Whilst browsing through a second hand book store, I came across a 1984 cartoon book by Raymond Briggs, called The Tin-Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman. Given my area of study is Argentina, and even just from the cover it was abundantly clear that the subject matter was the Falklands War, I had no hesitation about buying it. Although ostensibly a children’s book, it actually presents a highly critical and satirical version of how governments can manipulate political narrative, and of how they can be quick to discard those who no longer serve their purposes. Given that the current UK Coalition Government is increasingly unpopular (as all governments tend to be towards the end of a Parliamentary term) and facing an election in 2015, recent attempts to control the political narrative (e.g. recent Conservative attempts to avoid discussion of food-poverty, or Labour’s obfuscation over Iraq) have likewise drawn satirical attacks. What is important to remember is that even in the case of the Falklands War, which to many (but by no means all) people in the UK is seen as a ‘good’ war, extensive dissent existed at the time which has been significantly airbrushed away in popular remembrance.
Briggs’ book was published in 1984, two years after the Falklands War, and one year after the Conservative election victory under Margaret Thatcher. Written and illustrated in a style that leads a casual reader to assume it is aimed at children, it is in fact a biting near-contemporary satire on the Falklands war, and the greed for power of political leaders. Neither Galtieri (the Tin-Pot Foreign General) or Thatcher (the Old Iron Woman) are presented as human figures, in contrast to the islanders they fight over, and the men whom they send to die as their proxies. Furthermore, the Old Iron Woman is depicted as wearing iron stiletto’s, iron suspenders, and having cannons emerging from her breasts, a subversive form of metallic femininity that further dehumanises the character. Both the Tin-Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Lady have the same eyes, multiple concentric black rings around small black pupils that give the impression of madness. Both are portrayed as being far larger than the other characters – soaring iron and tin creations that emphasise their superiority and domination of others. In essence, the two leaders appear to be metallic demi-gods that play with the fate of men and women, with little to no consideration of the effects their actions have upon them. In contrast, the Falkland Islanders are depicted (somewhat patronisingly) as simplistic mutton eating shepherds, whilst British soldiers are depicted in far more amorphous sketches, executed in black and white, and only in the context of being shot, burnt, drowned, or maimed. The essentially callous nature of the Old Iron Lady towards both the Islanders, and to her own wounded soldiers, is revealed towards the end, where it is declared that no one is to blame for the death of three islanders, and that the presence of wounded soldiers at the victory parade might spoil the rejoicing. The overall effect of the narrative is of two automatons of dubious morality and sanity, shrieking and snarling at each other to gain support from a compliant and cowed mass.
What I find interesting about this book is the way that it satirises the nature of those in power. Both the soldiers who fought, and the islanders who are fought over, are presented as human figures, whereas the national leaders, and arguably the nation state, are represented as unfeeling entities that only see political advantage in war. Indeed at one point the Old Iron Lady declares that “It’s so exciting to have a real crisis!” – the implication here being that the internal problems of the UK in the early 1980s are of little consequence. Parallels to this attitude can be drawn to Blair (Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Iraq) and Cameron (Syria). Fundamentally, what Briggs is arguing is that those in power are often divorced from the reality of the societies in which they live, and can all too easily see people as pawns to be used, rather than individuals to be valued. This is a situation in which government can easily find itself, whether it is over a foreign war, or internal issues. Recent government attempts to change the political narrative in the UK are similar to the way that the Thatcher government capitalised on the Falklands War to gain re-election, but are far less successful. Satire will continue to play a role in criticising government, but the importance of a book like this is to show that even events that are widely perceived as ‘just’ are more complicated and controversial than seen in the popular mindset.