Saturday, 23 October 2010


I have written before of my suspicion that a large proportion of the news we get from Afghanistan consists of very carefully worded press releases from the army media. A gloss imparted to forthcoming activities, undue attention to the part that Afghan forces may play, heartfelt appeals to those of us at home not to agitate by explaining just what a snafu it all is.

A lady of the press explains it thus "The MoD has a war to sell. The MoD wants the most positive coverage set before the biggest audience. Obviously. It has a war to sell which is now longer than the Second World War. And it is not going very well. And they want to get out. And...And...They have soldiers dying who were at junior school when the invasion and occupation (for it is both, whatever the spin) began. They have a problem. And the drip drip drip of Wootton Bassett homecomings are not helping, as they also privately acknowledge."

I am confident she is not telling porkies. It is nice sometimes to have one's prejudices confirmed.

Between a rock and a soft space

The current hoo haa regarding the latest episode of Wikileaks threatened for the week-end intrigues me. I may have a better insight than many as to the problem; I was in charge of the Army CID in Belfast from 1970 to 72 and appreciate the task facing US forces regarding investigations into shootings and allegations against the military. The sheer volume of work now required into any serious incident can be overwhelming and, in some cases, impossible to achieve. For example, I was in Londonderry on what became known as Bloody Sunday and took the initial statements from troops involved. The Saville Inquiry into the events took many years and many millions to investigate that half-hour of engagement.

So, what might the senior service officers have done differently? I cannot really know - I wasn't there. However, it comes down to command and control. It all seems to start out well where obedience is implanted in Private Gomer Pyle. The system if properly implemented means that knowledge of what ever is done by the lowest gets escalated upwards. Whilst it is the Colonel's prerogative as to what happens, his salary grade does include responsibility for what is done by his men. And that is where things get fuzzy. Just as in the observation about fleas, he also has his fleas at higher command. They do not concern themselves with detail - "We want to be on top of that hill by nightfall" sparks of all the little fleas and a detailed plan is evolved. Gomer Pyle knows it is no use his objecting to the task or the method. His sergeant knows he cannot blame Pyle for his failure to accomplish what his lieutenant ordered him to do. A situation where a force commander has to acknowledge he is not on top of the hill is not acceptable. "the enemy won't let us go there" does not wash. 'All is fair in love and war' overcomes the Geneva Convention and can be the start of something that people safe in their beds in Washington get all huffy about.

The way in which war is waged has been codified. Reams and reams of paper have been generated but the problem remains of boiling these down into a piece of card maybe slightly bigger than a credit card which Pte Pyle can understand. Try your hand at a précis of this - "The United States is bound by customary law and international laws of war, by the Hague Conventions of 1889 and 1907, the Geneva Conventions of 1949, and the Nuremberg Conventions adopted by the United Nations (U.N.) December 11, 1945 -- all of which set limits beyond which, by common consent, decent peoples will not go. Under the Constitution, all treaties are part of the supreme law of the land. Humanitarian law rests on a simple principle; that human rights are measured by one yardstick. Without that principle, all jurisprudence descends into mere piety and power.

When laws of war were codified, military necessity ceased to be the final arbiter of human rights and civility. Nor do violations of the laws of war by one belligerent vindicate the war crimes of another.

For the high officials who planned and supervised military operations in Iraq, the "shock-and-awe" campaign encompasses three major types of war crimes, all in violation of the Geneva Conventions of 1949: The "wanton destruction of cities, towns, and villages" in violation of the Nuremberg principles. The premeditated use of weapons known to cause unnecessary suffering and indiscriminate destruction. The use of depleted uranium, the poison of radiation that is destroying the lives of untold numbers of civilians and soldiers, including American personnel.
We are not referring to incidental transgressions of humanitarian law, or even the war crimes of desperate infantrymen in the heat of battle -- like soldiers who recently fired bullets into crowds of anti-occupation demonstrators in Iraq -- follies committed out of fear, confusion, and the hatred that all war evokes. It's not the crimes of passion, but the crimes of calculation that require moral reappraisal.
The italics are mine and, in the context of Wikileaks, could be very significant. There is recognition that passion and hatred are found in the area where bullets fly. What is not covered is the deliberate and conscious rejection of civilised human conduct. Torture can never be tolerated. For clarity, I do not support the often claimed excuse that it is OK to torture someone on the off-chance they know where a large time bomb is ticking away. NCIS is not the real world. The game of rendition or pass the parcel of a prisoner moved about clandestinely so that he ends up somewhere where torture is a recognised feature of investigations, is not acceptable.

