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When I was just a little fellah, we went to Glasgow to see Santa. But this was a very special Santa: it was my great-grannie's brother Charlie. I can’t remember whether we went to see him at Lewis’s on Argyll Street or at nearby Goldbergs. My poor mum must have been in dilemma. Family pride meant that she wanted us to know that the big guy in red with the beard was Charlie. But if she did that, we might feel cheated at not getting to see the real Santa. It had turned out, she told us kids, that for some reason Santa couldn’t make it to Glasgow that day and had asked Uncle Charlie to stand in for him. It was a great honour; apparently.

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Living in Canada, it never occurred to me that many Britons would be unaware of what exactly was said in that so-called prank call which is said to have led to the suicide of nurse Jacintha Saldanha. The British media apparently decided against letting the public hear what the nurse in the Duchess of Cornwall’s room actually told the Australian disk jockeys pretending to be the Queen and Prince Charles. But media did play the clip of Saldanha answering the call and putting it through to the Duchess’s room. That meant Saldanha was alone in the harsh public limelight when perhaps it should have been shared with her colleague. Of course in these days of the worldwide web, folks in Britain would have no problem hearing the whole call – not that there was much to it, the gist of what the nurse in the room said was that the Duchess was sleeping.  I heard an executive of the Australian radio station involved interviewed and he seemed to stop just short of saying “How were we to know that the silly besom would kill herself”. I was not impressed. The two pea-brains who made the call seemed genuinely upset. But they must have known that someone at the hospital might lose their job as a result of the call. And for what? What was supposed to be so funny?

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Journalists, if they are going to do their job properly, need sources. Nothing in this world is free. Or at least very very few things are free. These sources have agendas of their own. The journalist is using them and they are using the journalist. Often, the arrangement is mutually beneficial: the journalist gets a story; the source is often using the journalist as a tool to hurt a career rival and/or advance their own. Another thing the source may get is protection. Journalists are reluctant to destroy or damage the career of a valuable source. This means that a source often gets the benefit of the doubt when the brown stuff hits the fan. But sadly, it can go beyond that. Protecting a source can involve turning a blind-eye to wrong doing. Take the shortage of helicopters when the British Army first deployed to Afghanistan. Senior officers would brief journalists off-the-record that there was a shortage and soldiers were dying as a result. But on the record they toed the Government line and declared helicopter provision was adequate. Soldiers kept on dying – and senior officers did not damage their career and lucrative pension prospects by speaking out. The most journalists would do was quote un-named sources highlighting the shortage and then quote the official denial. Perhaps sometimes the un-named source and the senior officer issuing the denial were the same person. A senior, clearly identified, officer going on the record would have made all the difference when it came to getting those desperately needed helicopters to Afghanistan. But very few journalists were willing to risk losing a source who might one day be head of the British military by outing any of the senior officers involved. A cosy relationship. The only people who suffered where the poor squaddies killed or maimed by Taliban booby traps while travelling in convoys when they should have been flying in helicopters.

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When news reports from Afghanistan talk about a “senior soldier” being killed they usually mean a senior officer – perhaps a Lieutenant-Colonel. Walter Barrie was a captain but in truth he would appear to have been one of the most senior soldiers killed in Afghanistan – both in terms of experience and talent. Capt. Barrie was gunned down by a rogue Afghan soldier while playing football earlier this month. His death was greeted with sadness and an outpouring for tributes to his professionalism and humanity from his fellow soldiers. He was what is termed a Late Entry Officer – army code for promoted from the ranks. He was the Regimental Sergeant Major when the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland, Royal Highland Fusiliers, where in Afghanistan in 2008. After his stint as the most senior non-commissioned officer in the battalion, he followed the usual career pattern of promotion to officer status and appointment as the unit’s welfare officer. I only know about Capt. Barrie from the flood of tributes which followed his murder. But I have known former RSMs whose hearts have been broken by being shunted into the battalion welfare job. They only stuck it for the enhanced pension which retirement at captain’s rank brings. And that’s why I believe Captain Barrie was indeed one of the most senior soldiers to die in Afghanistan. He threw himself into the job, masterminding a highly successful charity drive to support the families of battalion members killed or seriously injured in Afghanistan. And then instead of taking a desk job and waiting for his pension, Capt. Barrie got himself sent back to Afghanistan, this time helping to train the Afghan National Army. Had he lived, he may even have managed to reach the rank of Major. I expect his funeral at Glencorse Barracks on Thursday (Nove.29) will be a major and emotional affair.


