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resisting the falklands war - a    retrospective
sovereignty, self-determination, and    the nation-state
press release

Bill Hetherington April 2007

Before March 1982 most people in Britain had never heard of the Falkland Islands. For most of the peace movement the big issues were nuclear disarmament and NATO’s exercise Hard Rock, or the UN Second Special Session on Disarmament. Suddenly, the people were whipped into a bellicose frenzy which culminated in some 1000 deaths and an unknown number of other casualties. The British peace movement was forced to respond.

Thus I began the introduction to a PPU pamphlet overviewing the Falklands War immediately after its ending. What is the view a quarter of a century further on?

In many ways, it was a strange war, quite unlike any other: a little over ten weeks from beginning to end. The Suez episode in 1956 was even shorter, but at least most British people had some idea where the Suez Canal was, but the Falklands? – somewhere off the coast of Scotland? was one initial reaction. To cut a long story short, the Falklands archipelago, a group of small islands some 400 miles into the south Atlantic Ocean from the east coast of Argentina had been uninhabited until the late 17th century, when, after initial British discovery in 1592, and naming as the Falkland Islands in 1690, in honour of Viscount Falkland, Acadians from French Canada settled and named them Isles Malouines after St Malo. In the following 140 years French, British and Spanish settlements co-existed and superseded each other, the (Spanish translating Isles Malouines into Islas Malvinas) until in 1833, after US intervention, Britain claimed undivided sovereignty and the islands began continuous habitation with people of British stock, sheep being introduced as a staple object of farming, and the population numbering some 1800 by 1982.

Whilst the French, despite having given the islands a name of their own, never insisted on any continuing claim, Argentinians saw themselves as the legitimate successors to the Spanish claim, and maintained that thesis for the century and a half after 1833, despite the lack of any direct cultural or linguistic connection with the people actually living on the islands and the distance of 400 miles from their shore. School textbooks showed the islands as part of Argentina, and politicians regularly drew attention to the claimed iniquity of British ‘occupation’.

Small wonder, then, from hindsight, that, when the Argentine military junta, led by General Leopoldo Galtieri, which had seized control in a 1976 coup, was inevitably losing support in its ‘’dirty war’ of oppression against its own people, involving summary executions and ‘disappearances’, it resolved to embark upon the populist cause of ‘reclaiming’ the ‘Malvinas’ and thereby restoring Argentina’s putatively besmirched honour. Whilst desultory negotiations between Argentina and the UK were continuing, including the notional possibility of a surrender of sovereignty by the UK to Argentina in return for a ‘lease-back’, analogous to the then status of the New Territories of Hong Kong in relation to China, suddenly, on Friday 2 April 1982, an Argentine invasion force landed and took command of the tiny Falklands capital, Port Stanley, serious defence by the nominal resident contingent of a few Royal Marines being impossible.

Margaret Thatcher, British Prime Minister, also had her difficulties; her right-wing monetarist agenda since her election in 1979 was none too popular. Few would have foreseen that this was the war that was the making of her. Whilst her Foreign Office team resigned in abject apology for having failed to foresee or forestall the invasion, Mrs Thatcher roused the Commons in special session on the Saturday morning to support the setting sail on the Monday of a hurriedly assembled large naval and military Task Force (with later air support) for the 8000-mile voyage to reclaim the Falklands.

The over-hyped chauvinism of the occasion was demonstrated not only by the flag-waving cheering crowds at Portsmouth to see off the ships (redolent far more of 1914 than of 1940), but by the baring of breasts by some of the sailors’ wives and girl friends, perhaps in page 3 solidarity with the Sun’s masthead slogan throughout the war, “The paper that supports our boys”. Meanwhile, the UN Security Council had called on the UK and Argentine governments to “seek a diplomatic solution to their differences”, whilst failing to mention the propriety of involving the islanders themselves in any such negotiations.

