On June 14th 1982, 40 years ago next week, the Falklands War came to an end when Argentine forces under the command of General Mario Menendez surrendered to Major General Jeremy Moore. The Falklands War lasted for 74 days and resulted in the deaths of 255 British and 649 Argentine service personnel. Originally written off as an impractical military operation which would be doomed to failure due to the logistical difficulty of supplying an amphibious task force operating 8,000 miles away from Britain, the Falklands War was a resounding success. It remains one of the largest conflicts Britain has fought since the Second World War and it is still something we can learn from, perhaps now more than ever as we slowly emerge from the response to COVID-19. We find ourselves facing ongoing military threats from Russia and China, an assault on our own heritage and the emergence of decidedly unsavoury political initiatives which loom over independent nation states, notably the WHO’s Pandemic Preparedness Treaty. The Falklands War is a reminder to us that Britain need not follow the herd or submit to the flawed Left-wing groupthink and dogma so often subscribed to by leaders elsewhere. It can, and should, instead act independently and uphold the values and rights which are ingrained in its own history, and which are so rarely practised elsewhere.
Much media discussion and coverage of the Falklands War has focused on issues like the supposed injustice of sinking the Belgrano or has treated the conflict as some sort of pathetic attempt by Britain to retain some grasp on its colonial past. Other narratives have been shaped by a hatred of Margaret Thatcher and a general dislike of Britain’s past, with the Argentine occupation of the islands being portrayed as benign and perhaps even justified and beneficial. Such portrayals may have some evidential basis and are certainly attractive to various ideologues, but they are also misleading and overlook the decidedly unpleasant nature of the Argentine Government at the time. Critics might like to portray the Falklands War as being driven by outdated foreign policy and cynical political opportunism by Thatcher’s Government to distract voters from Britain’s economic problems. But the reality is that, irrespective of official motives, British military intervention in the Falklands ensured the survival of the political and cultural liberties which were, and still are, valued by Falklanders and which are an inherent part of Britain’s identity. The purpose here is not to analyse the political and military strategy, though some discussion of historical context is initially necessary, but to draw attention to the nature of the Argentine occupation of the Falklands. This article will therefore briefly outline the historical origins of the Falklands War, suggesting Britain’s claim over the Falklands had greater merit, before proceeding to examine the Argentine occupation of the islands. In essence, the aim is to firmly demonstrate British intervention was undoubtedly justified from a cultural perspective.
Going by the known historical record, it appears the first people to live on the Falklands were some Spanish sailors who temporarily sought refuge there in 1540. The first known English contact with the Falklands was in 1690, though there is some speculation that English sailors had visited them a century earlier. Britain did not actually claim sovereignty of the islands until 1765, with settlers arriving in 1766 in Port Egmont. By that time, Louis-Antoine, Comte de Bougainville, had already established a French colony in Port Louis of about 150 people, some of whom had been deported from Canada following Britain’s victory in the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). However, the French colony was removed in 1767 following a dispute with Spain, which claimed the islands were a dependency of the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata, a Spanish colony in what is now Argentina. The Spanish did not discover the British presence at Port Egmont until 1769, with Spanish troops evicting the British settlers in 1770. The following year, with Britain threatening military action, an arrangement was made in which Spain agreed to the British restoration of Port Egmont on the understanding that the islands still came under Spanish rule. This arrangement led to a coexistence between the British and Spanish until 1774, whereupon economic pressures and emerging struggles elsewhere in its empire, notably the Thirteen Colonies in North America, led to a British withdrawal from the Falklands. This did not signify a withdrawal of Britain’s sovereignty, however, as the British left a plaque which asserted their claim to the islands in their entirety.
