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I was recently reading an account by a senior British commander of his time in either Iraq and Afghanistan. One of things he said was that he and his colleagues had failed to properly take tribal dynamics into account. Earlier this week I was reading the text of some British lectures written on the subject on Frontier warfare. There was no date on them but the campaign most referred to took place in 1897. As there is no mention of aircraft, my guess is that the lectures written sometime before the First World War. One of the things stressed in the very first lecture was the need to study and get a firm grip on tribal dynamics. So, it's a little bit of a puzzle as to why more than 100 years later that British commanders failed to properly take them into account. Did no-one from the British Army go to the Ministry of Defence archives, the National Archives or onto the internet to see what previous campaigners had found out through bitter, and bloody, experience? A careful reading of what recent senior British officers had to say about their time in Iraq or Afghanistan strongly suggests that they hadn't even digested the lessons of Northern Ireland. Of course there are many differences between Armagh and Helmand, but there were also common threads running through the conflicts in both.

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It used to be that public libraries were places of quiet. That is certainly no longer true when it comes to my local branch. In an effort to be more "family friendly" young children are now allowed to rampage around screaming their little heads off. Now, I'm all for children being encouraged to visit libraries and have no wish to see them cowed into total silence- I'm not a fan of "children should be seen but not heard". But I seem to remember that when I was a child, under the older quieter no-screaming regime, that we were actually learning something useful. That was that there were other people than ourselves and our families in this world and they were entitled to some consideration. Nowadays, children behave the same way no matter where they are and who they are with. It's apparently all part of the everyone-gets-a-sweetie, there's-no-such-thing-as-wrong, approach to child-rearing. More than 20 years ago I was surprised at the selfish inconsiderate way a horde of young kids on a Canadian ferry across Halifax Harbour ran amok. But I thought, hey, they get out of their system and turn into decent human beings. But I was wrong. That age group rioted a couple of years back in Edmonton on the annual celebrations to mark the foundation of modern Canada. It turned out that little self-obsessed inconsiderate brats turn into big self-obsessed inconsiderate brats. And as they are now the parents, which chance do the little children have of growing into decent considerate members of society? 

 

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Even I was surprised to learn that something like around half of the BBC's top paid journalists and presenters are privately educated. The arrogance and incompetence of the organisation, fully demonstrated by its dismal coverage of the Scottish independence referendum, suggested that the privileged but barely even competent are indeed over-represented in its ranks - but I had no idea how over-represented. I think something like seven percent of the British population is privately educated. So, something is obviously very wrong. And whatever is wrong is not confined to the BBC but a cancer eating away the heart, what's left of it, of British prosperity. Two reasons for this sad state of affairs spring to mind. One is that parents are buying their children into job-network, the Old School Tie. Or it might be that these children of privilege are actually better educated. I have my doubts about this second explanation, there are many state comprehensives that are pretty good but whose former pupils do not dominate the senior ranks of the BBC or the British Army in the same way that those from private schools seem to. But let's say it is true. Could this be because the people who control the purse-strings and levers of power have no real interest in decent education for all - or should I say equal opportunity in life - because their kids are not affected by the shortcomings of state education: That they do not have a dog in the fight. Perhaps the answer is to encourage them to enter the arena. Now, I'm for freedom of choice. If people want to spend extra money on educating their kids they should be allowed to do it. But what if we turned around and said: "If the state isn't good enough to educate your kids, then it's not good enough to give them a job either". Make it that private school pupils are excluded from sitting the exams that eventually lead to public sector jobs. Basically, no tax-funded jobs for those who did not go to state schools. I would hope that this would mean that the British Army would no longer be the largest single employer of pupils from Eton. Of course, the privileged would soon find away to circumvent the policy, but perhaps in the process educational opportunities for the masses might be improved for a short while at least. 

