Sir: If the allegations of atrocities at Haditha and Ishaqi prove to be true, the competence of the occupying forces in Iraq, and the US in particular, will be further called into question, at home and abroad. By way of extenuating factors, the US authorities may (not unjustifiably) put forward "battle stress" and "red mist" reactions, while holding those responsible to account not only for the murders but for the cover-up.
Against the background of the inevitable collateral casualties of urban guerrilla warfare, such events concerned onlookers might easily regard as isolated incidents, but for the deliberate policy of not accounting for civilian casualties.
Hence when an operation involving shelling and/or bombing is reported to have killed 60 "insurgents", how are we to understand that figure? Are non-combatants counted as "insurgents" or are they ignored? Either way, the information is misinformation, and a culture of misinformation allows the possibility that many other atrocities against civilians go undetected.
Whatever the outcome of the enquiries into Haditha and Ishaqi, the refusal by the occupying powers to account for non-combatant casualties is both a scandalous dereliction of the duties of common humanity and a PR disaster of the first order.
COLIN V SMITH
ST HELENS, MERSEYSIDE
Sir: Joan Smith, in what could be construed as an attempt to excuse what may have happened at Haditha (Comment, 2 June), suggests the villagers may have known the American patrol was to be the target of a roadside bomb. Not unlikely. But what were they supposed to do? Inform the occupying forces and almost certainly suffer the savage punishment meted out to collaborators in all such conflicts?
I agree that the US military is not "uniquely wicked". Nevertheless, its ethos and tactics make it more prone to over-reaction than other armies. Frequently, US officers make comments such as, "We are not policemen", or, "We don't do peacekeeping". It is clearly policy to respond to attacks or perceived threats with massive and often indiscriminate firepower.
I hold no brief for the British Army, which is often too free with fists and boots, but in response to the loss of comrades in Basra recently, and in the face of extreme provocation, British troops showed discipline and restraint. Like Joan Smith, "I am not at all surprised by the alleged behaviour of US military in Haditha". I would have been surprised if it had been British troops involved.
Kept in jail by Home Office confusion
Sir: The Lord Chief Justice's call for fewer prison sentences and his condemnation of overcrowding ("Call for cut in jail population", 30 May) is to be applauded.
Alas, the public and the media are preoccupied with foreign prisoners who should have been deported on release. There has been no recognition of the equal number of such prisoners who remain in custody beyond their sentence because the Home Office is similarly uncertain of their status. Our organisation is in touch with prisoners who were due for release as long ago as last August. Their sentences, shamefully, continue indefinitely purely because of bureaucratic confusion.
The number of foreign prisoners who missed deportation is only part of the story. It would be revealing to know how many others remain unjustly incarcerated in a scandalously overcrowded penal system.
CHIEF EXECUTIVE NEW BRIDGE LONDON SW1
Sir: Only send to prison when it is necessary, declares the Lord Chief Justice. Very few are sent to prison unnecessarily. They have all committed an imprisonable offence. And very few are sent to prison before they have received many community-based "punishments". For the courts to "turn the other cheek" again and again brings the criminal justice system into disrepute.
Crime is not an illness. Prisons are not treatment centres. Imprisonment stops the individual's criminal activity, satisfies retribution and draws attention to the consequences of law-breaking. Unpunished crime demoralises the law-abiding and encourages the criminal. We have had 40 years of anti-prison policies. And 40 years of rising crime.
SENIOR PROBATION OFFICER (RTD) MAIDSTONE, KENT
Sir: One must assume, when Home Office ministers speak of judges being out of touch with popular opinion, that they mean it as a criticism. One would do well to remember the unacknowledged function of the judiciary in this country, in that it more or less forces the English to behave in a more civilised way than they would naturally be inclined to.
We have a built-in majority here that favours the sentencing policies of Vlad the Impaler, and believes the only human rights worth worrying about are one's own. I'm not saying these people need protecting from their baser instincts; I'm saying that I do.
Whenever this government is accused of knee-jerk politics, (fairly frequently), it responds by saying that people's fears need to be acknowledged and acted on. Actually, no. People's fears can, as often as not, be dispelled, and their prejudices counteracted, by information and education if the Government so chose.
Now that it is broadly accepted that smoking makes you cough, eating too much makes you fat, and cocaine makes you an idiot, the Government could turn its efforts to explaining some of the other issues of our age. It could explain that foreign criminals are no more a cause for panic than the ones we breed right here; that treating drug addiction is a lot cheaper than jailing stoned burglars; that stoning burglars might be considered excessive.
It does not. It chooses not to, and nothing better illustrates the moral cowardice at the heart of New Labour than its slavish adherence to the Bruce Willis theory of governance, which states that it is far easier to impress by acting tough than by acting smart.
Treatment for the whole patient
Sir: Dominic Lawson quotes me out of context (Comment, 26 May). My telephone and e-mail consultation services are for the convenience of people who are housebound for some reason, do not have easy access to transport, or live miles from a practitioner. NHS Direct makes medical diagnoses and prescriptions by telephone, and chartered NHS psychologists offer a number of therapies using a live chat exchange.
The purpose of a homeopathic consultation is not to cry crocodile tears as we tell people how much we feel their pain, but to elicit exactly the physical, mental and emotional symptoms, as well as the dietary, lifestyle and medical information needed for a homeopathic analysis and prescription. This is known as holistic medicine.