The Argentine War of Independence (1810-1818) led to Spain’s withdrawal from the Falklands in 1811, the demise of the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata and the emergence of Argentina as an independent country, with the Congress of Tucumán formalising the Declaration of Independence on July 9th 1816. Part of Argentina’s claim to have sovereignty over the Falklands is based on the account of David Jewett, a privateer licensed by Buenos Aires to attack Spanish ships, who stated he had taken possession of the Falklands for Argentina in November 1820. The problem, though, is that Jewett does not appear to have been operating with any official orders or instructions and was thus acting without any authority. The Government in Buenos Aires was not even aware of Jewett’s actions until a year later, when the story broke in the British press.
Furthermore, Argentina did not attempt to establish a permanent settlement until 1826. By that point Louis Vernet, a German-born merchant, had emerged as a key figure in the development of the islands and was in correspondence with Argentine and British officials. Vernet set about developing the ruins of Port Louis on East Falkland and was appointed the governor of the Falklands by Buenos Aires in 1829, with Matthew Brisbane as his deputy. Vernet attempted to regulate fishing and sealing rights, resulting in a dispute with the USA after Brisbane seized three U.S. ships. Subsequent intervention by the USS Lexington in 1831 concluded with the removal of Vernet’s Government but the U.S. lodged no claim over the Falklands. Argentina briefly formed a new administration on the Falklands in 1832 but an ensuing mutiny and Britain’s intervention in 1833 meant the islands were left under British sovereignty and were militarily undisputed until 1982. This therefore means that, whilst the Spanish were the first to live on the Falklands, the British were the first to establish a permanent presence and stable government there.
By 1982, Argentina believed it had a strong case. Seizing upon the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 1514 (1960), which basically supported decolonisation and the principle of self-determination, Argentina believed it had a right to claim sovereignty over the Falklands. The flaws and irony of their own logic passed them by. Besides having a democratically elected Government, the Falklanders desired to maintain strong links with Britain. Any Argentine attempt at asserting sovereignty over the Falklands would not only clash with the islanders’ wishes but also merely replace one colonial power with another and thereby run counter to the principles of the UN’s resolution.
Nevertheless, the actions of the British Government during the 1970s and into 1981 suggested to the Argentine government that they had an opportunity to seize the islands without much resistance. The 1981 Defence Review, with its proposal to decommission HMS Endurance, would have essentially removed the Royal Navy’s presence in the South Atlantic. Britain also only ever maintained a tiny garrison of Royal Marines on the Falklands and appeared to be scaling down its scientific base on South Georgia, a dependency of the Falklands. Furthermore, except in individual cases where connections to the U.K. could be demonstrated, the 1981 British Nationality Act had not granted British citizenship to Falklanders. These developments were interpreted by the Argentine Government, which itself was confronted by significant economic problems, as evidence that Britain had little interest in retaining control of the Falklands. The Argentines thus ignored the principle of self-determination and invaded the Falklands on April 2nd 1982.
The root cause of the Falklands War therefore centred on the question of sovereignty, with Britain and Argentina claiming the islands. In Argentina’s case, the claim was (and still is) essentially predicated on geographical proximity and the assumption that it had an historical inheritance derived from the legacy of the Spanish Empire. Argentina’s claim therefore amounted to a desire to right a perceived historical wrong (something which no doubt chimes with today’s social justice warriors and the Labour Party’s 2019 manifesto). Britain’s claim, however, was based on the fact that a British presence has been maintained consistently since 1833 and that any attempt by Argentina to force change on the governance of the islands would trample on the rights and wishes of the Falklanders. Essentially, the argument came down to whether the rights of the Falklanders to determine their own government should be respected or whether some tenuous historical claim to ownership should be prioritised. (Going by the 2013 referendum in the Falklands, the British case remains relevant with an overwhelming majority of Falklanders (99.8% out of a turnout of 92%) wishing the islands to remain a British Overseas Territory (not that the then Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kircher respected the outcome).) Had Argentina’s claim ever been successful, one wonders what the implications would be for national boundaries, territories and identities elsewhere. Judging by the state of Argentina in 1982 and the nature of the Argentine occupation, it is clear Falklanders’ rights were better protected by Britain.
