30 January 2007

A collective failure

In 2003, Sgt Steve Roberts gets shot in a "friendly fire" incident in Iraq. Having handing in his body armour, he dies as a result. There is a six-day hearing and, on 18 December last year, Andrew Walker, the assistant deputy coroner for Oxfordshire, says: "To send soldiers into a combat zone without the appropriate basic equipment is, in my view, unforgivable and inexcusable and represents a breach of trust that the soldiers have in those in Government."

This unleashes a torrent of media comment. The BBC has the verdict as its lead item on its national televised news. Every major newspaper covered it and the Independent gave over the whole of its front page. Google News recorded over 1,300 separate media reports.

However, tragic though the death was, this was one soldier. Since the incident, the MoD has issued high-tech, state-of-the-art body armour to all troops in the field and, barring the odd case, all soldiers at risk are equipped with it.

On the other hand, yesterday, there was an inquest into the deaths of three soldiers - Pte Phillip Hewett (pictured), 2nd Lt Richard Shearer and Pte Leon Spicer. These were the three soldiers from the Staffordshire Regiment who were killed in Al Amarah, Iraq on 16 July 2005 by a roadside bomb while riding in a lightly armoured "Snatch" Land Rover.

Oxford coroner, Selena Lynch, returns a verdict of "unlawful killing" but says she can make no recommendation to the Ministry of Defence about the use of the Land Rovers because it is beyond her jurisdiction.

However, in addition to these three deaths, there have been at least 20 more soldiers who have died, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, while riding in lightly armoured "Snatch" Land Rovers. Many more have been injured, some very seriously indeed.

Furthermore, although the MoD promised that there would be an "effective capacity" of the Mastiff mine and blast-protected vehicle in Iraq by the end of last year. So far, only four have so far arrived and it will be next month before there are just 20 in place.

In Afghanistan, the situation is even worse. Troops are having to patrol (and fight) in unarmoured "WMIK" Land Rovers and the promised Pinzgauer Vector replacement is, if anything, more dangerous than the vehicles it replaces.

Nevertheless, by the early evening there had been only one media report on the verdict, on the BBC's Stoke and Staffordshire local television news. The national television and radio news did not even mention it and, in the national dailies, it got one brief "meanwhile…" in the Daily Mirror attached to the tail end of another inquest report on the "friendly fire" incident involving A-10s.

All we got from the national BBC television was the News 24 programme with an amazingly superficial "puff" for the up-armoured "Bulldog" FV432 armoured personnel carrier, embellished somewhat on the national website. With a picture of the Pinzgauer Vector and the heading, "troops get new armoured vehicles", it could almost have been written by the MoD – and will certainly trouble it not.

This dire performance was only partially remedied by a BBC Radio File on 4 documentary – co-incidentally broadcast yesterday evening. But, in the whole 40-minute programme, only the death of Pte. Hewett was discussed, along with the deaths of two other soldiers in unrelated incidents, one from heat stroke and the other from a training accident on a firing range.

Better in some respects than the appalling programme in in October, featuring the dreadful Allan Urry, this one – with Jenny Cuffe - still failed to give the equipment issue the depth of coverage it needed.

We have, of course, covered the vulnerability of the "Snatch" Land Rovers extensively on this blog. Then, immediately prior to the Coroner's finding, there were two media reports, one in The Telegraph, yesterday morning, and one at the weekend in the Observer.

From both we got Sue Smith, Pte Hewett's mother, charging that the three soldiers would still be alive today if the MoD had purchased adequately protected vehicles. But there was no attempt to widen the issue and neither newspaper even began to address the current defects in the system. Both uncritically reported on the purchase of the Pinzgauers, failing to pick up the delays in supplying the Mastiffs.

Thus have soliders been completely let down by the fourth estate. At the time of the Roberts' inquiry, we warned of the danger of focusing on the one issue of the body armour - which had actually been sorted. We wanted the journalists, who were then so full of themselves, to note that Sgt Roberts's widow, Samantha, was already saying that the body armour issue had been resolved. "This is Steve's legacy," she had said, adding: "we must ensure that these failures are not repeated with other basic kit."

But her words have gone unheeded and will continue to do so by journalists and editors alike. Our trivial, venal media is fundamentally incapable of doing its job. They can bleat and blether when it no longer matters but, when they could make the difference, they are silent. All they have to offer is their own collective failure. And so dismally ignorant are they that they do not even have enough knowledge to appreciate that they have failed. That is their legacy.

* * * *

The top photograph is of a "Snatch" Land Rover, this one operated by the support company, Welsh Guards, who are providing security for the Royal Military Police. It is pictured in Al Amarah by a smoking chimney from the local brickworks. The picture is from the "Smugmug" gallery posted by
S D C Carter, one of the finest collection of photographs of contemporary British military operations in Iraq that I have seen. Mouse-click on the face of the picture to enlarge.


29 January 2007

Cash for Kim - the story continues

To give the new SecGen of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, his due, he seems at first to have responded reasonably well to the latest UN scandal, the money passed on to North Korea’s Kim Jong-il by the United Nations Development Programme without a great deal of supervision.

I wish I could say that it was this blog that did the trick but, I suspect, it was the probability of a prolonged campaign by the Wall Street Journal that encouraged Mr Ban to pronounce on the subject.

A week ago on Friday Mr Ban’s spokesman announced that the SecGen had met with Ad Melkert, associate administrator of the UNDP (what is he associated with, one wonders) and added:
The Secretary-General will call for an urgent, system wide and external inquiry into all activities done around the globe by the U.N. funds and programmes.
The key word, as the following Monday’s WSJ editorial pointed out, is “external”. We all remember how long it took the previous SecGen, Kofi Annan (father of Kojo and brother of Kobina) to set up the independent Volcker Commission to find out what has been going on in the Oil for Food scam. Admittedly he picked a man whom he had considered to be “reliable” to chair it but, alas, the report was not quite what SecGen Annan had wanted.

The UNDP announced in a letter, published in Monday’s WSJ, that it welcomes “an independent and external audit of our operations in North Korea”. In the same letter, readers were assured that
If the member states of the U.N. and UNDP’s board were to decide that our presence there were no longer useful, we would leave immediately.
Brave words. Unfortunately, one of the members of that board is North Korea itself (it also sits on the board of UNDP’s affiliate, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and if UNICEF as well as being a member of the UN Disarmament Conference. What are the chances of Kim Jong-il’s henchmen (for who else would be sent to negotiate on these august boards) agreeing that the UNDP and its hard cash were no longer wanted in North Korea? One of the many tales of porcine aviation that the UN is so fond of regaling us with.

Meanwhile, the UNDP is twisting and turning. In a press conference last Friday the same Ad Melkert dismissed the problem with the words:
We’re not talking about hundreds of millions of dollars. … Over a period of 10 years it is, of course, tens of millions.
Oh well, that’s all right then. Actually, the sum is $27.7 million and, indeed, it is chickenfeed compared to the Oil for Food scam.

The UNDP also posted a statement on its website, which assured all and sundry that it can account for all but $337,000 of its recent expenditures in North Korea. Of the $6.5 million spent in 2005 – 2006 only that negligible sum went on projects directly managed by the North Korean government. That is not quite accounting for the money but it is a start. It would be useful to know, for instance, how many of the UNDP managed projects work through North Korean officials, whose salaries are paid into a central government fund.

