OPERATION CORPORATE charts the military ins and outs of the Falklands skirmish from the British perspective. It is a handsomely researched and well written book which besides offering a detailed guide to plans and battles, provides a damning testament to the futility of war -- not that the author indicates at all positively that this is his intention.
Martin Middlebrook is a military historian who has been afforded considerable access to many of the participants in "Operation Corporate," the code-name given to the British plan to retake the Falklands after the Argentinians had invaded the islands in April 1982. Middlebrook excuses his lack of an Argentine perspective, stating that his attempts to get a visa to travel to Argentina failed.
A clutch of other books on the Falklands appeared soon after the conflict and it is tempting to ask whether there are grounds for another. Operation Corporate can claim to be the most comprehensive attempt to describe the military processes by which the islands were retaken. Middlebrook quotes eye-witness accounts of many of the most crucial incidents. In doing so he provides the most vivid insight yet into the bunglings and failures that contributed to what history already regards as a successful military operation.
Middlebrook devotes only a chapter to the issues and causes of the war and those in search of lessons that might avoid the shedding of blood to resolve diplomatic crises will be disappointed. He quotes a Brazilian who cannot understand two major nations fighting over the Falklands "like two bald men fighting over a comb." By the end of the book, furnished with the names and dispositions of the ships, planes, and people who fought, the Brazilian can be forgiven for asking the question again. For though this book abounds in detail and atmosphere, there is little attempt to evaluate whether it was all worth it. Billions of dollars, more than a thousand lives, and many permanent disfigurements end up in a virtual wasteland populated by 1,800 islanders and a garrison of 4,000 troops who to this day have an abidingly low opinion of the population their colleagues came to rescue.
Much of the effect of the Falklands was centered most keenly upon the countries from which the warring parties came. Argentina was to see an end to military dictatorship. Britain was to see a prime minister, unpopular before the conflict, restored to good favor and postwar electoral victory. The author at times displays some of the fervor that fueled the remarkable sailing of the "armada" on its 8,000-mile dash in the aftermath of the Argentine invasion of the islands:
"So the young men of Britain went off by sea to war, following in the footsteps of so many earlier expeditionary forces -- three times to France in two world wars and to such distant places as Gallipoli, Korea and Suez." I WAS WATCHING events from southern Chile at the time. To anyone who like me was not in Britain, this book describes vividly how the momentum of military endeavor, once launched, rarely waits for diplomatic alternatives. Once launched there was never to be a turning back for "Operation Corporate." Though history reminds us that there were sincere peace efforts underway involving Peruvian mediation, "Operation Corporate" took little note of them.
Even getting to war costs casualties; a helicopter moving stores from one ship to another crashes in the Atlantic, a crewman drowns. The first attempt at repossession of South Georgia fails among overloaded choppers that subsequently crash on the ice. Eventual victory provides the first and vital morale boost to moving on to attempt the Falklands themselves. All this the author retells with excitement and in detail.
Middlebrook defends the controversial decision to sink the aging Belgrano battleship as she was steaming away from hostilities and it is only here that he devotes a four-line reference to the peace negotiations that the Belgrano action scuttled. With more deaths to follow in the sinking of the first British ship, the Sheffield, grudging tribute is paid to the skill of the Argentine pilots, but little to the mounting death toll, by now already into the hundreds.
"Operation Corporate" is described as a uniquely British affair. Little reference is made to the massive American provision of fuel, missiles, logistical and intelligence support without which the endeavor would almost certainly have fallen apart.
The deeds of great heroism and fine tactics that etch warfare into our history books as a permissible means by which civilization resolves its differences are excellently described throughout the book. One trooper, John Sephton is described "last seen firing straight up into the air at the plane whose bomb killed him." Another unnamed man is blinded, another loses a foot to gunshot, a knee later to gangrene. It is all in a war-day's work. These are the scenes that were largely hidden from the outside world during the fighting, for censorship was heavy, the delay in the filing of reports was often long. Had the contents of Middlebrook's book been freely available to the waiting people back home at the time in which the events occurred one wonders whether the appetite for further fighting would have remained undiminished.
The British public's lust for peace, once "Operation Corporate" was under way, was not strong. The whole story is left as one which in the late 20th century suggests that military force can resolve differences. What the Gulf of Sidra and military action against Libya will teach an American public, we shall have to wait to learn.