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.

29 thoughts on “Three Lessons for the U.S. Military from the Falklands War

  1. So are we to learn from this along with the British that if we pick a weak country to attack we can always succeed? Sounds to me like a bully’s bible. I would take no comfort from this. And anyway the Falklands belong to the Argentinians.

    • Argentina didn’t exist when the British first laid claim to the Falklands. Argentina was a brutal dictatorship at the time that though nothing of throwing their own citizens out of helicopters into the river plate. Argentina were the bully and they got slapped down hard. Now as then the Argentine government use the Falklands card to draw attention away from the more serious issues is people are suffering at home.

    • ignorant….and no they don’t as the union jack as flies there, also the 5th-6th generation of the English speaking inhabitants want to remain a crown colony. The right to self determination is within the UN charter. You also need to look up what the word bully means, very different to defending sovereign territory. the US could never be called bullies for retaliating against the Japanese at pearl harbour could they?

  2. Should the people on the Falklands have a say? Because they prefer British rule. Should the Falklands/Malvinas go to Argentina simply because the latter country is geographically closer? Also, the odd thing is that the U.S. has attacked two weak countries, Iraq and Afghanistan. And we haven’t succeeded. Why? Read the article. Lack of clear and achievable objectives, mediocre leadership (especially at the top), and hubris.

    • A little “rumba number”. “Should the people of the Falklands have a say?” Certainly no more than the German’s who occupied the English Channel islands during WW II. The islands reverted to England after the war because they were closer to England than to Germany and had the history. How far are the Falklands from England? I would guess about 7000+ miles. How far from Argentina, you guess. On the way to the Antarctic I stopped off once at the Falklands and found just ex pat English waving the flag of British imperialism and extensive peat bogs. I did get some very nice “first day cover” postage stamps, in english, to give to my brother who was a stamp collector.
      We agree on the senselessness of our wars but that does not justify the equally senseless British sinking of an Argentinian battleship with the loss of close to 300 lives and a war of choice and ego that took other lives. The Falklands are just another part of the fading legacy of British imperialism and were started,like our recent wars, by a bully against a weak country.

      • First of all, I collect stamps, so send some my way! But, seriously, it was Argentina that invaded the Falklands, largely to rally domestic support behind an unpopular government. The Argentine leaders were flexing their own muscles, hoping the British would accept the takeover as an accomplished fact. The British chose not to, for good reason. Call it Real Politik, call on the ghost of Machiavelli, but power and image and all the rest are very important still in world affairs. Do you think a macho Latin culture would respect Britain at all if the Britons just meekly surrendered the Falklands to an invading force? Sometimes a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.

      • I would say the Argentines all come from the same distance as the Falklanders, they are about 60% new Italian immigration and 40% Spanish who conquered the place by the sword and by the cross. These Europeans chose to break with their King, surely being a European renegade shouldn’t give them more rights than the hard working un-corrupt, loyal Falklanders. They are British and they should have the same protection as London itself. There were 60 marines and good relations with Argentina when she treacherously invaded with thousands of troops only to mask her internal problems. Would a country put thousands of kids in harms way if a case before the International Court of Justice could do the trick? Argentina doesn’t have a case. Today she can only paint her buses and goes round the world in an arm twisting exercise to get “suporters”. A gang doesn’t confer rights. Argentina also only remembers the Falklands when it has terrible internal problems the likes of which you and I wouldn’t like our government to have. The Falklanders are British and they bite, Argentina can’t decimate them with hunger or shoot them as she still does with the real owners of that land the South Americans who are native to that territory against UN resolutions. When Argentina was the eighth richest nation on the planet, the Falklands weren’t even on her maps and she recognised them as not being her territory. The Belgrano had to be sunk it was participating in the export of fascist terror.

      • The Falklands have been a British territory since 1765, and have been permanently settled by people who consider themselves British since 1833. By contrast, Argentina only declared independence from Spain in 1816, and were only recognised diplomatically since 1857. No Argentines have ever lived on the Falklands. As for sinking the Belgrano, it was a major combat asset, and could well have returned to the fray.

        How you can suggest that the Falklands war was started by the British, rather than by Argentina, completely escapes me, and your comparison to the Nazi invasion of the Channel Islands (who aren’t English by the way, though the fact you don’t know that maybe hints at an explanation for some of your other comments) is frankly rather insulting. I assume since you’re so fond of geographical proximity as an arbiter of sovereignty, that you’ll be supporting any efforts to return Alaska to the Canadians.

