On the front line of truth about war

The Official History of the Falklands Campaign - The Official History of the Falklands Campaign
January 6, 2006

The 'authorised story' of the South Atlantic conflict is balanced and meticulous, if not the final word, Paul Cornish finds

There can be a faintly unsatisfactory whiff surrounding "official history" as a genre. History, after all, is meant to be an independent process of analysis and interpretation; its job is to question and challenge orthodoxies, perhaps in the end to confirm those orthodoxies, but certainly not to serve them uncritically. History, in other words, is meant to be awkward and argumentative, and not quiescent. But when it becomes official, and is published for general consumption (rather than for a small, private readership of those already in the know), then certain questions might begin to arise. The whole process of official history writing is, necessarily, exclusive; only trusted (and, presumably, security-vetted) historians can be granted access to still-classified government material, and the final work must pass through various committees and filters before it can be published. There might, as a result, be some concern that the historical profession has been co-opted or seduced by officialdom, and that the outcome might be a selective and self-serving authorised version of events that comes uncomfortably close to "spin" or even propaganda. Sometimes, of course, "official" appears to be little more than a marketing device; an effort to add gravitas to a worthy but perhaps rather recherche history of a private company or a football club.

Happily, Sir Lawrence Freedman's history of the 1982 Falklands War falls into neither of these categories. This is no minority interest; the Falklands crisis and conflict was a small but very significant event in late 20th-century international politics, in Britain's relations with Argentina (and with Latin America more generally), in the course of British domestic politics, and in the development of British thinking and policy regarding power projection and the use of armed force at long distance. It was also a conflict in which scores of young men, British and Argentinian, lost their lives or were injured. In all these respects, the Falklands conflict, while it seems to be the stuff of a past generation, still resonates powerfully today.

And it can not be said that Freedman has taken the easy option and allowed himself to be seduced. Having worked his way through what must have been a vast accumulation of documents, records and transcripts, he has produced a history that impresses from start to finish and that manages to be both meticulous and stimulating. The flavour is very much as it should be: an authoritative contribution to the debate, rather than an attempt to have the final, official word. Of course, now that there is an official history of the Falklands campaign, the revisionist tendency has something more substantial to chew on. If such a thing is ever possible, the final verdict on Freedman's history will have to wait until the documents and records are released to public scrutiny. Until then, Freedman should be praised for the balance he has been able to strike between independence (his own) and access (to classified documents), and for the fair and reasoned account he has provided.

The dispute between Argentina and Britain goes back hundreds of years. Freedman's tour through the "prehistory" of the conflict is brisk and informative, and it also serves to show how it was that the disagreement had become so intractable by the late 20th century. No amount of painstaking research into the diplomatic archives could have provided the definitive answer as to title to the islands and their dependencies; history, in this case, provides plenty of colourful detail but could not arbitrate. In the end, a short but intense and very costly war took place over the ownership of a collection of islands described in a 16th-century ship's log as "bare with not a bit of wood, very windy and very cold, because eight months in the year it snows". The war was fought by Britain in the name of the principles of sovereignty and self-determination, and on behalf of fewer than 2,000 people, mainly British, living in the capital town, Stanley, and in tiny settlements scattered around East and West Falkland. In his 1976 report on the prospects for the islands and islanders, Lord Shackleton had voiced a question raised by many at the time of the conflict in 1982 and subsequently: whether "the time has come for (the UK Government) to let the inhabitants of the islands know that they are a nuisance and make it clear that if they want a better life they ought to seek it elsewhere".

As the dispute entered its terminal phase in the mid-1970s, it was clear that while both principles and people mattered to Whitehall, what mattered more was the avoidance of open conflict and the pursuit of a negotiated settlement with Argentina, one that could satisfy all concerned parties.

The Shackleton approach would have been politically disastrous, even though - as was sometimes suggested at the time of the crisis - it might have been cost-efficient to have given each islander a very substantial cash sum and a house on an underpopulated island in the Outer Hebrides. Another option - to construct a "Fortress Falklands" able to resist any Argentine invasion - would have had immense financial and political costs, and would have been militarily difficult at a time when the Cold War was still the focus of attention.