The mind-body link is powerful. That is not a New Age statement, it is a fact. Chronic stress, for example, is associated with elevated blood pressure, insomnia, mood changes, stomach ulcers and cardiac problems. Practitioners who ignore this link are failing their patients by "curing" symptoms and leaving the cause unresolved.
The placebo response is extremely complex, but is estimated to account for about 30 per cent of perceived improvement, and this figure is the same for the GPs. It is certainly not something we can rely on to do our work for us in every case. No doubt we also see a percentage of people who were going to get better without intervention, as do the GPs. There remains a percentage for whom we must assume that the drug given was effective, whether homeopathic or orthodox, and whether it took six minutes or 90 to prescribe it.
In the present climate, where iatrogenic death and injury are rife, the issue at stake is patient choice.
Operas wrenched out of their time
Sir: The English National Opera has just sent me its guide to productions that will run at the Coliseum till March next year.
It promises a new La Traviata set in late 19th-century Dublin with its "ruling minority united in their (sic) love of fierce drinking, gambling and prostitution", a new Marriage of Figaro "transported to a late 1920s setting, a period between the two world wars when society was in flux", and revivals of The Gondoliers set in the 1950s, La Bohème set in the 1960s and Handel's Agrippina set in the present.
Is there no one left to respect the intentions of the composers and writers? And must every complex masterwork of music drama be castrated on the high altar of directorial cliché?
Inheriting a legal tangle
Sir: Has Joan Bakewell grasped the full, insidious, anti-family implications of her comment, regarding unmarried couples, that "issues of property, inheritance and exemption from inheritance tax need attending to"? (Comment, 1 June)?
Unless inheritance tax were to be abolished altogether, two people of either sexes could claim to have been in an intimate relationship upon the death of the other, and how could it be disproved? Would they be required to provide supporting evidence from friends?
We could end up with the bizarre situation where you could leave your estate tax-free to anyone you like as long as they are not a blood relative. The law would give more weight to a casual relationship than the bond between parent and child.
Phone that binds our modern life
Sir: Hamish McRae ("The mobile phone boom is over", 31 May) is right to emphasise "the profound benefits to humankind" of the mobile phone (not least those enjoyed by its manufacturers.) He cites the "more than 150 million mobile phones in Africa". Surely with that number the battle against famine and Aids in what he calls "the world's darkest continent" must be virtually over?
Nearer home, the cellphone certainly does enable people, as he says "to connect to each other", and one wonders how they ever could do that without it. The patent advantage of being able, with a mobile, to relieve the tedium of train journeys, or of visits to places of entertainment and restaurants, or long hours passed in the life-denying hush of libraries - or the sheer dullness of a walk in the park or round the block - is obvious.
Human relations must have been very dull in the pre-mobile age of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Henry James; it is a tribute in the talent of those great figures that they contrived to make life and love so fascinating when their characters were obliged to remain so remote from one another.
Historically, it is difficult to fathom how mankind established empires such as those of the Medes and Persians, or the Greeks and Romans, or for that matter our own British Empire, without this essential means of communication.
All that Hamish McRae omitted to mention was the agony of deprivation suffered by those like myself who have nothing better than notepaper, envelopes, stamps, landline phones, and perhaps an ancient fax machine like the one with which I am fortunately enabled to transmit this plea for some understanding of our plight.
Sir: In lieu of the "electronic screening devices to block mobile phone signals from theatres" that some actors hope to introduce ("Now Broadway gets a mobile broadside from Richard Griffiths", 2 June), how about making it standard practice to repeat the announcement to turn the things off after the interval, because the second halves of shows are most commonly interrupted?
It should also be made clear that off means off, not switched to silent. While imperceptible to the actors, the curse of the vibrating handbag is, for us mere audience-members, even more of an annoyance than the outrageous price of the Lilliputian tubs of ice-cream.
And while they are at it, how about starting to eject the loud, elderly Americans who chat ceaselessly as if they're watching television?
Sir: Perhaps I can help Philip Hensher (31 May) in his perplexity? May be the reason why people still queue in an orderly way for buses in Hay-on-Wye is that they are not in England, as he seems to think, but in Wales.
Lack of class
Sir: I hear with incredulity that the academic teachers' union UCU has rejected an offer of a 13 per cent pay increase. I have been on the support staff of a university for more than 30 years, and my salary has yet to reach the level of pay enjoyed by a new lecturer in their first job. The academics call the 13 per cent "miserly". Our pay offer is 3 per cent. Perhaps we may be pardoned for feeling less than sympathetic towards those poor, hard-up academics.
Root of the matter
Sir: While the advocates of western (biochemical) medicine and alternative (holistic) medicine slug it out over which is the better, let us ponder the historical evolution of medicine. The patient has earache. 2000 BC: Here, eat this root. AD 1000: That root is heathen, say this prayer. AD 1850: Prayer is superstition, drink this potion. AD 1940: That potion is suspect, take this pill. AD 1985: That pill is ineffective, take this antibiotic. AD 2006: That antibiotic is artificial, eat this root.
Flap about flag
Sir: My 11-year-old stepson was chuffed to find the big English flag included with the Saturday edition a couple of weeks ago. Normally he would, of course, support his national team, but England being the only British team left, he quickly put the flag in his window. Several of our normally silent neighbours found this significant enough to complain to the "management corporation" of our block of flats, who promptly demanded we remove it. What does this say about football, patriotism or the Welsh?
Sir: Is it true that all the worst drivers are now required to display a white flag bearing a red cross?
MILTON-UNDER-WYCHWOOD, OXFORDSHIREReuse content