Learn from history and make peace now

Why the Falklands still matters.

The St Mary's Church in Port Stanley, in the Falkland Islands. Photograph: Getty Images.

The Falklands war is hugely important. Many try to pretend otherwise, especially those on the left. The episode was an accident, they maintain, a bizarre throwback to colonial impulses, a tragic joke. US support was vital, so all the talk of our "winning it alone" is nonsense. Also, it has nothing
to do with us on the left (true, Labour supported it and, when it finally got to power 15 years later, it fought conflicts in Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, and committed itself to renewing Trident and building new aircraft carriers - but, really, Labour is not militaristic).

The list could be lengthened. I'm pretty sure that most New Statesman readers prefer to shrug or sigh, ie repress, rather than embrace the ongoing significance that the Falklands conflict has for politics and power in the UK.

At the time, I argued that the impulse for war emerged from what I called "Churchillism". It was only 36 years since the end of the Second World War and the cabinet had either grown up during the war, like Thatcher, or served in it. The formative moment of 1940 shaped the mentality of British politics, including that of the left - Labour, Liberals, Communists - in its consensus. The NHS was born then, too.

Thatcher turned her Falklands victory into a coup against Churchillism's wide-ranging legacy - crushing its humanity with the bellicosity that was
also part of it.

Today, 30 years after the Falklands war, a slightly younger generation of political leaders has a similar youthful memory of the formative moment of 1982 as Thatcher's generation did of 1940 and 1945.

They may be uneasily conscious of its anachronistic tub-thumping. But they are the bearers of its active legacy. Far from being just a throwback, as it seemed when it was happening, the Falklands conflict became a harbinger, above all because it was a rare victory.

Short fuse

That victory was so close. Had the bombs that hit the Royal Navy been properly fused; had Argentina mined the landing areas; had its army defended slightly better and dragged out the land fighting by a week (the winter arrived the evening of the surrender, with 100mph winds
of hail and sleet, and the British had only two days of ammunition left); or had Leopoldo Galtieri simply delayed the invasion by three months, Thatcher would have been out on her ear.

But luck goes with the grain and the victory was immensely consequential. Mentally and in terms of the military budget, the UK reattached itself to a global role, rather than pulling back to the European theatre as was planned in 1981.

The victory gave birth to the double-headed monster of militarism and market fundamentalism signalled in Thatcher's Cheltenham victory speech, when she proclaimed that she would bring the war home to make it "the real spirit of Britain".

It reforged military intelligence relations between the US and the UK at the level of their, or should I say "our", deep states. It saw the first experience of embedding journalists.

Since then, the apparatus has learned to orchestrate a manipulative militarism, with the cult of soldiers doing their job irrespective of the cause. (In the words of last year's Christmas number one by the Military Wives Choir: "Wherever you are . . . may your courage never cease.")

The Falklands achieved these things because although it was a brief war, it was not at all a low-intensity one of the Northern Irish kind or the colonial-style occupation that we see today in Afghanistan. On the contrary, in a short blast of ferocious fighting, it was a high-technology, full-spectrum clash of arms, pioneering long-range missiles, the use of nuclear submarines, the latest air-to-air armoury - all tested for the first time in actual combat to the delight of the arms industry.

It became a crucial learning experience for the post-cold war interventions of "projecting" force at a distance and cashing in the tabloid popularity at
home. David Cameron captured the script perfectly early on in his premiership, speaking to the troops at Camp Bastion in Helmand Province: "During the first and second world wars and during the Falklands war, there was real support in our country for the military. We want to put you front and centre of our national life again . . ."

To which we should reply: "Make peace in the South Atlantic." The UN Charter stipulates an obligation to protect the "interests" of the Falkland Islanders, not to obey their "wishes". They want the oil being discovered there. We should recognise it as Argentina's black gold, not "defend" it with more British lives.

Anthony Barnett's "Iron Britannia" was a bestseller in 1982. The book is being reissued this month on the Faber Finds imprint (£11), with a new introductory overview on 30 years of militarism