Three Lessons for the U.S. Military from the Falklands War


W.J. Astore

In 1992 I had the pleasure of meeting Major General Julian Thompson at a colloquium at Oxford.  It was ten years after the Falklands War in 1982, and Thompson shared some of the lessons he had gleaned from fighting that war.  The inherent unpredictability of war was one such lesson.  Four months before Argentina seized the Falklands, Britain’s First Sea Lord remarked to then Brigadier General Julian Thompson that the capability to launch amphibious assaults against hostile shores was no longer needed.  Half a year later, Thompson, Commander of the 3 Commando Brigade, Royal Marines, found himself leading just such an amphibious assault halfway around the world from Great Britain.

Thompson’s job was to get the landing right the first time.  There would be no second chance; no Normandy triumph to follow the Dieppe disaster.  There were two reasons for this.  The first was halfhearted support in Britain for the war.  Most Britons thought little and cared even less about a few hundred sheep herders on the far side of the world.  The second was Britain’s lack of military resources.  As an exercise in power projection, the Falklands were at the extreme edge of British military capabilities.  It had to go right the first time because Britain had nothing left in the locker with which to recover from a major setback.

Getting it right put an enormous strain on everyone.  Despite tension and worries, Thompson knew he had to project calmness and confidence, a hearty sangfroid captured in a remark made to him by a Welsh staff officer that “You are meant to enjoy this [war], brigadier.”

“Enjoying” this splendid little war called for a particular approach to leadership, in this case agonistic.  The lack of an overriding cause put a premium on the Royal Marines’ culture of competence.  Queen and Country were not in immediate danger at the Falklands.  This was not another Battle of Britain but a war of choice, a fact that elevated the critical importance of bonding within the unit, of unit camaraderie and morale.  And morale drew sustenance from the unit’s faith in its leaders, training, and equipment.

Agonistic leaders and spirited troops gave Britain the edge in the decidedly low-tech, gutter fighting on the islands.  Leaders sought to tap Britain’s imperial heritage, summoning memories of thin red lines that had prevailed against long odds a century ago along the periphery of the empire.

The Argentines, in contrast, lacked the élan and spirit of the British.  Argentine privates were mostly poorly trained conscripts.  Strict class barriers between officers and enlisted served to degrade morale.  Experienced non-commissioned officers (NCOs), the backbone of any military unit, were rare birds in the Argentine forces compared to their hardened counterparts in Britain’s Royal Marines.

But the fatal weakness of the Argentine military was the lack of synergy among the Argentine combat branches.  It was as if the Argentine army, navy, and air force each fought its own war against the British.  Cohesive and coherent leadership was missing-in-action at the highest levels of the Argentine government.  Contrast this with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s unwavering determination to win the Falklands back for Britain, backed up by an integrated vision shared among Britain’s armed services.

Good leaders know their enemy and the terrain, but both were at first largely unknown to the British.  Thompson improvised.  He sent his G-3 (operations officer) to the local library in Plymouth to gather information on Argentine forces (Jane’s defense publications proved useful in a crunch).  Knowledge of island topography was sketchy; the last complete survey of the Falkland Islands dated from 1836.

In this uncertain environment, what proved decisive was small-group cohesion forged within the British Regimental System, a system that produced troops who were both keen to fight and adaptable to uncertain conditions.  Even so, modern troops within democratic settings need to know – at some essential level – both what is going on as well as their part in the plan.  Agonistic warriors are self-actualizing individuals, not unthinking cogs in a machine.  They fight best when they know what their bit is.

The British leaders succeeded in motivating their troops – in explaining what the war was all about.  That said, it is rarely easy contemplating going to war.  Written into a soldier’s contract is a calculated willingness to die.  Commanders, Thompson noted, have a limited license to expend human life to get a tough job done.  Aim for too low a price and failure and wasted men could be the result.  Too high a price may lead to failure and disaster.  The power over life-and-death is an enormous burden on commanders, one made heavier by the intense stresses and hazards of combat.

Many of Thompson’s observations about combat in the Falklands will be familiar to commanders in all wars.  Friction was one: Everything took longer than expected.  Rain, cold, and fatigue were aggravated by incomplete or faulty intelligence.

Luck played its part as well.  Prior to the war, Britain’s 3 Commando Brigade had just completed arctic training in Norway, hence they were well prepared for the atrocious weather and cold temperatures of the Falklands.  Bad weather kept a dangerous Argentine Air Force from attacking the amphibious landing.  And bad luck could turn to good: A security leak in Whitehall alerted the Argentines to the timing of the British landing, but the leak was so gratuitous that the Argentines judged it to be a ruse and dismissed it.

Overall, the Falklands operation might be described as an Iraq-lite.  It was a power projection operation, limited in scope, and limited as well in public and political support.  And the British got it right the first time.  They pulled off a win at long odds.

Are there lessons to be learned here for the U.S. military?  At least three.  The first is that humility is more becoming than hubris, especially in war.  The British military didn’t boast much after the Falklands.  Yet after two long and costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, both stalemates, America’s leaders continue to boast that the U.S. has, in the words of President Obama in August 2013, “the best-led, best-trained, best-equipped military in human history.”

A second lesson is the importance of inculcating a culture of competence and agonistic leadership at senior levels.  U.S. military and civilian leaders need to do a better job of explaining why we fight to American troops.  And if that is too tall of an order, these same leaders ought to recognize that a war that cannot be explained is one that should not be fought.

Finally, the entire Falklands campaign illustrates the inherent unpredictability of war.  But clarity was provided by a clear and achievable goal: evicting Argentine forces from the islands.  Clear national objectives are everything in war; that, and sound leadership of skilled troops.  America’s recent extended wars, by way of contrast, have largely lacked clear or achievable objectives.

Clearly “no picnic,” as Thompson’s book on the campaign is titled, the Falklands still have much to teach us about military accountability and war.