      • the people who live there arent imperialists, regardless of nationality, race, heritage etc they are just people doing there best to live off the land. I think they have the right to govern themselves and self determination. the Argentines have much less of an argument to claim the Falklnds than native americans do to the united states or Canada

      • The sinking of the Belgrano would be justified because it was an armed enemy naval ship in a time of war. Oh, and it happened to be executing half of a pincer movement to attack the task force. And the captain of the ship itself is clear that it was legitimate target. And it achieved an important military goal. But apart from that…

      • Clearly you don’t have much idea about history let alone how it relates to geography. The Channel Islands are not part of the UK, they are effectively independent states that share a queen and through that connection have the protection of the UK.

        The UK or England as you sloppily refer to it never invaded the Channel Islands, they are not a colony and never have been, the people remain independent and prefer the relationship with the UK to any with, say, France which is closer but which has a recent history of conquering smaller kingdoms to make a ‘greater France’. If you doubt me refer to historical records and ask the people of Brittany, Aquitaine, Burgundy etc.

        Just like the Falklands really. The people who live there whilst willing to be friendly toward Argentina have plenty of evidence over more than a century to suggest that their closest neighbour is unstable and unreliable and unsuitable as a ‘marriage’ partner!

  3. A very interesting article and some equally interesting comments to follow it. As a Brit who remembers the Falklands war very well, I though I would provide my recollections.

    I would not agree that “Most Britons thought little and cared even less about a few hundred sheep herders on the far side of the world”. I recall a widespread sense of anger at the Argentine action which was mirrored in British media coverage of the time.

    There were miscalculations on both sides; the Argentine junta believed that Britain would not be that bothered about losing the islands (seeing the withdrawal of a patrol ship as being an indication of waning interest) and the British government did not see domestic Argentine travails as a possible catalyst to an invasion.

    I would agree that “The British military didn’t boast much after the Falklands”, but the British government certainly did. Just as the military junta in Buenos Aires had domestic problems it hoped to overcome by winning the Falklands, Thatcher’s conservatives were in huge trouble in London. The military campaign forced a resurgent Labour into supporting the government action (and diverted their efforts from political attack) and victory brought with it a huge surge in personal popularity for Thatcher and a reversal in political fortunes.

    Finally, you will be unsurprised to hear a Brit say that the Falklands do not belong to Argentina. The contentious word here is “belong”, because as long as the islanders continue to prefer a British passport to an Argentine passport, the status quo will probably remain. Self-determination (as enshrined by fundamental principles underpinning the UN) is the line put out by the present administration and the islanders have so far made it clear that they wish to be a British Overseas Territory.

    Of all the nations to have ever held a claim over the islands, Argentina’s is the most tenuous. The French were the first to land there, so perhaps the dispute should be with them. Britain held the Falklands before Argentina existed (Argentina “inherited” Spain’s claim to the islands upon winning independence.)

    Few in the Americas seems to see the irony of Argentina’s claim over a fairly inhospitable rock, which has been eloquently, vociferously and persistently made… in spanish. One wonders what the indigenous peoples in Argentina feel about spanish descendants protesting about stolen lands. This marginalised and shrinking group, is unlikely to have much to say in favour of colonial descendants (just ask their soul mates, the native americans).

      • The patagonian shelves is where the island is located and has a limit, it cant go beyound that thats is why none can say that geograpically the island belong to uk or any other nation, otherwise it would belong to anybody, but is not, cause the island is not on the brit platfirm or any other foreign platform. Second before 1833 eviction, we were giberncion de buenos aires , the main center where all the stuff were managed by spain, when argentina becAme a confederation in 1810 we inherited the island automatically by succesion, it means by territorial succesion supported by the utis poseidettis of the time , that said any states when break freed from the metropolitan power , this state will adquire the power obligation. Wew lived in the island from 1820( jewet formalally raised the flag), and usa and brits were there , to 1833, eviction time, so 13 years , spain were around36 years till 1811, brits 8 , so uk time prescribed under the international law of very small a,ount of time by being in the island, from the masserano treaty in 1771 where it said that brits recognised the island under spain control passed 59 years of britis absence

  4. Not sure what the relevance of the patagonian shelves is. If tectonic plates determined nationality, we would have a whole lot of map redrawing to do. For example, as Ireland is (geographically) part of the British Isles, this would stir up plenty of trouble which none of us need.
    Secondly, as Argentina is an example of a nation built upon a colonial enterprise, it weakens any argument that the Falklands should be hers. I am guessing that there are not too many people in Argentina suggesting that the country be given back to the people who were subjugated by the Spanish?