The Argentine occupation of the Falklands may well have been relatively brief but it nonetheless was characterised by some sinister developments which indicate what might have emerged had the British not responded. By 1982, Argentina was governed by a military dictatorship, or Junta, which had been established in 1976 following a coup led by General Jorge Videla against President Isabel Peron. Once they had seized power, the leading figures of the Junta launched a campaign against Left-wing opponents which became known as the ‘Dirty War’. It is unknown as to how many people were ‘disappeared’ during the Dirty War but some estimates suggest that perhaps 30,000 people were either killed or imprisoned between 1976 and 1983.
There is certainly evidence which indicates the Argentines who briefly occupied the Falklands attempted to build bridges with the islanders. In an effort to ease pressure on civilians and prevent supplies from running out, General Mario Benjamin Menendez restricted troops’ access to shops. Air Vice Commodore Carlos Bloomer-Reeve appears to have done what he could to make the occupation as tolerable for the islanders as was possible given the circumstances, and it is evident that some mutually beneficial trading was done between some of his troops and various islanders. There were also instances of individual Argentine soldiers attempting to establish friendly relationships with civilians, though such efforts were unsurprisingly met with cool responses from the local populace. It might seem bizarre from a British perspective, but it appears some of the Argentine troops genuinely thought they were there to liberate the islanders and were confused as to why their efforts at greeting local people went unacknowledged. Bloomer-Reeve recalled how he and his men believed they could improve the quality of life on the islands, with medical professionals and engineers being brought in during the occupation to develop services and infrastructure.
However, there remained a sinister threat lurking just below the surface as signs of the Junta’s ‘Dirty War’ emerged from the pool of goodwill on display. The worst of this appears to have come from Major Patricio Dowling, a distinctly unpleasant individual who had built a career around terrorising civilians in Argentina, was tasked with heading a military police unit on the Falklands. Dowling seems to have repeatedly overstepped his authority and applied some of his brutal methods during his time on the islands. In one incident, Dowling burst into the house of one family and threatened them at gunpoint, putting them in fear of their 11-year-old daughter’s life. In another, Dowling intimidated the Luxton family by having them detained and interrogated, putting them in great fear, before having them deported. Dowling’s actions towards the Luxtons ironically undermined the Argentine objectives as the family arrived in Britain and disclosed useful information to the British armed forces. Dowling posed a clear threat to civilians and according to Allison King, who helped run the Upland Goose Hotel where Dowling dined, he imitated Nazi ideology by allegedly talking of a ‘final solution’ to the ‘problem’ of the Falklands.
Physical intimidation and the threat of violence seem to have extended beyond Dowling’s own presence, with other Argentines either supporting or using methods directly drawn from Argentina’s Dirty War. Nicolas Kasanzew, an Argentine journalist, stated:
The Kelpers were our arch-enemies. From the first moment, I felt they were going to be fifth columnists. I was not mistaken. They are basically shepherds; primitive in their way of life. In their character and their appearance, they are hybrids. Their attitude towards Argentina was absolutely negative. Kelpers, like the English, respect nothing except force.
It was a sentiment which was certainly put into practice by officers beside Dowling. A lieutenant, Juan Gomez Centurion, appears to have had a menacing presence, boasting of his involvement in the Dirty War. One islander, John Pole Evans, described how there was a constant fear that they would be killed and he witnessed how another islander, who had been caught listening to a radio, was arrested, beaten and tortured. Evans’ fear was shared by other Falklanders as one recalled how the confusion and lack of communication within the occupying force meant one of the Argentine soldiers “could easily come along and shoot you”. Even the seemingly reasonable Bloomer-Reeve admitted he was prepared to use violence against civilians if ordered to by his Government. The potential risk posed by the occupying force to the islanders’ lives grew over time, especially once British forces had retaken South Georgia on April 25th. From that point, a unit of Argentine special forces arrived and began arresting and interrogating men in Port Stanley, and plans were developed to deport detainees. Robin Pitaluga, a sheep farmer, was made to believe he was going to be executed after making contact with HMS Hermes on May 1st. Physical intimidation and coercion were thus key characteristics of the Argentine occupation.