The WSJ is only mildly impressed and rightly so.
If oversight has improved in the past two years, so much the better. In any case, any investigation ought to go back at least to the late 1990s, when an internal audit turned up shenanigans and much more money was spent, and ideally all the way back to 1979, when the programme began.
Indeed, as Jay Lefkowitz, speaking at a recent meeting in the House of Commons, organized by the Henry Jackson Society, pointed out, there are many people who think that the West is responsible for the survival of the North Korean regime through the provision of unquestioning humanitarian aid throughout the nineties.

Of course, going back to the nineties raises all sorts of interesting questions. The editorial continues:
We also couldn’t help but notice the second-day story by the Washington Post’s Colum Lynch whose reporting is known to speak for the U.N. bureaucracy. He said some in U.N. consider the U.S. questions to be an attempt to discredit Mark Malloch Brown, who ran UNDP from 1999 – 2005 before becoming Mr. Annan’s chief of staff. We hadn’t mentioned Mr. Malloch Brown in our Friday editorial, but now that Mr. Lynch does we agree his tenure at UNDP should also be looked at.
I am shocked, shocked to find out that there are journalists out there who simply parrot the UN bureaucracy’s line and are prepared to try to bury any inquiry into the way the UN spends our money by squealing that it is all that nasty Mr Bolton trying to get at that nice Mr Malloch Brown (I beg your pardon, as of this New Year’s Honours List Sir Mark Malloch Brown.)

The latest statement on the UNDP website about the latest board meeting promises all sorts of reforms and proudly announces the various controls that were introduced as of January 2007, by a strange coincidence just as the story was breaking in the Wall Street Journal.

Meanwhile, Claudia Rosett has also got her teeth into the story. She has some interesting things to tell.
Actually, this scandal points to a great deal more than that [tens of millions], even if Ban focuses for now only on U.N. operations Pyongyang. The UNDP, while serving as co-ordinator for U.N. programmes in Pyongyang, is just one of about half a dozen U.N. agencies that have been operating in North Korea, including UNICEF, the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) and the World Food Program.

Combined, these agencies have poured close to $2 billion worth of resources into North Korea over the past decade or so, according to U.N. records. They have done this on terms giving Kim big opportunities to divert goods and charge fees for the benefit not of hungry North Koreans, but for his military and his gulag-running, missile-vending, nuclear-bomb-testing regime.
Them are strong words and some people might sniff at the un-BBC-like language. But is there a single word there that is not true? Let us see what else Ms Rosett has managed to find out.

It would appear that the World Food Program is the biggest dispenser of largesse it possesses courtesy of the Western, notably American and British (but also Canadian, Australian and West European) taxpayer.
Since 1995 the WFP, according to its website, [check] has shipped into North Korea more than four million tons of “commodities” – including such goods as rice, wheat and corn – valued by the WFP at $1.7 billion. A big part of this came courtesy of U.S. taxpayers, sent via the U.N. before Kim was busted in 2002 by the Bush administration for cheating on a 1994 aid-for-nuclear-freeze deal signed during the Clinton administration. [See jolly picture above.] For two years after that, the U.S. kept donations coming; then, since 2005 has refused to chip in. But even today North Korea continues to receive millions worth of resources via the WFP. And, the patterns appear disturbingly similar to the UNDP practices now under fire.

In the case of the WFP, Kim Jong-il a little over a year ago gambled – successfully – on a ploy that dramatically reduced the WFP’s already limited ability to check where its aid really went. Kim’s regime declared in late 2005 that North Korea had no more need for direct food aid. But instead of closing up shop in Pyongyang, the WFP negotiated a new deal, which caved in to demands of Kim’s regime. The WFP agreed to cut back on the range and frequency of its monitoring trips and also promised to funnel some of its resources through state-run development projects. Under the label of a “Protracted Relief and Recovery Operation”, the WFP launched this arrangement last year, authorized it to run until March 31, 2008, and called for international contributions worth $102 million.
This is becoming ever less like chickenfeed. The United States is holding off aid, not least because President Bush is on a personal mission to help the people of North Korea and has realized that giving more money to their oppressors is not likely to do so.
With the U.S. still holding off on aid, the WFP, according to a Jan.17 bulletin on its website, has so far garnered only about 16 percent of what it asked for – resources worth $16.3 million. … A WFP spokesman, reached by phone in Bangkok, confirms that a number of the items listed in the Protracted Relief plan under a “project cost breakdown”, represent hard cash paid to the North Korean regime, or to local employees supplied - and vetted by – the Kim government.

Such items include $5 million for transport, storage and handling of the free food shipped in by the WFP; $1.39 million for “staff duty travel” within North Korea, including transportation and state guesthouse lodgings for WFP workers trying to monitor aid; $447,200 for “National consultants”; $106,400 for utilities; and $279,700 for “other office expenses”.

Under the heading of “Staff” there also is an intriguing provision for $321,100 worth of “incentives”. The WFP spokesman explains this is projected funding to let international staff cased in the hardship post of Pyongyang leave the country every six weeks for R&R – a trip that usually involves using hard currency to buy a plane ticket from North Korea’s state-run Air Koryo.
The WFP’s justification for its continuing presence in North Korea and continuing supply of money to the North Korean regime is fascinating. It would appear according to this organization, that “the capacity to import on commercial terms is limited so the country falls short of meeting its minimum needs year after year”. Though, of course, it has no trouble meeting the state’s more than minimum needs for nuclear weaponry.

Exactly why is the country in such a sorry state and why can it not produce sufficient or near-sufficient food itself? After all, South Korea is one of the most successful countries in the region, which manages to produce or import many of its needs.

The WFP has the answer, as far as North Korea is concerned, burbling on about “unfavourable agricultural situation, general economic decline, environmental problems and natural disasters”. Could a political dynasty like that of the Kims be called a “natural disaster”?

In its general account of the situation in North Korea, the WFP remains rather coy as to the causes of the problems, mentioning the government only once, indirectly:
Sharply lower purchasing power compounds the longstanding inability of the government-run Public Distribution System (PDS) to provide enough subsidised cereals to those it supposedly serves: the 70 per cent of the population living in urban areas. In January 2005 there was a declared reduction in rations to an average of 250 grams per person per day – some 40 per cent of the internationally recommended minimum calorie intake – from 300 grams. An ostensible revitalisation of the PDS last October to provide an average of 500 grams a day appears to have had very limited success. It coincided with the imposition of a ban on private trading in cereals that remains in place.
Well, these coincidences do happen, particularly in Communist states.

Going through the, admittedly not very well designed, WFP website, one finds a good deal of self-congratulation, considerably less hard thinking about what might or might not cause hunger and a large measure of complaining about the funds the organizations is not getting.

Given that, it is hard to explain the following information, garnered by Claudia Rosett about Ri Hong-sik, North Korea’s director-general for international organizations:
That same director general currently is spending two weeks in New York, having flown business class at U.N. expense, along with two of his official cohorts from Pyongyang, for meetings of the 36-member executive boards of the UNDP/UNFPA and UNICEF.

When the U.S. Mission’s envoy for U.N. reform, Mark Wallace, pressed the UNDP recently for details of this North Korean jaunt to New York City, the UNDP reluctantly produced the information that the U.N. agencies in question were paying more than $35,000 for the roundtrip travel of the North Korean trio.