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The recently released film Dunkirk appears to have ignited some interest in the ones who didn't get away and that interest, in Scotland at least, has focused on the 51st Highland Division. The division had been hived off from the main British Expeditionary Force and lent to the French. The bulk of the division was eventually cornered at the French seaside town of St Valery en Caux by a German force under the command of Erwin Rommel. Attempts by the Royal Navy to evacuate the trapped troops came to naught and around 10,000 soldiers went into the bag. Not all were Highlanders or even Scots. The 1st Middlesex and the 7th Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, as well as numerous English artillery men, engineers and support troops, also went into the Prisoner of War camps. Back in the 1980s it was proposed to twin Inverness with St Valery. It seemed a good idea to local politicians, perhaps with an eye on some exchange visits with their French counterparts. The Invernessians who spent more than five years as guests of the Germans, many as basically slave labourers down Polish coalmines, were less keen. They remembered that some of the citizens of St Valery had gone out of their way to betray escaping or hiding of British soldiers to the Germans. Now, I don't know why they did that but I can sympathise with my informants', former members of the 4th Camerons, feeling of betrayal. Disappointingly, although the new film has reawakened some interest in the fate of the 51st Division, the same is nowhere near as true for another group of British soldiers who did not get away, the brave defenders of Calais - three battalions of regulars, a Territorial battalion and one-sixth of the British Army's tank force. And as the film apparently barely features the Germans, my guess is that there will be no hint that the Scots of the 52nd Lowland Division and troops of the 1st Canadian Division were landed in France after the Dunkirk evacuation but quickly brought home again when it was realised that the French wanted to thrown in the towel.  

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Years ago, when I worked in Shetland, I was accused of cheating at Trivial Pursuit. Does anyone remember Trivial Pursuit? Actually, it wasn't just me who was accused. It was a couple of other island journalists too. At the end of a hard night at the bar on a Friday night, some of us used to end up playing Trivial Pursuit and perhaps knocking back some more beers from the off-licence. One night, one of the non-journalists in the group accused us of cheating. That hurt, what kind of person cheats at Trivial Pursuit? Yes, we used to get a lot of the answers. But journalists usually know a little about a lot. It's in the nature of the job. So, no sane reasonable person would be surprised that journalists quite often do well at games like Trivial Pursuit. Anyway, a couple of weeks later I spotted our accuser hitch-hiking at the side of the road. He wasn't my favourite person. I was still fuming at his ridiculous and ill-mannered accusation. But I picked him up regardless. The thing about living on an island is that there is no room to hold grudges. Life in a small community means everyone has to rub along. Otherwise things fester and get out of control; and proportion. But obviously, the insult rankled or I wouldn't still remember it.

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The more I learn, the gladder I am that Soviets never did swarm across the border between East and West Germany. It appears that retired British generals seem to think it is now safe to reveal that the British Army of the Rhine was barely even a tripwire and had little chance of containing any westward Soviet thrust. It was a just a big con-trick. Though, who was being conned is open to question. I suspect it was not the Soviets. The BAOR had to cannibalise its entire tank fleet simply to provide enough working Challengers for the two armoured brigades needed to take part in the 1991 First Gulf War. Basically, the BAOR's tank force back in West Germany was partially dismantled scrap until those two brigades returned from the Middle East. The British plan in the face of the Red Tide was for the infantry to engage the Soviet armoured columns pouring onto the plains of West Germany with wire controlled missiles while their tanks somehow manoeuvered themselves into position for a supposedly decisive flank attack. The problem was that the infantry's wire-guided missiles could not penetrate the front armour of the Soviet tanks. It was, as one recently retired general said, like telling a boxer he can only punch sideways. The missiles only worked against sides and rear of Soviet tanks. The plan only worked if the Soviets insisted on reversing across the German plains in their tanks. I also have serious doubts to whether Britain's generals were a professional match for their Soviet counterparts. During the last couple of years of Second World War the Soviets handled their armoured forces far more professionally and proficiently than their British contemporaries. I suspect throughout the so-called Cold War the Soviet High Command continued to value professionalism, innovation, and imagination at a higher level than the Old Boys' network foisted on the British Army. Nuclear weapons would quite possibly have been needed within hours rather than days of the Soviets kicking off their attack. 

