the Battle of Goose Green. The conflict as a whole was more a series of sharp engagements on land, at sea and in the air, than any drawn-out and attritional process. British naval losses were significant – the attack on HMS Sheffield following hard on the heels of the notorious action to sink the ARA General Belgrano. Both sides were being hard-pressed to hold their political nerve in the face of dramatic losses such as these.
In the end, of course, there could only be one winner and the likelihood all along was that the British forces, superior in training and equipment even though stretched logistically over such a vast distance, would succeed in re-taking the islands. So it proved, but at a tragic cost on both sides in terms of lives lost. The die had been cast right from the start in that the losing side would almost inevitably see political change in the wake of the conflict and many now view this, from the perspective of over thirty years, as a calculated risk on the part of both governments concerned. The determination to press ahead with military action and the relative marginalisation of the United Nations in the matter speaks of a strong political resolve on either side, and the results are clear to see; Galtieri was removed from power in January 1983, whereas Thatcher received an immense boost in the polls, and this “Falklands Factor” saw her sweep to victory with a landslide later that same year. The monetarist Tory government was not, after all, destined to be a one-term experiment as had seemed so likely prior to 1982. The course was well and truly set and the old-style of government, with full employment at the root of all its thinking, was consigned to history. Thatcher may have been the economic disciple of Keith Joseph, but she showed the survival instincts of a polecat to go with her determination to make Monetarism work and banish old-style Socialism. From that perspective, the loss of a few hundred lives in the South Atlantic may well have been considered expedient against the probability of electoral defeat and a return to what she will have thought of as the economics of disaster.
Thatcher was the big winner in the Falklands conflict. It has been posited since that a great saving, in terms of money and human lives, could have been effected by ceding the territory to Argentina and providing each islander with a bounty of £1 million and a villa in the South of France. This is, of course, a simplistic hypothesis, but the numbers certainly add up. The British government of the day could not contemplate what they would have seen as a craven climb-down, with a devastating effect on how the UK was seen in the eyes of the world. To this day, pro-Thatcher apologists refer to the way she “made Britain great again” or similarly extravagant claims.
It is notable in this context that one of the most fulsome tributes paid to the late PM, after her death in April this year, was from Welsh Guards veteran Simon Weston OBE who famously suffered extensive burn injuries during the Falklands campaign in the attack on RMS Sir Galahad. Weston is now seen as an inspirational figure for his recovery from his injuries and his charity work, and his endorsement of Thatcher’s premiership was seen as a powerful vindication of her policies, particularly where the Falklands issue was concerned.
What appears absolutely certain is that Thatcher gained herself an extra seven years she would not otherwise have had, to advance her own agenda, and change the face of Britain forever. Whether you regard the number of lives lost as a price worth paying for that will depend, naturally, on your own political convictions. But it may be worth noting, later today, just how high that price was when those official Falklands-related suicide figures are finally released. At a time when our government today is starting to pile up the body count as people take a drastically simple way out of the world being foisted on them, we may reflect on this depressing tendency of governments to view individuals as mere political pawns or economic units, rather than people imbued with a spark of life and the right to an existence outside of macro political considerations. Life should be seen as far too precious to end up as a statistic of the battle to stay in power.