Letters: War in Afghanistan

What is really going on in Afghanistan?
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Despite the fact that we now have 24-hour news on radio and television, and more newsprint per newspaper than ever before, we seem to be worse informed about current affairs than I can ever remember.

Taking the war in Afghanistan as an example, we have reporters embedded in our military units able to inform us almost minute by minute of what is happening and why, and yet we know only that we have suffered fatal casualties – even the wounded seldom get a mention.

It is right of course that we should know of all losses inflicted on our troops but should we not also know whether they and their units accomplished what they set out to do and whether they inflicted losses on the enemy and if so how many? Have they captured and destroyed fuel or ammunition dumps, knocked out enemy communication networks, captured their weapons? Have our allies carried out any operations? If so, what were they, were they successful and what were their losses?

Geoff S Harris


The sub-standard quality of some of the equipment our forces operate with in Afghanistan has always been an issue. Yet, without defending the New Labour government, it's only now subject to political point scoring by the other mainstream parties because while the troop fatality toll rises none of them are prepared to admit that the policy of military intervention which they all supported is an obvious failure.

With less than a year before a general election, politicians who are exploiting the issue of outdated equipment and all the other problems our forces encounter are in reality exploiting the plight of our forces rather than speaking out in their interests.

Nick Vinehill

Snettisham, Norfolk

Battle to cope with violence in class

Philip Hensher ("Violence in the classroom is a two-way affair", 13 July) is so right to point out the responsibility of care for teachers as well as students.

I started teaching in a tough comprehensive in the 1960s. Last in to a department of eight English teachers, I was given all the lowest streams, including one group of 73 tough teenagers, and left to my own devices. Three weeks later, and after a session with the class of 73 which was practically a riot, I handed in my notice, knowing I wouldn't survive much longer without any support whatsoever from my department head. The following year, the headmaster had a nervous breakdown.

When I retired from teaching in 2003, all new teachers in my school had mentors with whom they had regular meetings; in fact, all of us had a designated colleague to whom we could turn when in need of support and advice – and teachers of all ages and levels of experience need that sense of not being left alone in a demanding and stressful job. I had nightmares about my early experiences for years.

Michael J J Day

Settle, North Yorkshire

During my nearly two decades of teaching in prisons, reports would appear regularly deploring the depressingly high suicide rate among prisoners. It occurred to me at the time that however well or badly a prison was run, given that someone serving a sentence of more than a few weeks would almost certainly lose their job and consequently probably their home, family and personal possessions as well, it was surprising not how many prisoners committed suicide, but how few did.

I felt much the same reaction on reading Philip Hensher's comments on the alleged attack by a Nottinghamshire physics teacher on a 14-year-old pupil. If reports of the gratuitously offensive behaviour of a significant number of secondary pupils towards their teachers today are true, it surprises me that incidents of this sort are not a daily occurrence.

David Burton

Wellington, Telford

Costs and benefits of breast screening

The difference between diagnostic mammography and screening mammography is not generally understood. The letter from Collette Nurse (10 July) clearly illustrates this: she was not screened for breast cancer, she was diagnosed after she found a lump. This is diagnostic mammography. Screening is a public health intervention practised on a group of women who have no breast symptoms.

Evidence shows that about half of all "cancers" found by screening might not do any harm to the woman during her natural lifespan, yet they potentially label the woman as a "cancer patient". She may then suffer unnecessary traumas of surgery, radiotherapy and perhaps chemotherapy, as well as potential for serious social and psychological problems. These may continue to the next generation, as her daughters can face higher health-insurance premiums when their mother's over-diagnosis is misinterpreted as high risk. False positive and false negative test results regularly occur.

Women invited for breast screening are not advised of these harms, or given necessary information to be able to make a decision whether they wish to attend, in spite of repeated demands.

The ethical implications of doing harm to healthy people who have been approached by the health profession – in this case the NHS Breast Screening Programme (NHS BSP) – as opposed to people who seek health professionals' advice because they have symptoms – are serious. When someone approaches a doctor with a health problem, the doctor can only do their best, based on the evidence available. But if the profession (NHS BSP) makes an unsolicited approach to healthy people, it ought to be certain that the benefits of what it is offering are greater than the harms. It has a responsibility to tell women about potential harms as well as potential benefit.

Hazel Thornton

Honorary Visiting Fellow, Department of Health Sciences, University of Leicester

Colchester, Essex

We sincerely hope that women will not be discouraged from attending their breast screening appointments by Dr Iona Heath's article, "Why I won't have a mammogram" (7 July).

Breakthrough Breast Cancer agrees that it is extremely important women are given enough clear and good-quality information about breast screening and, if necessary, their treatment options, so they can make informed decisions. We are pleased to hear that the NHS Breast Screening Programme is reviewing its information. However, current evidence shows that the benefits of breast screening outweigh the risks.

