24th May 2012 - Sean O'Conor
It's thirty years since Britain and Argentina went to war over the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands. Sean O'Conor from our Royal Festival Hall branch picks out the books that best document a conflict - memorably described by Jose Luis Borges as "two bald men fighting over a comb" - that cost 907 lives.
When you sell a lot of books, you start to note who buys what.
And most customers of military history books are men. We must relate to the tales of tribal conflict and organised violence more than women do. After all, we descend from hunters who found chasing in packs exciting and a good way to bond. A female friend of mine told me she did not understand how anyone could find war interesting, but I begged to differ.
It is probably the genes. World War II cemented my father's view of politics and geography even if he was only a little kid at the time, tearing through London bombsites with his pals in the hunt for trophies after air-raids. He once bagged the swastika tail-fan of a German bomb, until my grandfather saw it and lobbed it straight out of the house.
I was at middle school when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in 1982 and the resulting conflict and competing claims have intrigued me ever since. There is a Spanish word for this fascination: Malvinitis, from Las Malvinas, as Argentines call the islands. This name comes from St Malo, the Breton port from where some adventurous colonists sailed to the South Atlantic in 1764. The first British claim dates from 1690 although English sailors had sought refuge there a century earlier. A Dutchman certainly encountered them in 1598, though Portuguese explorers were probably the first Europeans to sight the uninhabited archipelago in the early 1500s. Argentina became a nation in 1816 and inherited the Spanish claim, which dated from 1767. Clear as mud.
Like most Britons, I had not heard of the Falklands until 1982. And as children we didn't see the bloody side of the conflict at all. We reacted to the loss of 368 Argentine sailors in one night when the Conqueror sank the Belgrano by re-enacting the clash in the playground. On another occasion I remember playing British Harrier Jets versus Argentine Mirages. As it had been for my father, war was a game.
The first book which made me start to think about the conflict more deeply was Raymond Briggs' cartoon allegory The Tin-Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman, which contrasted the "real men, made of flesh and blood" who did the dying with the inhuman creatures manipulating them from far away.
The Falklanders in the book were sheep-farmers who nonchalantly went about their flocks before, during and after the war while outsiders came and killed each other.
Later I began to see the war as a blessing of sorts to Argentina as it hastened the end of their brutal junta, one of the Americas' darkest regimes, and a curse of sorts to those in Britain who expected Margaret Thatcher's unpopularity pre-conflict to result in defeat in the 1983 General Election. But for some outrageous fortune, the Iron Lady may have been a footnote in our history.
Jimmy Burns, the only British journalist in Argentina during the conflict, wrote an invaluable insider's account of how that nation careered from rabid patriotism to humiliation in The Land that Lost its Heroes. Burns once told me the Falklands is remembered because it was the last simple war in which everyone understood how and why it started and ended, a test the conflict in Afghanistan fails by comparison.
Another book which analyses the other side's doomed war is renowned military historian Martin Middlebrook's Argentine Fight for the Falklands, while journalists Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins recount their embedded reportage in The Battle for the Falklands. Hugh Bicheno's Razor's Edge has some expert battlefield descriptions, while Hugh McManners' Forgotten Voices of the Falklands is a fascinating collection of first-hand testimony from various sources.
When it comes to the combatants' own experiences, Ken Lukowiak's A Soldier's Song and Tony Banks' Storming the Falklands are powerful exposés of the reality of war and how new and tougher battles begin inside the soldiers' heads after the last shot is fired.
With the passage of time, the Falklands conflict does look bizarre. As Borges memorably observed, it was like "two bald men fighting over a comb". But the comb became the valuable political football it remains today, especially for Argentine President Cristina Fernandez, who has ratcheted up the tension again.
European nations don't normally go to war with South American ones, especially over the population of a village. No oil had been found by 1982, and there is still none of note today, but 907 lives were lost thirty years ago and countless others ruined through post-traumatic stress.
Never mind the billions spent fortifying those faraway isles: if every life is precious, then the human cost has been immense. With the passage of time we all should understand what happened in the South Atlantic in 1982 and why. For as we are continually reminded yet never seem to learn, those who ignore the lessons of history are doomed to repeat its mistakes.
Comments via Facebook