Interestingly, no other UNDP executive board members are getting this kind of subsidy. The UNDP has argued that this kind of subsidized air travel has happened before, but the case the organization cites is Afghanistan in 2002, after the collapse of the Taliban, when the Afghan government essentially was in U.N. hands. The UNDP has since said it is revising its policy to require member states to foot the bills for sending their officials to board meetings.

What of Ban Ki-moon in all of this? Is he still going ahead with the external auditing of the programme. Sadly, he seems to have backtracked. On Thursday Ms Rosett and George Russell were writing this:
But by Monday, Ban was backtracking faster than you can say “ACABQ” — which is the acronym for the U.N. General Assembly’s own budget oversight body, the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions — which Ban was suddenly proposing to use as the overseer of his promised housecleaning.

To call that a huge step backward would be understatement. Among other things, the former chairman of the ACABQ, Vladimir Kuznetsov, was one of two U.N. officials indicted in 2005 on charges of bribery and money-laundering in connection with a highly publicized U.N. procurement scandal. (One, Alexander Yakovlev, pleaded guilty. Kuznetsov has pleaded not guilty, and goes on trial next month in New York federal court).

It was during the time that Kuznetsov held his U.N. budget oversight job that illicit funds were allegedly passing through his secret Caribbean bank account. Somehow, his alleged crimes escaped the ACABQ’s attention.

It is this same ACABQ that Ban now proposes to use as a conduit for handling the inspection of the UNDP’s North Korean unit, which will be carried out not by a truly independent outside auditing firm, but by using the U.N.’s own “external auditors.”
Business as usual, then.

Mind you, that nasty Republican administration that is chary of handing over money to various tranzis to be spent on yet more oppressive tyrants’ well-being, seems to have dug its heels in on North Korea. According to Jay Lefkowitz, US Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea, this is entirely the President’s doing. It seems that Bush has met one or two of the few who have been fortunate enough to escape from that hell-hole and listened to them. One and all, these people say the same thing: do not send any more money to North Korea; it will do nothing but keep Kim Jong-il wealthy and the country poverty stricken, though well armed.

Mr Lefkowitz’s talk, delivered in the House of Commons on January 24 was extremely interesting but not as ground-breaking as it was billed. It is always worth rehearsing the horrors of North Korea and the corruption of its rulers and officials. In fact, the best thing we, in the West, can do to help those who live under such spectacularly oppressive regimes is to talk about it, write about it, spread the information.

If the policy Mr Lefkowitz was outlining will continue, the United States will insist that the money they might contribute definitely goes to the people of North Korea and will not be used for the perpetuation of the regime. The present demands of proper accountability from UNDP and refusal to fund the WFP extravaganza are good beginnings.

But, of course, for that plan to work, other countries and organizations must join the US. This was the ground-breaking idea that the speaker produced: Britain and European countries in general must insist that their money helps the people of North Korea. The UN must do the same. He thought the augurs were good as the EU (well, its member states) had been instrumental in ensuring that the UN resolution condemning North Korea was actually passed. Sadly, it made no difference.

Furthermore, the European Parliament, he said has passed a resolution (probably more than one) in which it condemned North Korea. I must admit that at that point I began to wilt. Who on earth cares what the European Parliament says or does not say? This is not the Helsinki Agreement.

Still, there were one or two useful points. The United States government will now accept North Korean refugees with no conditions. Its diplomats and officials have been instructed to insist on the right to talk to North Korean people in many different conditions and circumstances. It is not clear whether that has worked so far.

Mr Lefkowitz thought that European diplomats should follow suit. Hmm, I can just see the FCO, which was usually wary of getting anywhere near Soviet dissidents, risking trouble in North Korea.

The BBC, he added, should join Voice of America in broadcasting to the country. Now, that would be a good thing. I say “would” because I cannot quite work out whether the BBC does or does not. It certainly has no Korean language website, which would indicate not.

Above all, Mr Lefkowitz repeated several times, all of us must promote the cause of the few North Korean refugees and even fewer dissidents. Well, there might be more than we think but we know nothing about what goes on in the country.

The discussion afterwards went along reasonably predictable lines with a number of people wanting to know about China’s present and possible future role in the whole story. Some asked whether it was not a really bad idea to use emotive language like “axis of evil”. I remember when people thought that Reagan was off his trolley when he called the Soviet Union “the evil empire”. Mr Lefkowitz explained that the language made no difference (if these people only knew what sort of language the North Korean media uses) and emphasis on human rights have, on various occasions, brought the North Koreans back to the negotiating table.

One lady rather depressed me as soon as she began to speak. Explaining that she was from some quango she thanked the speaker for his talk as she had not known much about the North Korean government “per se”. Anybody who uses that expression so inappropriately is going to come up with something very stupid. And she did. She asked whether it was not better to use carrots than sticks with North Koreans to achieve any progress on either the nuclear or the human rights front. Could Mr Lefkowitz not explain that to President Bush?

Mr Lefkowitz showed remarkable forbearance and self-control in that he did not tell the lady that huge cartloads of carrots had poured into North Korea under President Clinton. Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-il crunched their way through them all while starving the people and building nuclear weapons.

The man sitting next to the “per se” lady turned out to have grown up in the Soviet Union and was, therefore, considerably more knowledgeable on the subject of totalitarianism. He dismissed all comparisons with the USSR, Romania or Eastern Europe. North Korea was like the Soviet Union in the thirties not the eighties. Little enough could have been done about Stalin’s country.

After his death there was a gradual relaxation and that led to the eventual collapse, though one other important factor must be taken into consideration: Reagan’s insistence on SDI, popularly known as Star Wars. That’s what made Gorbachev launch an attempted massive reform, which led to the destruction of the system. What, he wanted to know, was the equivalent with North Korea? (Interestingly, I saw a lot of nodding heads in response to his comments about Star Wars, many of them very young ones.)

Mr Lefkowitz talked of the need to balance sticks and carrots. He is, of course, the man who has to deal with the almost insoluble problem: how do we in the free(ish) and affluent West help those countries where the people are hungry and suffering as a result of the political system imposed on them.

On the one hand, it is hard to look at pictures of starving children and not want to do something to help. That is the usual reaction and there are many organizations in the world, such as the WFP who benefit from this impulse.

On the other hand, it is almost axiomatic that the money, food and other supplies will go to the oppressive rulers who have caused the misery in the first place and will be used for further oppression.

Not giving aid to North Korea or, say, Sudan is the only possible weapon the West has. If we are serious about wanting to solve the problems in these countries, we shall have to harden our hearts in the short term.

25 January 2007

Not good enough

There are not a few people who would have me rejoice when a newspaper takes up an issue that this blog has been "banging" on about, on the basis that the more who make a fuss, the more likely it is that there will be a solution. No more so is this true than in the lamentable treatment of the pressing defence issues, but I am not able to draw any comfort at all from enhanced media concern.

The trouble is that drawing attention to a problem, with a view to getting a solution, might promote action from your "target" – usually politicians – but it might not be the right action, or the action taken might not be sufficient.

If that happens – and it does all too often – the net effect of any media activity may actually be harmful. The general perception will be that action has been taken. Few people will be interested in the details or the technicalities and will accept that the issue has been resolved. You then are left with an unresolved problem – or one not fully resolved – and the chances of getting further media interest are remote. The "book" is closed and re-opening it is more difficult than raising a matter anew.

