Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
A few weeks ago I was in Ushuaia on the southern tip of Argentina. Fin del Mundo, they call it, the End of the World. Ushuaia’s geographical location meant that it was, and still is, an Argentine naval base. As such it played a suitably significant role in the Falklands War of 1982, or Guerra de las Malvinas to the Argentines. So much so that a memorial to the Argentine war dead stands in the middle of the city.
And the Falklands War remains one of the purest and most obvious examples of wagging the dog—the term from the 1997 comedy has by now entered common English usage—of a government bumbling into war against a foreign “enemy” for no better reason than to distract its own citizens from problems at home.
The great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges had an even better epithet for the pointless war: It was “a fight between two bald men over a comb.”
Since 1976, Argentina’s government had been the military junta run by generals. By 1981, the junta had grown extremely unpopular. The Argentine economy was badly stagnant, and civil unrests rocked the nation. In December of that year, a new set of military officers assumed leadership. One of them, Admiral Jorge Anaya, decided that a quick little war was just what the doctor ordered to perk up Argentina.
What better place to do this, from a naval officer’s point of view, than the Malvinas/Falklands? The rivaling territorial claims by Britain and Argentina had never been resolved, with the British having regarded the Falklands as a crown colony of the British Empire since the mid-19th century. Argentina under the junta now asserted its claims militarily, launching an invasion of the Falklands in April of 1982.
Britain under Margaret Thatcher responded by sending in a task force led by two aircraft carriers of the Royal Navy. After some weeks of fighting, the British prevailed. In June 1982, the Argentines surrendered, and the Falkland Islands remained a British territory.
But here’s the thing: Argentina would easily have won had the junta only waited another year before launching the war. In 1982 the British had no war plans in the event of an invasion of the Falklands. Of the two aircraft carriers that formed the backbone of the task force, one, the HMS Hermes, was scheduled to be decommissioned in that very year. Had Argentina only waited until after the ship was decommissioned, Britain would physically not have had the military capability to do anything about a colony as distant from the UK homeland as the Falklands.
But the junta couldn’t wait, not even another six months. The domestic political situation for the generals was already too dire. Another few months, and their government might not have survived the popular discontent and the likely revolution that fomented beneath the surface. So they charged into the Falklands and had their asses handed to them.
That’s the problem with wagging the dog: If you let domestic politics dictate foreign military adventures, then you’re likely to make some very poor strategic decisions. A government that is beleaguered domestically and tries to distract the public by stirring up a foreign conflict can’t afford to do what makes sense internationally.
And I’m telling this story now because it may be relevant to the situation in which the U.S. finds itself today. I mean because a certain president whose name rhymes with Dump was until just days ago beleaguered by popular discontent and hints of treason. I mean because now he seems to be looking for a quick war.
I visited the war memorial in the middle of Ushuaia, and all I could feel for the names carved on the walls was pity. Surely there is nothing worse than dying in a wag-the-dog operation. Certainly there is no honor in it.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."