The Falklands 20 years on: O! What a lovely war!

Twenty years ago next month, a group of Argentinian 'prospectors' landed on South Georgia, setting in motion the conflict that became the Falklands War. Now that the dust of history has settled, we asked 16 different participants in that war a simple question: was it worth it?
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Sir Rex Hunt

Governor of the Falkland Islands, 1980-82

When Britain announced it was going to war in the Falklands, I was greatly relieved. I had been anxious to ensure that we had done enough to get the response from Britain that we needed: a task force to go and kick the Argentinians out.

If I'd have known Margaret Thatcher then as well as we all do now, I wouldn't have had that anxiety. The invasion was clearly unprovoked military aggression. It was the most clear black-and-white case since Hitler went into Poland in 1939.

The British soldiers killed in the campaign made the ultimate sacrifice. But I do believe that there are principles that are worth fighting for and dying for. I do believe that their sacrifice was worth it. Look at the state that Argentina is in now and how prosperous the Falkland Islands have become since 1982. The Falkland Islanders are as British as we are, and it was just as if a hostile power had landed on the Isle of Man or the Isle of Wight.

Wade Tidbury

Served as an able seaman (radar) on HMS 'Alacrity'

I look back now and realise how traumatic the war was for me. My ship, HMS Alacrity, was involved in rescue work from the Atlantic Conveyor when it was hit by Exocet missiles. The missiles had been sold to the Argentinians by the French and were guided by British/ French radar systems. I came back from the Falklands wanting to leave the Navy, and to find out more about the trade in arms and the peace movement. Was it worth it? I think it was for Mrs Thatcher and the arms trade. It certainly wasn't worth it with regard to the 250 soldiers who The South Atlantic Medal Association – the Falklands veterans group – estimates have committed suicide since they returned from the Falklands. As for me, the experience has made me a lifelong opponent of war.

David Brown

A company clerk and medic in the Parachute Regiment. Five years ago, he retired from his job as a foundry office manager, suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

I came out of the Army in 1985 because I didn't feel right about anything any more. I was drinking heavily, I couldn't sleep, I was having constant flashbacks. I ended up getting caught up in violence because I just totally lost it, and I didn't care what happened to me anymore. In 1987, I was diagnosed as having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder at a special Royal Navy unit. The following year, I was sentenced to four years for affray. I've since had treatment for PTSD and I'm coping now.

I've got to say, however, that the Falklands was definitely worth it. They were British islanders, they were more British than the majority of people living in England nowadays, and at the end of the day that was our job. We were paid to protect British people. I've no regrets about doing the job. I'm proud that we achieved everything against all odds. But there has been a high price to pay.

Dr Morgan O'Connell

The task-force psychiatrist, and a Surgeon Lieutenant-Commander in the Navy. He works for Combat Stress, the ex-services charity

Most of my work was done on the Canberra, which had hospital facilities. I tried to keep as many men in the front line as possible until the war was completed. Some people began to have difficulty in coping, and my task was to help them manage that either by prescribing medication or doing some psychotherapy with them.

There were mood swings, depression, anxiety, the emergence of pre-existing psychiatric disorders and occasionally alcohol abuse. There were times when I was very frightened and I started smoking again, and I'm sure I was probably drinking more than I should have been.

On balance, I think the war was worth it. Once Galtieri had invaded, I think it was right for the task force to be deployed and to confront him. It was a vital time to confront would-be bullies and dictators. It was the lesser of two evils, really. There is a place for diplomacy, a place for undergoing the legal process, but there are some people who unfortunately try to influence others by being physically violent to them, and the only answer, on many occasions, is physical violence in return.

Rt Hon Sir John Nott

Secretary of State for Defence, 1981-83

I first realised that we had a crisis on our hands when we intercepted some Argentinian communications to their Navy on the evening of Wednesday 31 March. When I initially considered the position I had great doubts, and expressed them to Margaret Thatcher. The main issue was whether it was logistically possible to fight a war 8,000 miles away without the help of land-based aircraft. The advice I'd been given within the MoD at that point was very negative, and I must admit that I was appalled at the thought of sending young men and women across other side of the world to fight a war at such huge risk.

It had to be done, but "nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won" seems very apt. When it was over, I was of course delighted with the triumph of our forces, but the whole thing seemed a dreadful waste – there were more than 1,000 people killed and wounded.

I found the triumphalism in Britain afterwards very upsetting. However, I have to say that it transformed the country, and rescued the British people from the pessimism and self-doubt that had been rife since Suez. The Falklands made a major change in the way that other countries saw us, and raised our standing around the world. At that time as well, the Cold War with the Soviets was in progress, and the Falklands greatly strengthened the deterrence, showing that Britain was prepared to respond to aggression. It certainly strengthened the cause of the Western Alliance.

No war is ever worth it. In politics, however, you can't decide events: they take control of you. You get carried away with the emergency of the situation that confronts you. Retrospectively, the answer to whether it was worth it has to be yes.