In campaigning terms, therefore – as in much of life – it is wise not simply to remonstrate against something, or about a problem, but for a specific solution. And the operative word here is "specific". Leave the options open and cash-strapped ministers will look for the cheapest option, or those from which they can draw greatest political advantage.

Thus I was far from happy to see, earlier this week the leader in The Daily Telegraph, as good an example as any of the a wide-ranging defect, of which much of the media is guilty.

At face value, the leader was good news, ostensibly addressing my own complaint that the newspaper exploits the activities and bravery of our armed forces, simply to fill its pages, finding the diet of MoD press releases a cheap source of copy, as we allewge it did with the Apache rescue story. The quid pro quo, I have argued, is that the paper should use its power to argue for more and better resources for our troops.

Well, here we had it – the headline, "Troops need resources to safeguard our future". On the face of it, you could not ask for better than that. "We lack assault troops, logistical support and helicopters," said the Telegraph, adding: "If we do not back our military with the resources it needs – in terms of equipment, personnel and salaries – we will be jeopardising all of our safety."

The problem though is that we get little more than that. And it is the vagueness – the lack of specificity – which is the source of our great complaint. We lack "assault troops" means very little, other than a posh variation of "boots on the ground".

But, as we have argued earlier, depending on the tactics employed and the strategic objectives, the job – certainly in Afghanistan – could possibly be done more effectively with less troops. And, in any event, more of the wrong sort of troops, or troops deployed without the right equipment, can simply create targets, the overall effect of which is to increase the casualty rate while not helping to achieve strategic of tactical objectives.

Then, if "assault troops" is vague, what does "logistical support" mean? Taken literally, it could include delivering more toilet rolls in a more timely fashion.

Equally vague is the use of "helicopters". Does the paper mean more transport helicopters? If that is the case, are we talking about basic utility helicopters, like the Puma, more medium lift, like the Chinooks or even a heavy-lift capability – like the CH-53 – which we lack entirely at the moment? We doubt, however, that the paper means light assault helicopters, or even light utility, or armed reconnaissance, even if we aver that all three categories are urgently needed.

And therein lies the problem – or part of it. Presumably, if the government managed to magic out of thin air half a dozen Chinooks, the Telegraph would be happy. Having asked for "more helicopters", it could write a self-regarding editorial proclaiming, in effect, that it was "the Telegraph wot dun it", and then move on to pastures new – leaving troops better off, but still lacking key equipment and being dangerous vulnerable.

The other part of the problem is the limited scope of the paper's demands and, in this world, if you don't ask, you don't get. If the case is not made for specifics, then the politicians can hardly be criticised for not supplying them.

We would argue that the troops need assets like the AC-130; they need base protection such as the Phalanx/C-RAM anti-mortar equipment. In Afghanistan, they need tanks and Warriors. In Iraq, they need ground attack aircraft; they need better patrol and convoy escort vehicles. In fact, the Armed Forces need a whole package of "goodies" and we have only scratched the surface.

On the other hand, there are those who would argue that military equipment is a highly complex, specialised field, which is best left to experts. Neither the media nor the general public can be expected to take part in a debate about specifics.

Yet, how interesting it is that so many media outlets and so many people now have an opinion about the Eurofighter – nor least the Telegraph in its current leader. And who was it who made the decision to buy it in the first place? Ah! That would be that great military expert, Michael Heseltine.

Therein lies an important point – most big-ticket procurement decisions (and even some relatively minor ones) are made not by experts but by politicians, heavily influenced by political considerations. Rarely are they made solely for operational reasons.

And, if the likes of Des Browne, the current secretary of state for defence – who has absolutely no military background and had never, before he took on his job, shown any interest in defence – can take major decisions on defence equipment, then a newspaper should have no problem getting the requisite experts in to argue a case, one way or another. Certainly, it would be a change to have the case argued in public before rather than after the event.

One thing is very certain though – as is war far too important to be left to generals, so is the purchase of their equipment. Commendable though it may be, it is not safe simply to declare, as The Business has done this week, that "it is a case of giving them the tools and they will finish the job." Service personnel - no more or less than others – are prey to fashions and foibles, and – if they are allowed to - are quite capable of buying entirely the wrong tools, for the wrong war.

What is also emerging though is that, in the prosecution of wars, there is now a degree of choice. We seem to have entered an era of the "voluntary war" where governments can decide to commit their armed forces to a particular campaign and to withdraw at any time, at a moment unrelated to the tactical or strategic situation.

This development seems not to have been lost on the Army and might explain the unprecedented intervention of General Sir Richard Dannatt in October last. Faced with an unpopular war, for which the Army is not equipped and which probably requires complete restructuring in order to deal with it, Dannatt has called for a withdrawal.

The theme has been echoed by other senior officers and is even to be found in the Telegraph leader which applauds the "bravery and dedication of our forces in Iraq" but then effectively dismisses their efforts, telling us that our troops have an even more vital mission in Afghanistan. "Whereas our presence in Iraq is doing more harm than good," the leader says, "the campaign against Taliban insurgents still has the potential to save a country."

But there is more to this than meets the eye. The Army has a corporate view of how its should fight, as a body and, what comes over with some clarity from oral evidence given in a recent session of the House of Commons Defence Committee is that the fighting in Iraq is not regarded as "proper" fighting.

More of this emerged from Tony Blair's speech last week, where he made the distinction between "warfighting" and "peacekeeping". The references appear to acknowledge the Army's concern that the concentration on the peacekeeping activities will have a harmful effect on its ability to engage in "proper" warfare.

What is not recognised in this simplistic division, however, is that the Iraqi campaign cannot entirely be considered by such an anodyne descriptor as "peacekeeping". More accurately, it is a counter-insurgency operation and as much a war as the more conventional variety. What differs is the enemy's choice of tactics and weapons, their rather unsporting refusal to wear uniforms, carry arms openly or occupy clearly delineated lines.

Instead of shooting soldiers in open warfare, they instil fear in military opponents and local populations through use of suicide bombings, improvised explosive devices, kidnappings and beheadings. And they disguise themselves as civilians and hide among civilian populations with weapons stored and discharged from mosques, schools, hospitals, marketplaces, private residences and public roads. In this type of warfare, there are no front lines and what were previous considered the rear areas are as much in the battle as the soldiers out patrolling the streets.

The very strong impression emerging though is the tendency of the British high command to regard this type of war as an aberration and, more dangerously, an unwelcome diversion from the real business of soldiering. As we remarked earlier, the enemy is fighting the wrong kind of war.

But, instead of gearing up to meet the enemy and defeat it on the battlefield that it has chosen, the response of the Army – in particular – seems to be turning away from the challenge. The fear is that if funds from the equipment budget are diverted to gearing up for this counter-insurgency, there will be insufficient funds available to re-equip the Army to fight "proper" wars. And for the Army, that means putting at risk the project so treasured by the Generals, the £14 billion FRES project - their bid for the next generation of high-tech "toys".

Thus does the military establishment put it about that the Army is being "reduced" to the status of a gendarmerie, with the implication that successfully dealing with insurgencies is somehow less important – and even less noble – than winning "wiz-bang" wars where the troops can dash around in green-painted "toys" with the generals at their plotting boards, marshalling their forces.

The discussion over the blast protected Mastiff, in this context, is highly illuminating. While US ground forces are openly discussing purchasing an additional 4,000 mine protected vehicles, the British MoD has reluctantly invested in a mere 100 Mastiffs.

