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[casi] The Belgrano precedent: war in the service of politics?

An interesting bit of history here from Paul Rogers (from University of
Bradford's Peace Studies Department). His statement that 'there is abundant
evidence that the US is, frankly, not interested in a non-military solution'
is, of course, correct but, for reasons that have been discussed on this
list before it seems extremely doubtful that the US' 'concern is with the
Iraqi development of weapons of mass destruction.'

Best wishes,


02 May 2002

The Belgrano precedent: war in the service of politics?
Paul Rogers

Twenty years on, the first major incident of the Falklands/Malvinas war
between Britain and Argentina still haunts both nations. What really
happened and why is it relevant to the United States and Iraq?


Twenty years ago, on 2 May 1982, the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano was
sunk in a torpedo attack by the British submarine HMS Conqueror with the
loss of three hundred and sixty-eight lives. It was an action that was
controversial then and remains so to this day. In this attack, and the war
that followed, over one thousand Argentine and British lives were lost. Now,
the Falkland Islands has ended up as a veritable fortress that has cost
billions of pounds to establish and maintain. To this day, Britain maintains
a considerable garrison to protect less than two thousand islanders, and a
long-term diplomatic settlement seems years away.

One month before the Belgrano sinking, the Argentine armed forces had
invaded and occupied the Falklands (known to Argentinians as the Malvinas),
and Britain had responded by sending a substantial task force to re-take the
islands. During that month, a hectic round of shuttle diplomacy was
undertaken by the US Secretary of State, Al Haig, but this ended in failure.
On 30 April, the United States gave its support for Britain, just as the
task force was approaching the islands. Haig’s mantle was taken up by the UN
Secretariat and the Peruvian government, and a further bout of peace-making
was attempted.

At that juncture, the Thatcher Government had the support of the United
States and the EEC as well as a number of other states. It was in a position
to organise harsh sanctions on Argentina, already in a weakened economic
state and run by a military junta that had used the invasion to counter its
own domestic unpopularity.

Negotiations could then have followed, leading in all probability to a
leaseback arrangement providing an environment for the economic development
of the Falklands/Malvinas and surrounding marine resources. Perhaps most
important of all, a potentially costly war could have been avoided.

Instead, the Thatcher government was to embark almost immediately on a war
that cost some four hundred Argentine lives within two days, with the first
British deaths from Argentine action following shortly afterwards with the
attack on HMS Sheffield.

The sinking: military or political decision?

There were two separate controversies surrounding the sinking of the
Belgrano. One was whether it had been done after the UK government had been
informed of a crucial new peace attempt being brokered by Peru, and the
other was whether the Belgrano itself was really a direct threat to the task

On the first issue, a long-time critic of British conduct in the South
Atlantic, the Labour MP Tam Dalyell, has persistently said that he was told
by a senior Conservative that the Prime Minister was aware of the new
Peruvian peace initiative and had given the order to sink the Belgrano in
spite of this knowledge.

This was in the context of a government that had become deeply unpopular at
home and was faced with an international crisis that could easily have
caused intense criticism had it focused on the failure to anticipate
Argentine military action. Moreover, opinion polls showed strong support for
a diplomatic solution and considerable concern over the risk of a war.
Opinion only swung behind the government after Sheffield was sunk two days
after the Belgrano attack.

The government response to Tam Dalyell was to insist that details of the
Peruvian plan had only come several hours after the order to sink the
Belgrano had been given. Furthermore, the cruiser was sailing towards the
task force, was a formidable fighting ship equipped with Exocet anti-ship
missiles, was a direct threat that had to be countered and that orders to
attack it were given almost immediately after it had been detected by

As a result of persistent questioning by Tam Dalyell and others, a very
different picture eventually emerged. The Belgrano was actually a forty-two
year old ship that had survived Pearl Habour in its original designation as
the American heavy cruiser the USS Phoenix. It did not carry Exocet missiles
and was due to be taken out of service and turned into a floating museum. It
was sailing away from the Task Force, not towards it and, most significant
of all, had been tracked by the submarine Conqueror for some thirty hours
before the order to sink it was given.

