Friday, 23 September 2011

Is The World Insane?

Maybe it's just me, I'm not sure.  Am I the one that isn't thinking straight or has the world gone insane?

Say what you like about the Cold War, it had it's uses and we benefited from most of them.  War, whether it be a physical or ethereal one, sparks creativity and technological advancement.  Without war, we seem to stagnate.

An example.  Prior to the first World War, aircraft were either balloons or wood and fabric contraptions that had a habit of succumbing to gravity - at high speeds - resulting in an unfortunate death.  Some 30 years later and two World Wars, we had advanced onto jet turbines and liquid fueled rockets!  Fast forward over sixty years and we are still using the same technology albeit more refined!  The only supersonic passenger plane that was in service during the 1970s is no more and us mere mortals can no longer travel faster than sound.

The Cold War encouraged more development, especially in Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs).  The offshoot from this was the Space Race in which the USA and the Soviet Union competed against each other in a game of oneupmanship.  This resulted in man landing on the moon in the 1960s and 1970s.  Since then, however, man hasn't been back to the moon, in fact, man hasn't even left earth orbit.  The development of the Space Shuttle hinted at the possibility of space travel, but ended up being scrapped as of this year.  We are now going back to the old rockets.

There have been other leaps in technology.  Computing, photography, biology to name a few, but the basis of their advancement was based in conflict.  Fighting each other appears to give greater momentum to the development of more technologically advanced equipment.  Once the threat is reduced, the momentum slows and in some cases, we seem to take a step backwards.

Not only is the lack of threat slowing progress, the new rules and restrictions placed upon us by people who have nothing better to do have reduced the speed of progress to a snails pace.  Health and Safety has to be one of the most ridiculous creations that mankind has come up with.  How on earth were they approved to begin with is beyond me.  These rules which restrict us are rigorously enforced when appropriate and then thrown away when not.  They may have been created with good intentions but they have become a cancer that eats away at advancement and productivity.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the world has become a much more dangerous place.  The deluded and naive leaders of the world believed that a new era of peace and whatever had come.  In fact, the complete opposite has happened.  It is more dangerous now than it ever was in the 1960s.  This century, although only just begun, has seen death and destruction which is beginning to rival that of the previous century and we haven't had any world wars!  It's like a madness has overcome people and they are fighting for no apparent reason.

As I type this, people are dying all over the globe and the vaunted United Nations does nothing to alleviate it apart from spouting more rhetoric than a right wing rally.  This impotent collection of politicians watch as hundreds of people die and do nothing.  Why?  What does it take before they do something?  Or is the fact that a country has to have oil or some other natural resource before they even consider intervention.  The atrocities in North Africa and Sub Sahara have all but been ignored.  They obviously weren't important enough for the UN.  Enough said.

The majority of people live in a cocoon.  Most of the younger generation have no understanding about the turmoil in the world.  Most don't care.  Why should they?  It doesn't affect them.  Until it spreads and then suddenly there is astonishment and cries of 'why did this happen' and 'where was the government'.  All the while, those that were watching the unrest, procrastinate and wonder what should be done.

The human race had better wake up.  This global insanity has to stop.  But it won't.  No matter what is said, done, written or broadcasted, nothing is going to change.  Not until the next big war.  And that's the point to this article.  It's only in war that the human race shows it's greatest compassion and it's greatest evil.  It's madness but unfortunately true.  I dread to think what the next world war would be like and whether there would be any survivors?  It appears that all paths lead to our future extinction at our own hands.  Yes, it's an extreme view, but remove all the inconsequential noise and look hard at what is happening.

Look harder and you may begin to understand what I mean.

Horrible, isn't it?

Sunday, 11 September 2011

11th September 2001

As the world remembers the heinous acts of terrorism conducted by extremists in the United States ten years ago, they remember the tremendous loss of life of those in American Airlines flight 11, United Airlines flight 175 and the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York.  No less significant and equally as tragic were the crashing of American Airlines flight 77 into the Pentagon in Arlington Virginia and the attack foiled by the brave passengers of United Airlines flight 43 which crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

These attacks rocked the western world and beyond.  Witnessed by millions of people around the globe, terror attacks that had previously been the purview of fiction writers unfolded before our eyes.  Even the most harden amongst us were affected; cascading emotions tearing through us as we watched, with horror and unbelief, the greatest loss of human life in a coordinated terrorist attack.

That day changed the lives of millions of people.

The ramifications of that day changed the face of the Earth.  Not just the heartbreaking scar in the middle of downtown Manhattan, but the balance of power in Asia and the Middle East.  That day, ten years ago, would lead to governments misleading their countries, lies and ultimately, two bloody wars.

The attacks changed my life profoundly.  Although I lost no friends in the attacks against the World Trade Centre, I lost colleagues in the Pentagon.  What I didn't know, at that time, was that it was going to cost me a lot more.  Much, much more.

Although my first deployment to Afghanistan was tinged with excitement, I was also acutely aware of why I was going and what I would be called upon to do.  I knew that the death toll in America was only the start.  We were going into Afghanistan for one reason: to kill the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden.  I was going to do my duty as my superiors demanded and the most chilling part of it was that I was looking forward to it.  I wanted to reap death and destruction upon those that had the audacity to carry out such craven attack on America.  I'm not even American!

I lost many friends and colleagues during that war and the deaths haven't stopped yet.  So far there has been around 380 British troops killed in action and around 1762 US troops killed.  One of the most significant death was that of a dear colleague killed by an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) planted by a Taliban insurgent or, worst still, a local Afghan for a few American Dollars.  Although accustomed to death (several tours in Bosnia showed me the horror of death and the depths of depravity that mankind can sink to), the death of this friend shook me to the core.  This was someone I had trained and convinced to change trade (their original trade would have kept them away from any harm) because it was more challenging.  I regret that conversation and it still haunts me to this day.  As a result of my convincing them to change trade, I had put them in harms way and gotten them killed.

The war in Iraq was something I was completely against.  So much so that I had heated arguments with my superiors and stated that we were breaking International law.  I was aware that the evidence that supported our involvement in Iraq was exaggerated and I was furious when I was informed that I would be going there.  Although I may have disagreed with my government, I was a soldier and I did follow orders.  My arrival in Kuwait and subsequent battles into Iraq sickend me and the slaughter of ill equipped troops only fueled my anger.

As with Afghanistan, I lost several colleagues in Iraq.

That day in September 2001 had led me down this path in which I had little or no control, but it wasn't all bad.

During my career I have always worked closely with the American military.  My deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq led me to develop new friendships with some amazing people.  Although predominately American, I also made new friends with soldiers from France, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Italy, Germany, Holland and even Romania.  We all had a lot in common and there was always mutual respect for each other, even with the French!!  However, it was the Americans that I became closest to, partly because of work and partly because I have always enjoyed the warm way they treated the British.  I made some close friends and have very fond memories of these people that, in all honesty, made my tours that much more bearable.  As a result of my working with the American military, I decided that I wanted to retire to the US!  Unfortunately, unless you have a ton of money, it is very hard for a British Citizen to live in America for more than 3 months.

The 11th of September 2001 changed the lives of many people.  It was a tragic day in our history but one that will be remembered always.  The sadness of that day is not just restricted to the many deaths and destruction in America.  It is extended to those service personnel who paid the ultimate price for their Country and as a consequence of that day.  That sacrifice continues but is sometimes forgotten.

Ten years on and the world remembers that fateful day.  I can recall the day perfectly.  I also remember the pain and anguish as a result of the consequences tempered by the friendship I found in comrades and allies.  As I write this I remember lost friends and the new friends I made during that time of conflict.  I hope they remember me and I hope they remember all that we fought for.

