Letter from London
NOT A WAR?
General Galtieri & Margaret Thatcher, the great rivals
of the Falklands "War" or Whatever You Call It
What exactly was that deal
down in the Falklands?
By MICHAEL JOHNSON
Someone has being fooling around with the definition of war.
Let us pause to consider the meaning of words. We seem awfully eager these days to apply "war" to any kind of conflict that involves pulling a trigger or arresting dodgy Muslims.
I used to think of war as a situation in which a lot of guys in green clothes crawl toward a lot of other guys in clothes of a slightly different color. Surely there also should be some additional criteria, such as scale, duration and what real estate is at stake.
We used to be more careful about this big scare-word. Korea was a "police action." Cambodia was an "incursion." Israel and the Palestinians are involved in homicide bombings (another brilliant turn of phrase) and occupation.
Even Vietnam was merely a "conflict" until it drew 600,000 American soldiers into the quagmire.
But within the past few years politicians have rediscovered the galvanizing power of the W-word. It evokes bigger, bloodier conflicts that spur economies and shut up opposition politicians. It's a convenient usage that empowers the reigning government to adopt procedures designed for real war, like restrictions on information and personal freedom.
Our current excuse for a war, the war on terrorism, has so far involved blowing up a lot of empty caves and arresting a handful of suspicious characters. There WAS one more thing: about 30 British soldiers in Kandahar came home early, having caught a virus.
A few other wars of recent years seemed exaggerated:
NATO's war on Yugoslavia was waged without noticeable opposition. U.S. planes dropped bombs on Serbia at will from such high altitudes that they were never scratched. In fact there were no casualties on "our"side.
Russia vs. Chechnya was a very one-sided affair but even Bill Clinton called it a war, albeit the civil kind with Yeltsin in the guise of Abe Lincoln.
These whimsical thoughts came to me as I observed Britain reliving its 15-day "war" to regain the Falkland Islands (the Malvinas, if you come from South of the Border) from Argentina on the 20th anniversary of the events. At stake, less than 2,000 peasants and 65,000 pairs of penguins on a rock so hostile no trees can survive. And yes, penguins are always counted in pairs because they mate for life. (Who knows whether they cheat? The old penguin joke goes: "Honey, are you sure that was Sheila last night? Honest, I thought it was you.")
The British print media, the BBC and its competing broadcasters have all delved into this lightweight Falklands material on its anniversary and attracted huge domestic audiences. One BBC drama featured two hours of unknown thespians playing Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet, and a trio of second-tier Americans impersonating a jumpy Al Haig, a wisecracking Tom Enders and an extremely goofy Ronald Reagan daydreaming in his pyjamas.
In the drama as in life, Mrs. T took the apparently serious position that Britain had to make a stand against the world's "tin-pot dictators" because no one else would. Civilization as we know it was at stake.
Haig conducted shuttle diplomacy for months, but was portrayed here as an indecisive bumbler seeking compromise with our friends in Buenos Aires. He never knew what day it was or what time zone he was in. Periodically Thatcher--the dominant force in this drama--would rattle Haig by accusing him of jetlag or a weak heart. Twice he shot back, "I'm just fine. The heart is fine. Fine."
In a word, the U.S. side came off as a bunch of clowns.
Still, it was a war that achieved its political aim. It was just the kind of moderately adventurous offshore event the unpopular Conservative government desperately needed.
The British lost something like 70 men in a conflict that revolved around one weapon, the French sea-skimming Exocet, against which the Royal Navy had no defense. And the Argentines were so frightened they scampered back to port after they lost their first ship, the Belgrano. It was beginning to sound more like a game of chicken.
Eventually, the engagement cost England six ships, nine Harriers (four of which went down in accidents), and more than 2 billion dollars. But Thatcher, whose political survival was probably the main thing at stake, called on the people to rejoice over this great victory for the United Kingdom.
She was reelected the following year by a landslide, and the people are still crowing over the military victory.
Meanwhile, the loss cost the Argentinian military government dearly. General Galtieri, the man who said he was too busy to take a phone call from President Reagan ("Tell him to call back later.")--lost his presidency. It took Argentina more than 10 years to recover. Now Argentina will probably never regain the Malvinas because the British are pouring investment into the islands to demonstrate that they plan to stay. Forever.
The Falklands now has its place in British history, with several websites, dozens of published memoirs, an official artist and a contingent of veterans. One unfortunate sailor whose face was badly burned appears on television regularly as a mini-celebrity.
Last week Prince Andrew sat down at Buck House with a television interviewer to relive his exploits at the controls of a Royal Navy helicopter. Displaying upper-class cool, he described seeing a missile coming at him as a "glow on the horizon," but he explained that he smartly maneuvered his chopper out of harm's way. The nation held its breath.
There is no question that Britain is nostalgic for a time that it wielded greater influence in the world. Perhaps that explains the need to recall every detail of the tempest they like to call the Falklands War. It also explains why the country comes to a halt when its soccer team plays in a World Cup match. Memory has a funny way of remembering.
But this does not explain our compulsion to demean the English language. Now there is something worth getting worked up about. It's time for a war on the cheapening of that particular currency.
© 2002 by Michael Johnson. The photo is courtesy the BBC website.
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