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I’ve got an odd sense of humour. A while back I sent an email to one of Britain’s top military historians. It purported to be from an organisation called the Military History Writers Association, or some such name, and told my friend that his latest book was in the running for Book of the Year. But there was a £100 “administrative fee” for processing the entry. My friend tells me he was reaching for his cheque book before he realised it was my way of trying to start an email a little differently. You’d be surprised at how many writing awards and competitions require an entry or processing fee. Not that I’m saying they’re all scams. Anyway, I think I will start awarding a Book of the Year, selected from the books reviewed in this site’s Book Briefing. This is partly because I don’t give them stars, or maybe it should be claymores, out of five in that section and that might make it tougher for you to work out which books I really recommend. Sadly, I can’t offer a cash prize to the winner. What I can do is give them what they call here in Canada “bragging rights” by giving the books a place in Recommended Reads, also known as Worth a Look. Recommended Reads started life as a place to mention books that I’d read before I started doing reviews in Book Briefing (The full reviews of the three winners so far can be seen at Book of the Year ). So, drum roll maestro, the winner of the 2012 Book of the Year is …… Toby Harnden’s Dead Men Risen. I’ve also decided to make two retrospective awards. So the 2011 prize goes to Tim Cook for The Sharp End and the 2010 winners are Doug Beattie and Philip Gomm for An Ordinary Soldier.

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Most of you know that many of the British generals in the First World War were cavalrymen. And most will know that the cavalry was one of most redundant arms in the British Army on the Western Front. So, the number of “cavalry” generals is often cited as an example of how out of touch the British High Command was. But actually, there might be reason, beyond the Cavalry Club Old Boys’ network, for why so many former horsemen were in command positions. The place of the full-blooded cavalry charge against an enemy armed with magazine rifles and quick-firing artillery, never mind machine-guns, was in doubt long before 1914. Even before the Boer War of 1899-1902, it had been realised that the cavalry would probably see more use as mounted riflemen. And mounted riflemen; often working hand-in-hand with horse-artillery. That meant that cavalry commanders had to master not only cavalry tactics but also infantry tactics. Whereas an infantry commander only had to know infantry tactics and drill. Add in the British obsession with offensive warfare, supposedly the speciality of cavalrymen, and you have a disproportionate number of cavalry generals in the British Army between 1914 and 1918.

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OK, gentle visitor, I have a challenge for you. Can anyone out there cite a German source for the claim that during the First World War the kilties were known as either the “Ladies from Hell” or “The Devils in Skirts” ? I’ve got a feeling these names might just be the products of the British propaganda bureau or over-imaginative journalism. I have come across a German nickname for the kilties but it does not convey the respect or awe suggested by the above. I think for that reason, what I found rings truer. Very few troops are given respectful nicknames by their foes. It's funny how fictions can become accepted as truth through constant repetition. Many people believe that Berwick upon Tweed was still at war with Russia until the 1960s. The story went that the declaration of war against Russia when the Crimean War broke-out in 1853 included Berwick as a separate entity because it's status was still in dispute; the Scots claiming in the 1707 Treaty of Union it was annexed territory and refusing to recognise it as part of England. When the peace was signed in 1856, Berwick was not mentioned. Sadly, not true. A 1746 Act of Parliament declared Berwick officially part of England. The Crimean War claim was first made in shortly before the First World War. It was even said, wrongly again, that the Soviets signed a "peace treaty" with Berwick in 1966 to rectify the omission.

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I’m still a little baffled as to why drug cheat cyclist Lance Armstrong has suddenly decided to come clean. Only the most naive could have believed that he could have won the Tour de France so many times without using performance enhancing drugs. I made that point for years – but only in private. If I had said the same thing in a public forum, on this website for instance, there’s a good chance Armstrong and his backers would have ruined my life. That to me was Armstrong’s real crime: he tried to destroy those who dared to tell the truth. He didn’t just deny he was drug cheat or say, “so prove it and if you can’t, I’ll sue”. No, he was proactive and highly aggressive when it came to going after his critics. There are plenty of people who have won substantial libel settlements in the British courts and then years later it is come out that what was written was actually true. As a journalist I knew there was a big difference between having evidence that something was true and that evidence not being quite strong enough to prove beyond a doubt in court that something was true. There are no certainties in life and to go before a British civil court is a massive financial gamble. I think some wit said that appealing a civil decision is simply to throw the dice a second time. The sleazier British tabloids thrive on the flip side of that coin – the poor working Joes and Josephines that they libel for the sake of their drivel stories can’t afford to sue. Anyway, the civil and criminal courts both depend on witnesses if they are going to function. Silence the witnesses and the whole process falls apart. I learned a long time ago never to confuse the Law with Justice. And what happens to a person appearing in court depends on the size of their wallet. The Law, as is the case with decent healthcare, is a commodity with a price tag. The best most of us can hope for is never to need either.