Furthermore, it has made it clear that these are temporary additions to the fleet, the high command regarding the vehicle as "non standard". It does not fit with the view of how the Army wants to fight its battles and it is concerned that, once it has left Iraq, it will have to pay to maintain equipment it does not want – at the expense of the "toys" it would prefer to have.

What this suggests is that there are two problems in relation to equipment procurement. The first is in deciding what the armed forces need, as opposed to what the generals – and even the lower ranks – want. Only then is possible to campaign for the equipment, the provision of which could well be opposed by the intended recipients.

Here is where the media (and the politicians) have to up their game. Decisions on where and under what conditions the armed forces will fight are political – they must be made by politicians – not the armed forces. It is then up to the armed forces to tell the politicians what they need to fight, and for the politicians to provide it.

But, what we are actually seeing is the tail wagging the dog. The Army, reluctant to fight in Iraq, is actually agitating for withdrawal – and refusing to gear itself for an effective prosecution of the war. Thus, the calls for equipment are relatively modest, when there should be great agitation for more, better and different equipment.

Slavishly following the whims of the generals – or deferring to them as the "experts" – does the nation no favours. And since the politicians will not call the Army's bluff, the only institution that can is the media, and especially the specialist defence correspondents.

This was the historic role of Captain Basil Lidell-Hart who as defence correspondent in the inter-war years, for both The Times and The Daily Telegraph, became a thorn in the flesh of the military establishments. He demanded the adoption of weapons and tactics which the War Office was reluctant to take on board – the lack of which so very nearly cost British the war and her freedom.

It is thus no role of the media to be cheer-leaders for the military establishment. The generals are just as capable of losing wars as winning them and, in fact, it could be argued that many wars have been won in spite of, not because of, them.
Thus, I will not and cannot rejoice in the current "gung-ho" and largely uncritical media support for the Armed Forces. To campaign for what they believe they want, or tell us they want, is not necessarily in their longer term interest, or ours.

Any support should be conditional, based on a knowledgeable appraisal of what is needed, and devoted to pursuing the national interest, not just the interests of the military establishments, who most certainly have their own agendas. And it is here that the media is simply not doing its job. This is simply not good enough.


Naked streets

If you look carefully at the picture above, you can count no less than 22 sets of traffic lights. Those, complete with the paraphernalia of signs, barriers and bus segregation, is the classic response of the conventional traffic engineer - an expensive, sterile nightmare that magnifies the delays and frustration, destroying visual amenity.

Such a scheme could have been the response of the City Council of Smallingerland in Friesland, Holland. In the year 2000, the councillors and officials were about to implement a long-planned scheme to reconstruct an important traffic intersection in the City of Drachten, known as the Laweiplein.

Instead of taking the conventional route, however, they had called in Hans Monderman, a pioneering Dutch road traffic engineer. He has developed innovative designs for roads based on a concept known as "shared space". He claims it improves both efficiency and safety by taking a fresh look at assumptions about road design, vehicle physics, human perception, cognition, and culture.

His idea is that the road space is shared equally by all users - no one has right of way or priority His most famous approach has been labeled "designing for negotiation", which requires the different users to "negotiate" the space they are about to occupy. His designs get road users to focus on looking at one another instead of traffic control devices. Rather than zebra crossings, signs, lights, etc., he strips the furniture from the streets - hence the term "naked streets" - making it easier for users to see and negotiate with one another. His goal is to enhance the conspicuity and predictability of users, empowering them to cooperate with each another.

In partnership with the Regional Traffic Safety Office for Friesland, an intersection formerly controlled by traffic signals was completely redesigned to form a square with a roundabout in the middle - a "squareabout" (see plan, left).

Unlike others, it incorporated Monderman's principles, all intended, as the Council put it, to "transform the spatial quality of the Laweiplein." A thorough baseline study had been carried out and now, three years on, the experiment seems to have been a success.

Instead of the stop-start conditions of the original layout, traffic flows at a relatively constant rate. Moreover, the speed through the junction for cyclists and motorised traffic is roughly the same, a feature which improve the dynamic between all users, whether motorists, cyclists or pedestrians.

Traffic circulates more freely and although peak-time queues still build up, traffic generally keeps moving at a constant low speed. And it is that constant speed which gives the advantage: average times to cross the intersection have fallen from 50 seconds to about 30 seconds. Observed delay times appear to be shorter than the predictions given by roundabout models. Observers agree that there is clear indication that capacity has improved on conventional roundabout designs.

Delays for scheduled buses have also declined since the reconstruction. Formerly buses had priority transponders for the traffic signals, and average waiting times were around 53 seconds during peak hours. Now the average waiting time to cross the roundabout is 26 seconds heading towards the nearby bus station. The waiting time in the opposite direction is around 38 seconds.

Pedestrians and cyclists now appear to cross the intersection without significant delay. Most do not have to pause or wait, and are ceded priority by drivers. This appears to be associated with the overall slower traffic speeds. A remarkable number of cyclists use hand signals to indicate their intentions. Between 51 percent and 81 percent use left hand turn signals, and between 9% and 47% use right hand turn signals. Such signals, remarks the official report, are not common amongst cyclists in The Netherlands. Thus does the report conclude:

The reconfiguration of the Laweiplein into a squareabout has reconciled the seeming conflict between its highway role and its function as a public space. The spatial quality of the square has improved Traffic safety in terms of accidents seem to have improved to date since the removal of traffic signals. However, it should be noted that full accident data for the three years since reconstruction was not available. Further comparisons and analysis of longer periods will provide more definite conclusions about traffic safety at the Laweiplein.
Putting the theory to the test this week was Owen Paterson, Conservative shadow tansport minister, who decided to discuss the scheme with Hans Monderman, standing in various positions on the roundabout. However, an activity which might have been considered suicidal in England, and would certainly have provoked horns blaring and the delivery of some serious Anglo-Saxon vocabulary, had no effect other than to have cars and trucks steer round him.

The expedition itself was noticed by The Times, with Transport Correspondent Ben Webster citing Paterson as saying that traffic lights, road signs and white lines would be removed from many high streets across the country under Conservative proposals to improve safety and reduce congestion by giving drivers and pedestrians equal status.

He went on to say that road humps, chicanes and other physical measures designed to reduce the speed of vehicles would be removed and the question of who had priority would be left open deliberately, making drivers more cautious.

All this was based on the findings from now a multiplicity of the so-called "shared-space" schemes in the Netherlands, where pedestrians, cyclists and cars are encouraged to mingle. Kerbs in several Dutch towns have been removed and the boundaries between the pavement and road blurred deliberately to prevent people from assuming they have right of way. Said Paterson,

It's the opposite of the 1960s ethos of separating cars and pedestrians. By removing road signs and traffic lights and changing the appearance of the road, you avoid the impression that areas are designated just for cars. The idea is to create space where there is mild anxiety among everyone so they all behave cautiously. No one thunders along at 30mph on a high street thinking that they have priority.
Rather nervously, some aspects of the shared space approach have already been adopted on London streets. At Seven Dials in Covent Garden, the road surface has been altered to give it the appearance of a pedestrian area and kerbs have been lowered to encourage people to wander across the street.

In Kensington High Street (pictured), 600 yards of railings have been removed to allow pedestrians to cross where they want, discrediting the belief that railings prevent accidents. In the two years after they were removed, pedestrian casualties declined three times faster than the London average. Traffic engineers, says The Times, believe that drivers are now keeping a sharper eye out for pedestrians because they know that they may cross at any point.