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I think I’m going to apply for a research grant, hopefully big enough to allow me to live in reasonable comfort for the rest of my natural days. Every month the media carries a story about some amazing piece of research which suggests some pretty outrageous scientific discovery. But at the end of each news item comes the proviso that more research is required. And there’s the catch. Scientists will say almost anything to raise money to keep themselves in employment. So, here’s my pitch: “post mortem examinations nearly always find food in the stomach. There must surely be a link between food and death. Please send me six million, pounds or dollars would be equally acceptable, for further research”.  Is it really that easy to get money for research? Think about how many of those scientific “breakthroughs” reported on the news that are never heard of again.

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I’m glad to see that demands for a proper inquiry into the Batang Kali Massacre won’t go away. Many will wonder why it’s so important that the true facts about the murder of 24 ethnic Chinese men on a rubber plantation in Malaya in 1948 by members of the Scots Guards is important. Well, look no further than the petition which may be about to be circulated in the Malaysian parliament calling for just such an inquiry. The continued British cover-up is still damaging relations between the United Kingdom and Malaysia. Demands for the British to come clean received a boost in September when the High Court in London ruled that there had been a cover-up but declined to force an inquiry into events at Batang Kali. A Malaysian organisation calling itself the International Movement for a Just World is also throwing its weight behind demands for an inquiry and an apology to the families of the massacre victims. I remain baffled as to who the British Government is protecting with this cover-up. It does not have a good record when it comes to cover-ups on behalf of ordinary squaddies. So, what is the terrible secret the Government is determined we should never know? See Batang Kali Revisited

 

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I think Edinburgh City Council is to be applauded for granting the freedom of the city to the 3rd Battalion of the Rifles. It may seem odd for the Scottish capital to honour an English battalion, but I think it reflects a healthy attitude that if you live in Scotland, you’re a Scot. The 3rd Rifles has been stationed in Edinburgh since 2003 Here in the Edmonton, the men and women of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry is regarded as a local regiment although it has only been based in the city since the mid-1990s. The PPCLI moved to Edmonton to form the core of the 1st Canadian Mechanized Brigade when it was decided to concentrate the bulk of the Canadian army at three super bases. Anyway, back to the Rifles and Edinburgh. It’s good to see the city fathers taking an interest and pride in its military connections. The old King’s Own Scottish Borderers started life in 1689 as the Edinburgh Regiment and kept that name until 1782. That was the year that regiment suddenly became the Sussex Regiment. Legend has it that the regiment’s colonel Lord George Lennox, who lived in Sussex, felt a recruiting party sent to Edinburgh had been slighted and insulted by the city fathers and insisted on the name change. The KOSB regained its Scottish status in 1805, as the King’s Border Regiment, but narrowly avoided becoming an English Regiment in 1881 when it was decided to base it in Yorkshire. The regiment’s traditions are continued by the Royal Scots Borderers, otherwise known as the 1st Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland (RRoS). Or is it the other way around? I’ve heard that many of the regiment’s officers believe the time has come to promote the corporate RRoS identity rather than harp on about the "traditional" regimental identities. Mind you, the Royal Scots Borderers is an amalgamation of the Royal Scots and the KOSB anyway. Only the 3rd Battalion of the RRoS has retained an identity which pre-dates 1959 - the Black Watch. The 5 RRoS is a special case, being reduced to a ceremonial company but retaining the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders moniker.

