Letters: Heart-searching from our armed forces.

Military heart-searching over Afghanistan
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The Independent Online

I am intrigued by the spate of heart-searching coming from our armed forces. One wonders if the captain featured on your front page (10 August), and others expressing similar concerns, have ever read British military history.

The recent commemorations of the death of the last First World War soldier exposed what he thought of the reality of war. Umpteen reminiscences describe the appalling conditions, dire lack of kit and stupid decisions and, of course, how badly the wounded were treated.

Has each of these heart-searching forces personnel forgotten that we in the West have been playing with the lives and politics of the Afghans since goodness knows when, even at one time calling it, without irony, "the Great Game"?

The British and Americans colluded to bring Saddam Hussein to power, supported him when he was fighting the Iranians and later clobbered him, under of the usual false pretences. We did it again in Afghanistan, creating the Islamist forces, setting up their bases and maintaining their supplies, as long as they were fighting the Russians of course. Now we face the delight of herding cats, as we attempt to put a western construct on a tribal, war-lord driven, feudal society – and we wonder why we are failing.

As someone with relatives across several forces in then Iraq and now Afghanistan, I am aware that there is disquiet. But what on earth are the current cohort of forces personnel doing with their knowledge and awareness?

David Fitzpatrick

Bishops Stortford, Hertfordshire

Surely Sir David Richards' statement that Britain will be committed to Afghanistan for up to 40 years is simply an ingenious way of alerting us to the fatuity of the enterprise.

David Boll

London NW6

New drugs are not invented for cash

Johann Hari makes an excellent case in exposing the inefficiencies and wastage which underlie the profits of the pharmaceutical industry (5 August). As an alternative Hari suggests the system envisioned by Joseph Stiglitz, in which governments would hold the patents for drugs which cure diseases, enabling distribution according to need, and reward the scientists who develop the drugs with payments from a "prize fund".

Allegedly this system preserves the "financial incentive" for scientists. However, as a biomedical scientist working in an academic institution, it is not clear to me that in the current system the development of new drugs by scientists is dependent on any such financial incentive.

Scientists who work for drug companies get paid salaries, as do scientists who work for academic institutions. In the event that any scientist or group of scientists discover a compound which is patentable as a treatment for a disease, it is the employing company or academic institution that owns that patent. The individual simply receives the same salary.

In the case of academic institutions, a fraction of the royalties may be shared with the inventors. But it is liable to be so low, that its potential as an incentive diminishes to nothing.

The concept of "financial incentives" as a driver for ingenuity, innovation and productivity appears to be yet another myth perpetuated by our profit-hungry corporate culture. In reality people work in scientific research and development for the most part because solving problems and discovering things is what they enjoy doing, and because those people prefer a professional career which at least feels as if it is doing something to make the world a better place.

Dr Gareth Hardy

Department of Pathology, Case Western Reserve University,

Cleveland, Ohio, USA

A study by Amir Attaran, in Health Affairs Journal, shows that less than 2 per cent of essential medicines in the world's poorest countries are patented, yet cheap generics remain out of reach. As Bill Clinton said: "You just can't get the medicine, ship it into a country, and drop it from the sky." Lack of infrastructure is the biggest problem, yet Johann Hari falls into the trap of erroneously blaming patents.

Government-run innovation systems have been tried before, notably by the Soviet Union. They did not out-perform patented innovations then, and will not do so now.

Julian Harris

International Policy Network

London EC4

Women's right to choose boxing

In making the comparison between bear-baiting and boxing, Rhoda Koenig ("Ban women's boxing – and men's too", 10 August) neglects a difference: bears were tethered and forced. Women's exclusion from boxing until 1998 reflects their experience in other areas of society.

Denying women choices spreads like a virus: refuse to let them box, and then perhaps challenge their right to engage in combat in the armed forces, and then to occupy senior positions in the police service; it goes on.

Women who choose to box are not witless dummies manipulated by malevolent forces: Koenig should credit them with the intelligence to make informed choices about their own lives. Perhaps not perfectly free choices, as she points out; but all our choices are constrained by social and personal circumstances.

Boxing, and perhaps the more brutal and fast-growing cage-fighting, may offend Koenig's sensibilities, but she doesn't speak for all women.

Ellis Cashmore


I see ex-boxers every month at the London Ex-Boxers' Association and they look fine to me – better-adjusted than I am, I suspect.

Has it occurred to Rhoda Koenig and those who agree with her that what they are calling for is in effect anti-working class and anti-black? It would deprive working-class kids, especially black ones, of one of their few chances of getting ahead in life. I could name men who were saved from a life of crime by boxing – and the London Boxing Academy is doing that right now.

Mark Taha

London SE26

Sound and fury from Wagner

I am glad that Ivan Fallon got his long-sought "Wagner experience" ("A rookie at the Ring cycle", 4 August) and that it was as sublime (for him) as he had hoped it would be, but I do object to the notion of a consensus among music lovers that Wagner, and in particular the Ring cycle, represents the "pinnacle" of genius in operatic composition. This could be disastrously misleading to anyone curious for experience of opera but unsure where to go next; they could still end up paying for an experience that they find stultifying and which puts them off opera for life.