So, what might be done? Mumsy Clinton went off very well last night in condemning the brash Assange and his colleagues but as I see it, she really does not have a leg to stand on. Secret and confidential information revealed? The keepers of the data should have made it impossible to be improperly accessed; they wrote the stuff and should have secured it. Danger to indigenous peoples? The Taliban have shown that they have well tried sources of information so anyone exhibiting his new found informant's wealth would be known as would any villager getting too friendly with our troops. ANA personnel engaged in joint operations are another source of information leakage. It would be a farce to expect some form of military Witness Protection Scheme.

So, suppose the idea of 'crime' carried out in the course of battle is capable of being floated and accepted, that leaves the organised, deliberate and intentional offences that contravene the standards enacted. There exists in some countries the concept that a payment of money, (sometimes referred to as blood money), closes the whole affair - whether this exists in Iraq I cannot say. It seems so - "Tribal traditions in Iraq often allow a tribe to pay blood money to compensate for a murder committed by a member." Uncle Sam has a huge tribe and properly handled by a half-way competent spinner, everything could come up as roses.

That leaves the 'black' operations and clearly illegal actions. I cannot see that even so well resourced a country as America could ever investigate the sheer volume of these. Just to return to Iraq in pursuance of witnesses would be a extremely hazardous exercise made worse by the evocative nature of the inquiry.

The matters that will come out of full study of the new Wikileaks must have some official response other than disclosure being deprecated. In simple terms, a significant US personage saying mea culpa (maybe even mea culpa maxima)and we promise not to do it again. This need not be an empty promise and just requires a couple of days extra training for recruits and reinforcement on pre-deployment briefings. Senior officers as well as the doughboys.

Should Wikileaks have released this mass of documentation? On balance, I am in agreement. I think, even without my own direct experience, I would be naïve to think that such things didn't happen and I am not able to use 'not in my name' to dodge the issue. If it happened, I wish to know - even if only to be aware what is being done in any recurrence of fools rushing into some other John Wayne scenario.

Just a quote I came across whilst checking something - "Whatever shortcomings there may have been in Iraq and Afghanistan stemmed from failures and miscalculations at the top, not those doing the fighting and the leading on the ground. It has taken every ounce of our troops' skill, initiative and commitment to battle a cunning and adaptive enemy at the front while overcoming bureaucratic lassitude and sometimes worse at the rear."

Friday, 22 October 2010

What if.........

So, why am I sitting in front of my machine at dark o'clock when there is not another house light in the village?

I sometimes enter horror movies when my dreams become such that they continue to run even when I am sitting up in bed with eyes wide open. Initial treatment is to read a page or two and then try again or to try and force my mind to leave the dark side of the brain and find some other space to colonise. Tonight the hoped for pathway was thinking "What if..." What if I had not said such and such. What if I had not done this or that. Personal actions didn't work so I went for 'what ifs' of others. What if Nap had said 'Yes tonight to Josephine' or if Adolph had withdrawn when Chamberlin warned him?

I then came up with a beauty that merits a blog I can look back at when the memory starts to fade.

