5 April 2012

Max Hastings: the Falklands war in context

The 30th anniversary of the Falklands War of 1982 has led to several documentaries on British television in recent weeks. The existence of a large amount of contemporary reporting in colour obviously must be helpful to these kinds of productions, as is the readiness to be interviewed of some of the participants, now in healthy-looking late middle age. On 1 April BBC2 screened The Falklands Legacy with Max Hastings, the journalist and military historian who sailed with the Task Force in 1982 and reported on the Falklands campaign first-hand.

On this occasion, Hastings (who with Simon Jenkins wrote a well-respected account of the war in 1983) gave only a brief account of the 10 week operation in the South Atlantic, choosing instead to spend time putting it in its historical context. His thesis was that years of British post-imperial decline were halted by the victory in 1982. (A post here last year was about Denis Healey’s “liquidation of Britain's military role outside Europe” and cancellation of the Royal Navy’s strike carriers.) Also reversed was the unpopularity of the Conservative government under Mrs Thatcher, transforming her into “Maggie”, Iron Lady and winner of the 1983 and 1987 elections. However, in Hastings’ view, the Falkland conflict’s swift success (‘The Empire Strikes Back’ as Newsweek’s cover put it), although it improved Britain's sense of pride and its image abroad, tempted later politicians into prolonged and unpopular involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan. Added to these experiences, the current economic constraints meant a gloomy outlook for the UK’s future aspirations for ‘hard power’.

Hastings’ journalism tends to be controversial and opinionated, and he can go astray, for example last year he was full of forebodings over intervention in Libya. But in this programme, perhaps under the guidance of its producer/director, Robin Barnwell, the case was well-made and convincing - up to a point. To my mind he omitted a key factor concerning Afghanistan: that, unlike in Iraq, the UK’s involvement has been that of a senior NATO member to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) which the alliance established soon after 9/11. He might also have emphasised that 30 years ago the UK, as a member of NATO then confronting the Soviet bloc, was spending over 5% of GDP on defence. This would be about £100 billion a year in current terms, ie the same size as the health budget, as opposed to £39 billion at present. Given the resources then available and the level of competence their ownership provided, the UK’s ability to generate the 1982 Task Force and its success is perhaps not so remarkable after all. David Miller in his The Cold War A Military History describes one of the UK’s significant NATO roles at that time:
One of the major achievements of the USMC [United States Marine Corps] in the Cold War was the plan to reinforce Norway. In this, the majority of the combat equipment required by a full Marine Amphibious Brigade [MAB] was pre-positioned in Norway, housed in specially built caves in the Trondheim area. … The task of the MAB, reinforced by up to two more USMC brigades, a Canadian brigade and the Netherlands-UK Amphibious Group, was to reinforce the Norwegian armed forces in repelling any Soviet invasion.
Although the logistics of deploying to the Falklands were far more demanding, various aspects of the Task Force’s role were analogous to the Norway reinforcement which the UK was committed to undertake if required. A final minor nit-pick, although Hastings quoted Acheson’s 1962 comment on Britain, “lost an empire and not yet found a role”, he did not mention the more damning opinion of General George Brown, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs, only six years before the Falklands expedition: “Britain is no longer a world power; all they have got are generals, admirals and bands”.

Some of the interviews relating to the political background featured characters who have already made an appearance in this blog. For example, Michael Cockerell, who in the middle of the Falklands campaign covered the 27 May Beaconsfield by-election, probably only remembered now because Tony Blair, then 29, was the Labour candidate in a normally safe Conservative seat. Cockerell asserted that Blair subsequently remarked to Robin Cook that “Wars make Prime Ministers popular” but didn’t tell us when this was said, and, of course, Cook is no longer with us to confirm or deny it anyway. Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles has been mentioned here before too, and he took the opportunity to make the point to Hastings that Generals, Admirals and Air Marshals are keen to assure politicians that they ‘can-do’ and that Chiefs of the Defence Staff manipulate Ministers and Prime Ministers accordingly. Hastings subscribes to the emerging view that it was a reaction to the perceived failure of the British in Iraq, (particularly Basra) that led to our attempting a subsequent over-ambitious involvement under ISAF in Helmand.

As far as the Falklands are concerned, Hastings concluded that the 1982 story isn’t completely over, given the current antagonism from the Argentinians and the UK’s diplomatic isolation in South America. Looking back, the 1982 war may have been our last popular conflict, the last imperial hurrah.


Anyone who missed The Falklands Legacy with Max Hastings (no longer available on BBC iPlayer in the UK) might find two recent articles by Hastings of interest. The first, in the Daily Mail on 3 April, made many of the points in the programme, and concluded:
We could not again mount a campaign remotely on the scale of 1982. We sent 30,000 men to recover the Falklands, but when the current defence cuts are complete the army will be able to deploy only a single brigade group of 7,000-8,000 men for sustained operations overseas. We have no aircraft carrier; when the Royal Navy does eventually take delivery of the two new carriers now being built at Rosyth, it cannot afford suitable planes to fly off them.
Economic forces are driving our continuing relative decline, heedless of our martial prowess. I shall forever be grateful to have shared in that extraordinary 1982 odyssey in the South Atlantic, though I shall never forget the price paid for victory by such men as the Royal Marine whom I knew, damaged for life. But 30 years on, the war looks to me like a last imperial hurrah.
The second, in the FT on 6 April (£) covered some of this ground again but put more emphasis on future defence capabilities – or the lack of them. Again, he went for the carriers:
The most conspicuous symbols of this [defence mismanagement] are the two aircraft carriers under construction at Rosyth, for which nobody can see any useful purpose because we cannot afford appropriate aircraft for them. Some of us have for years pleaded for cheap, cheerful carriers to operate cheap, cheerful aircraft. But these behemoths were started to appease the ambitions of successive first sea lords and the last Labour government’s desperation to provide jobs in Scottish constituencies. This pork-barrelling threatens to cripple our maritime capability for decades, because the Royal Navy will be able to afford little else. Even now, I would scrap the ships, to save their huge downstream costs.
And he concluded:
Intellectual rigour is what is lacking from defence policy-making, … We do not configure the armed forces according to what equipment we might need to defend ourselves, but by making arbitrary judgments about what bills the Treasury is willing to pay. … Ministers may live to regret treating defence as an optional extra because it swings no votes. Every conflict in which Britain has fought since 1945 – including Korea, Northern Ireland, the Falklands and the Gulf – has come from nowhere. The only certainty is that our children can expect more surprises, and more unexpected enemies, and we shall have precious few weapons with which to address them. Repeated random axe-blows mean not only that the armed forces are unable now to retake the Falklands – which is probably irrelevant – but, more fundamentally, that we shall own too little of anything to play an appropriate role in defending our vital interests – as we shall surely have to do before we are all dead.

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