The British official history of the Falklands war has just been published in London, reawakening the argument over just what that war was all about.
The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges called it "two bald men fighting over a comb." Many in Britain - and elsewhere in the world - condemned the Falklands campaign as an irrelevant gesture of an outmoded imperialism.
Few, then or now, have understood it as a defense of international law and the order of nations, and in that respect a peacemaking or order-making action - a just action.
The military junta that had governed Argentina since 1975 was projecting disorder as a deliberate distraction from the murderous disorder it imposed within its own society. Its invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982 was based on Argentina's historical claim to the islands, which it maintains today. (Britain's claim to the islands goes back to 1765. It has governed them as a Crown Colony since 1832.) The aggression was condemned by the UN Security Council, 10-to-1.
The Argentine invasion can be compared to Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990. In the Kuwait case, the United States formed an international coalition, endorsed by the UN Security Council, to liberate Kuwait. This, too, was an order-creating action.
The important part of the Falklands story, however, is what happened after Argentina's military defeat and withdrawal from the Falklands in 1982.
In the course of the Argentine military dictatorship's rule, it caused from 13,000 to 15,000 people, whom it considered internal opponents, to "disappear." They were usually tortured, and many were subsequently dropped into the sea from aircraft, sometimes still alive.
The Argentine generals participated in the "Condor" alliance with General Augusto Pinochet's Chile and a corrupt Brazilian military regime, a cooperative project to pursue and kill political dissidents throughout the region.
The Argentine generals' total and costly defeat in the Falklands by a brilliantly commanded British military expedition precipitated their fall from power. Argentina held a presidential election in 1983, and civilian rule was restored.
Twenty years of increasingly corrupt rule and economic mismanagement had already undermined the generals in Brazil. Military rule gave way to civilian government in Chile in the mid-1980s. The Falkland war's supporters in Britain, not to speak of its opponents, have underestimated the extent of its liberating political effect in South America. Military governments no longer were acceptable.
It seems curious that President George W. Bush's administration has never mentioned the Falklands precedent for what it says its intervention in Iraq is meant to accomplish. Bush want to change the political climate in the Middle East, but few in the region fail to understand that the basic Bush motive was to take control of Iraq and its resources, and put in place a government friendly to American interests. This automatically undermines the democratization argument.
The second obstacle is that the Iraq war and its aftermath have been bungled. Iraq was plunged into a nationalist and sectarian upheaval whose continuing consequences are misery and poverty, with tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians killed. It will be a generation before Iraq recovers.
The third obstacle to the intervention's having a positive political effect in the region is that (for incomprehensible reasons) the model of conduct the administration has imposed on the U.S. Army resembles that of Argentina's military dictatorship rather than that of the British Army that liberated the Falklands.
The Bush administration practice of torture recalls that of the Latin American military dictatorships. So does its flair for totalitarian logic. Few understand why American forces now practice torture, sometimes torture to death, and systematic abuse of prisoners and "detainees."
This is conduct for which the Western allies hanged Gestapo and SS officers and Japanese prison camp commanders in 1945. Do not the Bush people, and U.S. Army commanders, know even that much history?
A totalitarian logic also exists, just revealed by the former deputy White House counsel Timothy Flanigan (who has been nominated by the Bush administration to become the United States' deputy attorney general).
Asked by two senior Republican senators, John Warner and John McCain, to describe the standards governing U.S. prisoner treatment, he replied that there are no standards.
The indirect meaning of Flanigan's statement that there are no standards is that nothing is forbidden. This seems a deliberate choice by the Bush administration.
This is why the United States is not a force for justice and order in the Middle East. It has become the opposite, a creator of disorder and injustice. Does the American public understand this?
© 2005 International Herald Tribune