The lesson of history is that wars are rarely as simple as the Falklands

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The 20th anniversary of the start of the Falklands War, which we commemorate today, evokes a distant cacophony of sounds, a kaleidoscope of mostly blurred images. We recall the fervent, and conflicting, passions of the Commons debate, the Union flags that appeared in every city street as if out of nowhere, the patriotic songs we associated only with the Festival of Remembrance, and the tumultuous farewell as the pride of the Royal Navy set sail from Portsmouth – a Navy we had almost forgotten we had.

Above all, we recall – this time with the crystalline clarity of yesterday – the utter certainty of Margaret Thatcher, whose finest political hour the war undoubtedly was. We remember her as a veritable Boadicea, chivvying the fainter-hearted men of her Cabinet, exhorting us all to "rejoice" at the good news, and fight on through the bad.

There was room then, and there is room now, for divergent views of this war and of Margaret Thatcher to coexist. For some, the recapture of that small bunch of windswept islands was foolhardy and unnecessary and the price paid, in lives, money and diplomacy, too high. For others, the vast majority in this country, it was a courageous campaign, waged with professionalism, that reinforced the rule of law and called a dictator's bluff.

Victory entailed liabilities. Quite apart from the absurdity of waging a naval campaign from a distance of 8,000 miles, Britain then had to keep up its maintenance of a tiny, distant colony. The conflict postponed indefinitely any more geographically rational arrangement for the islands than British rule. A handover was unthinkable once Argentina had tried to capture them by force. Moreover, the jingoistic patriotism that the war rekindled in Britain arguably held back our fuller integration into Europe.

What no one can deny is that the Falklands campaign was, with the hindsight of 20 years, a small and simple war with, as wars go, a satisfactory, if fortunate, result. A hallowed principle was at stake – that one nation should not take another nation's territory by force and without the consent of the inhabitants. A war was declared, a fleet was dispatched, forces were engaged, and the territory was won back within weeks. A bonus was that military defeat ended General Galtieri's rule over Argentina, and paved the way for democracy.

Such neatness of concept, scale and outcome contrasts with almost every military operation since. Fall-out from the Gulf War is still being felt more than 10 years on, with the isolation of Iraq and the simmering prospect of new military action against Saddam Hussein. What appeared a self-contained campaign at the time, to liberate Kuwait, has proved more complicated, and expensive, than that, and is not yet over.

Successive operations in the former Yugoslavia have imposed an uneasy peace in which ethnic tensions still seethe with the menace of war. Meanwhile in Afghanistan, the US-led "war on terror" stutters on, despite the mostly peaceful fall of the Taliban and the hitherto smooth accession of Hamid Karzai in Kabul. The outside military presence, with a large British contingent, is there for the long term: neither region is peaceful or secure.

And in the Middle East, the least tractable conflict of all rages on, as Israel exploits the US "war on terror" to justify its own onslaught on Palestinians, and Yasser Arafat fails to restrain the stream of desperados ready to sacrifice themselves for their cause. Where ethnic rivalries and land claims coincide, the solutions, like the conflicts, are protracted and messy. The Falklands was an old-fashioned war with a clear objective and without ethnic complications. It was winnable – and it was won.