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History All Over Again: Britain and Argentina are Tussling Over the Falkland Islands

4 minute read
Nick Cohen

The past is a foreign country,” said the English novelist L.P. Hartley. “They do things differently there.” However true Hartley’s observation is of other countries, it is not true of his native land. The trouble with England is that the past never leaves you alone. Just when you think it is dead, the damn thing clambers out of the grave.

The passage of 30 years has not made the Britain of 2012 noticeably different from the Britain of 1982. Once again a Conservative Prime Minister is presiding over an economic crisis — Margaret Thatcher then, David Cameron now. Once again there are street riots and mass unemployment. And then as now there is talk of war in the Falkland Islands.

(Global Spin: Fernández Denounces Britain’s ‘Militarization’ of the Falkland Islands.)

When the Argentines invaded the Falklands in 1982, my left-wing friends and I wondered for a moment if we would be called up — the 20th century had been a history of generations of young men being conscripted for war. After we realized that Her Majesty’s Navy could manage without us, we settled down to marvel at the absurdity of the conflict over an abandoned coaling station for British ships.

The Falklands war was “two bald men fighting over a comb,” snapped the Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges. But even this master of absurdism could not capture how ridiculous the conflict seemed to the minority of us not caught up in the patriotic fervor. Trying to divert attention from its vicious rule and economic incompetence, the Argentine military junta revived a claim to the Falklands — which had not had an Argentine presence since the 1830s. Determined to prove herself a Churchillian war leader, Thatcher stood firm. She fought and won a war over territory most Britons never realized they governed. Nine hundred Argentine and British servicemen, and three islanders, died for bleak, storm-tossed islands with no apparent resources beyond bleak, storm-tossed sheep.

(See TIME’s Falklands Covers.)

Now, as if on some conductor’s cue, the drums of war are beating again. Argentine politicians claim the islands to prove their patriotism. They refuse to cooperate with the Falklanders in monitoring fish stocks and searching for oil. They ban Falkland-flagged ships from their ports. When Prince William arrived in the uniform of an air-force helicopter pilot to guard the 3,000 islanders, Argentina’s Foreign Ministry described him as a “conquistador.” Meanwhile, the British press, liable to get more excited about royals in battle zones than about ordinary soldiers and sailors, remembered that Prince Andrew served as a pilot in the 1982 war.

Everything is as it once was. But only on the surface. The statement so beloved of politicians that “democracies never go to war with other democracies” needs to be qualified with the caveat “it depends what you mean by a democracy.” Britain, France and Germany were democratic or partly democratic nations, after all, when they started World War I in 1914. The more prosaic truth is that modern democracies are less likely to fight each other than dictatorships are. Most democratic leaders are schooled in compromise. And the leaders of democracies that have emerged from vicious dictatorships are likely to be the most pacific of all.

In 1982 my left-wing friends and I were gripped by a familiar parochialism. All we cared about was our loathing of what Thatcher was doing to Britain. If she loses the war, we reasoned, she will lose power. We did not think about the wider consequences. When Britain won, it not only stopped the true imperialism of the Argentine military that wanted to impose alien rule on a protesting population, it also discredited the military junta.

The first aim of Argentina’s new democratic leaders was to stop the military from returning to power. They slashed defense budgets and preferred diplomacy to battle. Dick Sawle, a member of the Falkland Islands’ legislative assembly, tells me that Argentina’s ferocious rhetoric does not worry him. It has neither the means nor the inclination to go to war. Bellicose language has come out of Buenos Aires for years. The international media just didn’t notice it until the war’s 30th anniversary approached.

(See more on Argentina and Britain’s Unfinished War: Hate E-Mail, Harassing Calls and Prince William.)

Argentine and British passions about the Falklands could yet bubble over. It remains worrying that Argentina and the Falkland islanders are not cooperating to exploit oil and fish reserves for their mutual benefit. But sometimes the past is a foreign country, and we should be thankful that we do things differently now.

Cohen‘s You Can’t Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom was published in January

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