Remembering the ‘Brief But Brutal’ Falklands War

Paul Rogers, Emeritus Professor, University of Bradford

Paul Rogers

In April 1982, when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, I was a young man of 16: old enough to fight, kill, and die for a British government I was too young to vote for. Forty years on, the UK voting age is still too high (18) and the Army recruitment age still too low (16, though the international legal definition of a ‘child soldier’ bars all under-18s from combat). The brief but brutal war that followed the invasion, however, changed Britain and Argentina in important and enduring ways, and this month I have the honor of assessing its legacy with one of its most trenchant and effective critics, Paul Rogers, Emeritus Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University’s Department of Peace Studies and International Relations.

Professor Rogers — well-known in Canada as a voice of peaceful reason on CBC radio and elsewhere — is a contributor to many UK publications including open Democracy, and author of four editions of an indispensable guide to modern military madness, Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century. Rogers was one of my professors at Bradford, where I studied from 1984-1992. My decision to pursue peace studies was inspired in part by a desire to reflect deeply on the shock and awfulness of the Falklands War — and by Rogers’ courageous public resistance to it.


Introduction: An Unjust and Dirty War

To almost all Argentinians, the ‘Falkland Islands’ are the ‘Islas Malvinas:’ 300 miles off the Patagonian coast, 8,000 miles from Britain, poached from their newly-independent nation by wave-ruling Britannia in 1833. Though the 1982 invasion was widely viewed as a cynical power-play by the military junta’s latest dictator, General Leopoldo Galtieri, there was also broad and deep criticism of successive British governments for dragging out negotiations — mandated by the UN’s Special Committee on Decolonization in 1965 — over the status of the Islands.

Just two months before the invasion, what The Guardian politely described as “lethargic” discussions were proceeding in New York, with the UK tentatively open to the idea of relinquishing sovereignty in return for a 99-year lease and guarantees of protection for the 2,000 inhabitants. As far as Argentina was concerned, the question was not ‘if’ but ‘when’ sovereignty would be transferred, with the ‘when’ — especially in the context of access to potentially vast oil reserves in the South Atlantic — a matter of intense interest.



To most Brits, however, the Falklands were…where? But though most of us had never heard of them, the Conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher— behind in the polls and humiliated by the invasion — promptly began dispatching a 100-vessel ‘Task Force’ to ‘liberate’ them.

As early as April 12, with the Armada still en route, Thatcher drew a clear, red line in the sea: a 200-mile Maritime Exclusion Zone (MEZ) round the Islands. Throughout that endless month, however, as both sides suffered their first losses, diplomacy — with Peru as peacemaker-in-chief — drew close to a solution. First, withdrawal of Argentinian troops from the Islands and pullback of the Task Force.

Second, establishment of an independent interim authority and peacekeeping force for a set period during which a final settlement would be agreed. Initially, Peruvian and US troops were suggested, but as Labour MP Tam Dalyell (whom we will meet again shortly) explained, recounting a conversation with Peruvian President Belaunde Terry: “the Peruvians were not acceptable to us, and the Americans were not acceptable to the Argentines, and, therefore, the troops were to be Canadian, Mexican, and West German.” “In that case,” Dalyell argued (House of Commons, February 18, 1985):

…the Prime Minister would have been deprived of her military victory, which the Falklands issue is all about…


The Peruvian peace plan fell into promising place in late April, with details conveyed to Galtieri and Thatcher by May 1. On May 2, in by far the biggest loss of life in the war, the Argentinian cruiser General Belgrano was sunk by the British submarine Conqueror. Of a crew of 1,093, “mainly poorly-trained and badly-equipped young conscripts,” 323 were killed. On the 25th anniversary of the attack, an Inter Press Service report shared the stories of survivors including Néstor Vidaurre, then 18, who had “ never seen the sea and did not know how to swim”:

I was awakened because my feet were on fire. It was pitch black and everyone was running around…I heard we had to abandon ship, but I couldn’t stand up because of the pain. So I dragged myself to starboard and managed to tie a rope on, to lower myself, but I was about 20 metres from the water… The sea was really wild and I saw other guys jumping in and drowning, or getting bashed against the ship. Then someone threw a raft in and I jumped and was lucky to fall on the roof of it… As we were paddling away, we picked up a badly burned guy who was floating in the water. We pulled him onto the raft, but he died after moaning in pain for a few hours, and we had to throw him overboard….

