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December 19, 2005

The Falklands Revisited: The Official History of the Falklands Campaign - Lawrence Freedman

Posted by Jeremy Black

The Official History of the Falklands Campaign
Vol. I, The Origins of the Falklands War

by Lawrence Freedman
Pp. xviii+253. London: Routledge, 2005
Hardback, 35

The Official History of the Falklands Campaign
Vol. II, War and Diplomacy

by Lawrence Freedman
Pp. xxxi+849. London: Routledge, 2005
Hardback, 49.95

Jeremy Black - Professor of History, University of Exeter - reviews Sir Lawrence Freedman's two volume official history of the Falklands war.

It seems to be almost the universal error of historians to suppose it politically, as it is physically true, that every effect has a proportionate cause. In the inanimate action of matter upon matter, the motion produced can be but equal to the force of the moving power; but the operations of life, whether private or public, admit no such laws. The caprices of voluntary agents laugh at calculation. It is not always that there is a strong reason for a great event. Obstinacy and flexibility, malignity and kindness, give place alternately to each other, and the reason of these vicissitudes, however important may be the consequences, often escapes the mind in which the change is made.
In his Thoughts on the late Transactions respecting Falkland's Islands (1771), a pamphlet that benefited from access to government information and which, it was claimed, was written "under the special direction of Lord North", the first minister, Samuel Johnson thus stressed the unpredictability and volatility of human affairs. These certainly emerge from Freedman's first-rate study. Drawing on an impressive range of government archives, as well as on interviews with key participants, this is official history at its best. It is also a good example of public-private partnership. Produced by Routledge, a commercial publisher, the books are published on behalf of the Whitehall History Publishing Consortium. The peacetime Government Official History series was inaugurated in 1966 and designed to record important episodes and themes. Supplementing the official records with the recollections of key players is a characteristic of the approach.

These two volumes are a formidable achievement and, not least because of access to the official files, provide a major resource for scholars and others concerned with public policy. The division is an appropriate one, although it leaves two volumes of very different lengths. The major problem for this reviewer is the welcome one that even more is not covered. In particular, it would have been useful to see Freedman broaden out his coverage in order to provide a general discussion of defence issues and policy in the early 1980s. The volumes, however, are much more focused, providing a deliberate narrative with analysis accordingly, rather than a wide-ranging discussion.

For example, in light of the more general issue of reciprocity in Anglo-American relations, it is interesting to note Sir Nicholas Henderson's response on 29th March 1982 to American pressure for restraint over South Georgia. He asked Walter Stoessel how much British neutrality might be appreciated if Puerto Rico was under threat. In turn, Lord Carrington told Edward Streator, Minister at the American embassy in London that Britain had supported American policy over Sinai and El Salvador without enthusiasm and against its better judgement, but out of solidarity with its closest ally and that the government now expected a better response in return (vol. I, p. 191).

Freedman suggests that the British government was at fault in failing to appreciate a crisis might develop rapidly. Instead, there had been an expectation of a build up of tensions, providing the opportunity for a British response. The intelligence failure if there was one did not lie in a misapprehension of the Juntas's mood or its timetable, but in the likely strategy Argentina might adopt once its patience with futile negotiations had been exhausted, and the impact of South Georgia on the timetable (vol. I, p. 223). Faults are found in the British handling of the South Georgia crisis, but the Argentinian reluctance to "talk to Reagan" (vol. I, p. 226) made a solution short of war impossible. A more general fault is found in the British policy of prevarication through emollients to both the islanders and the Argentines, which neither appeased nor deterred the latter.

The discussion of the conflict is masterly, and includes assessment of the lessons drawn, as well as the controversy over the Belgrano. As far as the latter is concerned, Freedman maintains his earlier argument that the core conspiracy theory, that a credible peace plan developed by Peru was deliberately undermined, not only lacks evidence but makes impossible assumptions about what the British could have known and the speed with which senior politicians might have known it. He also dismisses the suggestion of a conspiracy leading to the murder of Hilda Murrell. Although Freedman does not bring out the echoes, the comparisons with the Iraq war of 2005 are arresting. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, in comparison to Thatcher, Blair was, at best, maladroit and, more probably, foolishly deceitful.

The conspiracy theories are handled at the close of a methodical and careful handling of the campaign in which combat is interleaved with diplomacy. The British were highly dependent on American help, including fuel, Sidewinder missiles, intelligence material, and access to satellite-based communications, but British fighting skill and determination were the keys to victory. By clarifying the difficulty of the task and the major risks entailed, Freedman indicates the extent of the achievement. The strains of the expedition are brought out. For example, by 13th June there was a shortage of both ships and ammunition to provide the naval gunfire support that had been shown in the attacks on Two Sisters and Mount Harriet. A major bombardment was subsequently mounted on 13th June, but there were few rounds to spare for subsequent operations. Particular praise is given to naval air power, to British artillery, and to the logistical feat. More generally, Freedman notes "There was no alternative to well-trained and motivated forces"; and his account fully brings out the ability, courage and fortitude of those involved. The maps are good, and the production values are high.

Freedman has the rare gift of offering both strategic guidance and a fine grasp of tactical details, seen for example in his account of the struggles for the high ground to the west of Port Stanley. Differences, for example, the reasons why Mount Harriet fell more easily than the Two Sisters, are pointed out. There are also some excellent asides, including (vol. II, p. 646):

[Max] Hastings had already served, almost single-handedly, to throw into relief all the problems with media policy after the landing.
Freedman deserves high praise. It would be good to see a comparable account of the recent war but I doubt it. Well-justified concern about the views of allies will be advanced to cover for ministerial mendacity.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, forthcoming).

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