I hope everyone does.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Top Gear Madness

Let's face it, I've been an avid fan of Top Gear for many years now.  Of all the motoring programmes that I watch it is, by far, the most entertaining.  Some critics have argued that it isn't really a motoring programme but just an entertainment show.  In the past I didn't always agree, but recently the show has gone a little weird.

For starters, it does tend to review the most expensive cars money can buy.  Not that I don't like looking at beautiful supercars and, occasionally, the odd hypercar.  I bet that every single one of the viewers dream of owning one of the cars that are reviewed, I know I do.  Who wouldn't?  It's only a dream, though.  There is no way, unless I win the national lottery, that I will ever have the money to waste on one of the above mentioned cars.  Notice I said 'waste'.  To spend that kind of money on a car that just goes fast and looks good is an extravagance.  They are, at best, impractical and totally unsuitable for daily use - unless all you want is to show off!

Let's not get distracted by petty details.  Top Gear is there to entertain us.  The antics of the three presenters is one of the key points of the show; their interaction with each other and the differences in their personalities is what makes the show entertaining.  Jeremy Clarkeson is the older, brash (typical for someone from Yorkshire!) and somewhat dim-witted of the trio.  James May is the usual butt of their jokes and is supposed to be the more sensible one.  Finally, Richard Hammond is supposed to be the anchor to the current generation with his dress sense (?) and his understanding of current technology.  In the real world, these three would never be together.  Their disparate personalities would constantly clash and cause instant fallout!  In fact, during several episodes it looks as if exactly that has happened!

That clash of personalities is what makes the show funny.  As individuals, they each have their unique sense of humour.  Clarkeson has always had a dry and sarcastic wit.  He was at his peak several years ago; he could identify with situations and come up with a hilarious parallel.  Unfortunately it seems as if his reservoir of sarcastic wit is running dry and he is digging deep just to come up with something that we cringe at.

Hammond, once the cool, collective member of the trio has become the fool.  Although not quite as mad as Clarkeson, he doesn't fall far short (no pun intended).  Between the two of them they manage to lower the tone of any conversation and, to be honest, that's exactly what most of the viewers want.  Maybe because I am older and wiser I no longer appreciate it as much as I used to.

James May.  He is the outsider of this trio.  Considered a little extravagant by the other two, he doesn't live for pure speed and power, although technically he has driven at the fastest speed in a normal road car.  He is Captain Slow due to his naturally cautious nature and his healthy respect for living!

Together, these three make the show what it is.  It's not a car show although it does feature cars.  It's Sunday night entertainment featuring cars.  It has comedy, impressive visuals and a star guest who has to be questioned by Clarkeson.  Not too bad if the guest happens to be male, but if it is a good looking female, the disgusting visage of Clarkeson trying to flirt is enough to make anyone feel sick!  That notwithstanding, it's popularity has continued to grow as it's entertainment value is appreciated by more and more people.  Even Sony has included the 'Top Gear Track' in it's latest incarnation of Gran Tourismo.

There is another unique member of the Top Gear team; the Stig.  A sexless (although usually male), unidentifiable figure dressed in a white racing suit and helmet.  The Stig is intentionally surrounded by mystery and this caused an outrage last year when the former Stig identified himself, breaching his contract and instantly becoming a pariah to the many Top Gear fans.  Fortunately, a new Stig was born during the making of the Top Gear Christmas Special 2010.  In true Top Gear fashion they threw tradition and religion to the winds and rewrote the nativity.  It was well made and entertaining.

That sums Top Gear up.  It's entertaining even if, sometimes, the presenters themselves are completely idiotic.  It has already gathered large following and the mysterious Stig even has a cult following.  It does show us some pretty cars and the reviews are completely biased, so pay them no attention and just enjoy the car on display.  As a motoring show it is rubbish, but we already knew that.  I think the original intention was a motoring show, but along the way it got sidetracked into what it has become today.  It's obviously a success as it is shown around the world and enjoyed by millions of people.  It's not a serious show and it doesn't take itself seriously.  Neither should the viewer.  Just enjoy it as a bit of fun.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

UK Armed Forces Week



After decades of obscurity and no public recognition for the work they do, the members of the Armed Forces are finally being given the recognition they deserve.  To an extent.  This is the UK, after all and not the United States.  Our servicemen and women are still not given the level of support given to those in America, but it is a lot better than it used to be.

It's been a hard struggle to get this far.  Many have called upon the government and the people to acknowledge the service and sacrifice of the members of the Armed Forces and many have failed to make any significant impact.  It took death and dismemberment in order to get the ball rolling.  Numerous conflicts and operations have taken their toll and for that sacrifice a level of recognition has been accepted.  The struggle for greater acceptance continues especially for the support for British Veterans.  For example, the struggle for an identification card for veterans has been ongoing for years with little or no progress.  Government promises have fallen by the wayside and, because the public don't know any better, there has been little or no outcry.

There are members of the public that still refuse to acknowledge the work that the Armed Forces do for the country as a whole.  I remember reading an article written by a member of public who stated that he saw no reason to support the Army, Navy or Airforce as they had done nothing for him.  They were all off fighting a war in a foreign country instead of protecting our country.  This is an example of the level of ignorance of the British public and it's a complete contrast to our cousins across the water.

Things are changing, though.  The coming week is dedicated to those who are serving or who have served.  It aims to increase public awareness so that ignorant comments, as the one I mentioned above, become a thing of the past.  Well, that's the hope and although I support it wholeheartedly, I think they are hoping for too much.  There are still too many people who wouldn't admit that the Armed Forces are worth recognition, even if their lives depended on it.  Ignorance is bliss and while people still think that we are fighting a pointless war in a pointless country, that ignorance will grow.

On a more positive note, it is heartwarming to see members of the younger generation acknowledging the service and sacrifice of members of the Armed Forces.  Also, it shouldn't be understated, the sacrifice the families of these servicemen and women who stay at home.  Their lot is as difficult as the service personnel, not knowing how a loved one is faring and having to maintain the family unit without them for months at a time.  There are organisations that can help and each and every one of them deserve our support.

I hope that next week promotes a greater understanding as well as support for the Armed Forces.  I hope that educating the public engenders greater support for them as well as the organisations that help them and their families.  I also hope that the need for greater support to veterans is highlighted.  With the increased number of younger men and women who have left the services as a result of horrific injuries, the need for greater support has never been so prevalent.

Finally, on a personal note, I hope that those injured service personnel who have sustained an injury and are fighting with the British insurance system have greater support.  The fact that insurance companies can latch onto the smallest detail or misprint to deny an injured soldier compensation is akin to fraud and I hope each and every one of them are punished accordingly.  It's not enough that they have gone through enough trauma without having to fight the companies that promised them financial protection should the worst happen and then renege on their promises.

All in all, Armed Forces week can only be good for the Armed Forces.  Education promotes understanding.  Understanding the sacrifices they have agreed to in order to protect our society and it's values is just as important as doing the job itself.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Smokers Unite!

I am a smoker.  A pariah.  An antithesis of what is currently acceptable.  A second class citizen.  All because I smoke.

I started smoking when I was eleven years old.  It was the 1970s and smoking was all the rage.  My mother and father smoked, my friends smoked, in fact nearly everyone was smoking.  It was natural for me to be curious about what everyone was doing.  As a result I became addicted.  I enjoyed smoking.

Time goes on and perceptions change.  The western society as a whole went a little health crazy with the condemnations of the use of chemicals in farming and the freedom of livestock.  Health issues became headline news and more and more people began to tell us what was good for us and what wasn't.  Gone were the days where you could eat what you wanted and live a long life.  Now, if you ate a certain something or did a certain something, it would knock years off your lifespan.

Our society went insane.

