The loss of life was tragic but in almost all other respects the Falklands war was a comedy of unintended consequences from which those who started it lost the most. Talk to Falkland Islanders old enough to remember the period just before the war and you’ll learn that the government of Margaret Thatcher was perceived not as a heroic force for freedom but as treacherous and deceitful.
A plan was under way, spearheaded by the Foreign Office, to go behind the Falklanders’ back and cut a deal whereby Britain would share sovereignty with Argentina for a period of time, prior to relinquishing authority over the islands altogether.
The lunacy of the generals who invaded the Falklands in April 1982 was that, from the point of view of Argentina’s historic quest to ‘recover’ the ‘Malvinas’, their action could not have been more counter-productive. Had they waited, they’d have had the islands on a plate. But they were losing their grip on power and they resorted to the desperate, populist act of dispatching their army to the windswept archipelago.
What happened was that Thatcher dispatched her own troops to get the islands back; the generals, covered in ignominy, were overthrown; all possibility of Argentina claiming sovereignty over the islands any time soon went up in smoke; and Britain was saddled with holding on to them, at considerable cost to the Treasury, until the long distant day when the Falklanders themselves, now fully in charge of their destiny, immune to Foreign Office scheming, deem fit to say goodbye.
And all for what? There’s a line from Hamlet when the prince asks a soldier what the mission is of a Norwegian army passing through Danish territory. It turns out they are set for Poland, the soldier replies, explaining, “We go to gain a little patch of ground/ That hath in it no profit but the name”. Jorge Luis Borges, an Argentine writer who admired Shakespeare, had his own spin on the theme, applied to the Falklands war. Asked what his opinion was of the conflict on the South Atlantic, he said: “It is a fight between two bald men over a comb”.
An inverted version of the same idea might have been more appropriate. Two combs fighting over a bald man. Bald is the word to describe the landscape of the Falklands, and pretty much everything else there. There are no trees on the 760-island archipelago save for a few scattered, stumpy ones in the capital Port Stanley, where 2,200 people or 85 per cent of the total island’s population lives, and on the British military base an hour away by road, where some valiant horticulturalist planted a dozen, all of them condemned to bend desperately sideways in the direction of the prevailing winds, like a row of umbrellas blown inside out.
Stanley is a long, thin rectangle of squat little Lego constructions by the sea with a couple of gift shops on the shoreline where they sell stuffed penguins made in the UK and, at the town’s business hub, one general store where clothes are scarce and stubbornly unfashionable, where the range of chocolates and cigarettes is what you might expect to find at a medium-sized London Tube station, where fresh fruit and vegetables practically all imported are few and far between.
On the narrow streets there are no advertising billboards and no traffic lights, because there is no traffic to speak of. The only vehicles are four-by-fours, all amply served by the capital’s one petrol station. An unmarked road of mostly gravel links Stanley to the Falklands’ second city, Goose Green, a loose arrangement of 18 partially inhabited houses and half a dozen barns so bare, windswept and seemingly barren of human activity that the image comes to mind of a struggling pioneers’ outpost in Idaho, circa 1842, after a visit by the Apaches.
But Stanley and Goose Green are New York and Las Vegas compared to what they were before the Falklands war, the worst thing that happened to a thousand dead British and Argentine soldiers, but bonanza time, after it was all over, for the islanders. In all other respects, the mad futility of that war on the South Atlantic, 500 kilometres from Argentina’s southernmost coast and 12,000 from Britain’s, exceeds anything Borges’ dry, despairing imagination was able to come up with. Beyond questions of symbolism, myth and national pride, it is impossible to fathom what use these islands were for a vast country like Argentina, empty of people in much of its geography and unfairly rich in natural resources.
Today there is some money to be made from fishing rights and possibly but far from certainly from the discovery offshore of oil and gas, but back then the only thing the economy offered was wool and lamb’s meat. What is more, just before Argentine troops invaded and fleetingly ‘recovered’ sovereignty over the Malvinas in April 1982, the British government was negotiating to hand them over to Buenos Aires. Not surprisingly, Britain saw little point in keeping hold of a far-flung territory that barely a handful of its citizens had heard of (and therefore of negligible political value), where the land was unprofitably rocky semi-tundra and where penguins outnumbered people by a ratio of 250 to one.
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Windswept, remote…who would want to live in the Falkland Islands?