When the Russo-Ukrainian war broke out this past February, it brought a certain frisson. This was real news, awful but exciting, a David-and-Goliath conflict started by one of the Great Powers, as they used to be called, a war that until a moment before it happened many in the West said wouldn’t happen. This was not another jungle or desert war but a hot war, not that far from the heart of Europe. Startling images instantly came back to us, the likes of which few of us had seen except in old war movies and documentaries: tanks, armor, and artillery in action and on the move, modern-looking cities bombed and shelled to ruins, burned-out villages, and hordes of refugees.
The Falklands War, fought in the South Atlantic forty years ago this spring and summer, brought the same perverse thrill. It began when the Argentine strongman Leopold Galtieri placed a large bet: if he acted decisively to seize the “Malvinas” (as Argentina called the Falklands) by force, Britain would never go to war to recover them. Compare Vladimir Putin’s equally large bet that the West will not risk direct intervention over Russia’s conventional aggression against Ukraine, which cannot (yet) rely on treaty obligations with the West. Russia’s subsequent martial ineptitude aside, Putin’s bet has not yet proved wrong. In April 1982, Galtieri’s bet proved wrong almost from the start, though it was not irrational. Galtieri knew that the United Kingdom and embattled Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had significant problems at home regarding the economy and the nation’s post-imperial identity, and that the latest defense review had further emasculated the Royal Navy. The Argentines were also longstanding victims of their own propaganda, truly but mistakenly seeing themselves as liberators in the Falklands, not aggressors. The Argentine public’s attention was diverted from the despair of the government’s Dirty War, and support at home swelled when the troops landed; Argentine moms baked patriotic blue and white cakes for the brave boys on the Malvinas.
One commanding geopolitical fact informed perceptions of likely outcomes in each of these conflicts, forty years apart. In Ukraine, it was the fact of the enormity and looming proximity of Russia. In the Falklands, it was the fact of enormous distance between the remote South Atlantic archipelago and Britain. Some quick, mistaken judgments followed: well of course Russia will prevail, said smart opinion in the opening days in February and early March this year. Well of course Britain hadn’t a chance of winning a fight eight thousand miles from home for a territory within range of land-based Argentine air power, said smart opinion then. It all seemed preposterous, in a Ruritanian sort of way: a prince of the royal line would fly a helicopter in combat. It all made the unfolding conflict so compelling.
The Argentines landed in force in the wee hours of April 2. The garrison force of sixty-eight Royal Marines, veterans of Malaya, Aden, and Ulster, resisted gallantly but were outgunned and overwhelmed. Governor Rex Hunt surrendered at 9:25 AM, with the promise “We’ll be back.” The world professed shock. The United Nations passed a resolution condemning the Argentine action, and nobody paid any attention. In Britain, fallout from the invasion fiasco came fast. Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington resigned for misreading Argentine intentions, and there were shouts in the Commons at the prime minister to “resign” and “get out.”
Speculation on how far Britain would go, taken so badly off-guard, consumed the press, with coverage that betrayed a certain old-time martial gusto. The cover of Time featured the Union Jack with the caption “Battle Stations, Showdown in the South Atlantic.” Newsweek channeled Star Wars with “The Empire Strikes Back: The Falklands Crisis” and a shot of Britain’s flagship, the World War II–vintage carrier Hermes, flanked by menacing gray escorts. “Britannia Scorns to Yield,” ran the inside story: “In a duel of honor over the Falklands, London dispatches an armada to challenge Argentine invaders.” Despite diplomatic scurrying-about by Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state Alexander Haig, Thatcher thumped a resounding “no” to the invasion and to her departure—it was for her a point of honor—and Her Majesty’s armed forces prepared to give battle. A patched-together but still formidable fleet and invasion force sailed from Portsmouth and Gibraltar to re-take the islands, whose residents almost entirely wished to remain British. The liners Queen Elizabeth 2 and Canberra were requisitioned to carry troops. RAF Vulcan strategic bombers flew from Lincolnshire to Ascension Island to the Falklands in an attempt to disable the runway at Port Stanley and force defending Argentine jets back to mainland bases. Commandoes landed behind the line. It looked like a real show. Humiliated and against the odds, Britain chose to fight and said it would not hesitate to shoot first.
