It’s not quite a war, though you might not know it if you’ve been looking at the London tabloids or listening to the impassioned cries of generals and pop stars.
Thirty years after Margaret Thatcher sent Britain to battle against Argentina to defend one of its last remaining bits of colonial conquest, the tiny Falkland Islands, the sabres are once again rattling.
Argentina’s government has been pushing for a diplomatic or legal settlement to its territorial claims upon the islands, which it calls the Malvinas, while Britain has been expanding its petroleum exploration there. The stakes were raised in January when Britain decided to station Prince William, a search-and-rescue pilot, on the Falklands in what was widely seen as a symbolic gesture; in response, Buenos Aires announced it would no longer permit cruise ships to dock at its port if they’d made a stop in the Falklands, leading Downing Street to accuse Argentina of pursuing a “policy of confrontation.”
But this isn’t 1982: Argentina isn’t ruled by a military junta but by the moderate if somewhat attention-seeking democratic government of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, and David Cameron has so far shown no signs of Ms. Thatcher’s penchant for South American military adventures.
Even if there isn’t a war, there are plenty of heated, bloodthirsty battles raging – and though the ammunition is made of rhetoric rather than cordite, that hasn’t reduced its severity. Not-quite-war is hell, we’re learning. A survey of some of the battle fronts:
The Charge of the Pop-Star Brigade
You know the battle is intense and the stakes are small when Morrissey gets involved. The former singer for the Smiths threw himself over the top by egging on the crowd at an Argentine concert: “We all know that the Malvinas are Argentina’s... The governments never listen to the people, to their pain.” As if to identify that pain, he made his band wear T-shirts declaring “We Hate William And Kate.”
His angst-laden bombardment was followed by the bunker-busting might of a full-scale ‘70s supergroup leader. Roger Waters, the former Pink Floyd figurehead, was quoted in the Argentine press declaring of the islands: “I think they should be Argentinean.” He then backed away from those words, replacing them on Wednesday with comments that would hardly be more reassuring to British jingoists: “I am convinced it’s time to sue for peace and seek a compromise, not push for victory,” he said in a wordy press release. “At the end of the day, what really matters is that not one more drop of blood is shed on the altar of the imperial aspirations of long-dead kings.”
The Long March of the Chequebook Generals
Contrary to Mr. Waters and Mr. Morrisey, some in Britain do feel that one more drop of blood should be shed on the aforementioned altar. But Britain’s military leaders, their noses out of joint over Mr. Cameron’s defence budget cuts, have taken to the front pages to declare that it just can’t be done.
“Falkland Islands would be lost if Argentina invaded because of defence cuts,” screamed the Daily Mail’s front page on Tuesday. It quoted Major-General Julian Thompson, who led the Falklands invasion in 1982, declaring that it couldn’t be done again because budget cuts had deprived the Navy of an aircraft carrier.
“The Argentines have a marine brigade. They’ve got a parachute brigade and some good special forces,” he told the Times. “All they’ve got to do is get those guys onto the islands for long enough to destroy the [British]Typhoon jets and that’s the end of it.”
He neglected to mention that the 1982 invasion was conducted by a British military that had been so devastated by decades of austerity that it had to use tourist cruise ships as troop carriers, or that Mr. Cameron’s cuts will only pare the military down to early-2000s budget levels, still many times higher than 1980s strength. But a good general always seizes the high ground.
The Siege of the Hawkish Pacifists
Britain’s other governing party, the Liberal Democrats, have used the Falklands showdown to make an unusual variation on the General’s claim: Without nuclear disarmament, the putative war will be lost.
Toby Fenwick, an analyst with the Lib Dems’ think tank CentreForum, made that case in a report released Wednesday: By maintaining its submarine-borne nuclear deterrent at a cost of 25-billion pounds, he argued, the country was starving itself of the ability to bomb the Argies back to the mainland.
“Having the ability to retake the Falklands is a lot more useful than a weapon to deter the threat posed by the long-extinct Group of Soviet Forces Germany,” he declared.
The Tabloid Blitzkrieg
The 1982 Falklands War was arguably fought on the front page of the Sun, the paper that Rupert Murdoch had created seemingly for that very purpose. The paper whipped up public support for the unlikely war with such unforgettable three-inch-high screamers as “Stick It Up Your Junta!” and “In We Go” and, most memorably, “GOTCHA.” The fact that this was the paper’s one-word response to the sinking of the Belgrano, an event that killed almost 400 young Argentines, barely deterred the editors: When they learned that not all 1,200 sailors had died, the next day’s head was “ALIVE! Hundreds of Argies saved from the Atlantic.”
The headlines of 2012 are much more modest by comparison (though they’re arguably just getting warmed up). “Argies ban our liners,” the Sun declared last week, returning to its 1980s epithet for Argentines but avoiding the martial intensity of 30 years before. The paper has so far saved its greatest front-page vitriol for Sean Penn, who had the audacity to declare that the islands really ought to be returned to the Argentines. For that, the Sun brought out its heavy headline gunners: “The Flag is Mightier than the Penn,” it declared one day, and followed it up with the inevitable “POISON PENN.”
So far, polls show that a majority of Britons would rather this showdown be resolved through diplomatic negotiations rather than bombs and bullets. But the tabloid editors and embittered generals have barely begun their attack. It’s going to be a long battle.