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Thursday 12 November 2009
Arming Afghans for their next civil war
Listening to a minister justifying the presence and suffering of our army in Afghanistan, I heard him use the words "Afghan National Army" and "Afghan police".
Britain only set up a police force for London in the 1820s. The council of our local town, Tiverton, passed a resolution in 1844 that "it was neither desirable nor expedient to establish a regular paid police force". The germs of the British Army can be seen as far back as the English Civil War, but a standing army was seen by popular opinion as unpopular and dangerous until the 19th century.
How does contemporary Afghan opinion, even if such a thing were measurable, view the concepts of "army" and "police"? I wonder if, in Afghanistan, we are trying to make water flow uphill by trying to set up such things.
Perhaps a national army and police are only possible when a society has developed loyalty to such abstracts as crown, society and nation, as opposed to loyalty towards individuals. My reading of Afghan history is that loyalties there are personal and that winning power at the centre is a licence for enrichment, plunder and where possible the removal of opponents.
Given the number of different languages and ethnic groups in Afghanistan, the attempt to arm and train a National Army is probably just tooling up the country for their next civil war. By arming anti-Russian insurgents we did much to create the Taliban; one wonders what we are doing creating a "National Army".
Is it time that some formal acknowledgment be given by government or the monarch to the Royal British Legion and the whole town of Wootton Bassett for their continual support as the bodies of soldiers killed in Afghanistan are repatriated. Awards need not always be given to individuals.
'Sun' stunt gives Brown a boost
In its latest attempt to manipulate tragedy for its own political ends, The Sun has done the seemingly impossible: they have cast Gordon Brown in a sympathetic light.
He has hand-written – something that is not easy for him – genuinely personal letters of sympathy, untouched by spin doctors, to families who have lost children in the war in Afghanistan.
One up for Gordon, I think.
I was not surprised that a grief-stricken mother cast around for someone to blame for her son's death or that a low-grade news sheet shabbily made out of her loss an opportunity to increase its circulation and an attempt to further its recently acquired political views.
What did surprise me, however, was that the Prime Minister would find the time to hand-write letters of condolence to the next-of-kin of war casualties.
If one can deduce pitiable sorrow, crass mediocrity and genuine human quality from this sorry affair, I think I know where to place all three.
St Breward, Cornwall
Bringing "baby Jennifer" into this terrible story ("I understand the pain of losing a child", 11 November) is dangerous.
There was no shortage of funds, no institutional negligence and no political calculation in the events surrounding Jennifer Brown's death. If the same could be said with any certainty for Mrs Janes' loss, I would have some sympathy for Mr Brown's poor handwriting, spelling and grammar.
Does the editor of The Sun not realise that the public recognise a journalistic stunt when they see one? And that the victim of this stunt, so deserving of our sympathy and a chance to mourn the loss of her son, is Mrs Janes herself?
Gordon Brown would perhaps have been better advised to send a letter of condolence using the template devised by Colonel Cathcart in the Joseph Heller anti-war novel, Catch 22: "Dear Mrs, Mr, Miss or Mr and Mrs _________, Words cannot express the great personal grief I experienced when your husband, son, father or brother was killed, wounded or reported missing in action.
Sex education that scares children
Mary Wakefield's perceptive article (7 November) requires further comment. Yes, the current approach to sex education and preventing STI transmission is intended to scare the pants off (or should I say "on") people. This not only happens in schools, but is replicated in television programmes. Photographs of the worst cases of diseased genitals are shown to children as a warning. This is a positively Victorian approach.
People are not going to stop having sex any time soon, however unpleasant it is made to appear. We should not be seeking to replace religious guilt about natural sexuality with an unnatural fear of common infections. Most cases will not be as bad as the scary pictures suggest. Most are treatable and even the most stigmatised – genital herpes – is more likely to be trivial than serious. We need to encourage check-ups for asymptomatic infection, not just clinic visits for those with symptoms.
Millions are going to catch STIs as they journey through life. It will be better for them and better for society if sex education includes data on prevalence and severity. Then people will not be devastated when they do catch something, and comedians who try to make "herpes" into a bad joke will have to come up with better material.
Research from Holland shows that good sex education programmes can delay the start of sexual relationships, and increased use of condoms can help to reduce transmission. But this is not enough. We need a sensible long-term approach to sex education and a grown-up attitude to STIs – as soon as possible.
We do not stigmatise people who catch infections when they are not having sex. It is time we stopped stigmatising people who catch infections when they do have sex.
Head of Information
Herpes Viruses Association
Cameron's flawed 'big society'
You are right to point out that the picture painted by David Cameron of a "big society" is attractive, at least superficially (editorial, 11 November). So are most visions of Utopia.