    • For the USA it is even worse, what is she doing in California, New Mexico etc etc. If the Falklands should “go back” shouldn’t all those lands stolen from the Mexicans by aggresion also go back to Mexico? The difference is that the Falklands never were Argentine, when they sent soldiers to the Falklands in 1829 they caused chaos with all that operated there, the USA were the first be fed up with the Argentines, USA shelled them and arrested them all as pirates and took them away. Behind came the British who were recognised internationally as the administrating power, they had stopped Napoleon from getting them, and they told a small group of new Argentine soldiers to go away and they did just that without a fight.. why would they do that if they had “inalianable and uncontestable” rights? Why doesn’t Argentina take a case before the International Court of Justice.. because it doesn’t have a case and in 1850 by treaty it recognised the UK rights with the rest of the international community.

  5. Funny how London is entrenched in the Falklands while at the same time abandoned their own Anglo kin in Zimbabwe. Perhaps they are afraid of Mugabe. South Africa is also becoming less Anglo. Reminds me of Churchill saying that India is British, it was until 1947. Just as Palestine was British until 1947. Myanmar was British until 1948, Egypt was British until 1952. I see a pattern here. It is strange that Buenos Aires was the administrative seat in charge of Equatorial Guinea that is quite far away from South America but the British pretend us to believe that Buenos Aires could never have been in charge of a closer territory.

  6. Falklands can’t really be compared to either Iraq or Afghanistan from either a military or a political standpoint. Iraq and Afghanistan were essentially glorified police actions and Falklands was an intense, 100% conventional albeit short war between two nation states that brought relatively high casualties on both sides.

    255 British troops died in the Falklands and over 700 were wounded along with over 1,000 Argentine casualties – in just 2 *months*. Compare that to 456 deaths in Afghanistan over the course of 13 *years*.

    The real lessons to be learned is how the US/allies would deal with a conventional confrontation with Russia or especially China in the South China Sea/Pacific, which is steadily becoming a less likely scenario as time goes on. Except it would be worse. Korean War-level casualties in the space of 6 months or less. Casualties the American public wouldn’t be able to stomach and would make the height of Iraq look like glory days in comparison.

  7. One of the most important yet unheralded lessons that should be learned from the Falkland Islands war is this: don’t issue bad boots to your combat forces. Many of the Royal Marines wore ski march boots which they were issued for Arctic and mountain warfare and which were adequate for conditions. Many other Royal Marines, along with their comrades in the Army, wore the issued DMS boots with wool half putters. These boots were wholly inadequate with the ankle height and unattached tongue allowing water to get in while the vulcanised rubber sole didn’t let water out. After the Battle of Goose Green and Wireless Ridge, British Paras were stripping the Argentinian dead of their boots (which were excellent quality). By the time they reached Stanley many Paras had trench foot, a condition virtually unknown since WW1. Had the campaign lasted into the southern winter the casualty rates due to poor boots and sodden feet may have caused the campaign to be lost. Never skimp on the items an infantry man needs and appreciates most of all: boots, bullets and bully beef (food).

  8. One of the most important yet unheralded lessons that should be learned from the Falkland Islands war is this: don’t issue bad boots to your combat forces. Many of the Royal Marines wore ski march boots which they were issued for Arctic and mountain warfare and which were adequate for conditions. Many other Royal Marines however, along with their comrades in the Army, wore the issued DMS boots with wool half puttees. These boots were wholly inadequate with the ankle height and unattached tongue allowing water to get in while the vulcanised rubber sole didn’t let water out. After the Battle of Goose Green and Wireless Ridge, British Paras were stripping the Argentinian dead of their boots (which were excellent quality). By the time they reached Stanley many Paras had trench foot, a condition virtually unknown since WW1. Had the campaign lasted into the southern winter the casualty rates due to poor boots and sodden feet may have caused the campaign to be lost. Never skimp on the items an infantry man needs and appreciates most of all: boots, bullets and bully beef (food).

  9. All interesting arguments but until the UK gets rid of this appalling concept of an Overseas Territory this conflict will persist. The Falklands and all Overseas Territories must become part of the UK or go independent. You just cannot have these different ‘castes’ of so called British Citizen. It is apartheid pure and simple. A UK citizen can die for these left over remnants of a bygone empire but cannot live there. Disgusting. The French have it better and there seems less trouble as they are represented in the National Assembly in Paris. If the Falklands are British…why are they represented by the Foreign Office and not the Home Office?

  10. Mmm. Perhaps because that is a fair reflection of how the “overseas territories” prefer it. They are entirely self governing for all internal matters and the Foreign Office (State Department our US friends). Its a little like the way the US runs its pacific territories and to a lesser extent Puerto Rico.

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