It is thirty years today since the surrender of the Argentinean forces in the Falklands conflict. And, although I was only twelve years old at the time, it’s a measure of the power of the idea of war that I still flinch at typing those words; in particular the choice to substitute the mealy mouthed ‘conflict’ at the end of that sentence.
So is the surrender of the Falkland Islands something to celebrate? Was it then? Is it now?
There are a number of competing narratives about the Falklands War, about any war. I’ve been working with GothicDaughter on her World War Two project this week and reflecting on the stories we tell about that conflict.
The post war British generation have been taught to take pride in our Allied victory: that we stood alone, that we fought bravely and liberated Europe and the World from the Axis. We learned this from the popular culture of our childhoods – the Victor annuals, Escape from Colditz, the Achtung-Schnell playground games. My daughters don’t have that – the story of the Second World War is pretty much new to them. They want me to tell it to them. So what should I tell them?
One of the trickiest things for me about being a parent is being required to give your opinion on extremely complicated matters to small children who are – for now – listening quite carefully to what you’re saying. And, unfortunately, they’ve caught me at quite a bad time for having an opinion about anything. What do I think about the Second World War, the Falklands War, about any war?
When I was a teenager I was supersure about almost everything, especially about the decisions made by Thatcher. But nowadays I have lost all track of the black and white and the right and wrong. It’s all relative isn’t it? There are two sides to everything, possibly three, maybe more. And these days when I’m asked for my opinion on most things well – my response is, it seems, to climb right onto the fence. And stay there.*
But it’s not really an answer to say, in answer to the question, should we have gone to war, in 1939 (or for that matter, in 1982, or in 2003) – um, dunno girls. Ask me tomorrow? Maybe? Maybe not? Ask me in fifty years time when history has given a bit more perspective?
It’s a cliché to say that the narrative of a war is the justification of the victors; it’s also formed by the delusions of the defeated. And there isn’t ever one story of war, any war – there are millions of individual stories, all competing and clamouring with each other.
And we want, so much, to be proud of ourselves as a country. To want to be proud of those who fought, who were wounded or who paid the ultimate price. We don’t have the stomach for any other story, any story that renders that sacrifice pointless. And who can blame us? We wouldn’t want any life to have been lost for no reason, for the wrong reasons.
So what narrative do I pass down about these wars, currently so relevant to our narrative in 2012? Because we might just need to think about whether we can justify sending more men, more precious sons and fathers and brothers and uncles, to their deaths to protect the self-determination of the Falklands Islands again, before too long.
And as country after country across Europe falls deeper into austerity and teeters on the brink of anarchy, and Germany dominates Europe again – should I tell my daughters to fear Germany or to be grateful? Is the history of the twentieth century even relevant to their narratives? Should we pull out of Afghanistan, intervene in Syria? Well?
The view from this fence is, well, not black and white. In every conflict there is bravery and there is cowardice. There are a few good reasons for going to war, and many many bad ones. But the simple explanation offered, at the time or after, whatever it is, is probably wrong, or at least only partially right.
But there are two quotes that I think I can pass on to my daughters without flinching. The first is Si vis pacem, para bellum – a Latin phrase that is best translated as, “If you wish for peace, prepare for war”. The reality of human society is that sometimes, regretfully, only force will make a difference.
The other is a phrase I heard repeated by a Second World War historian this week – that war is wholly evil, not redeemed by glory.
War is sometimes necessary, always evil, but – and I fear this is the only thing I can be certain of – it is an unignorable reality that will be every bit a part of my daughters’ life-narratives as it has been for mine, for yours, and for all of us.
*In this respect, I have some sympathy for David Cameron and his constant flip flopping about. God knows I would find it hard to make up my mind about pasties too. What I can’t forgive him for, though, is that EVERY SINGLE TIME I hear the rules about whether pasties are cooling down, or on a tray, or being carried away by kangaroos in their furry pouches I LISTEN REALLY CAREFULLY like the earnestly interested citizen I am and try and understand it. WHY?? I honestly don’t know but all that pasty chat is now filling that corner of my brain that I was saving for learning the cello. You know, someday. Or maybe reading Ulysses. HA just kidding. I have already read Ulysses. Well the first ten pages. Twice.