The Peace Pledge Union embarked upon negotiations of its own, with the object of obtaining a joint statement from British and Argentinian pacifists condemning the war. Regrettably, this proved impossible, as the most accessible Argentinian pacifist, Adolfo Perez Esquivel, Nobel Peace laureate of 1980, whilst prepared to condemn the military action of both parties, refused to sign a statement that in any way set aside the Argentinian claim in favour of self-determination for the islanders. The PPU, therefore, joined with the Fellowship of Reconciliation in a statement opposing military action by both sides and questioning whether historical arguments about legal sovereignty were more important than the wishes of the inhabitants. “We are more concerned with the wishes of the people to organise their own lives than with which flag happens to fly over a particular area of land.” This statement, issued, on 7 April, was given a global aspect by being countersigned by the War Resisters International (WRI) and the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR).

The wider British peace movement was alerted, an Ad Hoc Committee for Peace in the Falklands being formed; CND, after some hesitation, felt constrained to join, on the premise that some of the vessels in the Task Force were reputedly nuclear-armed. CAAT made an invaluable contribution by documenting just how much the UK had armed the Argentinian junta despite a break in diplomatic relations. The Ad Hoc Committee organised a series of marches in London, and local committees held meetings, vigils and other events around the country, particularly on a day of action called by the PPU for 1 May. The PPU became the main supplier of leaflets for all these activities, on occasions volunteer bicycle couriers conveying them literally hot off the PPU’s printing press in its Bloomsbury offices to the action in Parliament Square. The leaflet itself was constantly updated, as the initial warnings of the inevitable consequences of military action gave way to pointing up the actual loss of life when whole ships were blown up on either side, not to mention the killing by the Royal Navy of three women Islanders, whom it was supposed to protect – the Argentinians killed no islanders.

Nonviolent activists were arrested and fined for spilling mock blood on the steps of the Ministry of Defence- clearly a greater crime than the Ministry’s spilling of real blood – and for the simultaneous tearing-up of mock British and Argentinian flags in Trafalgar Square: flags necessarily take precedence over people. Even a mock coffin was arrested, although the charges of disturbing the peace (of the dead?) were eventually dismissed.

Civil disobedience was not confined to British activists: it was credibly reported that Falkland Islanders refused to comply with Argentinian orders to drive on the right rather than the traditional British left. In Argentina, Adolfo Perez Esquivel and Servicio Paz y Justicia, the local section of IFOR, whilst, as mentioned, not condemning the Argentine claim, did seriously risk the wrath of their government in speaking out against their government’s military stance, and joined in the call for diplomacy instead. The WRI tried, against opposition from the British Foreign Office and Home Office, to get a visa for Esquivel to visit Britain and speak to anyone who would listen about a nonviolent alternative to settling the Argentine-UK dispute.

One message that did get through was from the Consultative Council of Churches in Argentina to its counterpart, the British Council of Churches: “We have no doubts about the justice of the cause represented by the recuperation of our islands . . . This does not in any way mean that we agree with other aspects of our government’s policy . . . We ask you to urgently multiply your efforts to impede an escalation which to us seems to be reaching demonic proportions.”

The media, however, was all but deaf to anti-war activity during the war itself, but afterwards there was sufficient reaction that a service in St Paul’s Cathedral in July, originally planned as a ‘thanksgiving for victory’, took on a more penitential tone, to Mrs Thatcher’s everlasting chagrin. In October she had her ‘victory parade’, from which the military wounded were virtually excluded as unseemly reminders of the reality of war.

Looking back from 2007, one’s view is inevitably coloured by more recent wars in the Gulf and Afghanistan. Certainly, Britain did not learn the Falklands lesson of supplying arms to brutal dictators. Just as on the very day of the Falklands invasion the British government was upholding in the Commons the value of the arms trade to the British economy, so at the time of Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 the British taxpayer had underwritten the cost of British arms supplied to him. In both cases, also, militarists relished the opportunity to try out new weapons ‘for real’.

In less than three months in the Falklands more UK armed forces personnel were killed than in the four long years in Iraq since 2003. It was also the last but one war in which Britain sent minors into battle (two 17-year-olds were killed, and a third man on his 18th birthday). On the other hand, the frequently forgotten deaths of the three Falklands women need to be set against the estimated 650,000 Iraqi civilian dead (large numbers of them children, women and the infirm) since 2003. The peace movement was able to maintain an intense pace of activity in the Falklands War because of its brevity. Have we the stamina for the continuing war of attrition in Iraq?


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