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All this recent talk of the 20th anniversary of the British hand-over of Hong Kong to the Communist Chinese reminded me of one of the tenuous links I have to that far-off city. I used to live in the old basement servants' quarters in the old house of the guy who signed the 99-year-lease on the New Territories; the expiration of which triggered the hand-over. I was surprised when I arrived to discover I was sharing a home not only with the owners but with one of the guys who had been a copyboy at the Evening Times when I was a copyboy at the Glasgow Herald. I thought the Times copyboys were a great bunch - with one exception. You guessed it, the exception was was my surprise housemate. He was a sly snide git. So, it was not great surprise when Mr Snide and the landlady were overheard on the stairs sniggering and slagging me and my room-mate Dennis off. That should have perhaps been a warning about what was to come. We all used to pay the rent three or four months in advance. The rent included use of the kitchen upstairs. Then, after we'd handed over the second three or four months in advance the landlady announced the kitchen was now out of bounds to us. By this time, Mr Snide had moved on. The three of us remaining lodgers were students, we could not afford to eat out every night or buy take-away food. We needed to be able cook our own food. It was a very unpleasant surprise. But I don't think the landlady should have been surprised when we found alternative accommodation before she could get her posh but grubby hands on the third instalment of rent in advance .  Maybe another time I'll tell you about how she locked all her tenants out of the house to punish one who had offended her. Once again, by then Mr Snide had moved out. 

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I was a more than a little uncomfortable recently at the Canadian coverage of a Canadian special forces sniper apparently setting a world record for killing at a distance. The fatal shot was something over three and half kilometres and fired by a soldier from JTF2 attached to a training team in Iraq. Much of the coverage was celebratory and revelled to a pornographic level in the technical aspects of the shot - stuff like allowing for wind strength and direction, the curvature of the earth, etc. I suspect much of this so-called technical information was left over from the Hollywood publicity material for the film American Sniper. I just don't think killing another human being is a matter for public celebration. It sometimes has to be done but it is not something that should be loudly applauded by people who were not there. Did those who wolfed down the discussion of windage also want to know how far the enemy soldier's brains, or lung tissue or whatever, were spread across the sand as a result of the large calibre bullet? Sadly, I suspect some would want to know that. War Porn.  

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I've been reading a couple of histories of the First World War and couldn't help noticing that the top United States field commander is always referred to as "Black Jack" Pershing. But that wasn't his nickname. The original version wasn't "Black". The actual word rhymes with Tigger - as anyone who has seen the 1954 British film The Dam Busters will know (you would have thought whoever they used to dub the dog's name change would at least have sounded a little like Richard Todd's Guy Gibson). I've decided not to use General Pershing's actual nickname because I don't want barred from the internet by some webcrawling bot. Or by the kind of retired old fart from the University of Upper Dingley Dell (Est. 2001)  who appoints themselves a super-administrator on Wikipedia. Anyway, the nickname was actually a sneer conferred on Pershing by military cadets at West Point when he taught there. He aroused their contempt by being an advocate for the African-American troopers of the US Army's 9th and 10th Cavalry regiments, the famous Buffalo Soldiers. Pershing went against US Army orthodoxy in believing the troopers were just as good as their white counterparts. In the old black and white Westerns, when the cavalry is seen charging across the desert to the rescue, the troopers should in most cases be African-Americans. The Buffalo Soldiers bore the brunt of the campaigns against the Apache. I would like to think that the change in Pershing's nickname was due to some degree of sensitivity. But I doubt it. More probably the way he earned the original was too much of a reminder of a group of warriors who were in the process of being whitewashed out of US military history - the Buffalo Soldiers.    