ARA Belgrano sinking during the 1982 Falklands War.

ARA Belgrano sinking during the 1982 Falklands War. Photo by Martín Sgut (1951 – 2010), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

On May 4, Secretary of State for Defence John Nott told MPs the Belgrano was hit, the day it was sighted, “close to the total exclusion zone,” while “closing on elements of our task force, which was only hours away.” Argentina, denying this, retaliated by sinking the destroyer HMS Sheffield on May 4, with the loss of 20 lives — the first loss of a British naval vessel in combat since WW2 — and the war shifted, in Dalyell’s words, “from second to fifth gear.” To mark the 40th anniversary, BBC Wales interviewed five veterans, including Welsh Guards Regimental Sergeant Tony Davies, one of 5,000 troops sailing to the Islands on the QE2. “It was a sort of carnival atmosphere, to be honest,” Davies recalled, until they heard about the Belgrano:

…and as soon as that happened, we all thought, ‘OK, this is it now, there’s no turning back.’

(The ‘carnival atmosphere,’ however, continued at The Sun, the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid which celebrated the sinking with its infamous ‘Gotcha!’ headline.


By the time the war’s gears wound down, with the final Argentine surrender on June 10, 904 service personnel were dead — 649 Argentine and 255 British — plus three Falkland Island civilians. On June 8, 32 members of Davies’ Welsh Guards were killed — average age, 23 — while waiting to disembark from two openly-moored vessels, Sir Galahad and Sir Tristam. But Mrs. T had her victory, and in June 1983 won re-election in a landslide.

 Argentine army POWs waiting repatriation Port Stanley, 16 June 1982

Argentine army POWs waiting repatriation, Port Stanley, 16 June 1982 (Photo by Ken Griffiths, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The following year, the triumph began to sour when Clive Ponting, a 38-year-old civil servant (and Thatcher favorite) at the Ministry of Defence, leaked documents to Dalyell exposing the deliberate misleading of Parliament — by the new Defence Secretary, Michael Heseltine, and the PM herself — regarding events surrounding the sinking of the Belgrano. Although John Nott had made an honest mistake in claiming the ship was torpedoed soon after being spotted on May 2, the government soon realized (but did not then admit) it been tracked since May 1: as it sailed not towards but away from the Exclusion Zone. “The question arises,” Dalyell remembers concluding:

…why was the order given at lunchtime on May 2 when the Belgrano was far less of a threat than it had been earlier and when its direction was known? It was because the Prime Minister knew something else that Sunday morning – that the Government of Peru had put forward peace proposals.

Ponting himself never alleged the Belgrano was sunk to sink the peace plan, but believing he had a duty not just to government but parliament, risked his career and liberty to stop the suppression of the truth. To pay for this ‘sin,’ he was first told to sign a confession and resign; then, when he did, he was charged under the Official Secrets Act. In February 1985, one of the most prominent trials of the 20th century ended with one of the most sensational verdicts: Not Guilty. Paul Rogers played an important part in defending Ponting, not least in the court of public opinion, and it was with the trial and verdict that I opened my interview.

(Note: lightly-edited excerpts from our exchange follow. A full version can be accessed here.)