The older generation sat back with their pork fat sandwiches (on white bread), a pint of whiskey and a packet of full strength cigarettes and thought everyone had gone mad.  In fact, they had.  If you didn't conform to what was good, then you were reprimanded and criticized for having no concern for your own welfare.  It was a wonder that mankind had survived as long as it had, considering that everything had become dangerous to our collective health.

At the top of this new list of what was bad was smoking.  Anything that had to do with smoking was fair game for the self appointed health experts.  Advertising, marketing, sales and the actual act of smoking was attacked.  It was a war against tobacco and smoking.  Human rights was touted and health issues identified.

The first to fall was the advertising.  Tobacco manufacturers could no longer use billboards, television and, most significantly, motor racing.  The loss of this revenue had an adverse effect on those that depended on it, but the do-gooders had only just gotten started.  Once advertising was banned, they went on and managed to ban smoking in bars and restaurants.  Once again it was the businesses that were affected, customers no longer being able to smoke resulted in fewer customers.

From there it spread like an infection.  Offices, public buildings, train stations, airports and public transport.  The health and safety extremists professed that passive smoking (the smoke off cigarettes being inhaled by those that didn't actually smoke) caused serious health issues.  Although, to date, there has been no solid proof of this (bearing in mind all of the toxic chemicals already in our atmosphere) but that didn't matter.  They had more ammunition and they have now taken it to the next step.

In New York they are trying to ban smoking in Central Park.  In the UK, a law has been passed that makes it illegal to have tobacco in plain sight in shops.  Tobacco has now become an under the counter item!

Changing tact, medical institutes were pressured to prioritise organ transplants to non-smokers first.  It was decided that smokers were already killing themselves and so giving them life saving transplants was pointless.

Am I the only one who believes that our human rights have been thrown out of the window of common sense?  Not only have smokers been ostracised from society but our welfare has been dictated by zealous public servants influenced by the tide of health conscious fanatics.

Isn't it time these people were reigned in?  Soon it will be illegal to smoke!

It wasn't my fault that I was raised during a time when smoking was considered the norm.  I became addicted and, after many failed attempts to stop, I have made a decision to smoke.  Should I be marked as a pariah or ostracised for my legal choice?  What happened to my rights as a human being?  Why, after hundreds of years have we suddenly decided that it should not be allowed as it can kill us?  Driving can kill, drinking alcohol can kill, especially if the two are combined.  Are they going to banned too?

I have donated a regular sum of money to Cancer Research UK for over twenty years.  Although the chances of me getting cancer are more down to my genes than me smoking, I have, in a small way, contributed to saving hundreds of lives.  Our atmosphere is so polluted that in London people wear masks in order to clean some of the air they breath.  Do you really think that some cigarette smoke is going to make matters worse?  No, of course it wont but tabacco was targeted and now I am paying the price.  The tax on tobacco in the UK is extortionate.  It's so bad criminals have begun to make fake cigarettes, containing sometimes lethal levels of toxins.  Those that cannot afford the insane prices being charged for a packet of cigarettes are turning to these fakes.  How are the health nuts going to justify the increased risk to the health of these individuals as a result of their crusade?

Enough is enough.  We all know smoking isn't healthy but there are so many other things that are unhealthy too, far too many to list.  Why pick on us?  How about giving us a break and allowing us to exercise our human right to chose what we want to do?  Stop making it difficult for us to exercise that right.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

The United Nations

If you were to visit the United Nations website, you would see that the UN was founded in 1945, after the second world war, by 51 countries committed to maintaining international peace and security, developing friendly relations among nations and promoting social progress, better living standards and human rights.  Apart from being an ostentatious paragraph (riddled with grammatical errors) it infers that the UN is committed to peace.

I believe that the UN has spectacularly failed to uphold it's raison d'être.  If good intentions pave the way to hell, the UN have managed to pave a highway!

It is not the first time that an organisation with good intentions has metamorphosed into something other than that for which it was conceived.  There are numerous other guilty parties including Communism and NATO.  However, unlike the others, the UN promised peace and security, the two fundamental blocks by which a society or country succeeds by.  The proof of the failure are the conflicts and political turmoil of the last few decades.

Based in New York, the ostentatious UN building and its occupants have either forgotten or choose to ignore the ideals on which it was built.  The UN no longer (if ever) serves a purpose.  If anything, it hinders progress, aid and the principles on which it was founded, all the while costing the taxpayer a lot of money.

Recent political and humanitarian upheavals in Africa and the Middle East have highlighted the impotence of the UN and the fact that it has become an obstacle in the way of peace and security.  The ongoing debacle in Libya, the refusal to acknowledge the humanitarian issues in Syria and Yemen all point to an UN that is locked down by political one-up-manship and separate international alliances.  For weeks now, the government in Syria has been (reportedly) systematically killing peaceful protestors yet nothing has been done about it.  The UN hasn't even been able to agree sanctions against the country and its President, Bashar al-Assad.  The British and French representatives are hoping to present a proposal this weekend and have been trying to garner votes from the other permanent members whilst also hoping that Russia, who have historic ties with Syria, don't veto them!

So, the maintenance of peace and security is ok as long as enough votes are obtained and no permanent member uses their right to veto?  How anyone can see this as a viable organisation is difficult to fathom.

Sanctions against a country or individual is the least effective method of curtailing their actions.  The UN does have the ability to send 'peace-keepers'.  These are soldiers from the member states, sent into the troubled country in order to maintain peace and security.  In other words, inserting foreign troops, under the flag of the UN, to watch and be able to do nothing to stop whatever atrocities are happening.  Something I have experienced first hand when I was deployed as part of the peace-keeping mission to Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995.  It doesn't work.  All it does is place additional people in danger as they watch on with horror and the inability to intervene.

Bosnia isn't the only debacle the UN have deployed troops to.  There was Rwanda in the early 90s and, if I remember correctly (I was there too), that didn't turn out too well either.  There was Sierra Leone in 1999/2000 (I was there at that one, as well, but not as a member of the UN) where the peacekeepers the UN had sent refused to get off the plane as the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) members would chop them up and leave their body parts dangling on the trees.

All of these incidents and more have proved that the UN is considered impotent and toothless.  During all of those incidents, the UN sent soldiers into harms way without any clear plan of what they were trying to achieve.  Even to this day, the UN procrastinates and haggles while people are dying in the streets, all the while, they are safe in their luxurious New York building enjoying the lifestyle the UN has given them.

Enough is enough.  The UN has had numerous opportunities with which to prove itself as a viable organisation.  In each and every incident, the UN made no difference at all and in some managed to put even more lives in danger.  The UN has become another platform with which politics and political might has had the opportunity to haggle and argue like fishwives during market day.  The UN consistently fail to identify issues and head them off, preferring to sit on the sidelines and watch as hundreds of innocent people die and countries are torn apart.  The UN sucks in money from nations that can no longer afford to pay for an organisation that is impotent and time wasting.  The UN is no longer (if it ever was) a viable and productive organisation.

The United Nations was a great idea, but then again, so was communism.  It just doesn't work.  Communism failed because people can never truly be equal, that is just human nature.  The UN will never work because political intrigue is more profitable than peace.  When you gather politicians from different countries, no matter what you say, their own political agendas will rule them.  From the outset, the UN was doomed to failure but we refuse to admit it.  It's the ideals that keep it alive and the people who profess to support those ideals that have killed it.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

War Crimes

The British press is all over the fact that Ratko Mladic has been taken to the Hague to face accusations of war crimes committed during the Bosnian war.  Apparently he had been on the run for 16 years and had been finally apprehended, coincidentally, when Serbia was told that his arrest would be a condition for consideration of Serbia joining the European Union.  Why Serbia would want to join the EU is beyond me, but that's not the point.

