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What is it with failed journalists and armed robberies? Yet another journalist here in Alberta has been jailed for staging armed hold-ups. I used to work with reporter who was just out of jail after serving a sentence for armed robbery. My guess it has something to do with covering the courts and crime. Some journalists decide that years of covering crime gives them an insight into the subject. They think they know the nitty-gitty mechanics of an armed hold-up and where the bad guy who appeared in court went wrong. One thing that always struck me was that many of the robbers were well known to the police long before they took a gun, or a replica thereof, on the job with them. Someone with no criminal record might have an advantage. Another point that struck me was that most hold-up men staged at least three or four heists before their luck ran out. So, the odds of being caught could be reduced by committing only one or two heists and then quitting. Though inexperience and lack of proper violent menace might make the first outing more than a little risky. Journalists down on their luck seem prone to taking up the gun. Much the same thought must have struck Scottish crime writer, and journalist, Bill Knox. He wrote a crime story about a young journalist who decided he'd come up with a near perfect armed robbery. It did not work out well. Time and chance and all that. 

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Is there such a thing as the Canadian Cringe? That no Canadian has really truly made it until they are famous somewhere else? That what happens in America or Europe is more interesting than anything happening in Canada? I was appalled by recent Canadian coverage of the murder of eight people in New York by a Lone Loser in a rented truck. Journalist after journalist or should I say "'journalist' after 'journalist'", cited similar previous attacks in Europe. Not one mentioned the recent hire-van pedestrian knockdown by a Lone Loser here in Edmonton, Alberta, which put four people in hospital. And there was the cop the Loser hit with a car earlier the same night and tried to stab to death. I guess for Canadian "journalists" if it didn't happen in the United States or a major European city, it didn't happen at all. OK, the Edmonton nut-job didn't succeed in killing anyone, but I don't think it was through lack of trying.  And while we're on the subject of homicidal losers; what's this with describing their sad sad murders, and attempted murders and maimings,  as "Lone Wolf Attacks"? That gives them an implied dignity and valour they certainly don't merit and insults wolves. Lone Loser. Sad Sack. Pathetic Excuse for a Human Being.

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I voted recently, in the local council elections here in Edmonton. One of the things that struck me the first time I voted in the Canadian election was that the ballot really seemed to be secret. There was no election worker noting the serial number on my ballot slip against my details on the electoral roll. If the Canadians have a way of working out who has voted for the "wrong" candidate, I haven't been able to figure how they do it. In Britain, and this may no longer be true, the tiny vote for the Communist, Fascist, or other extremist candidates, was gone through by students during the summer holidays and the serial numbers on ballot papers checked against  the electoral roll. Very time consuming and probably the actual real Communist agents of subversion were warned by Moscow not draw attention to themselves by voting for The Party. So, apart from providing some holiday pin-money for the student children of the politically reliable, the whole exercise was pretty much a stupid waste of time when it came to preventing genuine subversion. But it gave Special Branch more work.  In the Hong Kong legislative elections, the Chinese Government in Beijing do not give people the opportunity to vote "wrong".  It carefully vets the list of candidates to make sure no-one disagreeable is on the ballot paper.  A different approach to democracy. But probably both British and Chinese pay equal heed to basic democratic principles.

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So, all the World is doing about the ethnic cleansing of northwest Burma is wringing its hands. The Rohingya crisis has also woken the international community up to just how dreadful Aung San Suu Ky truly is. It must be clear to even the dimmest that Aung actually approves of driving the Muslim population out of Myanmar and has no intention of calling a halt to the Burmese army's murder and house-burning campaign. What disturbs me is the lack of international action. I'd like to think the inaction is due to some kind of realpolitik and not wanting to give over control of Myanmar to the Chinese by destabilizing the Burmese military. But it's important not to forget that the Burmese military is not really a fighting force - its lacklustre performance against non-Burmese insurrections since World War Two clearly shows this - but a multi-billion pound business empire. Could it be that the lack of international intervention, economic sanctions perhaps, has more to do with financial considerations rather than the balance of military power in south-east Asia. The mass displacement of the Rohingya has a lot to do with enriching the Burmese military through landgrabs and other asset seizures.  A sad footnote is that the non-Burmese minorities that the military is so keen to crush, the Rohingya, the Karens, the Shans, etc, were all on the anti-Fascist side in the Second World War. The Burmese military, led by Aung's father, only turned against Imperial Japan when its defeat was certain. Follow the money if you really want to understand what is going on.