The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea is planning to introduce shared space ideas to Sloane Square next year. The aim is to encourage pedestrians to make greater use of the square, which is currently marooned by busy roads. A similar scheme is being planned for Exhibition Road.

So far, though, the roll-out in the rest of the country is minimal. Instead, we see the growing proliferation of traffic control devices - from the ever-present traffic lights to the hated speed cameras. And, with the EU set to take greater control over road safety, we can expect to see more and more regulations and even more attempts at controlling driving behaviour through mechanistic control devices.

But, says Paterson about the "shared space" scheme: "Instead of the State laying down the rules, we need to give responsibility back to road users. It's about creating an environment where it just doesn't feel right to drive faster than 20mph." That is an important lesson which has far wider implications. All too often, regulation has effects opposite to that intended - the so-called "sledgehammer to miss the nut" effect. Mr Monderman's ideas show that there are better ways.

But is the EU even capable of listening?


22 January 2007

A glimmer of hope

The picture shows tent fabric after being exposed to a mortar bomb explosion in Basra. The damage doesn't look much but each hole has been made by a red-hot jagged fragment of steel, big enough to do serious harm to anyone the other side. And, in Iraq, tent fabric is all that stands between many of our soldiers and death or injury, soldiers who are exposed to a barrage of rocket and mortar fire every single day.

The nature of the damage is more obvious here, on the steel cover of an air-conditioning unit which has been "splashed" by mortar fragments. The photograph was taken on a British base last year. So common is this type of damage that soldiers scarcely take any notice of it, although the bombs remain just as deadly, their frequency is increasing and the accuracy of the insurgents is improving.

As of now, virtually every building on some of the bases is pock-marked with mortar damage. Steel and concrete however, are more forgiving than flesh - both deaths and injuries are mounting and, at the present rate it is only a matter of time before there is a major incident.

Yesterday was a light day with the Shatt Al-Arab Hotel exposed early in the morning to an attack by five mortar bombs, while the Basra Palace was attacked by six Katyusha rockets.

Fortunately, there were no injuries, but that was not the case last Thursday when six British soldiers were wounded in a series of attacks against Basra Palace camp. We asked, "Now will they do something?" after the camp had come under fire the three times from a mixture of mortars, rockets and small arms. One soldier was said to have been seriously injured and five others received lesser injuries.

Yesterday though was also the MP's turn to ask questions. Ann Winterton, Conservative MP for Congleton, was able to challenge the Secretary of State for Defence, Des Browne. Having already asked him last December if he would consider providing the anti-mortar equipment, C-RAM, she asked him whether:

In the light of the tragic incident at Basra palace camp last Thursday in which six soldiers were injured, one seriously, will the Secretary of State reconsider evaluation of the C-RAM anti-mortar system and counter battery radar, in order to give our bases in Iraq considerably better protection and a retaliatory response, given that existing, so-called "layered" protection methods are clearly not working?
Browne, who had been batting away questions from a variety of Conservative MPs, was surprisingly emollient. "I give the hon. Lady my reassurance," he said, "that we keep everything under review." He then added:

I know that the commanding officer in Basra keeps the issue of force protection constantly under review, and I will specifically ask him to advise me again on the capability that she asks about. However, I do not want to leave the House with the impression that there is no capability to counteract the indirect fire threat. There is indeed a very specific capability…
He would, he said, ensure that he was given a view on that in the light of the event that she mentioned, and would write to her.

Someone who did not fare as well was shadow defence secretary Liam Fox who, as we feared, relied on the substance of yesterday's Sunday Telegraph story for his attack, where Sean Rayment alleged that troops in Afghanistan had been denied essential equipment on cost grounds.

Such equipment as is required – beyond that normally acquired through the standard procurement process – is obtained though a procedure called the Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR). With that in mind, Liam Fox asked:

Can the Secretary of State tell us how many urgent operational requirements have been made of the Ministry of Defence in the past year from Afghanistan, and how many have been turned down?
Here, Browne was adamant. "All urgent operational requirements that have been approved by the chain of command have been acceded to," he said:

That is entirely as it should be, and the process of urgent operational requirements has been approved and commented upon favourably by independent investigations on a number of occasions. Contrary to media speculation over the weekend, no such requirements have been turned down on financial grounds. Indeed, over the past couple of years more than half a billion pounds have been invested in urgent operational requirements in relation to supporting our troops in both theatres. It is part of the nature of urgent operational requirements that they continually come forward and are approved.
One thing the Fox did do, though was refer to the Apache "rescue" and (rightly) point out that the Army needed a smaller helicopter. Browne's answer was odd. An alternative helicopter was available, he said, and could have been made available, but a tactical decision was made by the commandos to deploy the Apache in this particular way. This simply does not compute and, I suspect, we will be returning to this issue.

As to helicopters in general though, Browne referred to Brigadier Jerry Thomas, the commander of British Forces in Afghanistan who had stated: "I have not asked for additional helicopters and the supply system is working well, with no soldiers or marines running out of supplies." After a brief homily about the difficulty in buying these machines, he then delivered the coup de grĂ¢ce, staring down Fox with the words:

Let me also say to him that there is no truth in the suggestion that urgent operational requirements in relation to night-vision goggles were turned down for financial reasons, as was reported in the press.
Although the helicopter question was good, Fox is going to need to know more about why the top brass are so reluctant to demand more machines before he is able to dent Browne. And dent Browne, he was unable to do. Relying on flawed information, he left himself wide open to attack, with no comeback. As expected, Browne exploited the opening and the game was over.

However, at least, through Ann Winterton, Browne is looking seriously at force protection. He now knows his card is marked in that, if there is a disaster in the future, he can be held directly and personally responsible. In that, there is a glimmer of hope that we might save some lives. It is only a glimmer, mind you. And imagine how quickly action would be taken if the Houses of Parliament were being mortared each day and the MPs had to sleep in unprotected tents in Palace Yard.


This is the state we're in

Last Friday I experienced a serious urge to do something I had never done before. No, no, settle down, it was not that exciting. I decided that I would quite like to vote for Jade Goody on Celebrity Big Brother. Unfortunately, neither I nor the people I discussed it with (who agreed with me) knew how to go about it. So, we did not vote.

For the benefit of our non-British readers and those who are too superior to admit interest (though they admit to a great deal of disgust) in the Big Brother developments, let me explain what has been happening. (Those who are disgusted at the thought of such lowly subjects and people being discussed on this elevated forum can stop reading now.)

There is no need, I believe, to explain what Big Brother or Celebrity Big Brother are, there being similar programmes in most countries of the developed world. The participants in the latter tend to be rather moth-eaten celebs, either wannabes or ones way past their sell-by date. (There was one occasion when the winning celebrity was not one at all. She had merely pretended and nobody noticed the difference.)

So, there we were, a couple of weeks ago, with a number of moth-eaten celebrities gathering in the house, among them one Jade Goody, who is famous for being the only Big Brother participant who had made it as a celeb, her mother and boyfriend and assorted others, including a Bollywood wannabe, who had made a number of unsuccessful films and was clearly looking to this programme to do something about her career.

Whether the programme was more or less boring than the previous ones I cannot tell as I have never seen a single episode not even accidentally, as so many pontificators, both journalists and letter-writers seem to do. Nevertheless, the ratings remained lamentable and Channel 4 clearly decided to do something about it. Now this may be libellous and I would not dream of suggesting that Channel 4 created a situation in which racist insults and epithets were flung around with gay abandon but their editors do make a decision as to which part of the repartee is broadcast.