The fact that Mladic has to answer for his actions during that brutal war is fair enough.  He was the Bosnian-Serb commander at the time when paramilitaries and regular troops were fighting for the Bosnian-Serb cause.  In the end, the actions of the men serving him must fall on his shoulders, such is the price of leadership.

What I cannot understand, though, is the intensity of the negative reporting about the man.  I served in Bosnia in both 1995, 1996 and 1997.  I was in Sarajevo when 122mm rounds were falling all around us and I know it was the Bosnian-Serbs or the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS).  The Serbs were fighting for their survival, as well as the Bosnian Croats and Muslims.  The UN and NATO had regular meetings with Mladic and I met him several times while the Dayton agreement was being ironed out.  He was what I would call a hard man, a man who had seen things and done things that no man should have to.  You have to remember, it was a three sided war and all parties involved did some horrific things.

I am not condoning anything that was done in his name or anything that he may have done or ordered himself.  I am merely questioning the media frenzy surrounding his arrest and subsequent extradition.

It is a well known fact that there is no love lost between the US and the Serbs.  I know, as a fact, that the Americans I served with held the Serbs in low regard whilst supporting the plight of the Bosnian Muslims.  Historically, the British and the Serbs have been allies and the British tend to be pro-Serbian.  I, personally, held the Serbs in higher regard of the three factions, as I believed them to be more professional.  The Serbs, however, didn't do themselves any favours during the war, tending to deal with matters on their own while the other factions made very good use of the media in spreading propaganda.

My time in Bosnia opened my eyes to the real horrors of ethnic disputes.  All of the factions in Bosnia were guilty of horrific crimes, many of which will remain untold for years to come.  One of my functions whilst serving over there was to collect evidence for the War Crimes tribunal.  Needless to say, I was exposed to the unimaginable things that man can do to one another.

Mladic will face the court and will, no doubt, be sentenced in due course.  His men, or men fighting for the VRS, did many things that need accounting for.  It's a pity that they cannot be tried individually because not all of the brutal activity was organised or ordered.  It was, in some cases, a war of opportunity, where men from one faction or another would wander into an area populated by another and they would react like rabid animals.  Mladic and his opposite numbers (the commanders of the other factions) must answer for those crimes too.

My one hope is that people see this trial objectively.  Not the people who were actually involved; that would be too much to ask of them.  I mean the rest of the world, who weren't there and did not see what was actually happening at the time.  Mladic is one part of the history of Bosnia Herzegovina, but a part that should be considered in context with the others.  There is no doubt that if he is guilty of crimes against humanity then he should be punished, as those who ordered the murders of any of the Bosnian population at the time should be punished.  The media should bear that in mind before they spout off sound bites that attract attention.

The media should also take a close look at themselves as they aren't as innocent as they may think they are.  During the war in Bosnia, the media reports did more damage than good and the crews themselves caused incidents that could have been avoided.

Bosnia Herzegovina was a terrible time in mankind's history.  It's amazing how little we learned from the atrocities of the second world war.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

The Special Relationship

The recent visit of the American President to the United Kingdom has highlighted a phrase that has been in common use since the 1980s when describing the relationship between Britain and America.  The term 'Special Relationship' has been bandied around the media as if it were something new.  It even went so far as calling it the 'Essential Relationship'!  So, do Britain and America have this 'Special Relationship' or is it some hype used to sell papers and highlight America?  Considering that the average British opinion of the United States has reached an all time low recently, is it propaganda to try and counter the wave of anti-American feelings?  American opinion of the British is at an all time high, probably as a result of Britain unconditionally assisting the US on their war on terror, but do they believe that there is a Special Relationship between our two countries?

If we delve back in time, you begin to wonder why the British government believes we have a Special Relationship with the United States.  The US has been instrumental in the numerous financial problems facing Britain since the end of the Second World War.  So, how do historical events support this proclamation of a Special Relationship?

At the end of the 19th century, Britain was the major Superpower in the world.  It had the largest empire in history and was wealthy beyond belief.  The world trade was controlled by London and they could make or break countries by a single word.  The First World War was the beginning of the end of the British Empire and the cost in men and materiel weakened Britain and its empire.  By the time of the Second World War, Britain was struggling in its fight against Nazi Germany.  America had staunchly declared its neutrality in this war, President Wilson successfully argued against intervention leaving Britain to fight alone.

There are numerous possible reasons why America joined the Second World War on the side of Britain.  This may come as a shock, but America was undecided about which side to support.  The sinking of several ships carrying American citizens (after Hitler promised not to target ships carrying Americans) and the fact that Britain and France owed a substantial amount of money to the United States may have been enough to tilt opinion on the side of the British, but the fact that America needed Britains influence around the world for trade was possibly the deciding factor.

But it wasn't free.

Britain had to pay for the help from the United States.  It was hoped that because of the amicable relationship between Churchill and the American President that favourable terms would be agreed, such as a grant or a gift.  Instead America offered a loan at 2% interest.  The loan was for $4.33 Billion ($53 Billion at todays prices).  This loan was finally paid off in 2006.  One of the conditions of the loan was the convertibility of Sterling and this was the most damaging thing that America could have done to Britain (a long and complicated story).  So, no support here for the Special Relationship!

The World War did see the closest military alliance in the history of the world.  This wartime experience did continue after the war with Britain and America sharing a partnership, although Britain was considered the junior partner.  America benefitted from the connections of the British Empire, ironic considering that America had spent a great deal of effort trying to dismantle it.  America, however, had its own agenda and wanted Britain to be instrumental in the creation of a united Europe.  The simplistic view of this can be that of security, America wanted a barrier between itself and the USSR, but America also wanted to use its influence in Europe through Britain, guiding Europe to adopt US policies.  However, Britain refused to be used in this manner arguing that British interests were worldwide and not solely in Europe.

So, still no sign of this Special Relationship.

During the war, European scientists made a breakthrough in the use of atomic fission.  Britain wrote a secret report about how an atomic bomb could be made and shared this information with America.  Scientists from both countries worked on the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, but the Americans refused to share the technology needed to actually make the bomb!  In 1946 the US passed the McMahon Act forbidding the sharing of any information about atomic technology, even to the British who had given them the know-how to actually make the bomb!  In response to this, the British decided to make her own atomic bombs, led by William Penny who had worked with the Americans at Los Alamos.  Ironically, although the Americans clamped down on the sharing of atomic technology, it was an American that passed the details onto the USSR enabling them to create their own bomb.

Definitely no Special Relationship there.

It wasn't until some years later, after Britain had proved that it had its own atomic ability did the US agree to resume nuclear relations.

The Suez crisis of 1956 saw Britain and America on opposite sides.  When Britain attacked Egypt (as a result of Nasser nationalising the Suez Canal) along with France and Israel, Americas reaction was severe.  As well as not assisting the British, the US sent the sixth fleet to the Mediterranean to sit alongside the British fleet, telling the whole world that the US was opposed to the British action.  This resulted in the value of Sterling plummeting and the US even blocked Britain from drawing her legal drawing from the IMF.  This resulted in humiliation for the British, a financial crisis and the refusal of the American Presiden, Eisenhower, to speak with the British Prime Minister.

Sounds like a cold relationship now.

This debacle was a wake up call to the British.  No longer did they have the ability to project their influence in the world, at least without the help of the Americans.  For a country that had ruled the world for centuries, this was a very bitter pill to swallow.  This open slap in the face and Britains inability to protects its empire paved the way to them joining the European Union in 1961.  Britain was in bad shape, its economic growth was microscopic and its standing in the international community was at an all time low.  America had, in essence, sundered what was left of Britains empire.  This act would return to bite America.