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So, the latest figures show 70% of British Army officers were privately educated. Something like 7% of Britons are privately educated. Does anyone else agree that is a terribly shallow talent pool to select leaders from? Those who believe brains and talent are inherited, along with all that money to pay for private education, need only look at the number of family large businesses which collapse by the third or fourth generation. And yet we trust our defence and our children's lives, those of youngsters who choose to join the armed services at least, to the a group of people whose only common qualification is wealth. That works if the the whole point is to make sure that our military leadership has a massive stake in the status quo and therefore a military coup highly unlikely. If, however, the future existence of the country is at stake, maybe it's not really the way to run our defence. Brains rather than breeding could be the way to go. Some may say, well, 70% still leaves 30% who were not privately educated. True, but I suspect that the 30% who are state educated are mainly going into the parts of the army in which the ability to successfully walk and talk simultaneously without falling over is part of their job. OK, that's an exaggeration but that chances of encountering a competent infantry officer below the rank of Major are less than 50-50:- all too often way less than that. And the officers who go into the more technical parts of the army very seldom reach the sort of high ranks at which they could make a real difference to how operations are planned and conducted. And because of that young Britons who choose to serve in the military but who are not privately educated will continue die unnecessary deaths. 

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In my memory about the only month when some summer sunshine was more likely than gloom laden skies and rain in my childhood was May. If a bookie was taking a bet on which months in Scotland would have more than a total of 30 hours of blue skies and sunshine, then he would probably refuse to accept any bets on May. The summer school holidays, in my memory at least, were a lottery when it came to sunshine. No great surprise then that the BBC summer holiday morning TV schedule was heavily watched. Year after year the schedule was almost entirely the same bill of foreign fare, and not always well dubbed. Best of all was The Flashing Blade from France, at least until our heroes reached The Castle. Robinson Crusoe, also a French offering, was also not bad. But France's Belle and Sebastian was just pure boring: right up there with White Horses, was that German or Yugoslavian? Anyway, it was boring too. For cheap scary camp, Germany's Singing Ringing Tree has to take the prize. If that didn't put a kid off evil dwarfs, nothing would. I think most people in Scotland in the years it was on TV knew that at least one Scottish regiment stationed in Germany was known to the locals as The Poison Dwarfs. Was the Boy from Lapland, the one with the catchy Scandinavian yodelling in the theme tune, on the summer schedule? I think it was, but I could be wrong.  Ah, those dreich summer holiday mornings. That was before every cartoon had an annoying brat character that the viewing kids were supposed to identify with. Can anyone remember Scrappy Doo without wanting to puke? 

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I don't know, there's just something about the sale of Victoria Cross for around six hundred thousand Canadian dollars, around four hundred thousand pounds, that makes me uncomfortable. It is only a piece a metal and it's not as if it's the guy who actually won it that's being forced to part with it because he's hit hard times. The VC in question was won by Canadian tank commander Major David Currie during the Normandy Campaign in August 1944. The notoriously modest Currie always insisted until his death that the medal really belonged to all the men who served under his command as they tried to staunch a massive German retreat they stood in the path of. His widow sold the medal to a Canadian collector. I don't know what he paid for it. But we do know it has just been resold to a British collector. I don't know why the medal was sold this time around or why the British collector wanted it so much. I can understand why the widow might have sold it. Acts of bravery do not pay the rent. Though, if she took her husband's words to heart, she would have tracked down all Currie's men and shared the proceeds of the sale with them. I presume the medal was sold for more than the Canadian collector paid for it. Maybe that's what's troubling me. Why, I ask myself, should someone with enough spare cash to buy a medal profit by another man's courage? Or in this case, according to the recipient himself, other men's courage? Pieces of medal are one of way of recognising outstanding performance in the service of the nation. But perhaps a decent lifetime pension might be better. Towards the end of Queen Victoria's reign as far too many rank-and-file winners of the award that bears her name went to paupers' graves, a decent pension was instituted - somewhere between fifty and seventy-five pounds a year.  Last I heard, the pension, officially an annuity, was just over fourteen hundred pounds a year.