Part of the excitement owed to these long odds. Britain had a small but highly professional army, though its experience largely came from the streets of Northern Ireland. Its blue-water navy was shrinking fast, shorn of its fleet carriers and whose last big expedition had been Suez in 1956, which did not turn out well (admittedly for political reasons). Argentina had a conscript army experienced largely in anti-insurgency operations and a creaky navy that included a British-surplus aircraft carrier and a former American cruiser (General Belgrano, ex-USS Phoenix) launched in 1935. The Argentine air force ranked better, however, with a combination of domestic ground attack planes, American- and French-built jet fighters, and a small stock of French Exocet sea-skimming missiles.
Surprises and mishaps abounded on both sides. At the end of April, as the task force approached the war zone, Britain declared a total air and maritime exclusion zone around the islands, and on May 2 the nuclear submarine Conqueror torpedoed and sank the Belgrano, which was maneuvering to engage the approaching British fleet. On May 4, an Exocet struck HMS Sheffield, which foundered under tow six days later, the first large British warship lost in combat since 1945. Finally, on May 21, and with all mediation exhausted, the British landed in force along San Carlos Water on East Falkland Island. More British ships supporting and supplying them were lost to Argentine air: Ardent, Antelope, Coventry, and Atlantic Conveyor sunk; Antrim, Brilliant, Broadsword, Sir Galahad, and Sir Lancelot bombed. The two amphibious assault ships Fearless and Intrepid and the two Harrier-equipped carriers Hermes and Invincible, the loss of which could well have scuppered the whole expedition, escaped unscathed.
On land, the war gave a new word to the language of conflict: “yomping,” Royal Marine slang for a long march with heavy kit. To the Paras and Commandos, it was “tabbing.” The British yomped or tabbed from the landing at San Carlos Water all the way to Port Stanley, because the helicopters that were supposed to move them up were lost with Atlantic Conveyor. “The infantry walked from Normandy to Berlin,” declared the commanding officer of battalion 45 Commando, “so we can walk to Stanley.” They fought all the way there, against dug-in defenders, through minefields swept by artillery and machine guns. They traversed through Goose Green, Mount Longdon, Mount Harriet, Two Sisters, and Tumbledown, until finally white flags were spied over Stanley on Monday, June 14. Formal surrender came a day later, ten weeks after the Argentines had invaded. Over eleven thousand Argentines surrendered, far more than the British thought were on the island, and 649 were killed. Two hundred fifty-five British military died, plus three civilian islanders lost to friendly naval gunfire. There was a service of thanksgiving on the first Sunday of peace in Stanley Cathedral. The islanders of Goose Green and Darwin erected a cairn to commemorate Lt. Col. “H” Jones and the Paras who died there. Regimental Pipe-Major James Riddell played a new lament, “The Crags of Tumbledown,” for the Scots Guards who would not be going home.
General Galtieri lost his bet that Britain would never fight for the islands and soon lost his job. The British commander Jeremy Moore made a distinction that may have mattered: the British fought to fulfill a moral obligation to the islanders, while the Argentines fought for the islands to assuage a historical grievance. Margaret Thatcher kept her job and served another eight years in office. “Iron” or not, the lady was certainly lucky. Though the performance of British forces and leadership was superb, there were plenty of points where even the best planning and professionalism might have come undone, and one chance was all Britain had—there were no more ships. The war demonstrated that, however diminished from past glory, Britain could still prevail in projecting power over vast distances. Clear-cut victory also occasioned a genuine if brief burst of national pride at home, perhaps one of the last such moments of its kind. The rest of the Free World breathed a quiet sigh of relief that the conflict had ended quickly and that one of their own had prevailed. The dictators, east and west, were not pleased. For the rest of us, the news soon became boring again.