The Falkland Islands are some 300 miles (or about 480 kilometers) off the coast of Argentina and have been a British-owned territory since the nineteenth century; in 1982 Argentina and Britain fought a war over ownership of the islands. Here, Matt Austin considers civilian casualties during the Falklands War in the wider context of the decline of the British Empire.
Beginning on the second of April and lasting until the fourteenth of July 1982, Britain was engaged in a seventy-two day war to retain one of its few remaining commonwealth territories. Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges refers to the Falklands War as “two bald men fighting over a comb,” a comparison that strongly outlines the sheer needlessness of the conflict in the eyes of many historians and writers.It is therefore possible to suggest that the casualties endured during the Falklands War, an estimated eight hundred and seventy eight in total, with the inclusion of Argentine prisoners of war, numbering over eleven thousand, were themselves needless.Ultimately, the motivations behind the Falklands War and the nature of how it was fought have led it to be considered one of the most unique conflicts in British military history.
The Decline of the British Empire
Following the Second World War, Britain underwent a period of decline. Due to the heavy economic losses endured during the conflict, the nation was unable to effectively fund its Empire and granted independence to a number of its former colonies from the 1940s onwards. The first of the major colonies to gain independence following the Second World War was India. With warring political groups and a lack of ‘safeguards’ for British business and trade interests, UK Prime Minister Clement Attlee decided Britain was to ‘abandon control’ of India in 1947.
This was followed by the loss of numerous territories in the following decades, such as Ghana in 1957, Uganda in 1962, and Kenya in 1963. Consequently, the loss of Southern Rhodesia, or Zimbabwe, as the newly independent state became known, in 1980, was the last of the British territories in Africa. The loss of Southern Rhodesia represented the end of an era for the British Empire, following its inevitable decline in the decades after the Second World War.This left the former international powerhouse of the British Empire with a severely reduced, sparsely scattered group of commonwealth territories, so threatening the nation’s global influence. With the threat of the Empire being completely lost, a concept that had become gradually apparent throughout the past several decades, Britain would therefore rigorously attempt to retain and protect any of its remaining territories against invasion.
The Falklands War
The origins of the Falklands Warcan be attributed to the militant Argentine government’s decision to invade and occupy the neighboring islands in an attempt to encourage positive public opinion. Despite having a severely weakened economy and dealing with increasing demand for the introduction a democratic voting system, the government, under the control of their military dictator Leopoldo Galtieri, received an outpouring of public support in favor of the invasion of the islands, as Argentine feelings of nationalism surged.This reinforced the decision to defend their newly captured territory against the prospect of a British invasion.
Following news of the Argentine invasion and take over of the Falkland Islands, Britain responded by sending a naval taskforce on April 5, 1982 to defend the islands from the invading forces. Ultimately, the conflict was short lived, as Britain was successful in its attempt to regain the Falkland Islands through the use of more advanced military technology and superior combat training. US president Ronald Reagan was initially skeptical of Britain’s decision to win back the Falklands, suggesting that it was not worth an invasion. However, in an attempt to avoid any political tension between the United States, and the United Kingdom, under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, he eventually decided to support the effort, providing Britain with weaponry and munitions, which aided the victory and shortened the conflict.
The Argentine casualties during the Falklands War numbered up to six hundred and forty nine, around four hundred more than those of the British. The majority of the casualties of the Falklands War occurred during the attacks on naval ships carrying large numbers of troops. The specific case of the British attack on the Argentine ship, the General Belgrano, resulted in almost half of all Argentine casualties, with three hundred and twenty one of the ship’s one thousand one hundred crew being killed.This has since been considered a highly controversial moment of the Falklands War, sparking the debate over a possible war crime, as the Belgrano was attacked thirty six miles away from the British exclusion zone that had been set up around the islands.
Nevertheless, despite a vast majority of the casualties originating from naval attacks, friendly fire was a larger issue for British troops in the Falklands than the majority of its other twentieth century conflicts, relative to the scale and nature of the war. The majority of incidents of British friendly fire occurred at night. The reason for this can be attributed to the result of misinterpretation of the identity of British troops, among the ‘monotonous, featureless terrain’ of the Falkland Islands.Furthermore, it was not simply British troops that fell victim to friendly fire, as the only civilian casualties of the Falklands War are attributed to this.
The decisive British victory, however, was underpinned by the regularly overlooked deaths of three civilians.Whilst civilian casualties are unfortunately rarely unique during wartime, the case of the death of three Falkland Islanders is in itself a rare occurrence, as these deaths were caused by friendly fire. The three civilian deaths of the Falklands War hold great significance, as they demonstrate the contradictory nature and moral considerations that embodied this conflict. As the islands had been under British rule for centuries, those living there were British citizens and being predominantly farmers, had little to no means of preventing the unexpected Argentine invasion. Consequently, there must have been a sense of relief when news that the British would launch an invasion to secure back the islands reached those living there.However, this was not to be the case for three Falkland Islanders living in the capital, Port Stanley, as Susan Whitley, Doreen Bonner, and Mary Goodwin unfortunately lost their lives during the British bombing of the capital.Whilst these deaths are often overlooked in what is a considerably neglected conflict in itself, they have come to somewhat represent British international relations in the latter half of the twentieth century.
What is therefore so intriguing about these deaths are the wider moral implications that surround them. Britain, in an attempt to recapture the islands, supposedly for the safety of the Falklanders and the right to retain their British identity, contributed to the only incidents of civilian casualties of the war. This represents the contradictory nature of this conflict and creates a wider moral question of whether the unrealistic perception of the ‘Empire’ and the lengths that Britain would go to ensure its survival was worth more to the government and foreign policy makers than the people they were trying to protect.
The Imperial undertones of the Falklands War are highlighted by these deaths; this article therefore concludes by posing the question of British morality and whether this conflict was simply an overreaction to the post war decades characterized by the decline of the once powerful Empire that built up and bubbled over, culminating in one of the most unnecessary, frustrating conflicts in the nation’s history.
What do you think of the author’s arguments? Let us know below.
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