However, it would not be easy for voluntary organisations to retain their independence and serve the purposes for which they exist if a large proportion of their income came from government. The present administration has recognised this to an extent by developing a compact with the voluntary sector which respects its independence at least on paper.
It is only too easy to envisage a future government, beleaguered by continued economic difficulties and associated unpopularity, putting informal pressure on civil society organisations not to rock the boat by drawing attention to inconvenient facts.
Judge upholds scientific beliefs
Terence Blacker (6 November) makes an unjustifiable leap of logic when he claims that Tim Nicholson's victory in his wrongful dismissal case means that "personal convictions about the environment are no longer to be regarded as matters of logic or science, but belong to the world of faith".
On the contrary, the judge ruled that when a person "holds a philosophical belief which is based upon science as opposed, for example, to religion, then there is no reason to disqualify it from protection". That is, the protection afforded under the 2003 Religion and Belief Act.
The principle in this particular case did not hang on the strength or nature of Tim Nicholson's beliefs, surely, but on the argument that it is wrong to dismiss anyone merely for their stance on any political or philosophical issue, particularly when that stance is both widely held and based upon generally accepted science.
Dr Francis Kirkham
Ecological Research and Consultancy
Cyclists on the pavement
As a pensioner and lifelong cyclist, I was very upset to read of the increased number of accidents to cyclists in London.
On a recent coach tour of German cities, I was delighted to see cyclists on pavements everywhere, mostly on marked lanes next to the road. Even where there were no lanes, people and bikes seemed to be no problem for each other.
Where I live there are roads with cars parked nose-to-tail all along both sides, making it very narrow down the middle, but cars still try to squeeze past me, while the pavements are virtually empty. What would you do?
Worthing, West Sussex
In France, where I cycle and walk frequently, the attitude of drivers is more tolerant and considerate. I suspect that this is because French law, in the first instance, places the responsibility for an accident involving pedestrian or cyclists on the driver of the motor vehicle.
Soren Sjolin (letter, 9 November) is right - we must get more cyclists on the roads. A first step round here would be to get them off the pavements.
The 'power' of high heels
I was taken aback by Helen Croydon's insistence that women in high heels are "the ultimate expression of femininity" and power (Opinion, 9 November). I'd like to think the ultimate expression of femininity would be Kelly Smith scoring the winning goal in the WFA Cup Final or Captain Janeway piloting Voyager back to Earth in Star Trek. Women have moved beyond shoes as an expression of their capabilities, haven't they?
Having watched my mother suffer from bunions, squashed toes, painful arches and being unable to walk very far because she always insisted on wearing stiletto heels, I am one of the "sensible shoes" brigade.
I am afraid the "inner pleasure" Ms Croydon speaks of will quickly turn into a very unsexy look of pain written across her face and "sashaying hips, long legs, and taut calf muscles" just result in varicose veins and joint operations which are no fun and decidedly unattractive. Perhaps Ms Croydon should learn to develop some alternative form of "levelling up to men in the boardroom" – like a strong personality.
In this week when we remember all those soldiers who died to protect us from fascism, our parliament has voted in favour of secret inquests. Every so often, I can hear the muffled clump of jackboots as we are slow-marched into a police state.
Balance of nihilism
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown asks why educated, high-achieving Muslims fall into nihilism (9 November). The answer could be found as soon as she and other liberal columnists debate why well-educated Christians prefer to leave the comfort and safety of western societies, to go and bomb, maim and sadistically mistreat prisoners in remote places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. And why no one questions Jewish terrorists who commit murderous crimes against innocent Palestinians and Lebanese.
Dr Munjed Farid Al Qutob
Justice at last
The Justice minister, Jack Straw, appears to have at long last understood what his title really means. He has announced that the minimum term for a murder committed with a blade will go up by 10 years, from 15 to 25. Fantastic news for the families of victims, and hopefully this will act as a deterrent, but a great pity it took so long.
You say in your 10 November report of the confrontation between Venezuela and Colombia: "Washington sees Mr Uribe's regime as a buffer against the growing number of socialist governments in the area." This, being translated, should read: "Washington sees the Uribe regime as helping to maintain US capitalism's historic and continuing gross exploitation of South and Central America". It is loss of profits which worries the Americans. It is nothing to do with security buffers.
The Revd David Perry
South Cave, East Yorkshire
Death on the ice
I was sad to read about the polar bear mother having to be shot by the Inuit hunter trapped with it on an ice floe (11 November). What happened to the two cubs?
Haywards Heath, West Sussex
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