Vol. 02 No. 05
Welcome to Combat Threads. This month marks the 40th anniversary of 74 day Falklands War. For those who don’t know, the Falklands War was fought between the UK and Argentina in 1982 over the South Atlantic Falkland Islands. The Islands, a British Overseas Territory since 1833, are located some 300 miles off the coast of Argentina – and 8,000 miles from Great Britain – and at the time had a population of about 1,800. Since gaining independence from Spain, Argentina claimed sovereignty over the islands. After a series of events far too complicated to get into here, they invaded and took over the islands on April 1, 1982. Much to the surprise of both Argentinians and Britons, the UK put together a naval task force to retake the islands. After much diplomacy in an adept to divert a war, British soldiers and Royal Marines retook the islands. Ok, that was a real quick overview of the conflict. If you want to know more, you can check out Max Hastings’ and Simon Jenkins’ The Battle for the Falklands or the Battlegrounds podcast that is currently doing a series on the war.
With that overview out of the way, I can explain why it's relevant for Combat Threads. The Falklands War has had a special place in my research over the past years. The conflict sits in a very interesting time in the history of media, culture, and war. The British military at the time was an all-volunteer force, a professional force like most modern American and European armies. As a professional military, distinctive institutional cultures and dress practices were observable and would affect the war. It was one of the first post-Vietnam wars with mass media coverage while simultaneously one of the least reported since the Crimean. Only a handful of journalists were permitted to go to the islands with the British Task Force, and video footage took three weeks to reach the UK. Much of the equipment and uniforms worn by the British and Argentian forces were a mix of technology virtually unchanged from the 1950s and cutting edge. What makes the war so interesting to study is how it straddles the line between the old and modern worlds.
The weather of the South Atlantic required proper cold-weather uniforms. The British military of 1982 had access to a well-established outdoor industry. Soldiers supplemented their issued kit with civilian outdoor gear, from boots to fleeces and down vests. The British military of the time was a peacetime professional army. Soldiers were inclined to spend time on their kit, privately purchasing items. Royal Marines that trained with the Norwegian military adopted their baselayer shirts. British Paratroopers that spent time in Germany bought German boots and leather gloves. This type of private purchase of uniforms and gear is common today, with a whole industry of companies catering specifically to military consumers. Today, the outdoor industry has a well-documented relationship with militaries. The current form of the outdoor industry began to take shape only in the 1970s, and British soldiers bought directly from brands like Helly Hansen, making clothing for civilian outdoorsmen.
Gore-Tex was one breakthrough in outdoor wear that wasn’t around for the conflict. The British military was still using non-breathable fabrics to fend off water. These stiff plastic foul weather suits were disparagingly referred to as “crisp packets.” With Gore-Tex not nearly as standard as today, some turned to waxed cotton Barbour jackets as an alternative. While Barbours were an expensive jacket for most soldiers, they pop up frequently in photographs of recollections of British soldiers from the time. The popularity of Barbours, notably the unlined Durham model and the Soloway Zip, even led to the brand producing a jacket in the British DPM camouflage pattern. Barbour’s camouflage jackets were one of the first recognitions of the soldier as a potential consumer by a fashion brand. In the Falklands War, you can see the seeds of this industry.
Previously I have written about the explosion of graphic T-shirts amidst the media coverage of the Gulf War. I argue that the key to the popularity of these T-shirts was the constant news coverage of the war and its lead and the framing of the news coverage as entertainment, sealed in the TV screen – not reality. Nine years before the Gulf War, the Falklands War was already showing many of these trends with a similar sartorial effect. The islands' incredibly remote nature and the restrictions placed on media made for coverage lacking in human images or stories. What dominated the coverage was monotone Ministry of Defense briefings and sensationalist newspaper headlines that only the British tabloid press could achieve. A wave of patriotic – verging into jingoistic – fervor swept the country to many observers' surprise.
The Sun ran the most famous/infamous headlines of the conflict like “Stick it up Your Junta.” The newspaper also sponsored such stunts as sending a pallet of beer and centerfold pinups to the British soldiers steaming south, funding a British Sidewinder missile by selling T-shirts. I have yet to find a picture of an original T-shirt, but numerous sources confirm their existence and the words printed on them: “Stick it up Your Junta.” These were not the only T-shirts that were produced. Images and existing examples show a variety of styles and designs, from classic English bulldogs to Mickey Mouse with a raised middle finger. The Falklands War is the beginning of the War-merch economy that is still very present today – just look at the “Saint Javelin” merchandise made for the ongoing war in Ukraine.
Till next time,
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