I remember the 1982 Falklands War as being the first war that took place on television. This is not some facetious, disrespectful comment. I just remember sitting there each night transfixed as the BBC presented edited highlights of a proper war, where planes were shot down, ships sunk and soldiers killed on the battlefield. To this day, 35 years on, I remain fascinated by this war. I bought every book I could on the subject and the fascination never left me.
True confession time: I had no idea where the Falkland Islands were. I knew they were a long way from Britain because some years before Brunel’s ship the SS Great Britain had been brought back to Bristol where she is today. When news came that the fascist junta of Argentina was sabre-rattling and laying claim to the islands, I did wonder why they would be so interested in islands that might well be located somewhere off the Scottish coast. I am not joking about my ignorance and I know also that I was not the only one. And then came the invasion and the decision of Margaret Thatcher’s government to reclaim the islands.
Although my geographical knowledge was somewhat limited, my knowledge of politics was anything but. At a very early stage, I realised that Britain had lost the islands and it was Thatcher who was more than slightly responsible. It was her government that had slashed the Royal Navy to the bone and it was her government that withdrew from service HMS Endurance, the British patrol vessel, giving huge encouragement to the Argentines who concluded we no longer cared about the islands and they could capture the islands without us putting up a fight. So they did invade, Thatcher sent a task force which was augmented by merchant ships and our armed forces, in the depths of Southern Atlantic winter, recaptured the Falklands. Thatcher, rather than being hauled up for being asleep at the wheel, gained enormous strength and huge popularity which saw her win two more general elections. But many of our heroes who fought the war were quietly forgotten. Tonight, BBC’s Pamorama programme reminded us.
A group of Welsh Guard veterans returned to the Falklands to retrace their steps and gain some kind of closure for their traumatic experiences. The Welsh Guards, lest we forget, suffered terrible losses when their landing craft the Sir Galahad was bombed at sea, killing and permanently scarring many good men. These men had plainly suffered all that time with various stress disorders. This was their chance, as one of the men called it, “to get the monkey off my back”.
The programme was a hard watch, with real pictures of war combined with brilliant, albeit occasionally, gruesome, animation. The gruesome bits were justified because, even by animation, the full horrors of war were ruthlessly exposed. I sat riveted, barely able to blink. The memories came flooding back to me but I knew that later I would sleep without nightmares. It would not be the same for these men.
My question is why are these men still suffering after 35 years? To be fair, the programme did not refer to any counselling or therapy these men might have had, but why were they still so traumatised? I can understand that the memories of losing comrades on the battlefield must be terrible, as must be the thought of killing soldiers who just happened to be fighting under a different flag. Some of these men did not appear to be well-off either and they were certainly not looking after each other health wise.
Why is that that our armed forces appear to be abandoned when they leave the services? Perhaps things are better nowadays, but I find it distressing that so many ex servicemen rely on charity through the excellent Royal British Legion, Help for Heroes and so on. Because, remember, charity exists in order to pay for the things we as a society deem not worthy of paying for collectively through our taxes. Hundreds of men died in the Falklands, goodness knows how many more were injured physically and mentally. I was shocked and upset that these men appeared to have been left to fend for themselves.
These men were heroes, every single one. They fought for this country, as have men and women have fought throughout the ages, often making the ultimate sacrifice. Is it right that for those who are fortunate to come home that we make them hand out the equivalent of the begging bowl?
One of the Welsh Guards summed it up beautifully near the end. “Freedom isn’t free. Someone somewhere is paying for it.” And that’s true, isn’t it? It took 35 years before these men could tell their stories which, by my reckoning, is 35 years too long. This was a story about heroes who fought on the battlefield and then spent the next 35 years just trying to get by. We paid tribute to their bravery and heroism and then let them down by forgetting all about them.
The ending seemed to be happy in that they appeared to have laid their ghosts to rest. I hope at the same time they gain some deserved peace in their lives, the people who run the country have learned to treat the current members of the armed services a bit better.