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Post Traumatic Stress Disorder amongst soldiers is a controversial issue. Here in North America there is a whole industry dedicated to treating it. And much money to be made in the process.  I know soldiers who have it. I know other soldiers who claim that some of the guys who say they have PTSD are using it as an excuse for bad behaviour. Soldiers are told that PTSD and similar conditions are as real as a bullet in the arm. I’d say it’s closer to a bad back. Anyway, soldiers are urged to come forward and get treatment: no stigma. But you know, I’m not sure I would go to my employer and tell them I had PTSD. It seems a good way to get yourself red-flagged. Of course, sometimes the symptoms are so bad that a person doesn’t have choice about seeking help. Kicking the dog every time you see it, or worse, might be a good indication that it’s time to see the doctor. Another problem with PTSD is there are numerous ways of treating it  - possibly because combat stress problems can have several causes. One theory as to why it wasn’t a massive issue after the World Wars was that it took the soldiers longer to come home from the fighting and then came back together – lots of time to talk things through with their peers. These days a guy can be pounding the sand in Helmand one day and going to the chippie in Hamilton the next. But actually, we don’t know whether PTSD was a big issue after the Second World War. I remember being told as a kid not to play near certain houses because the guy who lived there had been a prisoner of the Japanese. I knew some older serving soldiers who as young men served with old guys who were veterans of the Second World War or Korea. Some of the old veterans apparently had pretty serious drinking problems. It can happen to anyone given a bit of bad luck. A person might be punched the face seven times in their life and not go down. But you get punched in the head seven times in as many seconds and there’s a good chance you’ll be on the floor.

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A while back, a researcher for a Glasgow-based television documentary program got in touch with me about a program focusing on the Scottish experience in Canada. I’m naturally helpful anyway and, best case scenario, I thought I might get to be one of the talking-heads in the documentary. To boost my chances of being invited to appear, I suggested that the film-makers use the reconstruction of the old fur trading fort here in Edmonton as a location for filming. I thought some photographs of Fort Edmonton, particularly the inside of the Factor’s House, might help the film makers decide. I called the city council in Edmonton, who run the historic site, and asked about suitable photos. The woman I was dealing with could barely speak English. She told me there were no photos. So, if the film-makers did come to Edmonton, it would be no thanks to the city council. By the way, I did find exactly the photos I suspected the council must have myself. The woman was wrong. I think the key to this was that she didn’t speak very good English. That suggests that she ticked the box on the application form identifying herself as a “visible minority”. This is basically code for non-European immigrant. The council proudly announces it welcomes applications from minority groups. It would appear that it gives jobs based on skin colour rather the ability to do the job. So-called Positive Discrimination is still discrimination. I’m against discrimination. I don’t think someone should not get a job because of their skin colour or background. But neither do I think they should get a job because of their skin colour or background. I have a simple test. Anyone who advocates positive discrimination should be told that they are going to be fired and replaced by someone hired on the basis of their skin colour or disability or whatever. I suspect the person being fired will come up with several reasons why they shouldn’t be shown the door. The reasons are precisely the same as why a well qualified job candidate would resent being denied a job because preference was given to a less able “visible minority”. Things are getting silly when someone who doesn’t speak much English is given a job answering phones. And here’s a caution to those who favour positive discrimination. One of my friends decided to give preference to female job applicants. They got together and decided they’d be happier working in an all-female office. His new colleagues, who all owed their jobs to him, conspired to either get him fired or make his life so miserable that he would resign.

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I wonder what impact, if any, the recent decision to allow three Kenyans allegedly tortured during the Mau Mau Rebellion in the 1950s to sue for compensation will have in the fight for justice in the case of the Scots Guards’ massacre of civilians at Batang Kali in Malaya. It has been decided that the Kenyans can put their case for compensation in front of the British Courts. The British Government has argued that the Batang Kali massacre is ancient history; I would think the Mau Mau Rebellion also comes under the same heading. And while the British Government would rather, to this day, that the events of December 1948 were swept under the carpet, there is still a lot of bitterness in Malaysia over the continued cover-up. The lack of answers, and British obstruction of Malaysian attempts to investigate the massacre, is harming relations between the two countries. The British refusal to name the men who ordered the massacre and then covered it up, this was not the work of some rogue squaddies, stinks. It will be interesting to see how many other people tortured as the sun set on the British Empire now come out of the woodwork to demand compensation. See Batang Kali Revisited