Breast screening detects cancer at the earliest possible stages, when no signs may be noticeable – and the earlier cancer is diagnosed, the better the chances of successful treatment. Unfortunately, it is not currently possible to predict which early changes picked up by breast screening will become invasive cancers, so treatment is usually offered to prevent breast cancer developing. Although survival rates for the disease have increased greatly in recent years, more than 12,000 women still die of breast cancer each year in the UK.

The NHS Breast Screening Programme remains the gold standard in detecting breast cancer and plays a vital role in the UK's efforts to increase survival from the disease. What Dr Heath's article omitted to say is that breast screening is estimated to save around 1,400 lives each year in England alone. More needs to be done to encourage even more women to attend this vital service.

Maggie Alexander

Director of Policy & Campaigns, Breakthrough Breast Cancer

London WC1

Sad sniggering about nudity

As Ofcom received letters of complaint about Channel 4's presentation of an artist's nude model before the 9pm watershed, one must suppose the complainants to be concerned at the effect of this image on children. They should take note that the countries most relaxed about nudism show the by far lowest figures for unmarried (or partnerless) teenage pregnancy.

The Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries, where nude swimming and sunbathing are commonplace, and sex can be discussed without discomfort between age groups, enjoy an incidence of such casual pregnancies roughly a quarter that of the UK, which is afflicted by the highest figure in Europe.

Should nudity-related Anglo-Saxon sniggering or up-tight hang-ups be perpetuated by insulating children from an image so innocuous as an artist's model ?

Peter Kellett

Kinlochewe, Rossshire

Book trade in the grip of chaos

Though delighted with Tim Walker's desire to buy Tomas (The Couch Surfer, 13 July), as the book's publisher I hope I may address some of his concerns.

It is preposterous to suggest the author has been buying up his book to influence sales. He buys them directly from us at the conventional author's discount allowed in most publishing contracts. The title's speedy selling-out has been genuine. Publishers can only tell booksellers what they publish. We spent considerable time informing them all what an exceptional book Tomas was, and their inability to stock sufficient stock or repeat their orders fast enough is a matter of their timidity or simply bad judgement. We have little influence.

Nor are we helped by two powerful chains in the grip of chaos, with Borders closing flagship stores and its rival's new hub distribution centre collapsing as catastrophically as the baggage handling did when Terminal 5 opened. The book trade has never been as shambolic as it is today. It is a real disgrace and does not auger well for the industry.

Naim Attallah

Chairman, Quartet Books

London W1

Cahal Milmo's report "Two weeks to save Britain's book trade" (13 July) quotes John Geller of Curtis Brown literary agency as saying: "We need publishers to start taking risks again."

Finally, the big boys of corporate publishing have realised the truth that eventually you reap what you sow. Some of us were telling them that a decade ago. We should have zero sympathy for these people.

Suhayl Saadi


Veteran fighters for open spaces

The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB), founded in 1877, is not the world's oldest environment campaigning group, as claimed in your report "Don't mention the restoration" (13 July). I believe that honour lies with the Commons Preservation Society, a charity now known as the Open Spaces Society (OSS).

We were founded in 1865. In the late 1860s we helped achieve preservation of Hampstead Heath in north London. We helped to save Wimbledon Common from buildings in 1871. William Morris was active with us too, as was Octavia Hill, who helped get rights of way added to our open space campaigns.

Chris Beney

OSS Trustee

Bushey, Hertfordshire


Good news at last

The newspapers are full of unhappy stories about Iraq, government failures, obscene bonuses paid to insignificant people, police brutality and the like. How lovely it was, therefore, to read the story of Hannah Clark and her "piggy-back" heart (14 July). If only all news could be as uplifting as this.

Allan Friswell

Cowling, North Yorkshire

Happy bees

I would like to reassure your correspondent Peter Martin ("Where are the bees?", 10 July) that the urban bee is alive and plentiful. My front garden in Clapham is hedge-to-hedge old English lavender and is swarming with bees. Just ask the postman.

Gillian Bailey

London SW4

Conscience of Israel

I am appalled by the restrictions on Palestinians in Gaza being able to reunite with family members in the West Bank (report, 10 July). What does the Israeli government hope to achieve by its harsh policy? It's good to know, though, that there is an active Israeli conscience, as witnessed by the work of HaMoked and Gisha in bravely spotlighting the government's inhumanity.

Gordon Thynne

Coulsdon, Surrey

Wrong kind of trains

Lord Adonis is right to defend transport spending from Gordon Brown's cuts, but he's wrong to prioritise high-speed rail ("Minister warns Brown over spending cutbacks", 13 July). Instead, the limited funds should be spent on improving things for passengers now and giving more people the option of taking the train. That means the minister must cut train fares, deliver the extra train carriages promised by his department and reopen smaller rail lines. Doing these things would cut carbon emissions and be good value for money.

Cat Hobbs

Campaign for Better Transport

London N1

Political writing

Nigel Bray (letter, 14 July), has obviously been so busy as to be out of touch with current events. MPs do not write books, they use part of their expenses to pay someone to write them for them.

Terence Hollingworth

Blagnac, France