By the mid 70s, Britians economy was in tatters, her armed forces continued to be cut and the left wing of the Labour Party was becoming a real contender for power in the government.  This was not good news for the Americans.  A left wing Labour government would certainly be anti-American and with good reason.  If that happened, they could have insisted of the removal of all US personnel from the bases in Britain, withdraw from NATO and, possibly, become anti-nuclear.  This could have easily paved the way for a communist Britain, something that America was terrified of.  It was during this time that America saw Germany as its primary ally in Europe.  With the loss of the empire and its numerous financial crises', the attraction of Britain as a primary ally were bleak.

America, for so long the most vocal in its disapprobation of the British Empire, had now lost its own ability to projects its influence.  Not only that, with the withdrawal of the British from its colonies, it paved the way for the vacuum to be filled by communism.  I wonder if the American government ever regretted its actions against Britain?  The fall of the British empire certainly didn't help them and their continued efforts to control Britain always failed leading to a once prosperous country become destitute and in trouble of becoming ripe for the influence of communism.

It wasn't until Mrs. Thatcher became Prime Minister did the relationship between Britain and America begin to blossom.  It has been said that Mrs. Thatcher and President Reagan were ideological soulmates. They also got along famously, a British satire programme 'Spitting Image' would often depict them in bed together.  This was the first sign of a Special Relationship.

It was during this period that the relationship between the two countries began to come together again.  The friendships between British and American diplomatic officials as well as the heads of state lead to an increase in confidence with each other.  The outcome of the Falklands war, a complicated and difficult accomplishment considering the logistics and coordination involved, not only showed the world that Britain could establish its will half a world away, but also instilled confidence in the British armed forces that had, until the war, been steadily reduced.  The outcome was never considered cut and dry by the Americans who were pondering over which side they should have supported (America needing its links into South America through Argentina).

The friendship and respect between the diplomatic communities of both countries has continued to grow.  The close links between the military and intelligence organisations has become inseparable.

Having spent over 22 years in the British Army, I have constantly worked closely with my American counterparts.  The Americans have excellent technology but the British have hundreds of years of experience fighting ground wars and counter insurgency operations.  Together, with American technology and British know how, the armed forces of the two countries have worked well together.  Not only is there trust between them, but also mutual respect.  The intelligence community, although they have their differences, have worked closely together sharing information that is not shared with anyone else within the NATO alliance.  America has come to rely upon the support of the British and the British have never stinted in their support.

After 9/11, there was the risk that America would become xenophobic.  When you look at the number of Americans that have actually left America on their travels, you can understand why.  The public support by the British may have been influential in the American view of the world.  Hell, most of the world were behind America after that atrocious attack as there were not only Americans killed when the towers were hit.  But it was Britain that unreservedly supported America in her War on Terror campaign and still do to this day.

America and Britain have a unique relationship, that cannot be denied.  I am sure that America has unique relationships with other countries as well.  We cannot be naive enough to think that Britain alone has a 'Special' relationship with America.  How does America view the relationship?  I can't answer that, having never been American, but, as a member of the British Armed Forces visiting America on holiday, all I can say is that the Americans treat us better than our own society does.  For that, Britain should be ashamed of itself.

Every country has its own national agenda supporting what the government at the time believes is best for its citizens.  At the moment, we share a very good relationship with America and I hope it lasts forever.  Not so many years ago, it was joked that Britain would become an American State because of our unreserved support.  Maybe we do have a Special Relationship, but if we do, it is based on a very rocky past.  For now, lets enjoy the benefits (even if it does mean I cannot live in America as I planned to!).

I have to end this piece with thanks to Professor Kathleen Burk for her excellent piece 'Anglo-American Relations: Where we are, and how we got here. '  I would recommend watching the video and understanding in much more detail how our relationship has been.  I have added my views and experience, she is an expert!

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

To Blog or Not to Blog?

Let's face it, most of us crave attention.  Be it from our loved ones, our pets or even the whole world, we are a social animal and that's one of the reasons things like Facebook and the like are so popular.  If we don't get attention and people ignore us, we go and sulk.  Well, I do!

Which leads me nicely onto my subject.  Why do we blog?  Why blog if people aren't reading your witty yet insightful articles that both stimulate the brain and the laughter muscle?
 
You have to agree that blogging has to be one of the more difficult of the social networking options.  Although you could get away with writing a single line of text every now and then, you would probably be better off sticking to Facebook or Twitter.  Blogging requires a certain amount of skill.  Being able to write whole sentences is useful, too.  Blogging requires thought and time and is usually a thankless task.

I started blogging as a means to keep my brain at least partially occupied.  I have always wanted to be able to write and I thought that if I wrote some witty articles as well as some more serious, I would garner a loyal following and get pleasure in entertaining my readers.  As I have mentioned in a previous blog, I don't actually find writing easy and often just stare at the screen, my mind blank and my fingers unmoving, hovering above the keyboard waiting for any hint of activity in my brain.  This can last seconds of even hours.  Sometimes I don't write an article for weeks and then a flurry of them appear, all at once as my brain disgorges whatever thoughts have been running through my drug addled brain.  I have started another site where I decided that I would give my thoughts on current affairs (there is a link somewhere on this page) just to see if that is what people out there prefer to read.  So far it isn't working.

So why continue if all I am doing is writing articles that people don't read?

I suppose that I am in the same situation as many other bloggers out there in cyberworld.  There are a few extremely talented people who have the ability to draw in readers, either because they write what is interesting or their skill in writing is just worth reading.  There are others that use the blog as a photo album; their pictures are stunning to look at and we keep going back for more eye candy.  But for the majority of us, a few friends reading your earnestly written missive is the best we can hope for.

There is another thing that I have noticed since I started taking this blogging malarkey more seriously.  When I am not well enough to open my Macbook (a quick advertisement there!) I worry that I should be writing something on my site.  Why am I worrying?  It's not like I have a deadline or a million people will miss out on anything.  It's purely psychological.  I imagine that those few readers I have will give up on me if I don't post regularly.  How's that for preposterous?  However preposterous it may sound, I'm afraid it's a fact!

No matter who does or does not read my scratchings, I still enjoy sitting here and typing on the keyboard, throwing random letters together and sometimes creating sentences that make sense.  It's a purely selfish thing.  I enjoy the fact that somebody, someday will enter a word into a search engine and a link to my humble yet awesome blog appears.  Out of curiosity, that person clicks the link and is rewarded by pages of obscure scribblings from some bloke in England.  Most rewarding of all, however, is that this person actually enjoys reading my musings and clicks on yet another article.  Later that same day, the unknown person sends a link to my blog to a friend or two, suggesting that they may enjoy a moment or four reading this blog.  Ahhh, isn't fantasy world a wonderful place!

Back in the real world, my unknown person doesn't even register the link to my site from their search results and moves onto a flash game that will occupy him or her, for a few moments because they are bored at work.  May I suggest Peggle?  It's a lot of fun!

So endeth another musing session, with a little fantasy added for extra appeal.  I shall continue to dream and my space allowance on this site will gradually diminish as I post more and more literary masterpieces (I did say fantasy was added).  I feel sorry for those that are unfortunate enough not to have found my blog and revel in my abstract insights and dark humour.  I write for the simple pleasure of writing.  I sometimes read my own ramblings and laugh at my naïve and sometimes conceited opinions.  It keeps me occupied and entertained.

So, I blog just for the sake of blogging and the enjoyment I get from writing.  It's just a pity that the ability to write is in decline, but that is another subject for another day.  For those of you that do read this, thank you and I hope it brought at least a smirk for your trouble.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

The Death of Bin Laden?


On the 2nd May, the media in the United Kingdom and probably most of the world, reported the death of Osama Bin Laden, America's most wanted man for nearly 10 years now.  He was reportedly killed the day before as the result of a US Military raid on a 'luxury' house in Abbottabad, some 35 miles north of the Capital of Pakistan, Islamabad.