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Regular visitors will know I’m no fan of private schools. I don’t recall the British Tories telling voters at the last General Election that if they won, only people who went to the same high school as the Prime Minister could get to be in the Cabinet. And I can’t help feeling if the people who run Britain, and still make an excellent living from it, would ensure that  the state schools were properly funded and run if their own little darlings went to them. But I’ve got something good to say about private schools for once. A high school teacher here in Edmonton, my Canadian hometown, has just been fired for insisting on giving kids who failed to hand in their homework a big fat zero. This was against school policy. Some might say the policy is “controversial”, many believe it is crackpot. I’ve heard the teacher involved interviewed on the radio and he came across as thoughtful and caring. As far as I know, the headmaster of the school has never given an interview on the radio. But someone recorded a speech he gave at staff-only meeting and passed it onto the media. I think the fact that a member of staff did that speaks volumes for the atmosphere at the school. Two teachers who retired from the school spoke about a climate of fear there. Certainly, I did not find the headmaster’s speech very impressive; I can see why there might have been a clash of personalities when it came to the teacher and the headmaster. The teacher was fired by the Edmonton Public School Board, which decided to back the headmaster. The teacher was given a couple of days between his disciplinary hearing and being fired in which to resign, and thus protect his pension, but he foolishly believed that commonsense would somehow triumph. That’s not how the public education system here works, and I have the word of a retired headmaster for that. He told me he’s glad he’s well out of it all now. Anyway, an Edmonton private school has now stepped in and hired the teacher in question. So, I have to admit that private schools are not all bad. But then Himmler never forgot a secretary’s birthday.

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While most of the British media have been focusing on Prince Harry not being injured in the Taliban attack near Camp Bastion last week, I haven't seen discussion of what a coup the destruction of eight US Marine Corps Harrier jump jets was for the insurgents.
In the space of a few minutes 15 Taliban raiders dressed in US uniforms wiped out 7% of the US Military’s entire Harrier fleet and left only two operational Harriers in Afghanistan. I haven’t been able to get much detail, supposedly for security reasons but more probably because the truth is so embarrassing for the NATO, but it would appear the raiders got through a security fence at Camp Leatherneck, as the US Marine portion of the Bastion complex is known. They were carrying rocket propelled grenades, which it would appear they used to destroy six Harriers and so badly damage two more that they will never fly again. The raiders, at least some reportedly wearing suicide vests, then shot out with NATO troops for something like two hours. When the shooting was over, 14 of the Taliban were dead; along with two American soldiers including the commander of the Harrier squadron. A further eight NATO soldiers and a civilian contractor were wounded. The raid was obviously well planned and the Taliban knew what they were doing.
The attack raises a lot of questions, and it’s far from clear who should be answering them. Bastion is primarily a British base. Its site on a flat bare plain was chosen because no-one can supposedly approach it without being seen. So, did anyone see the Taliban? I just hope the British don’t have questions to answer. The Americans were seriously under-impressed by the British effort at Basra in Iraq and they didn’t think much of what the British have managed, or failed to manage, to do in Helmand.

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It looks as though US F-16 pilot Major Harry “Psycho” Schmidt has claimed another victim. It was Schmidt who bombed a Canadian live-fire training exercise near Kandahar Airfield in 2002 and killed four members of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. I now read that the best friend of one of the men killed is facing three years in jail as prosecutors in British Columbia pursue him for possession of a restricted hand-gun. It came out that Yan Berube had the gun after he showed it to a government nurse and announced he was either going to shoot himself or the cops would have to shoot him. The nurse was at his home because Berube suffered some kind of nervous breakdown after the death of his best friend Ainsworth Dyer. I interviewed Berube and Dyer before they deployed to Afghanistan. They seemed like good guys. It was bad enough that some sad nutbar from the US air force killed Ainsworth. Schmidt’s claim that he was acting in self-defence when he dived down and bombed the training exercise never made any sense to me. I think he just wanted to drop a bomb and kill some people for real. Anyway, now it comes out that Schmidt has wrecked Berube’s life. Yan never did do anything with the gun, beyond showing it to the nurse. The police were called and the ex-soldier went quietly. It looked as though things were going to take a sensible course and Berube pled guilty to all charges on the understanding that he would probably be given a suspended sentence or probation. Then Crown Prosecutors announced that possession of the restricted handgun carried a minimum of three years jail time. A judge kicked the attempt to jail Berube out of court. But the prosecutors successfully appealed the judge’s decision. Now he is to be re-tried and again faces three years in jail. I can’t help wondering why it is so important to send Yan to jail and how that will make British Columbia safer. I don’t know who is worse; Psycho Schmidt or Canadian prosecutors. Or more incompetent. For more of my thoughts on Psycho see Blog Posting

