Combatants, world opinion weigh Falkland casualties
The United States and the Soviet Union, as well as Britain and Latin America, will be closely watching the scale of casualties on both sides in hand-to-hand fighting expected to come soon along the streets of Port Stanley.Skip to next paragraph
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That fighting, about to occur as this dispatch was written, has long been one of the chief concerns of British politicians and military commanders.
British forces were reported June 13 to have dashed to within five miles of the capital and to have gained fresh ground, in a surprise night attack, beyond the key hill of Two Sisters to the east. The British claimed to have captured several hundred Argentine troops. But they admitted some losses - including nine killed on the cruiser Glamorgan, described as damaged but still operational.
British orders to task force commandos, Nepalese Gurkhas, and troops are to cause as few casualties as possible to the Argentines - and in particular to the 600 Falkland Islanders themselves still believed in Port Stanley.
Military analysts here warn that Argentine forces are tightly packed inside the Port Stanley area. Of a total of about 7,000 Argentine troops, 2,000 are reported to be professionals and the other 5,000 to be young conscripts. The young men may yield easily, but the professionals were expected to fight hard.
Heavy Argentine casualties could bring the downfall of the Argentine junta, it is felt here, but may well strengthen the determination of any new government to continue hostilities against Britain indefinitely.
The Soviet Union could find it easier to pick up long-term diplomatic influence both in Argentina itself and among its Latin American neighbors.
Heavy Argentine casualties could also make it more difficult for other Latin American countries to support, even in private, long-term British plans to separate the Falklands entirely from Argentine sovereignty or influence.
They could turn majority opinion at the United Nations, as well as Latin American opinion, even more strongly against the United States. Already the US has been cool to a British plan for a multinational force, which would include US soldiers to defend the Falklands in the future.
The US is trying not to jeopardize diplomatic relations in Latin American any further than it has already done by supporting Britain in the war.
At the same time, high British casualties could cut two ways here in London.
They would make Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her war cabinet even more determined to restore British rule and keep the Argentines out while they ask islanders to choose their own form of government. This would fly in the face of pressure from France and West Germany, as well as from the United States, for a quick, negotiated, long-term peace with Argentina.
Casualties would also strengthen the doubts within Britain's Labour, Liberal, and Social Democratic parties about the government's hard line.
Senior Labour shadow cabinet members believe that trying to establish a ''fortress Falklands'' indefinitely, against a hostile Argentina, is as impossible as trying to create an independent country out of the tiny islands and their miniscule populations.
Deputy Labour leader Denis Healey said on television in London June 13 that only 30 percent of a recent opinion poll supported the idea of a ''fortress Falklands.'' Defending the islands would require 5,000 British troops, who would it almost impossible for the 500 island families to lead a normal life.
It would also, he said, alienate West European opinion.
So far, despite the losses of men, ships, and aircraft, the British public appears to have accepted task force casualties. Before the landing at Bluff Cove , whose precise casualties last Tuesday are still being withheld to keep Argentina guessing, Britain had lost about 135 men in the war, as well as two destroyers, two frigates, one container ship, eight Harrier jump jets, and 11 helicopters.
The government has always worried that Argentine aircraft and Exocet sea-skimming missiles might hit one of it's two aircraft carriers or one of the big requisitioned civilian ships. So far, that has not happened.
But in light of losses so far, the government mood is summed up by a British sargeant in the Falklands who is quoted as saying, about the islands: ''If they're worth dying for, they're worth keeping.''