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Every freelance journalist worth their salt keeps a calendar of forthcoming anniversaries handy. There's nothing like the centenary of an event or at least an anniversary to justify pitching an article on some historic event. But it seems that these days magazines and newspapers are afraid of being "scooped" when it comes to history-related articles. Few seem to wait until the actual anniversary. At first the articles were about a week early. Now they can be a matter of months premature. The centenary of Winston Churchill taking command of the 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers was in January 1916 but I spotted at least one long article about his time in trenches in the summer of 2015.  Articles about the centenary of the start of the First World War in August 1914 began appearing in early 2013 and I think I even saw some in late 2012. By the time August 2014 came around, the number of anniversary articles appeared to be tailing off. So, what's my point? Things are starting to get silly. When is an anniversary piece not an anniversary piece? When it's two years early.

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It would seem that radio programme researchers have gone the way of the dodo. I never hear any mention of them among the team who "helped put the show together". By the way, it seems a news or current affairs programme is now a "show". And "shows" are surely all about entertainment rather than providing information. But back to the topic in hand. No-one is credited as a researcher any more. But there do seem to be a lot of producers. When I was on the radio there were two producers. One was never seen and was the boss of the producer who put the programme together, along with the researcher. I suspect that most of the people now described as "producers" are what used to be called researchers. "Producer" sounds more important. But I bet they get paid what a researcher would have, if any still existed. Most of soldiers here in Canada who would be privates in the British Army hold the rank of corporal. Promotion to corporal is automatic after something like four years in the army. So, Canadian sergeants are section commanders, assisted by master corporals,  and the same rule of thumb goes pretty much up the chain. Knock Canadian soldier down a rank to work out that level of responsibility they would have in the British Army. Maybe it's all part of the "everyone gets a prize/sweetie" culture that's so prevalent these days.

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I sometimes come across folk who make their living as writers. What I've noticed is that the good writers are nearly all nice people and very easy to talk to. I don't know if we've got a chicken and egg situation here. Are they easy to talk to because they are good at their job and comfortable with themselves? Or are they good writers because they are basically amiable people who have little problem making a connection with readers? Sadly, the converse is also true. The snottiest and most unpleasant "writers" I come across are usually also pretty bad at what they do. Perhaps even in their arrogance they still  have an uneasy awareness at the back of what passes for their minds that they are actually talentless. That's why they stand on their pretentious dignity so much and go into such a snit if they feel they are not being shown the respect they somehow feel they deserve. Many of them struggle to even reach the giddy heights of mediocrity. 

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There are just some names I've never had any luck with. People with certain Christian names have just always been trouble from the day I've encountered them until the moment we part ways. I won't name the names because, well, you never know; maybe one day I'll meet one that is a decent human being and I wouldn't want to get off on the wrong foot with them. But so far every single person I've met who has one of these three or four Christian names as been deeply unpleasant and frequently highly incompetent. Now, obviously monsters are not created simply by lumbering a child with a certain, usually slightly pretentious, name. There must be more to it than that. It took a while for me to work it out. It takes years of obnoxious behaviour by the parents to turn these children through both example and training into scum they grow up to be. And obnoxious parents do seem to have a tendency to give their offspring slightly pretentious names. With those kind of parents, these poor kids never had a chance to be decent human beings. But we all suffer when in adulthood they inevitably fall short of the mark when it comes to being human.  