In the UK, we awoke to the news and the speech given by the US President, Barack Obama.  The President gave a brief description of what happened and how Bin Laden was killed as the result of a covert raid made by US Special Forces.  The Pakistani government were not informed and were not aware of the raid until it had happened.  Fortunately, there were no US lives lost considering that the chances for a 'blue on blue' encounter must have been high.

The death of Bin Laden sparked a media frenzy in the UK.  Some of them were even embarrassed by showing a photograph of a dead Bin Laden that was later found to be a fake.  However, therein lies one of the first things I will query, the fact that there have been no photographic evidence of his death.  Obviously the conspiracy theorists have jumped on board the band wagon and claims that Bin Laden is not really dead have ensued.

This article will pursue some of the questions now being asked.  Why was Bin Laden buried at sea?  Why have there been no pictures of the dead Bin Laden?  How was he able to hide in Pakistan without the authorities knowing?  I hope to address these and some others.

Bin Laden has been America's most wanted man for many years now.  After fleeing Afghanistan and eluding the attempts by the coalition forces to capture him, the US have been very single minded in pursuing him.  It was believed that he was hiding in the mountainous region of Waziristan, bordering Afghanistan and a known Pashtun tribal region.  Locating anyone in this region of Pakistan is very difficult for numerous reasons including tribal loyalties.

The fact that Bin Laden was found in a town near the Pakistani capital came as a surprise to many.  Apparently the house did not have internet or telephone connectivity and came under suspicion by American intelligence agencies.  Possible but not probable.  The chances are that it was brought to the attention of an intelligence agency, through whatever means and further information gathering ensued.  That notwithstanding, however he was found it would have been hard to believe unless verified by other sources.

The plan to attack the house was bold and telling at the same time.  Bold in the way that the US were perfectly happy to invade a sovereign territory without so much as a 'by your leave'.  Notice I said bold and not surprising.  America, no matter what the rhetoric, obviously do not trust Pakistan and not without good reason.  The Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, has long been linked to the extremists although the media phrase it as 'murky dealings'.  Not only that, I doubt that the Americans trust the Pakistani government as much as they tell the public.  In most cases, allies do not carry out operations on another ally's soil, but this has never stopped the Americans in the past.  Even Britain, who are supposed to have a 'special relationship' with America have experienced that.  America, however, obviously believes it has the right to ignore international law whenever it suits them.  Let's face it, they are a superpower and who is going to stop them?

I will, however, tip my hat to the personnel that carried out the operation.  A covert operation can very easily go wrong because someone pops up at the wrong time and then everything goes to pot.  The fact that there was a Pakistani military compound not too far away from the target location would have been a factor on their minds.  Fortunately, the mission was a success and nobody was lost.  Apart from Bin Laden.  Allegedly.

According to the officials, Bin Laden was buried at sea.  Does this not strike anyone else as odd?  When Saddam was captured his picture was plastered everywhere.  Even when his sons, Qusay and Uday were killed, the grisly pictures were shown, just to prove that they were dead and gone.  However, America's most wanted man just fades into oblivion?  I doubt it very much.  However, to counter that argument, showing a picture of a dead Bin Laden could incite more fervour in his martyrdom.  It's swings and roundabouts in this case.  Personally, I don't think showing a picture of the dead Bin Laden is going to lessen the fact that the extremists are going to hail him as a martyr.  The fact that he may have hidden behind his wife like a coward will not change anything.

The conspiracy theorists have latched onto this like a Rotweiller that hasn't eaten in a week.  Is this just propaganda by the US?  Did the US President want the case closed before the tenth anniversary of the horrific attack in New York?  There are bound to be many more.  I don't consider myself one of these fruitcakes but I do have a supposition.

First we will need to go back a few years to the good old days of the Cold War.  In the days when the East faced the West, 'spies' were prolific.  Their covert activities spawned many fictional characters and just as many media stories.  In this covert war, it wasn't unusual for people to change sides.  Defections from east to west and vice versa made the headlines and sometimes led to the death of the defector.  This leads me onto my supposition.  If you wanted to keep a defector secret, you faked his or her death.  It happened numerous times, mostly by the west so they could garner more valuable intelligence from the defectee.  The problem with defecting publicly is that once the opposition knows, all the secrets the defector may know become compromised and damage limitation occurs.

So, consider this.  Although Bin Laden is technically a figure head for al-Qaeda, he is held in very high regard and is privy to information any intelligence agency would sell their grandmothers for.  Not only would he know cell leaders, quartermasters and the like, he may even know of some future operations.  If he does know of future operations, his capture alive would compromise them and those involved may scrap or even change their plans.  His death, however, ensure that whatever he knows dies with him.

It is common knowledge that former KGB agents who were allegedly killed have been found alive and well.  How great a leap is it to consider that Bin Laden was captured and is now on his way to his new home in some ultra high security location with a very small room and white noise as a background?  Just because the President of the United States stood up in front of a camera and said something does not make it the truth.  The Americans have already experienced that and even in American law, there is no proof of death unless there is a body.

The Pakistani government has come under increased scrutiny as a result of this incident and are probably embarrassed by it.  Questions will be asked about how much did they really know, if they knew anything at all.  It is probable that this incident will have further strained the already tense US/Pakistan relationship and I can only foresee further deterioration unless one party does something significant.  That, however, is unlikely and Pakistan may become isolated in its position.  Already add odds with its neighbour, India, the last thing we need now is another nuclear power becoming anti-western.  America has to accept a proportion of the blame, too.  Although its motives may have made sense to the powers that be, they would have known how it would play out for Pakistan.  If, indeed, Pakistan was compliant in assisting Bin Laden then they deserve no less, in my opinion.  If they were not, then this is an unfortunate blow that could have been avoided.

As an aside, let's address the arrogance of America - not necessarily its people (although many would support their country's actions without thought) but its government and associated agencies.  America has long believed that what it does is for the good of all.  It is that arrogance that is going to cause a serious problem some day.  A perfect example would be the al Qaeda plot to use liquid bombs on trans atlantic aircraft.  The plot involved another prominent al Qaeda member, Rashid Rauf, who resided in Pakistan.  British intelligence had uncovered a plot involving a number of radicalised britons and a plan to use liquid explosives.  They informed the US intelligence agencies and kept them abreast of developments.  However, the US became nervous as it became apparent that the time of the planned attack was fast approaching.  The British were confident that nothing could happen until certain things happened, like the purchase of airline tickets.  Not happy with the British and not trusting their ability to contain the situation, the then head of the CIA, Director Hayden made a visit to Pakistan.

The whole operation hinged on the extremists in Britain contacting the al Qaeda member, Rashid Rauf in Pakistan.  It was not pure coincidence that during Director Hayden's visit to Pakistan Rauf was arrested.  This forced the British into premature action that could have compromised the whole case and wasted a lot of work, money and man hours.  Fortunately the arrests were made but no thanks to the Americans who deny that there were any disagreements during the operation.  As an aside, Rauf escaped custody and remains free to conduct other operations.

I am sure that America means well, but a common saying is that good intentions pave the way to hell.  Considering I don't believe in hell, let's replace it with a horrendous mistake.  As it is, a prominent al Qaeda member is free to plan additional attacks, which brings me nicely onto ramifications.

There is little doubt that Bin Laden will be name a martyr, but not just an ordinary, run of the mill martyr.  His 'death' will no doubt inspire others, but the same could be said for him while he was alive.  Extremist will have another excuse for their despicable actions, but they had plenty of those anyway.  Will their be an increase in the threat to Americans and Europeans?  The threat was already extant and I doubt it will change.  What could happen is the change of time-tables or random, unplanned and uncoordinated attacks.  These are harder to predict and will, naturally, be a media headline with the blame falling on the various intelligence agencies and links to Bin Laden's 'death'.

