O'Donnell on Mercau, 'The Falklands War: An Imperial History'

Author: 
Ezequiel Mercau
Reviewer: 
Paula O'Donnell

Ezequiel Mercau. The Falklands War: An Imperial History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019. 264 pp. $39.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-108-48329-2.

Reviewed by Paula O'Donnell (University of Texas at Austin) Published on H-War (June, 2021) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56054

Ezequiel Mercau’s The Falklands War: An Imperial History identifies and deconstructs vestigial imperial discourses in British responses to the Falklands War of 1982. This monograph is a welcome contribution to a historiography that has largely divorced the conflict from the history of empire or polemicized the war’s imperial context. Mercau shows that both of these perspectives obfuscate how the “imperial experience” conditioned competing notions of British national identity and political culture more broadly, determining the Thatcher administration’s menu of options (p. 115). Analyzing political speeches, news editorials, and letters by Britons from varied political backgrounds, Mercau argues that the war amplified enduring disputes over what it meant to be “British” rooted in nineteenth-century settler colonialism.

For Mercau, the conflict’s imperial roots become most evident in Britons’ lingering attachments to the concept of “Greater Britain.” With origins in nineteenth-century histories and travelogues, this notion implied a common nationality and status among white colonists of the British Empire. According to this racialized understanding of national identity, whiteness and adherence to British traditions or values classified a population as “British” no matter where they lived. Empire was thus not just about global dominance but also conceived as a global community “serving to unite peoples from the remotest corners of the earth” (p. 9). As a racially white population of self-identified Britons, Falkland islanders, or Kelpers, subscribed to this concept, seeing themselves as “kith and kin” to metropolitan Brits.

The first two chapters of the monograph look at how Kelpers, a population of about two thousand, resurrected these nineteenth-century discourses as global decolonization initiatives threatened their colonial relationship with Great Britain. Kelpers had been living on the archipelago since soon after the British navy evicted an Argentine garrison in 1833. Successive Argentine administrations had protested this “usurpation,” and in 1965 the United Nations General Assembly invited the two nations to negotiate a peaceful solution to the ongoing dispute. Disinclined to maintain a costly colony across the world, Great Britain signed a Memorandum of Understanding promising to “recognize Argentina’s sovereignty over the Islands from a date to be agreed” (p. 35). Mercau shows how this agreement fueled growing hostilities between the Foreign Office and islanders, who interpreted these developments as a form of betrayal. Representing themselves as “abandoned Britons,” islanders reproduced discourses that white Rhodesians and South Africans had mobilized during decolonization in their respective territories. They also organized themselves, forming the Falklands lobby, which worked tirelessly over the next few decades to convince ministers of Parliament as to the “fundamental Britishness” and unquestionable loyalty of Falklanders.

Mercau’s monograph then traces how the notion of Greater Britain, promoted by the Falklands lobby since 1968, acquired prominence in London after Argentina’s invasion of the islands on April 2, 1982. Despite some voices of dissent, politicians, journalists, and regular citizens largely supported the war, emphasizing the bonds of kinship, tradition, and British virtues that connected them to the archipelago. Many used the metaphor of family duty to explain Britain’s moral imperative to go to war. Yet these justifications, along with pontifications about islanders’ self-determination, met ambivalence in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, where nationalist groups had been advocating for independence for some decades.

Although most Britons supported the war, some did not. Chapters 4 and 6 describe the political debates over empire that erupted between Conservative and Labour Party pundits because of the conflict. Mercau shows that although right-wing authors avoided explicit tributes to the British Empire, many expressed imperial nostalgia during the war. They celebrated Britain’s retaliatory fleet and eventual victory as a return to former grandeur, a renaissance of “national spirit.” In turn, the “imperial overtones” of this rhetoric alienated intellectuals on the left, including the historian E. P. Thompson who derided the war as a “time-warp into an earlier imperial age” (p. 112). As Mercau argues, the memory of empire informed and fueled these debates over the conflict’s meaning within the broader history of British decolonization.

Finally, a fascinating chapter on Anglo-Argentines explores the limits of the Greater Britain concept in certain contexts. Like the Kelpers, British Argentines upheld the notion of a global British community united by race and tradition, and they mobilized this discourse in correspondence with metropolitan British elites. After the Argentine invasion, many wrote to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Queen Elizabeth II, and various parliamentary ministers, urging a peaceful solution to the conflict in order to preserve cordial relations between the countries. These petitions met much derision in London, which revealed the pretense of assumed cultural commonalities between these British communities. Disillusioned, many Anglo-Argentines expressed newfound identification with argentinidad.

Throughout the monograph, Mercau makes a strong case for the importance of collective memory and rhetoric in shaping political culture and thus informing societal responses to conflict. He expertly weaves historical narrative with discursive analysis, synthesizing a broad variety of sources to illustrate the complicated nature of British interpretations of the war. However, without clear demographic or quantitative data, the extent to which different perspectives dominated public discourses is not clear. Also, some of the figurative language in the book, while beautiful to read, obscures precise meaning. These minor issues aside, the text is a groundbreaking study of the Falklands War through the lens of British political culture. Mercau’s book is a must-read for scholars and advanced students interested in the Falklands dispute and the complex history of British decolonization.

Citation: Paula O'Donnell. Review of Mercau, Ezequiel, The Falklands War: An Imperial History. H-War, H-Net Reviews. June, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56054

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