Some years ago Ben Elton wrote a wickedly funny satire on Big Brother, entitled “Dead Famous”. In that a murder is carried out in the house, the police investigate and the ratings go up. As a detective story it is no good at all but as a novel of satire on the media and its canon fodder it is superb. Every single series since then has resembled it more and more. I do hope that Mr Elton will manage to cash in on the whole business somehow.

Not murder but a crime that is considered to be even more serious in modern Britain, at least by the great and the good: racism. The Bollywood wannabe, Shilpa Shetty, who had already managed to annoy, I understand, most viewers and critics by being pretentious, incompetent and clearly horrified by having to share a house with people she considered to be Untouchable, became the focus of various sneers, attacks and rather unpleasant and ignorant comments.

All these were broadcast, complaints multiplied and viewing figures went up. Her own rather tearful references to people born in the gutter or by the roadside went unnoticed though, as Julie Burchill pointed out, this is true about millions of people in India. I suspect the dainty actress was referring to her housemates rather than the Untouchables back home.

Then, several things happened. First of all, David Cameron made a sensible comment. I do not think the media made enough of this. For the first time in his political career he used common sense and announced that every TV set had a regulator called the off button.

In India the reaction was varied, despite the headlines here of uproar and outrage. The Bollywood wannabe is apparently a great hit with teenage boys because she wears more revealing clothes than is usual in that country. Some of these boys gleefully burned effigies of Channel 4 producers and directors.

Since nobody actually knows what these people look like the effigies were rather random and as teenage boys are, by and large, notorious pyromaniacs, not a lot can be deduced from that.

The Indian Finance Minister shrugged his shoulders and said that the continuing negotiations with Britain will not be affected by something so unimportant and the Indian Tourist Board invited Jade to visit that country and sample its yoghurt. We already know that she is quite keen on Indian take-aways but the food in India itself might come as something of a surprise to her.

That was the end of the more or less sensible comments. Gordon Brown rushed in there, demanding that viewers should vote Jade out, “a vote for Shilpa being a vote for Britain” in his somewhat confused argument. Perhaps the fact that he has been a wannabe Prime Minister for several years made him feel a certain affinity with all those third-rate celebs.

Alan Johnson (I think he is the Education Secretary) has announced that all school children will be taught that being British meant being open and unprejudiced (with one important exception, as I shall explain below). Hizonner, the Mayor of LondON made a statement. The Commission for Equality and Human Rights rushed in there and criticized Luke Johnson, the chairman of Channel 4’s board and all the great and the good have been pontificating, having called for the eviction of Jade.

Now, if this country were still one in which the people refused to be slaves (if it ever was) and did not simply do as they were told or sat on the sidelines sneering then there would have been a collective two-finger salute to Gordon Brown and the pundits of various hues. Alas, the public did as it was told and Jade was voted out with a massive percentage (so my vote would have made no difference) and to gleeful headlines in the Sun and the Daily Mirror about bigots and stupidity.

For Jade it must have all looked rather familiar. I suspect most of our readers are too superior and refined to recall what happened when this rather unappealing female started her career. She was in the Big Brother house and was abused considerably more freely than the pretty little Indian actress by her colleagues and the audience. She was called fat, ugly, stupid; a bitch and a pig. When she was evicted, she came out to posters that said, “Kill the Pig”, and a carefully collected mob that was screaming abuse at her.

The point about Jade (and the other so-called racists on that programme) is that she belongs to the class in this country about whom you can say anything you like, be as revoltingly abusive as you like and get away with it. Neither the Mayor nor the Chancellor, socialists though they are, will ever speak up for the underclass in this country. Come to think of it, they will not speak up for what remains of the working class either. No British school child will be taught that one must not be prejudiced against chavs.

Where Jade went wrong last time was not to sit down and cry prettily in front of a camera, daintily dabbing her eyes so the mascara will not smudge. Instead she took her tormentors on and won. Well, at least temporarily.

She is the only Big Brother participant who has become a celebrity with her own cable TV show, her own perfume, and endless media stories. Who remembers the ones who called her stupid and laughed at her bulk? In other words, she is even worse than a chav; she is an uppity chav. Up with this we will not put.

Of course, you might argue that chav or not, she has not actually done anything. She is famous for being famous. Plenty of those around and they do not get the sort of abuse she does. Nor is it a particularly new phenomenon, so I hope that none of our readers put up comments along the lines of “o tempora, o mores”.

What were those famous Edwardian beauties, whose pictures adorned all photographers’ shops? What of the subjects of Regency gossip sheets? The so-called hostesses and denizens of nightclubs in the thirties? Some were actresses or singers (as some are models or pop singers now) but most were famous for being famous.

Who were Emerald and Nancy Cunard but the wife and daughter of a shipping magnate, though the latter played at left-wing politics and journalism (particularly if there were handsome men around)? Come to think of it, who is Carole Thatcher, so beloved by the nice public, who are so scornful of Jade et al? She, too, has played at being a journalist and has recently emerged as a sausage taster but, actually, she is famous for … all together now ….. being Margaret Thatcher’s daughter. And for being famous.

Well, Jade Goody’s parents are nothing to write home about but she obviously has some flair of her own. Otherwise she would not have got anywhere. I notice that this time round she has learnt her lesson and has allowed the Sun to publish a photograph of her, red-eyed with weeping. She still cannot manage that pretty dab at the eyelashes but she has reinvented herself as a victim to be pitied and someone who is almost suicidal with guilt. She is reported as being treated for depression. Way to go, girl. That’s how we like our chavs. In their lowly place.

We have seen this with other uppity chavs like the Beckhams who have excited incomprehensible levels of hatred. This dislike of people trying to move up from their lowly position has extended to those well-known figures of fun, Essex man and Essex girl, who are, if truth be told, East End lads and lasses, who earned or made money and moved out to small Essex towns not least in order to give their children a better start in life.

They know better than anyone how bad the schools and how unsafe many of the areas in the East End are and how little will any modern, hectoring politician do about it. In fact, they know better than anyone else that those modern hectoring politicians will prevent anything being done while ensuring that their own children do not mix with the hoi polloi.

While the “racism on Big Brother” story played out in parts of our media, I also managed to read a theatre review by the Daily Telegraph’s Charles Spencer. Well, I read part of it. I hardly ever manage to get through Mr Spencer’s articles. Even more rarely do I agree with him.

He was lauding a play that sounded utterly dire by any standard by a (to me unknown) young playwright, Roy Williams, “Days of Significance”. Clearly Mr Williams is known to the art establishment of this country as this work is being performed at the Swan Theatre at Stratford.

The play seems to be a “sensitive” and, no doubt, “thoughtful” study of how revolting squaddies are. When they are not drunk out of their minds and have sex with every female in sight (presumably at different times) they beat up Iraqi prisoners (undoubtedly innocent and well-meaning). In fact, they are a disgrace to the human race.

Oh for a Kipling, I thought, as I abandoned the review, who will tell Messrs Williams and Spencer that
We aren't no thin red 'eroes, nor we aren't no blackguards too,
But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you;
An' if sometimes our conduck isn't all your fancy paints,
Why single men in barricks don't grow into plaster saints;
Kipling’s Tommies and our own squaddies are nothing like plaster saints and their behaviour is often appalling (as is the behaviour of City bankers on Friday and Saturday night in London). But they are other things as well. They are people who are asked to risk their lives for many reasons, often not clearly defined.

