Falklands Conflict -- Again?

Since the 1700s, a dispute over what country has territorial rights to the Falkland Islands has simmered and at times boiled over. Great Britain has continued to reinforce its claim to the islands while Latin America, mostly Argentina, has pressed just as vehemently to its sovereignty over the area.

Negotiations over the islands -- called Islas Malvinas in Spanish -- had their most recent flare up in 1982. After Argentine forces occupied all key points on the islands, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher dispatched a large naval force to the islands to recapture them. British landing forces quickly retook the southern area of the main island even while the Argentine Air Force bombed the British vessels and sunk several. After five or so months of fighting, the British forced the surrender of the Argentine army in June, 1982.

Such a definitive end to the fighting in 1982 did not end the dispute over whom should control the country. Argentina claims it has a natural right to the control as, they say, Argentine settlers are by far the majority. The islands lie only a small number of nautical miles from the Argentine mainland. British control of the islands is a daily reminder to the people of the colonial era and its subsequent enforcement of a strange culture on indigenous people. The British, of course have a different opinion; they believe that the majority of Falklanders are of British descent, and that the majority prefer to live under the Union Flag. Therefore, the questions remain: can armed conflict over the islands begin again? Would Britain fight again for control? Could they?

It has been suggested that one aspect of these questions to consider is the willingness of Argentina to fight a guerrilla war for control instead of using conventional forces. As we all have observed throughout much of military history, most recently with the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, guerrilla warfare can be devastating to an occupying foreign force. With a relative minimum of fighters and equipment, a guerrilla force can harass occupiers over months and years, always avoiding major conflict and continually retreating into natural areas of defence or blending into the local population, hiding weapons in secret storehouses and making use of "soldiers" -- like boys and women -- who could prove to be effective shock troops. Any British occupying force would have to seriously weigh their resolve when faced with the protracted years of guerrilla warfare. As any student of history can describe, such lengthy conflicts often result in the gradual loss of support from home. Americans need only remember the Vietnam War for an object lesson in how an unpopular war on foreign soil can completely undermine a soldier's will to fight and general morale. This would only work, however, if the Argentine claims that the majority of islanders support them was true, which manifestly it is not and the British are confident that they could rely upon the population to help them to find and apprehend anyone involved in such actions.

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A more realistic facet to consider, however, is the opinion and consequent support or lack thereof from the world community, led by the United States. There often seems to be a "do as I say, not as I do" message from the U.S. The U.S. has strong reasons, mostly having to do with commodities trading, to keep the good will of their Latin American neighbours. Great Britain, though a strong and time-honoured Western European ally of the U.S., does not possess the same volume of goods vital to the U.S. economy. The question of whether to favour Argentine or British interests may tip in favour of Argentina; therefore, Britain would risk much world-wide disapproval and even condemnation if they decided to invade the islands once again. Who knows if Argentina may ask directly for aid from the U.S.? At least, Argentina could ask for and form a Latin American alliance against what they term "the foreign invaders", then Britain would be risking total war against countries such as Venezuela, Peru, and Brazil merely to keep the Falklands British.

The preceding sentence begs the question: how worthwhile is it to keep sovereignty over the Falkland Islands? How many actual British citizens reside on the islands? How much of a valuable resource are the islands to the British people? These and similar questions would probably, in these days of stringent economy, be researched and answered before the British decided to spend the millions of pounds it would cost to steam across the Atlantic with a flotilla of ships in the quest to maintain the islands as a British possession. Yes, Britain may still have the modern navy and landing forces necessary to keep control of the islands (subject to defence spending cuts of course; nothing can be guaranteed these days), but would the people and the economy support such an expedition? And would today's British political leaders, who between them have little or no military experience whatsoever, have the stomach for a fight?

In all, the world has largely moved beyond notions such as "manifest destiny" and the like. The British Empire during the 19th century was huge and unwieldy, like a house of cards built beyond what the laws of physics and gravity can support. Just like a toppling house of cards, the British Empire lost the "cards" in its house as each fell to the will of the native people. The United States, India, Indo-China, and areas of the Africa and the Middle East all have mostly moved away from their ties to the old imperialist Britain. Would the Falkland Islands eventually do the same? Then again; what would the political consequences be for a government that surrendered a colony which had been defended in the past at the cost of so many brave men's lives?

Time will tell. However, one thing we can be sure of: this question is not likely to go away soon. And a Britain which is content to allow it's defence forces to be thrown onto the scrapheap whilst vast sums of money are squandered on politically correct projects that are actually against the country's interests will have only itself to blame if the Argentine flag once more flies over the Falkland Islands.