“A Roar of Surprise”: The Ponting Case

Sean Howard (SH): A Washington Post obituary for Clive Ponting noted that “if convicted” he “faced life imprisonment’; that he “carried a toothbrush and a copy of the sayings of Buddha to the final day of the trial;” and that the only person in the courtroom as surprised as he was at the verdict was the “staunchly pro-Thatcher” judge, Anthony McCowan, who had notoriously asserted that “the public interest is what the government of the day says it is.”

What memories would you like to share of that extraordinary moment?

Clive Ponting leaving court.

Clive Ponting leaving court. (Source: VHS Vault, YouTube)

Paul Rogers (PR): I remember the news of the acquittal precisely. I happened to have left work early that day and heard it when driving, let out a roar of surprise, and had to concentrate intensely. In the several months between Clive’s arrest and trial I’d provided background research for his case and spent a day with him going over various details. Given the way the trial was run, especially the attitude of the judge, the expectation was of a guilty verdict, and government supporters labelled the result “perverse.” I later learned that some close observers of the proceedings suspected members of the jury may have been antagonized by the judge’s obvious assumption of guilt.

In wider political circles, by the time of the trial, the Thatcher government was comfortably into its second term, the Labour opposition was in disarray, and the transition of the UK economy to a more clearly neoliberal model was well underway. Even so, what the verdict did do was to cast a pall over the Falklands policy and offer some support to those people who thought the war was a mistake.

Also, by that time, it was becoming obvious a full-scale military airbase would have to be built on the Falklands, that there would have to be some kind of guard ship, a frigate or destroyer, a flight of modern interceptors, transport aircraft, helicopters, support staff, workshops, accommodation and the rest, in addition to a permanent fully-equipped and supported army garrison. “Fortress Falklands” would last as long as there were no negotiations, costing many millions of pounds a year to protect the lifestyles of 1,800 Falkland Islanders and the well-being of half a million sheep. Forty years later, that is where we still are.


‘Traitors’ and ‘Appeasers’: The Parallel War Against Peace Studies

SH: In the House of Commons on 21 December 1982, Tam Dalyell told the prime minister that “the sinking of the Belgrano,” when she “knew what she did about peace proposals, was an evil decision.” In the fever-pitch House of Commons debate on 13 February 1985 — a week after Ponting’s acquittal — Michael Heseltine produced this quote as “proof” Dalyell was motivated by his opposition to the war and hatred of the PM. You, too, faced similar charges of bias; how did and do you respond?

PR: There was a fair bit of criticism, and a regular columnist at the regional daily newspaper, the Yorkshire Post, called me “Dr. Death”: but the strongest rebuttal always lay in accurate research and analysis. At the time of the war, there was some graffiti on campus saying “they used to hang traitors, now they give them degrees in peace studies,” and in right-wing political circles, Bradford’s peace studies course was known as “appeasement studies.” And ours was the only British university department to be subject to external scrutiny in the 1980s when the then funding body, the University Grants Committee, was put under intense pressure to undertake an investigation. Bradford’s Vice-Chancellor, John West — a former weapons engineer — decided, to his credit, that he would only agree to such an extraordinary move if the staff all agreed. We certainly did, and welcomed the two investigators, providing reading lists, exam papers and all the other evidence they needed. They reported, much to the government’s annoyance, that the department was in a good state and doing fine academic work.

What I found personally interesting is that while right-wing politicians might be intensely critical, the military were more willing to engage. My first invitation to lecture at a defense college was to the RAF Staff College, in 1982, and for the past 30 years I’ve been an honorary fellow at the Joint Service Command and Staff College.

More generally, when the Cold War ended, Peace Studies academics were able to adapt to the changed world security environment a lot easier than most international relations specialists, because they were already concerned with a much wider range of security issues, including conflict prevention and resolution, peace-keeping and peace-building, as well as socioeconomic marginalization, environmental limits and gender and conflict.