Wagner's reputation as a musical demigod reached its peak in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and has been ebbing slowly ever since (following his early infatuation, Nietzche renounced Wagner as a pernicious charlatan). Undoubtedly, he is a fascinating composer with a pervasive and enduring (although not wholly benign) influence over later composers. Tristan is a masterpiece of tortured lyricism.

But The Ring? The most over-rated work in the history of music. Melody, such as exists, is mostly suffocated by the bombast of the orchestral melange. Drama? Distended to the point of flaccidity. The narrative, if set down in prose, sounds ridiculous and incomprehensible. That's because it is. The Ring makes a very big noise, but its mainly sound and fury, signifying not much. It seems to conflate mere size with significance.

If you're looking for genuine operatic equivalents of Shakespeare: Mozart, Verdi, Handel, Mussorgsky, Gluck, Berlioz and Britten are all much nearer the mark. They deal with the crises and emotions of human beings, rather than titans and goblins. Their operas teem with memorable melodies. They make you laugh and cry. The most likely effect of The Ring is a sort of awed narcolepsy.

Daryl Brown

Ashford, Kent

Protection for Baby P killers

It is unbelievable that three such evil people as Tracey Connelly, Steven Barker and Jason Owen should be given any sort of protection either in jail or when they are released. These people should be locked away from decent society and, when they are released, which should not be for a very very long time, they will have to take their chances. There was no one there to protect Peter.

Sandra Caplan

Bushey, Hertfordshire

Bill Boyd believes that it is reasonable for vast sums of money to be spent in protecting the killers of Baby P, since to put them at risk of being lynched is unacceptable (letter 12 August). But I believe it is unacceptable to spend millions protecting such people; I suggest allowing them to go free without protection, when their sentences expire, but offering them the alternative of staying in prison.

William Garrett

Harrow, Middlesex

The truly awful thing is that, if Baby Peter had lived, he might have gone on to abuse children. All research shows that early experiences and in particular, lack of love and "attachment", can lead to massive relationship problems, anger and insecurity. And we all know that children learn most about the world and other people in their earliest years. And so the cycle repeats itself. Somehow we have to face this fact if we really want to protect children born into dysfunctional families.

Tessa Howard

Goathurst, Somerset

What we gain by helping others

Philip Hensher (10 August) says: "There doesn't seem to be a clear evolutionary advantage in acting unselfishly," and, "Obviously we have to learn altruism." All social animals have evolved to display altruism. It is part of how social creatures survive. It is absurd to acknowledge it in, say, baboons but be puzzled that humans show it. It is acquired in the same way aggression is acquired, as is the social instinct to know when which is appropriate.

There is a role for learning, though. Because something is an instinct doesn't mean we are at its mercy. We can learn to control and focus it, and to become more flexible in letting it motivate us. For example, we can increase the occasions on which, and broaden the range of people (even of sentient beings) for whom, we act altruistically; and reduce the occasions on which, and narrow the range of those to whom, we show aggression.

Adrian Ince

Chobham, Surrey

Injustice to students

Scottish Labour's injustice to English students at Scottish universities over tuition fees is greater than C Yates states (letter, 10 August). In fact exemption from fees at Scottish universities applies to students normally resident in any part of the European Union with the exceptions of England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

C J Woods

Celbridge, Co Kildare, Ireland

Water at the BBC

Tempting as it may be to deal in absolutes, reports about the amount the BBC spends on bottled water miss the bigger picture ("£400,000 bill for BBC's bottled water", 12 August). The BBC employs around 23,000 people, so £406,832 is £17.89 per person per year – or less than 5p a day. That's pretty good value for the only drink that has zero sugar, zero calories and zero additives.

Jeremy Clarke

director, Natural Hydration Council, London SW1

Novelist and Nazi

Although Knut Hamsun's Nazi opinions were repugnant ("Nobel prize winner who fell for Hitler", 7 August), his best literary work does not echo them. If we were to reject books on the basis of authors' beliefs, the library shelves would be radically thinned. I take issue with Andy McSmith's contention that Hamsun is "the only world-renowned novelist that Norway has produced". As well as Hamsun's fellow Nobel laureate Sigrid Undset, there are the feminist writers Amalie Skram and Cora Sandel, as well as Tarjei Vesaas, Lars Saabye Christensen and the crime writer Karen Fossum.

Mike Palfrey


Home thoughts

I am intrigued by the new coinage "staycation", meaning deciding not to go abroad for holidays because of the credit crunch. This is a word which will not stay in the language – I have never encountered it outside newspapers – but it is an odd coinage because its root, "vacation", is not even a word in British usage. Suggestions from friends for a more appropriate British-based word for this British phenomenon include: stoliday, holistay, staybreak and statibreak.

Geoff Ridden


Badminton terror

Your report on the perceived terrorist threat, "Terror fears see UK team flee Indian tournament" (10 August) raises a couple of questions. Since when does the UK consist solely of the England badminton team which pulled out of the World Championships, and why no mention of the Scottish and Welsh teams who decided, bravely, to defy the threats and remain to compete ?

Alan Ramsay