Almost the only modern equipment on board the Belgrano was a long-range
search radar built in Holland, and the ship was patrolling south-west of the
Falklands to give early warning of a possible involvement in the war by
Chile, or the movement of British ships towards mainland Argentine bases.

In spite of all of the complications, the Thatcher government continued to
insist that war was inevitable and that the cruiser had to be sunk. In the
years that followed, the controversy simmered on, flaring up during the 1983
general election when Mrs Thatcher was unexpectedly unnerved by televised
questioning of her by a guest on the Nationwide programme, Diana Gould from

A year later, a senior Ministry of Defence civil servant, Clive Ponting, was
arrested and charged with communicating classified information to Tam
Dalyell. This concerned an attempt to mislead a Select Committee over the
circumstances of the Belgrano attack. Ponting was tried the next year at the
Old Bailey and acquitted in a landmark case.

Dalyell himself faced persistent difficulties in trying to get the issues
raised in parliament, including filibustering by Conservative MPs to
constrain his planned contributions. All of these aspects suggested to
sceptics that there was something to hide.

Before and after the sinking

In attempting to throw light on the circumstances of the sinking, two issues
concerning British military actions, and the orders behind them, are
relevant. Neither received much attention at the time, and one has scarcely
entered the public domain until now.

The first concerns British military action that actually preceded the attack
on the Belgrano. Thirty-six hours earlier, and almost immediately after the
Haig mission ended, an RAF Vulcan bomber, operating from Wideawake Airfield
on Ascencion Island, bombed the Stanley airfield on the Falklands, with the
stated aim of destroying the runway, using the minimum of force necessary.

A few hours later, the Stanley base was attacked by Sea Harriers and by
gunfire from two frigates and a destroyer. Whatever the stated purpose, this
went far wider than attacking the runway. Among the ordnance used by the Sea
Harriers were BL755 cluster bombs, each dispersing around three hundred
thousand high-velocity shrapnel fragments over an area of more than an acre
and having a devastating effect on people.

In their artillery bombardment, the three warships used their 4.5 inch
radar-controlled guns to deliver a pattern of shells at a collective firing
rate of one per second. The shells were fused for air-burst, not
ground-burst, being intended to destroy soft targets rather than damage the
runway. The Argentines admitted to fifty-six casualties, including nineteen

The second factor concerns the movements of the British submarine Conqueror
after it had sunk the Belgrano. Immediately after the attack, it was not
known whether the cruiser had been sunk or just damaged. Indeed the famous
“Gotcha” headline (in the British tabloid the Sun) referred to the cruiser
being crippled, not sunk.

Some twenty-four hours after the Belgrano had been attacked, Conqueror
returned to the scene ready to take further action, possibly against the two
destroyers that had been accompanying the cruiser. Only after the submarine
had determined that the only ships in the area were a hospital ship and one
of the destroyers searching for survivors, was the attack order withdrawn.

This information came into the public domain through the inadvertent
circulation of parts of a diary written by one of the officers on the
Conqueror. While the diary was subsequently classified by the Ministry of
Defence, copies of it apparently remain in circulation.

The significance of the Conqueror’s actions is that it establishes that the
British government was intent on further substantial military action after,
on its own admittance, it knew of the Peruvian peace initiative.

In short, the nature of the military action before and after the Belgrano
sinking indicates strongly that the Thatcher government was single-minded in
its commitment to a military solution to the crisis. It succeeded, albeit at
great cost, both then and since, not least because of the commitment of the
service-people involved. The victory went on to serve the domestic purpose
of greatly increasing the government’s popularity, leading to a landslide
victory at the general election a year later.

No alternative?

Twenty years later there is a striking relevance to current events. Although
there appear to be few if any connections between the Iraqi regime and the
attacks of 11 September, it is clear that the Bush administration is gearing
up for a full-scale war with Iraq in order to terminate the Saddam Hussein
regime. An invasion that might involve as many as two hundred and fifty
thousand troops is thought possible next winter and there is abundant
evidence that the US is, frankly, not interested in a non-military solution.

Its concern is with the Iraqi development of weapons of mass destruction and
there appears to be no willingness to consider anything other than engaging
in a potentially dangerous conflict. War with Iraq could see the deaths of
many thousands of people but, as with the Falklands, it would seem that
“there is no alternative”.

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