Britons lost by winning in Falklands, scholar says


May 21, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- The American military historian Edward Luttwak has ignited a small flame of controversy here on the 10th anniversary of the Falklands War (April 2-June 14, 1982) by suggesting that Britain would have been better off to have lost.

He also touched on the ever-sensitive issue of class.

Defeat by Argentina in the South Atlantic, Dr. Luttwak says, would have delivered the shock necessary to force Britain to reassess its basic values, a process he believes is necessary.

Argentina gained from the war, he writes. It got rid of a "triumphalist military elite" and is making economic and political progress.

By the same token, Britain lost by winning, Dr. Luttwak writes in the London Review of Books. For it lost the opportunity to demolish the myth of "Britain-as-a-Semi-Great-Power." Defeat in the Falklands could have "broken the gravitational pull of aristocratic values on British society."

These, he says, are "manifest in the facade-over-substance, breeding-over-ability, titles-over-jobs preferences that form the impeding medium in which the citizens of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland are fatally trapped."

The article is presented as a review of a book by Adm. Sandy Woodward, the British commander during the Falklands war, titled, "One Hundred Days: The Memoirs of the Falklands Battle Group Commander."

But actually, it is a broad attack on British life as Dr. Luttwak perceives it, especially on the British obsession with its own titled class. It is a criticism of the zeal with which so many successful businesspeople here emulate the nobility by acquiring showy country houses, polo ponies and butlers. It decries an attitude of disdain for people who rise in the world through their own industry.

Dr. Luttwak, a resident scholar at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, is the author of "The Grand Strategy of The Soviet Union" and other books.

His article doesn't review Admiral Woodward's book so much as use it to make his point that the aping of aristocratic ways, and the preoccupations with medieval honors and ceremonials, are not merely quaint features of this land but that they actually hold Britain back economically.

In a telephone interview, Dr. Luttwak elaborated: "Britain is a blocked society, a society that remains trapped by outmoded institutions and absurd conventions. . . . Its actual inequalities are so spectacular as to have no comparison in the modern world."

In his article, Dr. Luttwak cites the example of a businessman who owns a company that could have dominated the world market for the specialized electronics product it made. But instead of investing a few million dollars in product development, he sank his money into an immense country house and grounds.

The Japanese then moved into the economic niche the British company had once occupied alone.

Response to the Luttwak article has been one of surprise and anger.

Alan Clark, a former defense minister, and Correlli Barnett, author of "The Collapse of British Power," told the conservative Sunday Telegraph they thought Dr. Luttwak's view of Britain was out of date.

Jack Spence, director of studies at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, said that although he regards Dr. Luttwak an important scholar, he thinks his views of the behavior and attitudes of the average British businessman represent a stereotype.

"No doubt this person he cites exists, but I don't think he is characteristic. I would hope we have changed."

Unlike Dr. Luttwak, Mr. Spence thinks the war to regain the Falklands was necessary. "There were British subjects there, some 1,500 of them. To let them come under Argentine rule would have been too humiliating. It would have also had very serious political consequences."

Some here believe then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher went to war in the South Atlantic as much to rescue her political fortunes, which were sinking at the time, as to deliver the islanders.

As for the book under review, Dr. Luttwak believes it reinforces his argument. Admiral Woodward, Dr. Luttwak says, is less eager to credit the seamen who helped fight the war than he is to list the blue bloods on his staff. "Woodward certainly has much to answer for," Dr. Luttwak writes. "He might have saved his country by losing the silly-billy Falklands."

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