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So, Burmese leader Aung San Suu Ky is baffled by almost unanimous worldwide condemnation of her handling of the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya- basically a denial that it's happening. I am also puzzled by the sudden flood of condemnation - what took the international community so long to revoke her Mandela-like sainthood? Aung has always been a bit dodgy. Are world leaders really just waking up to this? What do they pay their embassy staffs and spies for? Did they hope that even Aung would stop short of condoning the military-sponsored ethic cleansing of Myanmar's Muslim community and they would not have to speak out? A year ago, Aung told a BBC interviewer that now that she was in a power-sharing partnership with the Burmese military that she wasn't going to jeopardize her electoral support by supporting the Rohingya. And I've always wondered who called the cops when a misguided American swam a lake to see her while she was still under house arrest a couple of years ago. I've long suspected Aung initiated the call to her jailers and dropped that poor Yank in the smelly stuff. If Aung's father hadn't been part of the military junta which seized power after the Second World War, I don't think anyone would have ever heard of her. As I said here a couple of weeks ago, if she hadn't been a girlie, she would have been part of the military dictatorship long ago without all that bothersome posing as a paragon of democracy and humanity for so many years. 

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I recently heard the BBC World Service refer to Richard III, who died in 1485, as a British monarch. I hold to the belief that James VI of Scotland became the first authenticated British monarch when he succeeded Elizabeth I of England in 1603. The BBC was just reflecting the difficulty many English people have in differentiating English from British. The Scots, Welsh, and a chunk of Irish folk are also British. I was truly appalled during the Scottish Independence referendum by the coverage carried out by the BBC's so-called National correspondents. They hadn't a clue about what was going on in Scotland. Their ignorance was mind-numbing. Yes, the English do make up the vast bulk of the British population. But there is a significant proportion of it who are not English. Organisations such as the BBC often confuse English with national. That is not a mistake the Scots, Irish, and Welsh make very often. The Scots and Northern Irish have English laws and procedures rammed down their throats daily by the so-called national media. Scots, brought up on a constant diet of English courtroom drama, are astonished to find fifteen of them are required for a jury in their own country. The Northern Irish, Welsh and Scots often have to be aware of two systems of government, the English and their own. Many English people, through no real fault of their own, know little of life beyond their own borders. I respectfully submit that unless National means English, then the BBC should be looking only to Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland for journalists qualified to cover British affairs. 

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So, why are people so surprised that Burmese politician Aung San Suu Ky isn’t planning to lift a finger to stop the ethnic cleansing in Myanmar? She basically told a BBC interviewer a year ago that there were no votes in helping the Rohingya Muslim minority, so she wasn't interested. And there must be a suspicion that she actually approves of the mistreatment of a group of people many of her fellow countrymen and women regard as illegal immigrants. She is after all pretty much a chip off the old block when it comes to military dictators, her political career is built on her turncoat general of father being one of the founders of present-day Myanmar. Possibly the only reason why she was not a member of the military dictatorship which supposedly recently bowed to democracy was that she was born a girlie and couldn’t be a general. Some argue that she is unable to control the military which is leading civilian mobs in murdering and raping Rohingyas before burning down their villages. She claims this is all “fake news”. The use of that term gives us a measure of the woman. If she genuinely does not have the power to stop the ethnic cleansing then she should have the guts to stand-down and show what a sham democracy Myanmar is. Instead she is acting as a fig leaf and apologist for her fathers’ old chums and their successors. But in one thing she is correct – there is now an armed Rohingya insurgency. And the Burmese military is playing right into their hands by grossly over-reacting to their provocations. Classic mistake.

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Good Grief, has it really been two decades since Lady Di died? With days to go before I left Staffordshire to start a new job in Canada I got a call from my about-to-be employer asking me to gauge local reaction to the death of the former consort to the heir to the throne in a Paris car crash. To be frank, no-one was rending their clothes and tearing their hair out. The mass media had still not managed to guilt the population into feeling that they must be monsters if they did not weep publicly at the death of a woman who it was busy elevating to latter day English sainthood. I sort of regretted that I'd thrown away an old photo of Lady Di and I. It was taken during a royal visit to Shetland. This was in the days when the media were not allowed to speak to royalty and coverage consisted of asking people what the royals had said them during walk-abouts. The exchanges seldom even reached the heights of banality; though Prince Phillip might say something crass under the impression he was being funny. So, I never spoke to Lady Di or her husband. But, I was photographed trailing the obligatory 12 feet behind the couple. A trick of the camera lens made it look as though I was standing at Lady Di's shoulder and she was sharing a joke or a comment with me. A year or so later, when I was leaving Shetland to return to Inverness, I found the photo while clearing my desk. It went into the chuck-it-out pile rather than the "keep" folder. How was I to know she would become famous again almost a decade later? 

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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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