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The High Court in London has said there are no legal grounds to overturn at British Government decision not to order a proper inquiry into the 1948 massacre of 24 suspected Communist sympathisers in Malaya by a patrol from the Scots Guards. While at first that might seem like bad news, the judgement says that the evidence points to the massacre claim being true and that there has been a long-standing cover-up of the fact. A fatuous claim from the British authorities that the Malaysian Government and not the British Government should be held  responsible for the conduct of the Guardsmen at Batang Kali was firmly rejected by the High Court. The court also said the British Government deliberately hindered a 1993 investigation by the Royal Malaysian Police into the killings. I’m still baffled as to why the British Government after all these years is so determined that the truth about this shameful incident should never come out. Once again, I ask; who is it protecting? The Government doesn’t have a particularly good record when it comes to defending and backing-up ordinary squaddies. So what is it about what happened back in 1948 that the Great British Public must never ever know? For a little more detail of what the court said have a look at this Press Release from the London law firm which has been representing the families of some of the murdered men.

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Control of the media is key to any dictatorship. The state broadcaster is a branch of the ruling party and a definite part of the government. In the West a lot of work goes into keeping the relationship between state broadcasters and the government at arm's length. But a problem can arise when a journalist from a Western state broadcaster interviews a representative of a dictatorship. Now, members of a dictatorship deserve to be given a good journalistic grilling. The key words here are "good journalistic". On too many occasions the reporter hasn't done his or her homework before the interview and doesn't listen to the answers the dictator gives. The result is an ill-tempered, aggressive and just downright rude interview. I've noticed that the more uncertain of themselves a person is, the more aggressive they tend to be. None of this would matter too much if it wasn't that in the dictator's world the state broadcaster is a branch of government. Rudeness and aggression from an interviewer is interpreted as a reflection of the Western government's attitude to the dictator's country. One fool interviewer can do a lot of damage. You  would think that the people who run state broadcasting in the West would take their responsibility to not to let reporters with less than half a brain loose on dictators or their spokesmen. But from some of the interviews I've heard recently, they don't.

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A couple of years ago I remember my heart going out to a Canadian sergeant who had lost half his team in Afghanistan. The Canadian sergeant, the equivalent of a British corporal, had obviously told his boys that if they did their battle drills correctly, he’d bring them back alive. That wasn’t the way things worked out and he felt guilty. The truth is that while good training and battle drills can increase the chances of avoiding death or horrendous injury, a battlefield is a terrible lottery. Who lives and who dies is more a matter of luck, or bad luck if you will, than anything else. It’s a lottery in which a winning ticket means you get to finish the day in the same physical state as you began it. Perhaps that’s why I was so pissed off when I thought I’d lost my lucky Silver Dollar in Kosovo. Talismans are an important part of the equation. They’re up there with rituals such as putting on your helmet last before going out on patrol or which boot you tie up first. Despite all the hi-tech gear, in many ways many Western soldiers are no different from a 19th Century Fuzzy-Wuzzy or African warrior who believed a charm or witch doctor's spell made him bullet-proof. Farmers and soldiers may be amongst the last people in the West who grasp how fickle the Finger of Fate can be. By the way, it turned out I hadn’t lost my Silver Dollar.

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I was struck recently by the similarities between the British campaign in Helmand and the Allied Intervention against the Bolsheviks in Northern Russia 1918-1919. And look how the Intervention turned out. In both campaigns the British over-extended themselves by occupying villages for political rather than military reasons. The political reasons involved appeasing a corrupt local administration that was incompetent and unrepresentative of the local people. Sound familiar? The British also had to work with troops from other armies and their quality varied. Some were not worth their rations. Once again, sound familiar? The British were also involved in training locally raised troops who were expected to fight the Bolsheviks when the British left. Once again, the local troops were of variable quality and some murdered their British trainers. Ringing any bells? The local population in North Russia was at best indifferent and at worst openly hostile. Most wanted to see who was going to win before committing themselves to one side or the other. The local population also had an instinctive distrust of foreigners. Both sides waged a propaganda war for the hearts and minds of the villagers. The Intervention was not popular back in Britain and the reasoning behind it not properly explained. British troop numbers were too low for the tasks set and equipment was not always suitable for the harsh climate and living conditions. I wonder if anyone has dusted off the Lessons Learned file from the 1918-1919 Intervention. It doesn't look like it.