“British Perceptions of Self”: How the War Should be Remembered

PR: It should be remembered as a war that should never have happened: the US negotiator, Secretary of State Al Haig, apparently likened it to “two bald men fighting over a comb.” The UK could have negotiated an honorable peace, though it is probable the Thatcher government would not have survived; and as Britain was still hanging on (as it still is) to its delusions of post-imperial grandeur, it was fairly easy to drum up public support. Six years after the Brexit decision, with all the political and economic problems that persist, the Johnson government is actually now aiming to present “Global Britain” as a world leader in “hard” security, with its Trident missiles, two aircraft carriers and the rest. Even though we are 40 years on, the Falklands War still has its value, and any attempts to criticize the conflict — or urge the resumption of serious negotiations with Argentina — remain unwelcome. While now receding into history, the war still affects British perceptions of self, especially for people over 50.


“After Long Denying”: The Nuclear Fog Still Clinging to the War

PR: After long denying the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons, the government eventually admitted that both aircraft carriers, and two anti-submarine frigates, were nuclear armed — with free-fall bombs and helicopter-delivered depth bombs — when they set out. The government has claimed that the weapons on the frigates were transferred to fleet auxiliaries, and that those ships were kept away from the nuclear-weapon-free zone established in Latin America by the 1967 Treaty of Tlatelolco, which the UK is pledged to respect.

HMS Invincible returning to massive celebrations after Falklands War, 17 September 1982

HMS Invincible returns to massive celebrations following the Falklands War, 17 September 1982. (Royal Navy photo, OGL v1/v1.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

More worrying, though, are persistent suggestions that a Polaris submarine, armed with strategic nuclear warheads, was diverted from its usual North Atlantic/Arctic patrol zone to the mid-Atlantic to bring its missiles within range of Argentina, possibly to threaten escalation if Britain was losing the war. That is strongly denied, but there is circumstantial evidence available to support the claim. It is worth remembering that the UK, both individually and as a member of NATO, does not abide by a no-first-use policy, and is prepared to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states.

SH: In an obvious failure of “deterrence,” British nuclear weapons failed to deter Argentina from invading. Despite this, the patriotic fervor of the time seemed to confirm, for many, that Britain “needed” the Bomb. Do you think that if the war had not happened, the nuclear debate in Britain may have taken a different course?

PR: Probably not, I’m afraid: nuclear possession — the ability to kill 20 million people in a couple of hours — was and is seen as a necessary part of Britain’s big-power status, not the posture of a rogue state. It is all part of the delusion of greatness. I remember, back in my student days, a friend from Ghana telling a joke he picked up back home. Question: Why was it that the sun never set on the British Empire? Answer: Because God didn’t trust the British in the dark.


“To Persevere with New Thinking”: Peace Education v. Militarism

SH: Just seven years after the Falklands War, the Berlin Wall fell, and the path seemed open to a new era of democracy, development and disarmament. In retrospect, was such optimism naïve? And while many things had to go wrong to deliver us to the Doorstep of Doomsday we’re at today, do you think one of those things was the chronic failure to prioritize peace education?

PR: Optimism at the end of the Cold War was reasonable, given the great dangers and many “near misses” of those years. My own optimism waned after the 1990-1 Iraq War, with all its violence and parade of new weaponry. There was also the overarching issue of a world of environmental limits to growth, combined with a global economic system rooted in unsustainable growth. Indeed, by the end of the 1990s ‘turbocapitalism’ was the order of the day, and then came the shock of 9/11 and the catastrophic failure of war after war (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, etc.) to restore ‘security.’

Of those things that could have made a difference, a much stronger element of peace education in our society would certainly have helped. Now, things are in reverse as we revert to ever-increasing military budgets in the wake of Ukraine, but we have no choice but to persevere with new thinking.  The work of the recently started Alternative Security Review in the UK and similar groups elsewhere are indicators of good work in progress. But the task is huge.

Featured image: Royal Marines in San Carlos raising the Union Jack during the Falklands War

Sean Howard


Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton and the Canadian Pugwash Group. He may be reached here.