It is 11th September 2001, The Twin Towers are down and still smoking. The majority of the world is outraged and in shock whilst some Muslim countries are celebrating Al Queda's actions. The President goes on television to address the world. He says that what happened was the work of a small group of fanatics. Whilst it would be a natural reaction to seek payback by unloading vast quantities of bombs in the direction of the civilians of the country giving a home to the terrorists, such action would be pointless and vindictive. This was the work of individuals and not a nation. Vengeance breeds violence in a long chain and, therefore, the USA would forgive. And pray for the aggressors.

This is the Daddy of all 'what ifs'. No Iraq War, no Afghanistan nonsense. No vast expenditure of lives and money and resources. Not just in America but in the Coalition Of The Conned as well.

This 'what if' surprised me - I had always taken modern day America as a pious country. There have been notable dissenters. "The phrase "An-eye-for-an-eye-for-an-eye-for-an-eye ... ends in making everybody blind" has been attributed to Mahatma Gandhi. Martin Luther King Jr. later used this phrase in the context of racial violence: "The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind" Jesus Christ: "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth'. But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also." Sadly, we have suffered the results of that Mr Bush reverting to the ways of early days and saddling up to ride off in all directions. What we have now though is a feud that will resonate like those of old.

I think that has been sufficient displacement activity and I can drain my cup of tea and toddle off back to bed.

Thursday, 21 October 2010


The debate on Spending Review seems to be centered around who is most effected. The Very Rich, The Rich, The Middle Earners and The Poorly Paid. I think these classifications do not fully explore what has been done to whom. I have always thought of my financial situation in terms of my disposable income. I have only once been in a group that might be described as Rich when any employer determined he had to directly employ me to supervise something I had advised him on as a consultant. My time in HM Forces in the middle NCO ranks were times when the pay was low. In those days there was food on the table, clothes on the children's back and the Sergeants' Mess for entertainment. We didn't run to a car and would have been in difficulties had something unforeseen needed money thrown at it. In the halcyon days we ran two new cars, were up to date with London theatre life and entertained others quite well. It all came from the money remaining after our essential needs and consequent expenditure had been met. I cannot really say that I enjoyed one of the two life styles more than the other. I had the funds to do what I wished to do.

The group now described as poor may not be in that position - I say may - it is not intended as censorious or denigrating but I seem to see a lot of cigarette smoking and quite a few of the guys in the local pub seem to be there at both lunchtimes and evenings. The infants ride in buggies that cost quite a few pounds. The announced changes that are referred to as unfair to the poor will certainly reduce their income; I wonder if it will effect their lifestyle? But, is it fair to expect them to change where those with some positive balance of income over outgoings may not need to economise - are we not all entitled to our 'luxuries' however these may be defined?

The Chancellor's idea of rich or poor may be responsible for what I see as a potential waste of money. The idea that a child aged two needs subsidised education. "There will be funding for 15 free hours of early education and care for all disadvantaged two-year-olds as part of a "fairness premium" which will extend from toddlers to undergraduates. The existing entitlement of 15 hours a week for all three to four-year-olds will be maintained." The 'education' a two year old requires is more socialisation than 1+1=2. Will 'disadvantaged' classification be assessed - and by whom? This all smacks more of 'child-minding' than child education. There used to be much coffee-morning debate about how cruel and hard it was for a child starting at five years. "It is going to put tremendous strain on very young children who haven't reached that stage of development," she said. "We are left with about three years of being able to call our children our own. After that, the Government will dictate what you are allowed to do with your child — when you can go on your holidays, when you can't, what you have to do for homework. That will go on for the rest of their childhood from four years onwards. It is an extremely sad day." If a parent is deemed unable to bring up a young child it must be questionable as to whether they can guide and mentor their offspring until university beckons. If their 'disadvantage' is low family income, they will see and experience little that might make them realise the benefits of education. Not all ugly ducklings grow up to be swans.

