A friend of mine who had enjoyed a worm’s-eye view of Britain’s military machine during his two years of national service as a clerical corporal once remarked that nothing struck terror into his heart as much as the words ‘planned like a military operation’. Peacetime soldiering is rarely attractive to the brightest minds, and no one’s intellect is likely to be sharpened by the routines of parade ground and mess table. An outbreak of real fighting almost invariably brings chaos. One saw this in the British expedition of 1982 to liberate the Falklands. Lots of expensive kit proved to be unusable because it had been damaged on the voyage out. Helicopters crashed. Even the most celebrated units staggered through mishaps that were by turns tragic, as when a Special Air Service patrol ambushed a group of men who turned out to belong to the Special Boat Squadron, or comic, as when a group of men who had been sent to infiltrate Argentina got hopelessly lost and ended up calling for help from a Chilean public phone box.
British soldiers, however, enjoyed one great advantage: their opponents. The Argentinian army had almost no serious experience of war – and partly because of this was still prone to celebrating military triumphs over small British forces in the early 19th century that would be familiar only to the