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Would you be prepared to die in order to overthrow the Assad regime in Syria? Would you be prepared to risk your children or other family members dying if that would end the civil war in Syria? Politicians in the West seemed to be very casual when it comes to some form of military intervention in Syria. They seem to believe that “surgical” air  strikes in which only Syrians die will somehow result in Assad throwing up his hands and retreating into exile. The UK Parliament recently stepped back from the abyss but the Cameron Government may still find a way to intervene.  The fact that Assad has managed to remain in power surely suggests that the issues in Syria are far from clear-cut. Recent intervention in Arab countries has not gone well. Most now accept that life for the majority of Iraqis was actually safer before the 2003 invasion. The intervention was botched. The Libyans repaid the Western powers for their air support during the overthrow of Ghaddafi by smashing up the Commonwealth War Cemeteries and murdering the US ambassador. I don’t recall any reports that the perpetrators of anti-western acts have been punished. Libya has become a fiefdom of war lords. While there was no armed intervention in Egypt, there can be little doubt that Hosni Mubarak would not have been overthrown without the approval of Western governments. Now we see those same governments tacitly approving a military coup against a government which, by prevailing standards in the world, was democratically elected. The only way that the desired outcome, from the West’s point of view, can be assured in Syria is to put boots on the ground. And boots on the ground mean body-bags on the plane home. There is also the possibility of “terrorist” attacks on home ground. Western politicians should not be talking about starting something they don’t have the guts to finish.

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Police forces often try to sell the public on their use of electric stun guns by claiming that they are an alternative to shooting people. It’s not true. The stun guns are an alternative to subduing someone by taking a truncheon to them. In a situation in which an officer’s life really is in imminent danger, a stun gun cannot be trusted. Most rely on firing tiny hooks attached to thread-thin wires connecting them to the stun gun. If one of the hooks doesn’t hook, the electronic circuit is not completed and the stun charge doesn’t flow. Another problem with an electronic stun gun is that sometimes they just make their target more agitated – especially if the target is on drugs. Sometimes people die after being stunned. Now,I think most people would prefer to have a stun gun used on them to having their skull fractured or their arm broken with a police baton. That’s why I’m a little puzzled as to why stun guns are sold to the public as an alternative to the police use of firearms. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for the police having as many options as possible when it comes to tools for dealing with violent incidents. But I’d rather they were upfront and honest about what they are doing.

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A lot of people ask me about the referendum on Scottish independence due to be held next year. What I think isn’t important compared with what the United States government thinks. Only the most naive can think that the Americans don’t have an interest in the result. Scotland has two things of great import to the United States – oil and a nuclear weapons base. Now that the US is supposedly heading for oil self-sufficiency, thanks to the controversial “fracking” extraction process, oil may not be as key an interest as it once was but is still important. The Britain’s nuclear warheads are carried on American Trident missiles. The British independent nuclear deterrent is not really that independent. I’ve often wondered what kind of safeguard the Americans have to prevent the British using their missiles to launch a nuclear attack that they didn’t approve of. Now it is very very unlikely that the British poodle would do that, but Scottish independence could be a game-changer.  Governments do not like uncertainty, instability, or wild cards. American influence on next year's vote has so far remained subtle and unobtrusive. The Americans are not stupid and they will recognise that overt interference could tip the balance of the Scottish independence vote against their perceived interests. Perhaps they are still waiting to see if intervention is necessary. But if they do decide their interests are threatened, I for one will be very surprised if they don’t do something. Perhaps something very subtle but very effective.

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Even as a kid I was shorter than average. As everyone hit puberty, the difference in height between me and my friends went from around an inch to an average of three or four inches. Being short means people will try to pick on you. I’d been told by some adult in the family was that if you let someone push you around, soon more people will push around and your life would become a misery. So, I didn’t let people push me around; and if things escalated to violence, so be it. Consequently, I was often on the bill at the after-school fights at the back of the slaughter-house next to the school. Sometimes there would three or four bouts on the card, matching kids of roughly the same age. The Big Kids usually made sure no-one was given such a beating that they became vegetables. There was only one rule – no kicking. If one kid tried to kick another, the crowd would break the fight up and the would-be kicker might even be the subject of some crowd justice. That rule took a beating when Kung-Fu started to be seen on TV. But the reality of things is that unless you know what you’re doing, kicking an upright opponent isn’t easy. At high school I fought a guy who rotated his fists like John Wayne in the Quiet Man. He was a lot taller than me and had a way longer reach. His quaint and apparently old fashioned fighting style was working well for him. I was getting the worst of the encounter until he had me against a wall and tried to deliver a one-two combination to the head. I ducked and he broke his fists on bricks. Advantage Cowan. Oh, my point is that if I had the skill to have kicked the guy when he was giving me the punching, I would have. What I want to know, is am I imagining a golden age of playground violence where the Kid Code prevented serious and lasting injury?

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Newspaper reports would have us believe that the British Army may soon have to stop training. Apparently, a lot of their equipment is dangerous and may contravene Health and Safety regulations. Yes indeed, it is only a matter of time until a carelessly placed pinkie finger is cut off by the moving bolt mechanism of a machine gun. And all those tanks racing around with inadequate rear-view mirrors – an accident waiting to happen. Now, it’s not unknown for the newspapers to exaggerate a little for the sake of a story. British readers may remember all the stories about supposedly crazy EEC regulations that dictated how much curve there could be in a banana and similar flights of fancy. The stories about the British Army were triggered by a Welsh coroner’s comments regarding the deaths of two part-time soldiers from suspected heatstroke during the final selection tests for the Special Air Service. The coroner, Louise Hunt, suggested that the deaths of Edward Maher and Craig Roberts’s may have involved a violation of Section Two of the Human Rights Act. Last month, Britain’s Supreme Court ruled the Government had a duty to ensure soldiers’ human rights were protected, even in the heat of battle. Being a soldier is inherently dangerous. It used to be that the British Army lost more men during training exercises in Germany in a given year than it did in Northern Ireland. There may well be questions to be asked about the selection march that claimed the lives of the two men and saw four other suspected heat casualties. Everyone knows that the candidates will often push themselves harder than they should and maybe someone should have pulled these guys out. I don’t think anyone wants to go back to the days when officers and N.C.O.’s could get away with acts of incredible negligence by hiding behind Crown Immunity. But perhaps things are swinging too far the other way. Maybe soon the only battles the British Army will be allowed to fight will be in courts of law.

* James Dunsby, a third part-time soldier trying out for the SAS at the same time as Maher and Roberts died after this was blog entry was written.

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