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No-one should be surprised that the New York Times decided to publish what might be evidence in any trial or trials of those involved in last week's bomb attack on children attending a pop concert  in Manchester. The basic fact is that the New York Times does not care if it comprises an English trial. To them, England is some kind of Third World country and "British Justice" is a contradiction in terms. It's called American Exceptionalism. Every American school kid is brought up to believe that the United States is the greatest country in the world; that it brings together all that is best in the world under one flag. The only justice that matters is American Justice. Also, the New York Times, like the rest of the American press, believes in trial by media. They call it Freedom of the Press, or Freedom of Expression, or something like that. I sometimes wonder why they bother having trials and courts in the United States. If a crime is high profile, forget a fair trial. The American attitude to publicizing evidence before a trial is, to say the least, relaxed. It seems the only time US juries don't agree with the media when it comes to guilt is when Race issues its ugly head during proceedings. So, anyway, no surprise that the New York Times has no hesitation in publishing photos of what might be crucial in any trial. "You said in your confession that you packed the explosives into a blue rucksack, you now deny that, but how did you know the colour of the rucksack if you never saw it?" "I saw a fragment of it on the New York Times website".

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Anyone who reads this section on a regular basis will be aware that I like to rant against employers who force kids to work for them for free. This so called "intern" system effectively means that rich and privileged youngsters buy their jobs. Who else can afford to work for nothing? Employers don't seem to care if at the end of the day the quality of the work these kids produce is all too often not that great. In this life you only get what you pay for and if you pay nothing....  But in truth, many of the kids do work and try hard because they believe that doing well at the job will get them a real job. But there are youngsters who lose out. They are ones whose parents live far from where the jobs are. They might then be able to consider working for free while still living with their parents purely for the sake of breaking the old Job Catch22; no experience, no job: no job, no experience. But to do that they need to live within commuting distance of the job. Ordinary kids certainly cannot afford to pay for food and rent while working for nothing. Everyone loses with this intern thing. But the biggest losers are talented kids who never get a chance because they and their families can't afford to participate in this whole working for nothing racket.

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Last weekend, on the recommendation of a friend who had served in Afghanistan, I watched the Tina Fey's film Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, about an American TV journalist's time in Kabul. It reminded me of how many Western poseurs there were in Kabul. Of course, for the sake of the film some things were exaggerated. I've been to the Chinese restaurant featured in the film, admittedly only for lunch, and it was no where near as raucous as the celluloid version. When I was at Kandahar airport in 2002 the media presence was almost without exception composed of highly experienced journalists. But when I was in Kabul three years later I came across a number of poseurs, the majority of them immediately identifiable by their trendy suede Australian boots, masquerading as journalists. They seemed more interested in getting into each other's underwear than what was happening to the Afghans. Some were rich kid war tourists - I could almost hear the languid tones of some influential uncle informing a newspaper editor "Biffy so-so wants to be a war photo journalist". Some of the others were another form of rich kid; the kind who can afford to effectively buy their job through participation in a newspaper intern scheme. Sadly, media bosses love these characters because they work cheap. And even more sadly many of them, due to lack of real reporting experience, were easily gulled and manipulated by Taliban spokesmen - often very smart savvy people. It's not the poseurs' faults, it's the twerps back at head office who use them. The Taliban's war is as much fought through the media, both traditional and social, as it is with roadside bombs and rocket launchers.  

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Many years ago I was voluntold to take part in an an annual endurance event run by the Canadian Army in Edmonton's River Valley. I seem to remember it involved putting on rucksack with 33 lbs (15kg) of stuff in it and running 20 miles (aprox 32km) before putting an 18 foot (5.5 metre) aluminium canoe on my head and tottering 3.2 kilometres (two miles) to the North Saskatchewan River. There competitors had to canoe 10km (something like six miles) downstream before running 5.56km (about three and half miles) to the finish line. I was so bad at paddling my canoe that at times the eddies in the river were strong enough to carry me back up stream. But I almost didn't even get to put my canoe in the water. There was an army medic stationed at the canoe launch and it was his job to ask competitors how they were doing. This was actually a test to weed out those who were so close to exhaustion that they were incoherent. My problem was that when I'm tired and excited my Scottish accent becomes very pronounced. The medic looked at me as though I was babbling and you could tell he was seriously considering sending me to join a couple of others who had already been pulled from the event after failing the Babble Test. But luckily for me, one of army doctors was just behind me. He announced to the medic that he had been brought up in Glasgow and could understand me. He vouched that I was not in fact babbling, though probably only other Scottish people could understand me at this point. So, I was allowed to continue. I honestly can't remember what my finishing time was but I do recall announcing that if I ever even suggested entering The Mountain Man again, people should feel free to bash me in the head with hammer. 