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Any of you who read Book Briefing regularly will know that several of the books reviewed almost certainly started their lives as PhD theses. My admiration for most of the authors of them leapt recently when I attended a seminar hosted by the University of Alberta. Several what I took to be embryo theses were presented and questions were invited. I couldn't help noticing the contrast between the language used in the written papers and the language used to answer the questions posed. The English used in the papers was abstract, pompous and I suspect at times deliberately ambiguous. The answers given to questions were in clear English. This experience made me realise just what a good job the authors of the books had made of writing in plain English and dropping the convoluted gobbledegook apparently so much appreciated in the halls of academia.

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When I first came to Canada to work as a newspaper reporter I sometimes found myself struggling to differentiate between Canadian Usage of English and just plain Bad Usage. Most of what triggered my spidey sense turned out to be Bad Usage. There’s a lot of bad usage out there. Hardly a day goes by without me hearing something on the radio that sets my teeth on edge. “Doesn’t that clown know what that word means”; “That’s just gibberish” - are two phrases which spring to the lips of my mind. One of the great things about the English language is that it is always evolving. Words and usages which I believed were perfectly acceptable were frowned on in the 1940s. I managed to get my hands on the British Government’s guide to good English usage from around 1948, “Plain Words”. It was an education in how much the language had changed in 35 years. The booklet slammed the BBC for murdering the English language – so obviously some things don’t change. I remember one of the editors here in Canada changing my “who” to “whom”. According to the style guides and grammar mavens, he was correct. But who these days uses “whom”? It comes over as pompous. That said, and at the risk of sounding like an old grouch, I can’t help feeling that the use of English is getting sloppier. And that means we’re not communicating as well as we need to. I think part of this is down to well-intentioned souls who argue against Language Fascism. Attempts to impose Latin rules on English, a Germanic language, have certainly led to some nonsense grammar rules. But if no-one is pushing back in the name of good usage, then the slide into incomprehensibility is accelerated.

 

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I have Argentinian neighbours. I’m worried that they are going to seize my flat. After all, much of Argentina’s claim on the Falklands seems based on proximity and only a thin wall separates me from the neighbours. I can’t help noticing that many of Argentina’s South American neighbours are supporting the attempt to force the islanders to accept traditional South American life. I’d take this despicable piece of grandstanding more seriously if all South American countries agreed to return to their own pre-1833 boundaries (the year Britain took over the islands). And possibly I’d make them sign a guarantee that never again would their countries be run by military dictatorships, no more paramilitary death squads, no drug cartels, no oppressing or murdering indigenous populations, no murdering inconvenient environmental activists and perhaps genuinely democratic elections. You know, I really can’t blame the Falkland Islanders for not wanting to be ruled by their nearest neighbours. Mind you, that would probably have happened if the Argie Junta hadn’t been stupid enough to invade in 1982. I was a teenager at the time but I knew that the plan to withdraw the South Atlantic patrol ship Endurance was madness and would be seen as a lack of commitment to the islanders. I could never work out why the wishes of the Falkland folk were regarded as paramount but we were happy to turn over the residents of Hong Kong island to Communist China. The 1898 lease agreement for 99 years only applied to the parts of metropolitan Hong Kong on the mainland. So, Britain was not obliged to return the island at all.

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I recently caught a couple of episodes of a programme on the TV called Deadliest Warrior. It's a bit like a boys' school playground argument about who would win if, say, the Incredible Hulk fought Billy the Kid which has been turned into a television programme. Only instead of playground heroes, the programme supposedly pits types of warrior from history against each other; say a zulu versus a samuri. The programme has lots of demonstrations of the weapons used by the warriors. This often involves hacking at pig carcases or shooting anatomically correct dummies – some even made of gel which replicates human flesh – with lots of blood spatter flying. A doctor examines the results and proclaims “instant kills” or mortal wounds, etc. It's all very pseudo-scientific and not a little silly. Then the supposed results of the demonstrations are fed into a computer which we are told will run a simulated fight between the two warriors no less than 1,000 times and predict a winner. I think later in the series pitted two teams of five against each other. Well, we all know that a computer program is only as good as the programmer. Some of the results were a little surprising. But here's the clincher – one of the episodes I watched pitted the Viet Cong against the Waffen SS. The computer declared the SS would win. But the Viet Cong and the Waffen SS did fight it out in French Indo-China in the 1950s. Only the Waffen SS guys were serving the French Foreign Legion. And the Viet Cong, or a least the Viet Minh, won in the real life. Maybe the producers should be more careful and make sure they don't pit people who really did square off in their little gory fantasy.

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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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