Sir John Nott's recollections of the Falklands conflict can be found in his memoir 'Here Today, Gone Tomorrow', published by Politico next month

Tam Dalyell

Labour MP for Linlithgow, ejected from the chamber three times for insisting that Mrs Thatcher lied when she said she didn't know about Peruvian peace proposals until after she had ordered the 'Belgrano' to be sunk

I was against the war before the sending of the task force and objected to it on 3 April 1982, when I interrupted Mrs Thatcher. I didn't object to the sinking of the Belgrano until 7 July, when the submarine commander returned home and said that he had destroyed the ship on orders from Northwood, the fleet headquarters. That was not what parliament had been told, which was that it was a submarine commander acting on the spur of the moment to protect the fleet. I was sacked from my front-bench position by Michael Foot for having opposed the war.

The war was emphatically not worth it. It was like two bald men fighting over a comb, and Mrs Thatcher did it not because she cared about the Falklands – what mattered to her was military victory for the purposes of domestic politics. And the problems of the South Atlantic are not solved. The claim goes on. I still feel angry.

Dr Rick Jolly, OBE

The senior medical officer of the Royal Marines during the war. In 1998, he was awarded the Argentinian Orden de Majo for his work treating enemy soldiers

I was proud to do my duty, which was to ensure that no wounded soldier, sailor or airman died of his wounds. I ran the field hospital in Ajax Bay which we nicknamed the red and green life machine. It was housed in a sheep-slaughterhouse. We treated nearly 580 British wounded and about 200 Argentinians. Our efforts to treat our erstwhile enemy were recognised by the Argentinian Government in 1998 when they presented me with the Orden de Majo.

I am now chairman of SAMA 82 – the South Atlantic Medal Association. Our 2,000 members are proud of the fact that we brought freedom, from the sea, to the residents of the Falkland Islands. Freedom is a privilege that is all too often taken for granted. It has been fought for in our past and must be guarded carefully in the future no matter what the Treasury says.

Lisa Riddell

Editor of the 'Penguin News' on the Falklands

I was 11 years old and living in Stanley with my grandmother the night the invasion began. I remember it very clearly. My grandmother woke me up around 3am when the shooting began. We went downstairs and I remember feeling sick with fear when I saw the tracer bullets shooting past the window.

The mood among the British community was one of absolute fear, resentment and disbelief. If the British government hadn't helped, what was a poor British colony would have become an even poorer Argentinian colony, but with an unstable government. I think we would have been left to decay. Now we're a vibrant society, and modern in a way that we weren't before the conflict. The support we were given afterwards to set up conservation areas has generated money from selling fishing licences, and the development of tourism.

My generation see ourselves as Falklands Islanders – not colonists as our grandparents were. The conflict was worth it – some people have a problem with the fact that we were such a small community, but who has the right to determine what number makes it worth it?

Major-General Julian Thompson (retired)

Brigadier and in command of the 3rd Commando Brigade, which consisted of the Royal Marine Commandos and two parachute battalions

I lost 90 men, and in my brigade alone there were 136 wounded; but a great deal of good came from this conflict. It achieved the overthrow of an unpleasant regime whose record of human rights was appalling, and who had killed several thousand people who disagreed with them. It also had a huge effect on the Soviet Union: papers released afterwards revealed that the Soviets were astonished that Britain bothered to do anything – that a member of Nato was prepared to fight for principles. It brought them up short, because they realised we might react again. Personally, I would do it all again – but I hope I'm never asked to.

Rt Hon Denzil Davies MP

Shadow Defence spokesman, 1981-82

I was in the House of Commons when the report came in that the first ship had gone down. I was waiting in the cafeteria and saw Thatcher sitting in the corner. There in the gloom of this small room she sat, looking distressed. She was alone apart from her Private Secretary. You can say she launched the task force for political aggrandisement, but I don't think you go into war for that purpose.

Was it worth it? That's a denigrating question. It's always worth defending international human rights and international law. I believe that one country should not use military force to invade another. There are mechanisms in place for this: international courts, international law, the United Nations. In the end, sadly, although no one wants to go to war, it had to be done.

Tony Melia

A lorry driver, who lost his brother, Michael, aged 30, in the battle of Goose Green. Michael was a Corporal with the 59 Independent Commando Squadron of the Royal Engineers, and left a wife, Gill

I learnt of Michael's death in a telegram from my sister. We were devastated as you can imagine. I was in the Forces myself, and Michael joined the Territorials under my direction, and consequently the Forces, so I felt a bit guilty.

I coped quite well until I went to the funeral and just cracked up after that. He was so young, and had so much to live for. But I was also very proud of him. I still find it all very upsetting, though.

I do think the war was worth it. It did a good thing for British morale. We were a lion with no teeth until then. The world has looked up to us since, especially the Americans. It surprised the world. I think Michael would have thought it was worth it too. He was a soldier through and through. It was his life, he loved it.

