Thirty years ago today the Argentine war ship General Belgrano was sunk on Thatcher’s orders killing 321 young argentine sailors (and two civilians) – the single biggest loss of life during the Falklands war. This was despite the ship being 36 miles outside the imposed Total Exclusion Zone and heading away from the war zone.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War. Except it wasn’t a war, it was a conflict or a crisis. It was jingoism writ large that defined a Tory leader’s term in office and ensured the 1980s would become a truly ugly and unforgiving decade. The anarchists’ position, then as now, could be summed up in the hot angry temper of Crass’ lyrical storm. In 1982 it took an enraged punk singer to ask the prime minister what it felt like to be the mother of a thousand dead.
The war was tied up between two desperate governments – one a dying imperialist nation, the other a dictatorship, both unpopular, both facing massive domestic unrest and economic problems and both using a couple of small islands with less than 3000 inhabitants as the means to reinvigorate their damaged days in power.
In the UK it was manifested as a surly imperialism that echoed around the Houses of Parliament as frothing career politicians almost sang for military intervention. It was of course the party of war – old Labour (same as the New Labour) that was the most voracious cheerleader in sending war ships to the south Atlantic. Just as they had sent war ships to the south Atlantic when they were in power, secretly, to see off the Argentinean threat. It was a time of one word Sun headlines and three million unemployed. It was before the miners’ strike. The start of the decline.
The islanders though never got a mention. They were the objects of government policy; they were some corner of a foreign field that would forever be a Tory party landslide victory at the next election.
I visited the Falklands in 1986-87 some four years after the war. I was working on board the RRS Bransfield, a cargo ship that supplied the various British Antarctic bases, and we would dock at Stanley several times during the year. There was still an active military presence on the Islands. Mount Pleasant airport, a purpose built RAF station, was a sprawling network of army barracks, fighter planes would roar over Stanley almost hourly as a constant reminder of the military’s overarching presence.
And yet it was a presence that was met with almost universal hostility by the islanders; the locals despised them being there. Squaddies were refused entry into the pubs in Stanley, certainly weren’t welcome to drink there, and the biggest shop in town was the NAAFI shop which wouldn’t serve the locals. The resentment was enduring and the locals felt the British military was an ‘occupying’ force with no love lost between them.
This is the nature of war. It benefits no-one including those the government and armed forces think they are ‘protecting’ and ‘defending’. The preparations for war in Iran, via Syria, can only worsen already fragile conditions in the Middle East and if he continues Cameron , like Blair and Thatcher before him, is destined to become a feted war criminal.