Today is the 25th anniversary of the end of the Falkland Islands War. Since I am currently a visiting professor in Argentina, I thought it appropriate to mark the occasion, and consider the legacy of the War. Despite the tragic loss of almost 1000 lives, the impact of the war on both countries was probably positive.
The Impact on Britain
For Britain, the victory helped regain national self-confidence, and also ensured the continuation of Margaret Thatcher's free market reforms by giving her a big boost for the 1983 election. Back in 1982-83, the opposition Labor Party was not yet the Clintonized New Labor we came to know and love in the Tony Blair era. Instead, the party was led by hard-line old school socialist Michael Foot, who would surely have scrapped Thatcherism had he and his party returned to power in 1983. The War made what might have been a close election a slam dunk for the Conservatives.
Effects in Argentina
Argentina probably benefited from defeat even more than Britain did from victory. The war was initiated by the repressive Argentine military dictatorship in part to shore up flagging popular support for the military junta. In the short run, the gambit worked. Even most left-wing Argentines cheered when the junta's forces captured the islands on April 2, 1982. But, contrary to Argentine expectations, the British did not take the invasion lying down, but instead sent a task force that eventually recaptured the Islands. The defeat discredited the military government even among its supporters, and led to its collapse a year later. The restoration of civilian rule in 1983 ended one of the most repressive periods in Argentine history, and led to the trial and conviction of several of the junta's members for human rights violations.
Had Argentina won the war, the military government would have gotten a new lease on life. The resulting harm would surely have outweighed any meager benefit that ordinary Argentineans could have derived from possessing a few small islands with little economic value.
Decisive Victory as the Best Road to Peace
Despite the beneficial impact of the War's outcome, most Argentines remain convinced that their country is the rightful owner of the Islands, and regret their defeat. Official Argentine maps call the Falklands the "Malvinas" and label them a part of Argentina. It is an eerie (though less disturbing) parallel to the Palestinian maps that show Israel as a part of "Palestine."
This view is not quite universal. One Argentine academic told me that he was glad that Argentina lost the war. When I asked why, he explained that he could not support the war because he was "not a fascist" (as was the military regime that started the conflict). Nevertheless, his opinion was in a distinct minority. Probably 80 to 90 percent of Argentineans - including many who abhor the military government - take the nationalistic position. This, despite the fact that Argentina has not controlled the islands since the 1830s, and the population is almost entirely composed of people who want to remain under British rule. Obviously, irrational nationalist ideology is not limited to Argentina, and is just one example of the more general political irrationality that I have analyzed in my academic work. Irrational Argentine irredentism about the Falklands has many parallels elsewhere in the world, some of them far more virulent and dangerous.
Fortunately, polls show that only about 20 percent of Argentineans would support another armed attack to retake the Islands, and relations with Britain have gradually improved since the end of the War. This fact leads to another important less of the conflict: Because Britain's victory was so decisive and overwhelming, most Argentines have no desire to renew the fighting, even though they still believe in the justice of their cause, and the nationalist grievances behind that cause have not been satisfied. Indeed, Britain has taken a somewhat harder line on Falklands issues since the war than it before. Sometimes, the best way to achieve a lasting peace is to defeat an enemy so decisively that they desist from further fighting because they realize it to be hopeless. This approach is often much more effective than trying to address the "root causes" of the enemy's belligerency or trying to appease them.
It is a valuable lesson of the Falklands War that is all too often ignored. It will not work for every conflict, but it certainly did wonders for this one.