I have concerns about those who receive disability benefit. The disability is likely to cause them to live a circumscribed life and they have no real opportunity to improve their lot by working in the black economy. More and more Service personnel are likely to end up classified as disabled - what is there for a guy with both legs and an arm left in the corner of some foreign field? The Government made much of what it was going to do for these but it was all based in greater integration with the NHS. "I have said for some time that mental health will be my welfare priority if I am the next defence secretary, so I am delighted today to announce that a Conservative government will establish a new mental health screening service for all service leavers, including reservists. Together with my colleagues in our Health team, we have agreed funding for a PTSD treatment programme within the NHS. I hope that together we can defuse the potential time bomb of mental health problems, and I am very grateful for the support that Combat Stress has offered us."patient care is at risk. "Research by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) Scotland found that more than half of nurses (54 per cent) said they were prevented from providing dignified care to patients to a standard they were happy with.Of these, 76 per cent blamed a lack of staff for the lower standards they felt they were able to deliver. It comes as the NHS in Scotland is cutting staff numbers by almost 3,800, including more than 1,500 working in nursing and midwifery. Research by The Scotsman shows that more than 1,200 out of the 3,800 posts have already been cut, with the rest expected to go by the end of the financial year" So, what chance there for some poor Tom who meets up with an IED tonight?

Cameron's cast-offs

Looks as if I'll have to book some theatrical make up in the near future if I am to get by.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

I see no ships...

...only hardships. My knowledge of economics must date back to when Keynes' book was a pre-order at Amazon but I did get into it as a constituent of the seemingly pointless examinations I went through.

With that bliss that comes of ignorance, I have been forming opinions about Dave's revelations as to the future of our armed forces. Overall impression is 'What future?' Initial opinions from those who know better seem to agree with me.

The greatly reduced Army available for deployment is not all fighting fit, fit to fight warriors. Amongst them are the support services. My immediate query is regarding the medical cover in theatre. The hospital in Afghanistan has a great record in saving life and ameliorating serious trauma. There is a equation as to the number of troops required to overcome a number of opposing forces; we would be hard pressed to overcome a small tribe of third world dissidents. I see the Army of the future as a threat only - "if you come any nearer I'll let the dog off the leash" sort of thing. We do not know the nuts and bolts as to how the reduction was decided. Did it include any provision for assets such as might be needed in an unlikely war zone or will there be a repeat of troops going from tropical Malaya to fight in a Korean winter in their lightweight clothing?.

I cannot understand the ten year outlook for getting troops out of Germany. There will be a saving but spread over ten years? I understood we were in dire straits and any saving had to be very quickly accomplished. I suppose the reasoning is that we have no proper barracks for them to go to and no habitable quarters for their families. The run down will be shorter than ten years and the people-less accommodation will need to be maintained in the interim. I cannot see Dave's Wider Society ideas producing a lot of volunteers to soldiering in place of cost-carrying professionals. If we do have to send troops anywhere where the bullets fly, the reduction in fast air cover could be very significant.

We will see tomorrow what else is to happen. Lost jobs is rightly a very common concern. Getting on one's bike is going to be very hard if it involves relocation - renting accommodation or sell/buy a home is in the doldrums. Demands on social services will be hard as relationships come under strain from all the cut backs and redundancies. We have forecasts of numbers who may be getting their cards but a fair number will be entitled to redundancy pay - has this been costed and provided for?

There will be considerable wailing and gnashing of teeth. Already, I have the feeling that much of what the coalition Cameron/Clegg/ANOs government says is condescending waffle. The people who propose and make the decisions have comfortable salaries or private means and I cannot really believe that they have much idea of the life of a single mum, maybe poorly educated, with three kids living hand to mouth on a slum estate. She has no union to protect her rights and essentials.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Go to Hell - and back

I was quite concerned when I saw this. Those who were in Korea had spoken just what it was like to face an enemy that advanced like a flood tide. The machine-gun barrels melted but still they came on. Not all had weapons but they just picked up weapons from fallen comrades and carried on.

But, then something led me to have a Google round and I found this. Equally impressive in their drill. Drill is a result of cohesion. Cohesion is what leads to fighting discipline as described by the Korean veterans.