No matter what has happened to Bin Laden, I hope that he really has been removed from the playing field.  Whether he is alive or dead means little in the overall scheme of things aside from the fact that useful information could be gained from him.  The man was a ruthless and vile individual who considered innocent men, women and children legitimate targets for violence.  His twisted preaching of the Koran was an insult to Muslims who, like us, abhorred the things he did in the name of Islam.  It is unfortunate that his removal will change nothing and extremist will continue to scheme but at least we know that a man with no empathy or compassion is no longer able to flaunt his ability to avoid justice or to cause anymore harm to anyone else.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

The British Monarchy

It doesn't take long, but before Prince William and Kate Middleton even arrive at Westminster Abbey for their wedding, the cry's of 'get rid of the Monarchy' are echoing around the Country.

This isn't helped by satirical news shows such as 10 O'Clock Live, a 'news' show, shown on Channel 4 every Thursday.  This week, David Mitchell tabled the question about the abolishment of the Monarchy and even went so far as to mention shooting them in a cellar.  The idea of Mitchell know how to use an automatic weapon is about as realistic of him ever shooting anyone, but the meaning was clear.  There were two others around the table that contested that the Monarchy should be abolished, their arguments were so inept I wont even go into detail.  There was a time when speaking ill of the Monarchy was treason, but with the current state of Britain, speaking ill of the Monarchy is the least of our problems.

The question of abolishing the Monarchy has been around for years.  If you were to ask the current crop of 16-30 year olds if the Monarchy should be abolished, I would guess that the majority of them would say 'yes'.  That said, I don't think the majority would be significant, just enough to tip the balance.  Even politicians have endorsed the abolishment of the Monarchy, stating that it is outdated and is a drain on the taxpayers.

The stupidity of the people in this country never ceases to amaze me.

For a start, the Monarchy is probably the biggest attraction for visitors to London.  There are going to be thousands more for the Royal Wedding, in a few days time.  The revenue that this will draw in will be massive and most of it taxable.  So while politicians of limited intelligence can spout off about them costing taxpayers, the income from visitors to London and even the UK completely negates their arguments.

However, it's an argument that isn't going away any time soon.  There is a significant number of the population that think abolishing the Monarchy would be a good thing and the immediate question is, how well informed are they?  I think the majority of these people are either jealous of the Royal Family or have ulterior motives.  They would have the UK become a Republic because…?  Is it working for the French?  There was a famous Englishman who thought the abolishment of the Monarchy would be a good thing, too.  His name was Oliver Cromwell.  Do you know how that worked out?

What would replace the Monarchy?  A presidency?  It is common knowledge that our government hangs on the shirt tails of the American's, but do we really need to go that far?  Also, who has the right to abolish it?  I am not a constitutional expert so I can't answer that question, but it can't be that easy, surely?

Britain should be proud of it's Monarchy.  It has been around since King Offa, who was basically a local King who seized the lands of those around him and claimed supremacy over the less Kings.  That was around 757 AD.  That's quite a lot of history to just dismiss.  Our Monarchy built the Empire, the biggest Empire in history, reaching around the globe.  The Empire only ended because of World War 2 and the American government's conditions for it's help.

The Monarchy has evolved over the years to become more of a figurehead rather than the rulers they once were.  They still symbolise the Commonwealth of Nations and, more importantly, the history of the United Kingdom.  Our Royalty is recognised all over the world and there are many countries that envy the UK and the fact that it has a Monarchy that stretches back for centuries.

The Monarchy has come under scrutiny numerous times over it's history and each time it has conceded part of it's power until, now, the Queen is little more than a figurehead.  The few perks they had, such as the Royal Yacht, Britannia have been given back because of the complaints that it costs the taxpayers too much.  Can you imagine the President of the United States giving up Air Force One?

Yet, to this day, the British Armed Forces swear allegiance to the Queen, not the government.  Many of the men and woman that join the Armed Forces are loyal to the Crown yet have different political views and that should be the crux of the matter.  No matter what your political view or your ethnicity, we all have one Queen, one Monarch and we should be proud of that fact.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Dumber Britain

Is the population in Great Britain getting dumber?

If you were to look at the statistics the answer would be a resounding no.  However, I have never been a fan of statistics because they tend to be without context and, most importantly, statistics can be manipulated to suit whatever purpose is required.

It has also been argued that students have been opting for the easier subjects; media studies has come under fire as being too easy and the students being handed the exam paper some four weeks or so before the actual exam.  There are claims on both sides of the camp and the argument is bound to continue for years as the pass rate for GCSEs and A levels increase.

Some well established organisations have argued that students are opting for the easier subjects in order to increase their chances of getting A grades.  This not only makes the student a more attractive asset to employers and universities, but increases the ranking of the school or college they attended.  All in all it is good for both the student and the establishment.

Prince Charles, never one to hide his opinion, has also voiced his concern about the lack of interest in serious subjects such as English Literature and History.  In fact, there was concern about the literacy rate in the UK, although more students were completing higher education, the literacy rate was dropping.  The core subjects, English, Maths, History and Sciences have been left behind by newer, more attainable subjects, including Media Studies. 

British Universities are also finding it harder to distinguish between the the top percentile of student applications as the number of young people attaining high grades in A levels has increased.  In the past, only 10% of A grades were awarded making it easier for Universities to select the more intelligent students however, recently this figure has raised to 20%.  Criticism continues although the UK has risen in the international rankings for graduates completing higher education.

However, having been an instructor, I have seen the low literacy and numeracy ability of students who have numerous GCSEs, A levels, degrees and even PhDs!  As a result, we have had to spend precious time teaching them to read, write and do basic mathematics when we should have been teaching them other subjects.  On that basis alone, I would question the level of difficulty of the current level 2 and 3 qualifications.

Some years ago, a study was carried out using young volunteers who had each achieved a minimum of five A star passes in their GCSE exams.  They were asked to sit the old 'O' level exams in English and Maths.  Unsurprisingly, they all did badly, with the majority failing outright and not one achieving the highest grade attainable.  One distinction that was identified during this experiment was that if you got an answer wrong in an 'O' level exam you were not awarded any points.  In the current GCSE you are awarded points for trying to answer the question.  One student even remarked that you could get points for writing "f*** off", the GCSE allowing points for expressing yourself.

The 'O' level was abandoned in 1984 when the, then, Education Secretary, Keith Joseph, tried to close the divide created by the 'O' level and the CSEs (the Certificate of Secondary Education).  Back then, children were in primary school until the age of 11 and then they moved to secondary school, going through years 1 to 5.  On the 5th year they sat their exams.  The 'O' level was considered to be for the bright student and the CSE for 'the thick ones'.  The GCSE was designed to remove the divide between the 'elitist' and those with other skills.

"Under the old 'O' Level and CSE system, grades were awarded primarily according to statistical rules which measured each candidate's performance relatively against those of competing candidates.  The introduction of the GCSE meant that, for the first time, grades would be allocated with reference to absolute standards of knowledge, understanding and skill.  Despite concerns about the exams getting easier and of girls outdoing boys, the government is committed to retaining the system." the BBC article about the issue stated in June 2005.

There are many teachers and professors that mourn the loss of the 'O' level but Keith Joseph argued that the GCSE will be more intelligible to users.  A vague argument for what, to me, appears to be a very flexible exam if you can be awarded points for just expressing yourself.  Having sat and passed a number of 'O' levels, I feel cheated when compared to someone who has passed 10 GCSEs and then claims that the exams I took were easy in comparison.

That notwithstanding, the UK continues to have a continual growth in the number of students getting numerous high grades on their exams.  Anthony O'Hear, a philosopher and government adviser has stated that there has been a "rampant grade inflation" and others stating that the teachers have either become much better at teaching or the students have become much brighter.  Each year the number of students with a staggering amount of A star grades increase.  Does this not dilute the standing of the qualification?

