I was not sure if I had much of an appetite for an in-depth documentary about war, given that the horrors are ever-present in the 24-hour news cycle. But Falklands War: The Untold Story (Channel 4) marks 40 years since the conflict between Britain and Argentina, and this thorough, rigorous documentary is an exhaustive and engaging account of what happened, by many who were there.
It is done with fittingly military precision, and takes the approach of a day-by-day countdown, talking viewers through key events via maps, charts and diagrams. This is useful as the action is explained at a pace that leaves little time for people less familiar with the history of it to catch up. It assumes a level of knowledge about the conflict already, and although there is the odd explanatory note, I imagine those with a solid understanding of military terms may feel more at ease with it.
However, the story that this documentary aims to tell is not necessarily one that has been told before, and that allows for a gripping narrative to unravel. This was a British victory, but the film does not gloss over the cost of that, nor does it back away from the seemingly numerous occasions when that win was far from certain. Several contributors are speaking publicly about their roles for the first time, most notably Lt Col Michael Rose, the head of the SAS in the Falklands, whose steady tone belies a frankness about the operation and speaks candidly of its flaws. Rose calls the conflict “a command and control muddle from the start” and paints a picture of a fractured chain of command, ill-suited to the distance, conditions and demands of the South Atlantic terrain. The only orders he was given, he claims, were: “Please do the best you can.”
Other senior figures describe the pitfalls of the British plan or, more crucially, the lack of a cohesive one. One key brigadier is indecisive by reputation, and the decisions he did make continue to baffle other senior commanders. There are many “should have” and “could have” and “maybe if” moments, and at least two scenarios which, had they played out even slightly differently, might have ended in victory for Argentina. One officer describes an evacuation in appalling weather, the loss of two helicopters, and the notion that had men been killed at this very early stage, on day 20 – as they very nearly were – the war might not have progressed. There are stories in which 10 minutes made all the difference to the outcome. The arrival of the British supply ship, the Atlantic Conveyor, on Argentina’s independence day, which was attacked in daylight by Argentinian forces resulting in the deaths of 12 sailors, is called “the biggest logistical disaster of the war”. The tiny, crucial twists and turns when it comes to planning and chance are fascinating.
For all of the strategic detail, though, there are welcome touches of cultural analysis. The then foreign correspondent Max Hastings, who reported from the Falklands, paints a picture of Britain in the late 1970s and early 80s as fiercely divided, the manufacturing industry in the doldrums, riots in the cities. He recalls flag-waving and jingoism as the ships sailed from Southampton, people united behind the idea that the servicemen and women were “off to fight Johnny foreigner”. Some of the military figures compare it to their time in Northern Ireland, pointing out that to the public, by contrast, this looked like “a real war, against an enemy in uniform”.
The candour and scope is impressive and decisions are examined from all sides. This is a British film, so naturally leans towards British personnel, but there are interviews with Argentinian combatants too, and accounts of what they were fighting for, and why. There are participants from across the ranks, with two particular standout moments. The first is when Rose listens, for the first time, to a recording of negotiations with Argentina, transmitted via satellite back to the UK, and hears his voice from 40 years ago. As his old self transmits one last crackling “over”, the present-day Rose holds a finger up and says, “End of the war.” It is powerful. The other is the focus on trauma, which dominates the final few minutes, as a medic and a private recall the fighting, and speak eloquently about the post-traumatic stress disorder they were left with. But when they talk about mistakes, one says, it is not to apportion blame. It is to learn lessons for the future, so they do not happen in the same way again.