"Soldier Girls," the documentary about female army recruits, has nothing to do with the Falklands. It's all about the character building, the ego assaults, the madness and the exhilaration of boot camp.
Yet, there is one little scene that made me think instantly of the struggle over those pitiful, underpeopled islands. The training officer is telling his charges what they should do in case of nuclear attack: fall face down in the direction opposite the blast; shield your face, and close your legs to "protect future generations."
One recruit questions the value of the exercise. "I mean, if one goes off-- I've heard the way it works--if it goes off it's a chain reaction. I mean, if anything's on the land, it's all going to be wiped out anyway. I'm not looking forward to dying."
"I think you've got the wrong impression here," the lieutenant explains. "It is true that a nuclear war could escalate, but that's not automatic. . . . In fact, you would suspect that the people in charge, having a little bit of intelligence, would try to stop before they got to that period."
You'd think so. Unfortunately, the case of the Falklands suggests that the recruit may be closer to reality than the training officer. I'm willing to postulate a little bit of intelligence on the part of both the Argentines and the British. And yet the tragic lesson of the Falklands is that intelligence has very little to do with anything, at least where national pride and principle are concerned.
A little bit of intelligence would have told the Argentines that they were buying themselves a bushel of unnecessary trouble when they moved to take by force what they might easily have won through negotiations. A little bit of intelligence would have told the British that a military response, at the distances involved, would be questionable enough even if vital British interests were at stake and absolutely mad in the case of a few small islands whose main resources are sheep and seaweed.
Even if the British, with their vastly outnumbered forces, succeed in retaking the islands, how could they hope to secure them? A little bit of intelligence would tell them that, when Her Majesty's navy finally weighs anchor and returns home, the Argentines could move in again.
Both the British and the Argentinians seem to accept the fact that the islands will end up in Argentine control. The issue seems to be whether the Argentines will get credit for taking them by force or whether the British will get credit for the statesmanship of negotiating them away. In other words, it is not a question of intelligence, or even sovereignty, but of principle.
Were it not for principle, which on occasion may be defined as the justification for doing things that, under other circumstances, would be patently stupid, would either side consider the Falklands worth the loss of life and materiel already incurred?
As a matter of fact, it seems reasonably clear that both sides would have preferred to avoid a shooting war, and that both would welcome a principled way out of the fighting now. If neither side really wants to fight, it might seem obvious that it would take only "a little bit of intelligence" to negotiate an end to the bloodshed.
But wanting to quit is not the same thing as being free to quit--and not just in war. Roberto Duran must be wishing right now that he had chosen to risk permanent injury in an obviously losing cause against Ray Leonard. He is in athletic disgrace because he did the intelligent thing: said "No mas" and quit.
No matter the cost, Leopoldo Galtieri cannot say "No mas," and neither can Margaret Thatcher. Some intelligence!
What has any of this to do with the recruit's view or belief that limited nuclear war is an unreassuring fiction? Just this: the lieutenant's optimism is based on his assumption that "the people in charge, having a little bit of intelligence," will not succumb to the nuclear madness that could destroy humanity.
The recruit understands, viscerally, at least, that intelligence has nothing to do with it. Atomic power ended one war because only one side had the bomb. That is no longer the case, and the young recruit isn't the only one who fears that the next nuclear detonation is less likely to mean the end of a war than the end of civilization.