Other troubling matters which threatened the Falklanders’ way of life developed during the occupation. Argentine intelligence services began an initiative to introduce identity cards and restrictions on islanders’ movements were imposed via a curfew which was enforced by military patrols. Breaking the curfew could, as some discovered, potentially result in being shot at. Civilians’ vehicles were requisitioned and some islanders’ homes were broken into and looted by Argentine soldiers. Later stages of the occupation revealed how some Argentine soldiers had deliberately vandalised property by defecating over walls and floors, leaving a disgusting mess for the islands’ inhabitants to clear up.
The occupying force also tried to restrict the Falklanders’ contact with the outside world whilst launching their own campaign of misinformation. A television transmitter was installed and television sets were imported from Argentina, and a news bulletin began being broadcasted at 8pm. Falklander Tony Smith described how the Argentines began “broadcasting propaganda and horrible stuff”. The Argentines spread false reports of how key Royal Navy ships, such as the aircraft carrier HMS Invincible, had been sunk by the Argentine navy and that the morale of the British was low. Misinformation was accompanied by actions which today might be considered a form of cancel culture. Port Stanley was renamed Puerto Argentina, though there was also an aborted plan to rename it Puerto Rivero (after Antonio Rivero, who led an uprising against the leaders of Port Louis in 1833). On April 14th, a group of Anglo-Argentines was brought in to try convincing the population they would be better off under Argentine rule but this appears to have backfired and been met with a less than favourable response from the locals. Clearly, the attempt to introduce cultural change and propagate state-approved misinformation was a failure.
Overall, there are some very important lessons we can learn from the Falklands War. In one respect, the question of sovereignty over the islands illustrates how the modern fashion for selectively imposing perceived historical injustices, which themselves are typically based on misinformation and fallacies, on the people of the present makes no logical sense. In another respect, the conflict represents what Britain stands for and what it can achieve. All too often in the decades since the Falklands War, a certain malaise has infected British Governments and British media. The symptoms have included a loss of confidence, disdain for British history, dishonest leadership, the growth of socialist-inspired policies and a general talking down of what Britain and its people can accomplish.
During the EU referendum, innumerable comments and reports were made of how Britain had to be part of the EU as it was too small to survive in a world dominated by powerhouses like China and the USA. The arguments surrounding geographical size were as irrelevant as Argentina’s assertion that physical proximity gave it sovereignty over the Falklands, but the theme was clear: Britain was supposedly not capable. The lack of confidence grew with the response to Covid as Britain’s existing contingencies were instantly cast aside in favour of the inhumane, illogical and unscientific approaches from China. Government and media hysteria heightened people’s fear of death and in efforts to avoid dying, most people became terrified of living. Assaults on liberty were readily accepted by most of the population and the alien concept of being interrogated by police whilst you tried going about your own business suddenly became part of the new normal. This resembled systems and cultures which exist in totalitarian regimes and was not dissimilar to that which began to emerge during the brief occupation of the Falklands. For all the incompetence in the way the British Government handled the Falklands prior to 1982 – incompetence which encouraged the Argentine invasion – British military intervention in the Falklands stopped the sinister methods of Argentina’s Government from being permanently established on the islands.
As we emerge from the response to Covid, we can look back on the Falklands War and see a Britain which was seemingly in decline but which reasserted itself and overcame the seemingly insurmountable. Much like in 1982, Britain in 2022 has the potential to take charge of its own direction and fate. In her speech to the 1922 Committee on July 19th 1984, Thatcher commented on the miners’ strike and observed:
We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands. We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty.
In 2022, Britain has a new enemy within. But it need not follow the narrative laid down by the collection of cancel culture activists, doomsters and technocratic sycophants. It can instead look back on achievements like the Falklands and once again find itself, re-engage with its classical liberal values and emerge from the aberration of its response to Covid with renewed confidence.
Dr. Paul Jones is Head of History and Politics at an independent school.