One of the ideas which was supposed to have been killed off—or rather
laughed to death—by the satire boom of the 1960s was Boer War British jingoism. To some people this was a comforting idea because few theories are more disturbing than the blind-eyed, deaf-eared, empty-headed patriotism which insists “my country, right or wrong”. But ten years ago it was necessary to learn that jingoism was alive and kicking, cheering and waving Union Jacks as the task force sailed out to deal with the Argentinian capture of the Falklands.
This hysteria was in response to the government telling us that the war was fought so that the Falkland Islanders did not have to live under a regime they did not want. Now this was, to say the least, surprising since under this capitalist system—and most definitely under the Thatcher government—human rights and democratic self-determination were not high priorities. The war cost between £3 million and £5 million a day at 1982 prices and then to fortify the Falklands cost about £300 million and to maintain the base there cost some £120 million a year. Do governments—did the Thatcher government—really spend that kind of money so that a few thousand people in a small and desolate group of islands thousands of miles away can decide who rules over them?
In fact by the time the war began ten years ago, in April 1982, the British government had spent quite a bit of time trying to hive off the Falklands in some way acceptable to Argentina. For example in 1980 Nicholas Ridley, who was then gracing the Foreign Office with his graceless arrogance, went to the Falklands to persuade the administration there to accept some kind of “leaseback” arrangement. This scheme had previously been floated by Callaghan’s Labour government. But on his return Ridley got so rough a reception from the House of Commons that for a time it seemed his position as a frontbencher was in jeopardy. Meanwhile trading links between Argentina and the Falklands were nurtured; Argentina had a near-monopoly in fuel supply and air travel and had built the first big runway at Port Stanley.
For centuries from the end of the 16th century the islands had been a source of minor friction between the colonising powers until, in 1833, a British force deposed the Argentinian governor and proclaimed British rule, that conquest had nothing to do with the wishes of the islanders because at that stage there were virtually no people of British origin there; it was only in 1833 that the British community was established. British rule has never been accepted by Argentina. At the least they have registered an annual protest to keep the dispute simmering and a basic teaching in their schools has been the perfidious colonisation of the British, just as British children are taught about the inherent uprightness of the British.
There were several reasons for the Argentinian move to heat up the crisis in 1982. The Falklands were one of a very few outposts remaining from the British Empire; it was doubted that there would be the resolve, or resources, to resist an Argentinian invasion. At the same time Argentina was in an internal crisis, with prices increasing at almost 150 percent a year and the unions becoming restless about wages and democratic rights.
Two days before the invasion a huge demonstration in Buenos Aires was fired on by troops, six protestors were wounded and about 2000 arrested. The prisoners were saved from what might politely be called an uncertain fate when the government released them as a gesture of national unity. A different kind of demonstration was sparked off by the Argentinian landing, as thousands came on to the streets to voice their support of General Galtieri, who assured them that he was ready to accept 40,000 dead as the cost of capturing the Falklands. It is, of course, not unknown for a member of the ruling class to courageously face the prospect of workers being killed to protect their interests. In Galtieri’s case it was even more obvious; he was a general who had never fought in a war.
In Britain, the Thatcher government’s popularity had slumped after the recession in 1981, which was widely considered to be the worst since the war. Serious trouble was in prospect in the coal industry, after the miners had recently been dissuaded from action over pit closures by what amounted to a government subsidy—even if this directly contravened what was supposed to be the government’s most cherished principles. The Falklands dispute was a golden opportunity to divert workers’ attention from such problems; they could forget it all in a great splurge of jingoism about Britain’s rightful place in the world as the defender of human freedoms against a rabble of treacherous South Americans.
Thus it was that the Argentinians invaded and the British, in record time, prepared an expeditionary force to respond. The speed with which troops and materials were assembled and ships were modified to carry them was impressive—particularly at a time when workers were being so forcefully instructed on the need to tighten their belts because essential resources were in short supply. The Uganda was changed from a school educational cruiser into a hospital ship; the Canberra from a luxury liner into a troop transport; the QEII (where the carpets were protected from the working class boots of the Marines who would soon yomp across the Falklands allegedly to save democracy) into a troop ship.
The official propaganda machine moved into action, sifting the news to give people back home a distorted version of events. For example the landing of some Argentinian scrap merchants on the island of South Georgia was represented as a clumsy and transparent ruse to disguise a military invasion. In fact the Argentinians were there genuinely to dismantle an old whaling station and had documents to prove this. The official spokesman for the Ministry of Defence, Ian Macdonald, added his own flavour to the censorship by speaking at press briefings as if his audience was a collection of dullards instead of reporters from newspapers like the Sun and the Star. A typical reply of his to a question about a rumoured helicopter landing was:
What I have said throughout to that kind of question is that interesting though it may be, I have throughout the whole of the last four weeks never made a comment on it but have always said that I hope no one will think my comment means more than simply no comment.
Irony did not seem to be in Macdonald’s character. If it had been he might have realised that, so bellicose in their jingoism was much of the British press, there was little need for any kind of censorship; papers like the Sun could be relied on to manufacture their own lies.
Business is business
The war illustrated the international scope of capitalism’s deadly trade in armaments, as British forces were attacked with weapons which Argentina had bought from allies of Britain or from Britain itself. Argentinian snipers used American night sights to devastating effect. The infamous Exocet missiles were supplied by a French company (“This is indeed a wonderful victory for French know-how” was how a spokesman for the company which made them greeted the crippling of the British warship Sheffield).
The Argentinian Navy’s Type 42 destroyers were sister ships of British destroyers in action in the war; they had been designed, and one had been built, by Vickers at Barrow-in-Furness. When the war began the Argentinian government still owed Williams & Glynn Bank £3.8 million on the deal. The sale had been covered by the British government’s Export Credit Guarantee scheme, which would have paid up if the Argentinians had defaulted. Instead, the Argentinians quietly settled the debt a month after the end of the war. Business, after all, is business—after all the fighting and suffering and killing. Business is business.
And politics is politics. The Falklands war proved to be a vote-winner beyond Thatcher’s wildest dreams. At the general election in 1983 the Tories practically put the Labour Party to the sword. Labour might have complained about the injustice of the vote and the ingratitude of the voters; after all they had supported the war as well. Their leader, Michael Foot (who had recently pleased a party conference by describing himself as “an inveterate peace-monger”), had been among the more vociferous in the demand that the Task Force be despatched, and so the killing begin, with all possible speed.
So everyone was happy, except the families of the dead and those who had to live with their wounds and disfigurements (and who. because they were too disturbing to look upon, were kept out of sight of the subsequent victory parade). It is rather changed now in the Falklands. The islands are no longer in the grip of the Coalite company and some of the economy has been developed. Ten years on the war is being “re-assessed” by military historians and experts. Some are already saying that it was all unnecessary—as if, except to the capitalist social system, there could now be a war which was needed by the human race.