Captain David Hart-Dyke

Captain of HMS 'Coventry'

HMS Coventry was a guided missile destroyer. We were a thorn in the side of the Argentinian airforce, and they ganged up against us to take us out. Nineteen of my sailors were killed, and the rest of us by some miracle swam to the life rafts to be picked out of the water by helicopters. At the time you can keep going, but it took me about two years to recover.

It's very sad that we had to go to war. This conflict should have been solved by the politicians through negotiation: the military had been warning them for years that it shouldn't have to become a military operation. Because they failed to keep the military presence in the Falklands, politicians sent the wrong signal to the Argentinians, so we had to do it the hard way.

In the end it was worth it because we were preserving freedom for British people. You have to take risks to do this. A British sailor doesn't fight well unless he believes in the cause. We had extremely high morale because we did believe, and even though we were 8,000 miles away we could feel the support from home. The nation was behind us and so, against the odds, we won. In a way, I couldn't believe we were asked to do it, but you have to go for it. It's what you are trained for, and I wouldn't have missed it.

Desmond King

Has lived in Port Stanley for 50 years. In 1982, he was the owner of the Upland Goose Hotel and met the journalist Max Hastings, who had entered the town ahead of the liberating forces

A fellow came in to the hotel and I said, "My dear, where are you from?" He said, "I am Max Hastings and I work for a newspaper." He ordered a double whisky – not a very civilised drink for that time of day. We were in the process of having a few gin and tonics to celebrate so he joined us and we had several more.

I was delighted when I first heard that Britain would be sending a task force. It's the sort of thing one expected. There was no option. You can't walk into somebody's place and take it, and the Argentinians had to be taught that fact.

The war was a waiting game. We lived each day as it came and looked forward to when the British Forces would liberate us. The final stages were probably the most frightening – with Argentinian soldiers setting fire to buildings before retreating to Stanley airport three miles away. It was very distressing to see all the Argentinian conscripts in such a downtrodden state, looking subdued as they shambled past the Upland Goose Hotel with no boots on and pushing wheelbarrows containing wounded comrades.

They were living under a dictatorship in Argentina at the time, and the people didn't have much say in the war. It was a tragedy for them. But there is no question about whether the war was worth it. You cannot take other people's property – that's all there is.

'Hector'

A member of the Argentinian Regimiento 12 de infanteria General Arenales who was involved in the battle at Goose Green (Ganso Verde)

When I was called for duty, my 19th birthday had just passed. My uniform was too big, my helmet too small, but we were very excited to go. The streets were filled with people cheering us as if we were going to the World Cup.

After that, everything was so unfortunate. We were going to kill real human beings and too many of us were killed. I was a foot soldier and I fought in the battle at Goose Green.

Was it worth it? I can only say, it depends. What are your values? How much is a human life worth? Dismembered bodies lay all over the place, the smell of the burning flesh filled the air. The real tragedy is you don't know who the lucky ones were: the ones who died or the ones who survived only to never have peace again. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder doesn't go away, only in the mind of bureaucrats who don't want to pick up the bills from the therapists.

I'm an Argentinian, a very proud one and also an admirer of the UK. Now we have to find a way to settle our differences. That little piece of rock in the middle of nowhere, called Falklands or, to us Argentinians, Malvinas, isn't worth a drop of blood from anyone. I wish that the world was a different place.

Lindsey German

An active peace campaigner during the Falklands War. She is now editor of the 'Socialist Review'

It was just an old-fashioned war of colonial aggression and quite substantial numbers of people were killed – obviously mainly Argentinians – but British soldiers as well. And for what? It was a situation that could have been negotiated. Thatcher wasn't interested in a political settlement and that was very clearly seen when they sank the Belgrano. It wasn't worth it. Really, the Falklands is a barren series of islands in the South Pacific. It was completely pointless. Now, the British Government is suggesting that Gibraltar really has to be given to Spain. You have these outposts of the old empire and I don't think any of them are worth fighting over.

John Phillips

Seargent Major with the Royal Engineers. He and his colleague Jim Prescott, CGM, were the only bomb disposal officers dispatched with the task force when war broke out

The first bomb we dealt with was aboard HMS Argonaut on Saturday 22 May. She'd been hit in the boiler room, and we managed to make that one safe. The second day, we were tasked to HMS Antelope and it was that one that killed Jim Prescott and took my arm off. We were about 30ft from the bomb when it exploded. Afterwards, I got to my feet and went to find Jim. There wasn't a mark on him, but it was obvious to me that he was dead.

I always felt the war was the right thing to do. Having gone back at the invitation of the Falkland Island government 10 years ago and seen the gratitude the people there have for the members of the task force, I feel it was definitely worth it. But if you ask Jim Prescott's widow the same question, I don't think she'd agree. I think she would have preferred him to stay back home.

Interviews by Clare Dwyer Hogg, Clare Rudebeck and Julia Stuart

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