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Once, in a town far away, some nutbar set fire to a block of flats. A lot of innocent people lost their homes and all their worldly possessions in the fire. The nutbar was already on bail after being accused of an insanely violent crime. I think this illustrates a problem with the legal system. The people who gave the nutbar bail didn’t have to live next to the guy. Maybe it’s time folks in court system did have a tangible stake in the bail system. I  sat through enough court cases when I was a reporter not to mistaking the law for justice. So, here’s my idea. If a lawyer applies for bail for his client, then the lawyer should be told that if his client appears in court for an offence allegedly committed while on the bail, then lawyer will be joining his client in the cells. Does the lawyer still think the client should be bailed? Why should the nutbar’s neighbours be the only people placed in jeopardy by the decision to grant bail? I can’t decide what should happen to the lawyer in the longer run. Should the lawyer be held until the client is brought to trial? Or perhaps three months in custody might be enough. Or maybe the lawyer could receive the same sentence as is ultimately imposed on the client. For too many lawyers the criminal “justice” system is a game. A game to be won by hook or by crook. It’s time their court room antics had some real-life consequences. I remember a rape case in which is what put to the victim during cross-examination that she’d had consensual sex with three men  at a bus stop the night before the attack. No evidence was produced to back up this claim. Personally, I would have made sure the lawyer involved never appeared in court again.

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One of the questions I haven’t seen asked in connection with what would happen to the British military if Scotland gets independence is who will run the defence forces. Plenty of questions about the nuclear submarine base at Faslane and even would the Scottish infantry regiments get their old names back. But looking at the biographies of the officers appointed to the Royal Regiment of Scotland, I can’t help noticing how that about half of them are young Englishmen; often products of private schools. So, in an independent Scotland, where will the army officers come from? The British Army obviously doesn’t think there are enough Scots boys with brains to meet the requirements needed to be an officer in the RRoS. What if it’s right?
I think one guy from my high school became an officer in the old Queen’s Own Highlanders. I suspect if I’d gone to a private school such as Ampleforth in Yorkshire, a whole battalion’s worth of former classmates would have become officers. And certainly, when I had dealings with junior officers from the Highland regiments in my younger days, they all had English accents (though admittedly several of the Scottish private schools teach their pupils to speak with English accents).
A book I was reading recently suggested there was a degree of unease and distrust between the last Labour government and the Army. Scots were over-represented in senior government posts at the time, and sometimes that was for legitimate reasons. But perhaps the distrust and unease came from the fact that none of the Scottish Labour MPs had ever known anyone who was or became an officer in the British Army.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there are no Scottish officers in the British Army, and not all of those Scots selected went to private schools. What I am saying is that there might be a problem finding enough qualified men to run even a small defence force in an independent Scotland.

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I’ve just been reading a book about the Welsh Guards in Afghanistan in 2009. Unlike all-too-many of the Canadian books about the conflict, not all the men in this book were paragons of courage and professionalism. I liked that. And the book got me thinking about courage and bravery again. The book reminded me of some things I’d forgotten. It’s generally accepted wisdom that courage/bravery is something like a water well or a bank account. If too many withdrawals are made, it will run dry. There is a limit to how many times a person can go out there and face death. Some people’s reserve runs out sooner than is the case with others but no-one can go on for ever. It occurs to me that courage/bravery is also like a piece of elastic. It can stretch so far and then if it snaps, it’s all over. A piece of elastic kept at full tension will snap sooner than one that is allowed to contract once in a while. That’s why getting away from the action for a short while can be beneficial. The water well/bank account will not be completely replenished by the break but increases enough to delay the crisis of courage. With luck once back in harness, the crisis point is not reached before the danger has passed and no-one need know how close a person came to snapping. Gradually, over time, the reserve slowly trickles back to something near its original level. And the past is mis-remembered to create a more comfortable self-narrative. Sometimes the biggest lies we tell are the lies we tell ourselves to help make it through the working day.

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