They are, as my colleague has pointed out tirelessly, sent into battle with inadequate kit and protection. They are ill-educated and often prevented by the army structure and their superior officers from acquiring further training or education even to the point of becoming as articulate as their American counterparts. (Yes, I know we, as a country, despise the American services but that is only because the Yanks allow anybody rise to the top, simply anybody.)

One of the disgraceful aspects of homelessness in this country is the number of ex-soldiers who are on the streets. Not all and not the majority but far too many for us to be smug and satisfied with the situations. Young lads from working-class and even lower families, ill-educated and without training go into the forces where they do well enough. All too often they come out ill-educated and without training, with little help from their employers as to adjustment to civilian life and acquiring a job.

In fact, their purpose is to be fodder for clever-dick playwrights, theatre critics and columnists. They are chavs, low and vulgar and we can all abuse them as much as we like with no fears of statements from the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Why should any of us care, beyond a sentimental attachment to the idea of the glorious British soldier? Because, with the destruction of most of the working class communities, through social engineering, intrusive welfarism, appalling education and, let us face it, laziness and lack of ambition within those communities, the underclass is extending.

There are more chavs than were really hopelessly poor in the Victorian era. Furthermore, throughout the nineteenth and early century stupendous efforts were made to enable people to climb out of their hopelessness.

Victorians did not scream abuse (well, some did but many did not) or just turn away fastidiously to sigh about the dumbing down of society. They did not just write studies for think-tanks (or blogs, I suppose). They went into the slum areas and set up boys’ brigades, scouts and guides; they collected money to open child care centres instead of sighing about working class women having to earn their living; they set up Workers’ Educational Assocations.

All that was then taken over by the state and gradually destroyed. And the chavs are ignorant and uneducated, there being nowhere for them to get education. Given that Oxford professors like Tim Garton Ash, as the Booker column points out this week, know very little of the subjects they pontificate on; given the perennial ignorance of our politicians, our journalists, our experts, the undereducation of the underclass may not seem to be all that important.

I beg to disagree. A society in which a large and growing class is not to be allowed from where it has been corralled (and they must not be encouraged to buy property either) is not a society with a particularly high potential for future development.

My colleague has detailed the effects on the armed services. Sooner or later, we shall have to ask ourselves whether this country has the stomach to be a military power, even to the extent of saying:
While it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy fall be'ind,"
But it's "Please to walk in front, sir," when there's trouble in the wind-
There's trouble in the wind, my boys, there's trouble in the wind,
O it's "Please to walk in front, sir," when there's trouble in the wind.

We shall also have to decide about our economy. More and more of our children remain uneducated and untrained, unable to hold a simple conversation or turn up for a job or an interview on time and reasonably dressed. Businesses have responded by increasingly hiring foreign labour at various levels.

Banning immigrants or temporary incomers from taking up employment here, the preferred solution of a number of our readers, will not work. That will simply take investment and entrepreneurs to other countries.

Nor does the answer lie in Gordon Brown’s daft new idea of keeping teenagers at school till they are eighteen, thus massaging the youth unemployment figures.

It is, however, time to start wondering what is to be done with all those chavs apart from screaming abuse at them.

There is a strong possibility that this series of Celebrity Big Brother will be taken off the air. What will happen to the Bollywood wannabe I cannot tell. I doubt if her career in India will take off any more than it has done in the past but I foresee numerous appearances on chat shows here, still clutching that dainty handkerchief. She might not be able to avoid a photograph with Gordon Brown or Ken Livingstone. But, eventually, she will be forgotten.

The problem that crystallized around her, on the other hand, will not go away. Personally, I hope Jade Goody wins out this time as well and fights the good fight for the chavs. But, of course, nothing will change until we realize that they, too, need education and ambitions.

21 January 2007

An heroic failure

We did the story on Wednesday with a follow-up the following day, in which I was highly critical of the unbelievably amateur graphic published by The Daily Telegraph to illustrate the attempted rescue of Lance Corporal Ford.

Although the attempt was last Monday, it has taken this long for photographs of one of the Apache helicopters actually involved in the rescue attempt to reach the media. These have been picked up by – amongst others - the News of the World, the Mail on Sunday, the Observer and The Sunday Telegraph (print edition only).

The photographs themselves completely support our contention that the riders on the Apaches were strapped to the sides and not, as the Telegraph illustrated in its cack-handed manner, lying prone across the wings.

Some of our readers - well, one in particular - questioned whether the detail mattered, countering our view that there seems little value in using up precious space in a national newspaper with a graphic which offers a false impression of events. Arguably - and we do thus argue - if accuracy is no longer an issue, then we might as well all give up and go home, leaving the newspapers to print whatever they deem fit - right or wrong - without challenge.

But there is more to it than this. Following the incident on the Monday, the Army Air Corps was ordered to put on a demonstration of how the Apache transport was arranged, which it did at its Middle Wallop base on the Wednesday morning. Thus, apart from checking the details on the internet (which we did), the Telegraph had an opportunity to check with the Army as to the details, both that morning and later, when Channel 4 News broadcast footage of the demonstration (video grab illustrated above). That the paper did not, and persevered with publishing an inaccurate graphic, suggests an element of carelessness or even incompetence that does not fit well with a major national daily newspaper.

Even then, we have always regarded this issue as peripheral. We were concerned that, in talking up a procedure that is quite normal in the military - hanging off helicopters - the paper was missing the point. In our Thursday posting, we argued that, in its story accompanying the graphic, it could have been better employed raising the issue that we had brought up, and which had been raised by a Telegraph letter-writer - why were there no proper troop-carrying assault helicopters to convey troops in what was a pre-planned attack?

But it was Channel 4 News, in its Wednesday evening report, that raised an even more important issue. The attack site, suspected of being an important Taliban regional centre, had been under observation for two months. Yet the assault, dubbed "Operation Glacier" - where the attackers' numbers had vastly overwhelmed the defenders - had faltered in the face of ferocious fighting.

This led Channel 4 News corespondent Alex Thompson to observe:

There is, however, no getting away from the central fact of this operation, which was that it was a failure, albeit a heroic failure in some aspects… the Taliban were not flushed out of their fort, and four Marines were injured and one, of course, was killed.
His report concluded, "There will be serious questions as to why months of surveillance and planning ended up in retreat, injury and death."

It takes no imagination at all to surmise the MoD's relief that the Telegraph chose for the following day to concentrate on the "derring do" aspects of the incident, complete with its "Boys' Own" comic-book style graphic, talking up the bravery of the troops.

It must be stressed that we applaud unreservedly the bravery of these troops, but the bravery was going back for their fallen comrade, not riding the outside of a helicopter.

That activity is not even confined to the military. The picture to the right and the one above show civilian electicity workers on the skids of an MD-500, prior to and in the process of repairing high-level electricity cables. Ironically, it is just this type of helicopter that the Army so desperately needs, the "Little Bird" to which Booker referred to in his column.

While other commentators could have given the MoD a hard time as well, however, none did. A media that so lacks perspective and judgement that it is besotted with "Big Brother" fell for the "derring do" story. It shelved its critical functions and went for the easy option, letting the MoD completely off the hook and a "heroic failure" go unchallenged.

And that is important.