The Falklands and Ukraine (12/04/2022)

40 years ago this week, a British military task force was steaming southwards to recapture the Falkland Islands. On the 2nd of April, Argentina’s fascist regime had invaded the distant and barren archipelago. Though almost 8,000 miles from London, the island’s inhabitants were British, and they had no desire to live under the junta of President Leopoldo Galtieri. Margaret Thatcher’s government had resolved to defend them.

Taking place across 10 weeks in the spring of 1982, the Falklands War is a fascinating conflict. While relatively small in scale and casualties (258 British dead, 649 Argentinian), it was enormously consequential. It transformed Prime Minister Thatcher’s political fortunes, and led to the collapse of the brutal regime which had terrorised Argentina’s population since 1976. It also yanked the United Kingdom out of a period of economic crisis and low confidence. For many, Britain was suddenly worth being proud of again.

Victory was far from certain. The Argentine military aside, the weather conditions were vicious. The Falklands sprout from the roughest of seas. As for the landscape, imagine the Scottish Highlands, but populated with penguins instead of deer. Throw in freezing temperatures and gale force winds and you have some sense of the place. Charles Darwin visited with HMS Beagle in 1833, and described the island’s ‘desolate and wretched aspect, their peaty soil and wiry grass of one monotonous brown colour’. Dennis Thatcher was blunter. He said it was simply ‘miles and miles of bugger all’.

Many of Thatcher’s advisors and allies told her that a military response was not feasible. Years of post-war defence cuts had drained the strength of the armed forces. But the First Sea Lord Henry Leach put an end to the dithering. Whitehall legend has it that on the day of the Argentine attack, with panic flowing freely through Number 10, Leach strode into Thatcher’s briefing room and persuaded the Prime Minister that Britain should fight. “We must” he said, “because if we do not, if we muck around, if we pussyfoot…in a few months’ time we shall be living in a totally different country, whose word will count for little”. He could hardly have judged his tone better. Thatcher ordered the fleet to sail.

The war itself was nasty and ruthless, but the professionalism of Britain’s forces made the difference against Argentina’s largely conscript army. Today, the conflict is striking in its straightforwardness. A thuggish despotism launched an unprovoked assault on British sovereign territory. The United Kingdom fought to return that territory to its control. Just three civilians lost their lives. Just over two months after the Argentine invasion, the Union Flag flew over the islands once again. Neither the legality nor the morality of the British response was ever in serious doubt.

The same cannot be said of Putin’s war in Ukraine. I’m writing this on the 9th of April. Yesterday, a rocket attack on a train station in the city of Kramatorsk killed 50, including children. Ukrainian towns have been made famous by indiscriminate bloodshed. Bucha, Hostomel, Kharkiv, Irpin, Mariopol. It shows no sign of stopping. It looks as if the Russian army is planning a fresh offensive in the Donbass. This is despite Russian losses, which are estimated at 13,000 dead.

To us, Putin looks to have gone mad. He is destroying his country’s reputation. Killing thousands of Ukrainians and sending his soldiers to die. For what? A Greater Russia? A revived empire? His ego? There is little truth to the scraps of ideology in his speeches, but they translate into cold, real consequences. No one can look at the bodies and detect ‘denazification’ in the glazed eyes and twisted limbs. But they are dead. That is real.  

Yet, Putin could still get away with it. His troops might well seize swathes of eastern Ukraine. In India and China he has found unprincipled superpowers willing to establish the economic ties to replace those lost with the West. He has silenced his domestic opposition.

What stands in his way is the courage of the Ukrainian people. They recognise – and how could they not? – that their country is engaged in an existential struggle. And they know that the morality of the war lies with them. A people’s sense of justice is a powerful weapon. It unlocks fresh reserves of determination. Napoleon said that ‘In war, the moral is to the physical as three parts out of four’.

Men under 60 have been ordered to fight, but the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen said that he has met ‘no unwilling volunteers’. In his reports, Bowen has told the story of two young students. Maxim (19) and Dmytro (18) were both attending Kyiv university until they joined Ukraine’s army. Before the invasion, I imagine they would have had lives not dissimilar to yours or mine. Their courage is astonishing, and it raises the inevitable question: In the same circumstances, would I have the nerve to follow their example?

At Oxford we are taught the essential value of moral courage. Of being willing to speak for what you believe to be right. It certainly is essential. But the people of Ukraine are being forced to exercise another species of bravery: martial courage. National survival now relies on a willingness to put your life in danger. It is a kind of raw, primal fortitude that many Europeans might have assumed was archaic. A quality relegated to a time when disputes were resolved with violence.

If the Falklands War carries a lesson for Ukraine, it is that dictatorships must be confronted. The British recapture of the islands destroyed whatever faith the Argentinian people still had in their military dictatorship. A year later, the regime had been swept away by its own people.

Of course, standing up to despots carries risk, but so does acquiescing to them. Russia’s behaviour might finally have woken Europe up to this fact. More could be done to support Ukraine’s fight, and much work remains to make Europe less reliant on Russian energy. Still, a start has been made. The global effort to bring about Putin’s failure is gathering momentum. Perhaps the day shall come, when, to paraphrase Kipling,

All his lies are proved untrue,

and he must face the men he slew,

and no tale shall server him among

his angry and defrauded young.

I’ll end back in the south-Atlantic. After British troops had come ashore, the land-battle for the islands devolved into a series of intense, sometimes hand-to-hand struggles for the hills that blocked the road to the Falkland’s capital, Port Stanley.

It was during the ferocious fight for Mount Longdon on the 12th of June 1982 that three of Britain’s youngest soldiers were killed. Jason Burt and Ian Scrivens were 17 years old. Neil Grose had his eighteenth birthday during the battle. All three were Privates in the Parachute Regiment.

At an age when those reading this article were yet to leave home for university, those lads were sailing to the far side of the world, to take part in a war from which they would not return. I am sure they approached the Falklands with the combination of excitement, bravado and apprehension familiar to all young soldiers. I am sure Maxim and Dmytro know the feeling.

The courage and sacrifice of people like this protects us all. Now you know the names of Burt, Scrivens and Grose. Perhaps when the 12th of June comes around, you will spare a moment to remember them.

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