War-Official! Lawrence Freedman Describes How He Came to Write the Official History of the Falklands Campaign and Tells Us What He Learned from the Experience

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I BECAME A PROFESSOR OF WAR STUDIES on April 1st, 1982. On April 2nd I had a war. Like most people, including the government, I was taken by surprise by the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands and was unsure how to respond. At first I reckoned I had enough basic military knowledge to comment sensibly on events but quite soon I realized that I did not. My expertise was in the rarefied and, in this case, essentially irrelevant world of nuclear strategy. My grasp of the technicalities of warship design or the nuances of army tactics was poor. With little hard news coming back from the South Atlantic I drew the salutary conclusion that I had little to contribute to public discussion on the conflict's course and likely outcome. My first thought was that if I was going to be a Professor of War Studies I should make an effort to understand the wars that were actually being fought rather than those that existed only in the fevered imagination of nuclear strategists.

I therefore followed events avidly, and by the end of the decade I had written two books on the Falklands. The first was a brief overview. The second was written in collaboration with an Argentine analyst, Virginia Gamba, and brought together material from both sides. It demonstrated the interaction between the calculations of the two sides that led to the war and the failure of diplomatic efforts to prevent its escalation. It also told, for the first time, the full story of the sequence of events that led to what was seen as the major act of escalation--the sinking of the Argentine cruiser, the General Belgrano. I had decided to return to the story again on the eve of my retirement in 2012, when the full archives would be released as a result of the application of the thirty-year rule. This plan had to be brought forward when I was asked in 1996 if I would like to write the official history of the Falklands campaign.

The opportunity was irresistible. It would be a chance to check against the government papers what I had found out earlier through trawling secondary sources and conducting a number of interviews with key players. By July 1997 the terms had been agreed with the Cabinet Office and the appointment was announced by the Prime Minister. Eight years later two volumes are at last to be published. The first deals with the origins of the war, ending as the government prepares itself for the Argentine invasion. The second takes the story through the war and beyond, concluding with the restoration of diplomatic relations in 1990. For such a little war I seem to have written a lot of words.

An official history can easily be presented as a sort of Faustian bargain. The historian gains privileged access to every conceivable primary source, including briefing notes, official submissions, diplomatic telegrams, boxes of military signals and raw intelligence reports. In return the soul must be sold, for the output must be a sanitized account that confirms the official line. It would be foolish to pretend that there is not an issue here. The discipline of official clearance means accepting knowledge of many things that must not be divulged and also not picking on individual officials. This can at times be extremely frustrating, yet it is also part of the challenge of writing an official history. Not only can the definition of secrets be questioned (often by showing what is already in the public domain) but also it is possible to engage in negotiations with the various government agencies when they worry about particular disclosures. Subtlety of language is normally an acceptable alternative to censorship. There were many difficult editorial decisions to make in that grey area of material that is extremely interesting but not really essential. My basic rule was not to exclude any factor, including intelligence reports, that had a material affect on the conduct of the campaign, nor duck any issue that a knowledgeable reader would expect to see covered. …