What remained was negotiation; at most to make progress towards a durable settlement, and at least to put off the moment when starker political and strategic choices would have to be made. A hasty or disproportionate response to some rumour of Argentine invasion could precipitate the very crisis that Whitehall was so keen to avoid and for which Britain was so ill-prepared. Argentina, as Freedman observes, held much of the initiative.

The Argentine invasion took place on April 2, 1982. Neither the British intelligence services nor their US counterparts had detected any clear evidence that an invasion was about to take place, and Whitehall was taken somewhat by surprise. Perhaps, though, not completely by surprise. There was a sense that something was about to happen, but the expectation (or hope) was that the Argentine challenge would not be mounted until later in the year, perhaps not before autumn.

So, in Whitehall's judgment, it was reasonable to treat the occupation of South Georgia by Argentine "workmen" as a separate incident, to which a firm response could be made. But it seems to have been the handling of the South Georgia incident that tipped the junta over the edge. On another level, the British Government's Joint Intelligence Committee had also been warned, in a wise paper discussed by them in early March, of the danger of an intelligence mind-set forming at an early stage of a crisis and becoming so influential that it continued to shape analysis even in the face of evidence to the contrary. Perhaps misjudgments were made that might otherwise not have been had Britain's intelligence services been more self-critical. Whatever the case, on April 1, 1982, the JIC took the view that "there is still no intelligence suggesting that the Argentine junta has taken a decision to invade the Falkland Islands".

Freedman's coverage of the final stages of the crisis and of the armed conflict that followed makes for a compelling read. Not only does the second volume provide a careful description of the various political and diplomatic initiatives mooted as the crisis deteriorated, it also offers a very detailed account of every aspect of the military campaign. A good deal of space is devoted to explaining rules of engagement and their evolution as the campaign developed.

With rules of engagement in mind, one of the most controversial aspects of the campaign was the sinking of the cruiser ARA General Belgrano by the submarine HMS Conqueror , an episode that Freedman covers in two chapters. As to the allegation that the Belgrano was sunk to prevent a last-minute peace settlement, Freedman argues flatly and persuasively that this is "simply not true".

The operational deployment of Britain's sea, land and air forces is described meticulously, often with the benefit of an Argentine perspective on the operation in question. Freedman writes with ease about complex military practices and is clearly familiar with military language, a commodity that is increasingly rare among analysts and historians of strategy. The attack on Goose Green by the 2nd battalion of the Parachute Regiment, in which their commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel H. Jones VC, was killed, as well as the fighting advance on Stanley, is covered in fine and uncompromising detail. Similarly, the events that led to the attacks on the landing ships Sir Galahad and Sir Tristram , with the first of these being sunk and with 49 men being killed and many more injured, are recorded closely.

Freedman's Official History of the Falklands Campaign is a fine achievement: a scholarly work combining a very complex and intense narrative history with the most sophisticated politico-military and strategic analysis, and all conveyed with great lucidity. This will, doubtless, not be the last word on the Falklands campaign, in general and as far as specific events are concerned, and it should not be. Rather than set out to write the definitive and irrefutable account of what took place, and why, Freedman's aim seems to have been to make the most appropriate use of the documentary record to contribute to a debate that is certain to continue. In the process, he has also produced a work that should make an immediate and valuable contribution to contemporary thinking about the use of armed force.

This was a conflict fought at great intensity and at great distance that was subject to very close international scrutiny throughout. The agreement and assistance of allies (even the French) mattered greatly. Issues of legitimacy mattered even more, as did the promulgation of rules of engagement. Communications between ships and units in theatre and senior political and military commanders in Whitehall were often difficult but not so bad that micro-management did not take place on occasion.

The role of the international media in reporting on and, too often, either compromising or influencing military operations was another indication of things to come. This was a crisis that demonstrated vividly the dangers of adhering too closely to a traditional approach to threat assessment, whereby for as long as an adversary's intentions and capabilities are not both fully discernible, analysis and judgment (and therefore decision-making) become suspended. And this was finally, yet also presciently, a crisis in which the relationship between intelligence services and policymakers was put to the test.

Paul Cornish is professor of international security and head of the International Security Programme, Chatham House.

The Official History of the Falklands Campaign: Volume One: The Origins of the Falklands War

Author - Lawrence Freedman
Publisher - Routledge
Pages - 253
Price - £35.00
ISBN - 0 7146 5206 7 Set available £75.00 0 415 36431 0

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