We are all still here so perhaps drill is not the be all and end all of military success. Better media now shows us just what fighting entails; for civilians just as for the actual participants.

Remember this when the 11th of November approaches and add something to the widow's mite.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Seal'ed documents

The Sunday Telegraph has come out strong on the hostage rescue operation. The article is headed "Linda Norgrove: how the rescue operation was bungled. The rescue operation was planned meticulously, so how did it lead to the aid worker's death?" We may never know.

The longer it takes to assemble the evidence and come to a judgement, the more the fabric of the evidence is abraded. The rescuers came from a very specialised team and will have discussed the incident immediately afterwards. Unless efforts were made to segregate all individuals when the initial suicide bomber idea was disputed, debate will have continued. Men who live and work very closely develop their own esprit de corps. Where three or four are gathered together and the rescue mission arises they will come to a consensus as to what happened. Not from any improper intent to pervert the inquiry but where there is a difference of recollection, the version proffered by the strongest individual is the one that will prevail and be reiterated when personnel are interviewed. That is assuming the questions put are not answered by "It all happened so quick I don't really remember in detail"

The team used are described as "The highly secret unit, equivalent to the Special Boat Service of the Royal Marines, is composed of operatives battle-hardened from years of "kill-capture" missions waged in the mountains of Afghanistan since 2001" Just what is meant by 'kill-capture', we cannot know but the Wikileaks article contained references to what were really assassination squads that engaged in 'kill-capture'. We may assume from the drone penetrations into Pakistan that defeating the enemy has priority over fussy procedures to determine actual guilt. And that is where things could go very very wrong.

The results of any investigation will attract world-wide interest. Officialdom will not want it bruted about that such units exist. If so, the statements taken by US Army CID will be very much redacted before getting into general knowledge and the whole thing veers into politics and away from a post-engagement debate as to tactics. There are already questions that need to be put to the planners of the operation and those who agreed that these should be implemented. "The special operations forces team flew to the site on a night with no moon and "quick roped" down to the ground, immediately getting into a large and lengthy firefight, during which at least nine militants were killed."

The operation was against an isolated community in very remote country. At night, the slightest noise can be heard from a long way away. Certainly, a helicopter hovering overhead at a height to allow rappelling directly into compound would have been heard with sufficient time for the hostage-holders to get into position before the first attacker was on the ground. One of the factors that has been advanced has been awareness that the captors were absolutely ruthless and the value of Ms Norgren's life was zero. Even if she were not in fact killed by a suicide bomber, the likelihood that she would be executed must have been very high.

Another problem for the organisers are the reasons advanced for using an American team at all. The excuse was that the SAS were very busy elsewhere, the Americans knew the terrain described as very arduous. It shows scant regard for the value of the life of a UK citizen if it really was considered impossible to get together a SAS team of about a dozen for a,at most, four day absence from 'elsewhere' Image intensifiers (night sights)do not work in total darkness and there has been no mention that thermal imagery was available for every man to be so equipped. Knowledge of terrain must be immaterial - the Regiment is well used to operating in Yemen and other difficult areas. Satellite etc photographs of the compounds and surrounds would be available in such detail as to plot a route from remote landing point to front door. Loading way points into a GPS device would make the terrain problems look like the M6 on a Friday night. The SAS specialise in a procedure where troops are parachute dropped at a high level and then use free fall techniques to glide silently to the ground. Designed and taught for clandestine insertions.

Hague and Cameron are fingered as having given the final go ahead. So far as I am aware, neither has any direct personal knowledge of clandestine operations so they would only have considered the political aspect. I can see some Sir Humphrey giving them the briefs with a comment "The spams have a military plan" and that would be as much vetting as as the tactics ever got.

The main point much advanced by those supporting the saga is that 'we' did not kill the woman; the terrorists did. I find that an argument that I will leave for debate by better philosophers than I but it does seem that things could have been done better.