Friday, 24 July 2009

“Razor’s Edge: The Unofficial History of the Falklands War”, Hugh Bicheno

I'm lucky enough to remember the Falklands War. I was 9 when the invasion took place and my 10th birthday was two weeks before the Argentine surrender. To this day I remember walking through Kew Gardens discussing with all the earnest boyhood intent I could muster, what the prospects were with my father, and subsequently, as the task force moved south, with my school friends. As my life and career evolved, the Falklands somehow have stayed with me. I distinctly remember discussing how to make an undergraduate course on "Warfare in the 20th Century" more real to students in the late 1990s, and floating that maybe if we had a week on the Falklands it might work, as some of them might remember it, only for a senior colleague to gently chide me that given most of them didn't remember Thatcher being in power and were predominantly would have been 3 or so when the conflict took place, I was perhaps being a bit optimistic about their memory.

It was largely down to a (different) former colleague that I picked up Hugh Bicheno's unofficial history. I've read a lot about the Falklands over the years, and while I'd seen it had come out I wasn't sure that it would add much to my understanding, or that I really needed to read more on the subject. Gratifyingly I was wrong. "Razor's Edge" is, without question, the wrong place to start if you're new to the 1982 war (better places to start would be Freedman and Gamba-Stonehouse's "Signals of War", or Martin Middlebrook's "Task Force"). Bicheno's account is forceful, opiniated, and authoritative, written with confidence, a command of his subject, and an eye for source reliability that is rare. A most pleasing side effect of the conviction with which this account is written is the unflinching passion communicated and an utter unwillingness to pull punches. This makes for a very good read.

The book unapologetically focuses on the ground war. Possession of Port Stanley is rightly seen as the conflict's centre of gravity, and as such, interesting as it is, the sea war and the relative performance in the air is subservient to the grinding battle fought by boots on the ground; two armies facing each other and being tested in environments neither had really prepared for. As such, episodes such as the sinking of the General Belgrano are not investigated in any great detail, Bicheno rightly assuming that those interested can readily find detailed explorations of such events elsewhere.

In this focus on the ground war Bicheno cuts to the heart of the matter in exploding the myth that the British achievement was somehow superhuman. He accurately cites a US document positing that no self respecting military officer should have learned anything from the Falklands War. In this light the whole conflict was not a tribute to flair and extemporisation in adversity, but rather to solid grounding, an appreciation of logistics, and an ability to work in a joined up way; in short, less being unbelievable heroes and more solid people doing their job properly. Indeed when the British Army deviated from what it had consistently trained to do, such as at Goose Green, it came closest to failure and defeat. In this instance Bicheno has no hesitation in questioning sacred cows, firmly asserting that it was only with Colonel H Jones' death (for which he won the Victoria Cross) that 2 Para were allowed to revert to what they had consistently trained to do, and secured victory.

Other popular conceptions about the war are also challenged, for example, the theory that the Argentine invasion constituted a classic intelligence failure, is pointedly exploded. In the words of Bicheno, himself a former intelligence officer in Latin America:

There was no 'intelligence failure' – the British government was well served with hard information from technical and human sources about Argentine actions and intentions. There was, however, an intellectual failure systemic to the political nation. (p.28).

This point ushers in the real central tone of "Razor's Edge". This is the work of a proud Briton disillusioned with what he feels his country has become. He wears his heart on his sleeve when denouncing what he sees as over liberal apologias for Britain's behaviour contrasted with a relative silence concerning the odium of the Argentine junta. The complicity of Britain's political system in creating the environment where the 1982 conflict could take place is clearly exposed, yet there is still the underlying admiration for an underlying mettle in the British character that made victory possible. The story of Hugh Leach's impassioned plea to Thatcher to allow the Royal Navy to try and retake the Falklands is widely known, and given rightful airing here, but Bicheno goes deeper. As he puts it, Argentina's whole strategy was:

…based on a calculation that the British soldier of 1982 was not the man his father had been. But he was: and better in attack than history might have led one to expect of an army more famed for stoicism than tactical flair. (p.93)

This point being rammed home by his assertion that:

The British owed their victory to the ferocity of infantry who went into combat stressed beyond the point beyond which even the best trained troops should be pushed. (p.110)

While there are undeniably points in the book where one could happily debate (for example his wholesale endorsement of then commander of HMS Ardent and latterly First Sea Lord Alan West) ultimately this is a deeply satisfying book that stays just on the right side of polemic. As I have said, it is not the right place to start if one seeks a primer on the conflict, but to one who thinks they already know all that has to be said about the events of March-June 1982, this is a useful antidote and a worthwhile addition to any library on the subject.

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