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Here in Canada we are in the early stages of the ice hockey Stanley Cup playoffs. The whole league season is basically a qualifier for the cup with the bottom few teams failing to make it into the knock-out competition, which is played out on a best of seven games basis. No-one ever remembers who wins the league competitions, the only thing that matters is who wins the Stanley Cup in a given year. The only other team sports competition that gets any attention in Canada is the Canadian Football League, which has slightly different rules from the National Football League. But the rules are similar enough for most of the CFL stars to be rejects from the NFL. Both the final stages of the ice hockey and the football league attract so-called bets from civic leaders keen to precariously latch onto the brief fan enthusiasm for the home teams. So we have the mayor of city where the team is based betting on "their" team going through to the next stage against the mayor of the rival team's home city. Sometimes, the provincial premier will bet against the premier of whichever province the other team is from, or in the case of American ice hockey teams, the governor. The bet usually consists of the loser having to wear the winning team's shirt at a big official function or occasion. Sometimes a case of locally brewed beer is involved. It's all too often a bit bogus and sad. I suspect that many of the politicians involved might be hard put to name three members of the local team and haven't chugged a beer since they left high school. And I hope the tax payer isn't funding this blatant electioneering. Any costs involved should come out of the party's election treasure chest, not provincial government or local council funds. Let's not pretend its about boosting civic pride. I find it hard to stomach a politician whose loud support for team can often span as few as four games a year.

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There are a couple of things I hear regularly on the radio or read here in Canada that drive me crazy. One is when it is reported that police are seeking a suspect in a crime. The giveaway is when a description of the supposed "suspect" follows. That says to me that the cops don't actually have much of clue who was responsible for the crime and certainly not a name. So, who is it they are supposed to suspect?  I think what the so called journalist means by "suspect" is perpetrator. But that's a long word. I used to just say "gunman" "robber" "raider", "knife-wielding thug", or something along those lines. But I never said "suspect". That's just stupid. The other one that really bugs me at the moment is when it is announced that such-and-such a country is sending 30,000 forces to some other country. I suspect what is actually happening that 30,000 troops or, more accurately sometimes, 30,000 military personnel are being deployed. The confusion may be when the so-called journalists remember that there is something called the Armed Forces. Sadly, this ignorance is now deeply ingrained in the media and I fear there is no turning back the tide on this one. But really it's one force of 30,000 that is being sent. I would question if someone with such a lack of grip on matters military, or alternatively on the English language, can really be trusted to get the story right.

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I remember a worried colleague coming to me once. It looked like he might get in big trouble with the authorities. But our bosses would back him up, he asked, wouldn't they? What do you say to that one? It would be nice to say, yes, of course they will. After all, you only did what they told you to do. And that is what I told him. He seemed relieved. The thing is, I didn't believe they would back him up. The first sign of trouble and I was pretty sure that the bosses would leave him swinging in the wind. They would paint him as an out-of-control rogue operator. That is how far too many bosses work. To a large extent that's how many of them got to be bosses; taking the credit for other people's work and successfully denying responsibility for their actions when things go wrong. It's Standing Operating Procedure. I know I considered starting to tape one of my bosses when he was doling out instructions. And when things went pear-shaped and he denied stuff, I could play the tape. Then again, that's sadly a sure-fire way to win a battle but lose the war. But back to my colleague; why add to his worries? Why make him feel worse and more scared than he already was? Go on, tell me you would trust your boss 100% to tell the truth when it's you or them face the sack as a result of their stupidity. 

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