It is obvious that I am biased on the subject.  I will always believe that the 'O' level was much harder to attain than the GCSE.  Having taught students who failed basic literary and numeracy test, I believe that the introduction of the internet, spell checkers and calculators have all had an adverse affect on the core abilities of the current generation.  However, the statistics will prove me wrong and the UK will continue to rise in the academic league.  However, in the long term I believe that the future leaders of industry, science and education will not be as creative, inventive or as daring as their predecessors.  The continued improvement in computing will probably negate this shortfall, as computers get faster and more able to do more complex tasks, mankind will continue to evolve.  But will our basic intelligence evolve as well? 


I saw a film, a comedy, where an average person was thrown into the future, a future where everyone was stupid, relying on technology.  The main character in the story was considered a genius because he could see the obvious.  Is this a possible future?  Not very likely, but I think someone should consider a revision of our current educational system. Surely some changes, especially to literacy and numeracy would only be a good thing?

The Royal Wedding

For another year now, the weather in Spring, here in the UK, is better than the norm.  Normally the temperature should be around fifteen degrees (centigrade) yet with all the gorgeous sunshine and the light breezes the temperature has been as high as twenty eight degrees.  But it's not the unseasonably lovely weather which is bringing hundreds of thousands of tourists to London in April.  On the 29th April, Prince William (second in line for the throne) will be marrying Kate Middleton at Westminster Abbey.

A Royal wedding has, historically, been good for the morale of the British public.  Even those who have been trying to abolish the Monarchy lighten up a little and enjoy the pomp and circumstance of the occasion.  Normally I would add a quip about not getting married and all the normal jokes that abound about marriage, but on this occasion I'll forfeit that pleasure.

London is already being prepared for the wedding.  Banners and flags adorn the streets, Londoners are preparing street parties and the tourists are flooding in, paying the exorbitant prices that hoteliers are charging for rooms.  In the shops the shelves are being filled with the usual tacky memorabilia from mugs with the faces of the happy couple, to other pieces or crockery and tableware as well as stationary and whatever else manufacturers can paste a photograph on.  Even numismatics (or coin collectors) can get a piece of the action as the Royal Mint has produced numerous coins ranging from common metal to gold and platinum for the Royal wedding.

As I write this, it is Good Friday, a religious day and yet Easter has practically been forgotten with the exception of the children who care not that another couple are getting married as long as they get a fix of chocolate in the shape of an egg or a rabbit!  Ok, the UK has long been on the road to irreligion, a significant majority of white british being indifferent toward any faith.  Yet, if you travel to Westminster Abbey any time this week, you will find a plethora of people milling around and taking pictures; posing where they think the happy couple will stand when they emerge from the church.

Around the city there are people at work erecting platforms from which the television crews will broadcast all parts of the occasion in glorious High Definition.  It has been estimated that the audience for this wedding could be in the region of three billion, almost half the worlds population.  Such is the attraction of the British Monarchy and weddings capture the personal and romantic side of a family that rarely show their personal side to the public.  The police and other agencies are, no doubt, having a headache over the security arrangements as such a public and high profile occasion.  Since the atrocities in 2001 in the USA and London in 2005, the fear of a successful terrorist attack on something such as this must play heavily in their minds.

The last major Royal Marriage was back in 1981 when Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer.  This was another great occasion that gripped the nation yet the controversy and the death of Lady Diana soon extinguished any lasting memories of the occasion and questions arose over why they were married to begin with.  The more recent marriage of Prince Charles to Mrs Parker Bowles was, in contrast, a quiet affair that caused more controversy and is more remembered for the questionable right for a member of the Royal Family to marry in a civil ceremony as uncovered legislative documents from 1956 and 1964 state that is was not lawful for members of the Royal Family to marry in a civil ceremony.

Although dismissed by Lord Falconer, the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs and Lord Chancellor, the second marriage of Prince Charles cast a dim light upon the Royal Family as a whole, the only exceptions being the two children of the late Princess of Wales, William and Harry (although Prince Harry has managed to cause some controversy of his own!).  The Royal Family has had a hard time since the death of Diana and conspiracy theories have only dragged this situation out, longer than it should have.

I expect that with the marriage of Prince William and Catherine (formerly known as Kate but the powers that be would rather she be known as Catherine as it sounds more regal) the Royal Family is hoping that the exaggerated ill will directed at them since the death of Diana will finally be expunged.  William has always been popular with the people and Kate Middleton has come from an 'ordinary' family.  This isn't an arranged marriage and the fact that a 'commoner' is marrying into Royalty has been the dream of millions of young women around the world.  In some aspects, people will consider this a fantasy come true and there is no doubt that they will be envious and ecstatic at the same time.  The wedding is set to be a fantastic event and one in which the Royal Family will be cast in a good light (which is long overdue) and the festive spirit will continue long after the two newlyweds have left the Abbey.

In the background to all of this, emerging from the woodwork, are the far flung relations to Kate Middleton who will soon be related to Royalty.  Some take it with good grace, happy to see a relation (of whom they knew very little about until now) fall in love and get married.  Others have appeared on television and expect that they should become more privileged because their distant relation has become a princess.  It's disturbing and highly amusing at the same time.  I think that, for some, it is in their nature to crave a higher status than what they have managed to achieve for themselves.  It is likely that in the future we may hear more from these relations as they hit the headlines as a result of some questionable act or another.  I only hope that the media don't smear Catherine as a result although I think that this is highly unlikely.

The 29th of April is going to be another day in history and hopefully one that is remembered for a happy occasion.  The wedding will be regarded as a joyous event around the globe and London will be crowded with people hoping to catch a glimpse of them as they pass by.  I sincerely hope that the two will be happy with each other for the rest of their lives and that the media doesn't pry and probe into every aspect of their personal lives.  I know that the media and manufacturers are already planning for the first child born of the couple and that, for me, is sad.  It shows that they are not participating in the occasion but planning and speculating on the lives of two young people.

I guess that is the price you pay for being royalty.  I don't think it's fair and I would think that neither would they (Kate having already complaining of being harassed by the media).  The media?  Well they don't really care either, for them it's all about selling papers and attracting viewers.  Sad, isn't it?

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Celebrity or Content

It's become something of a natural phenomena recently.  Many celebrities are now sponsoring charities, political figures and views as well as campaigning for the like.  On a whole, the use of celebrities as sponsors is successful and the general public will flock to whatever cause they are supporting; the UK's comic relief is a key example of this.  But what is more important; the celebrity sponsor and whatever they may advocate or the actual content of what they are promoting?  Unlike politicians, celebrities are not accountable in the political sphere but can influence it.  What makes a celebrity more qualified to speak on something rather than a subject matter expert?

Celebrity sponsoring has never been so popular as it is today.  Due to the nature of communications today, be it the television, the internet or even radio, we are swamped with all manner of celebrities from sports, film and television.  There are even celebrity bloggers who have risen to fame as a result of their online blogging and its popularity.  So, celebrities are everywhere.  You can't turn a corner without bumping into one.  But as popular as they may be, for whatever reason, they are still ordinary people.  Many of them have very little education, some of them have PhDs.  How do you tell?  How can you know that a celebrity actually knows what he or she is talking about when they sponsor something?  Why do people take more notice of them rather than an expert in the matter.  Why do politicians want celebrity endorsements?

Very few major charities do not have a celebrity or two lending support to them.  The celebrity can ensure that an issue has a greater audience simply due to their celebrity status.  They don't even have to say anything intelligent, just as long as they don't say anything stupid and jeopardize the good work the charity may be doing.  In this case, the use of celebrity sponsorship is a great way to generate interest for good causes, but it does have it's pitfalls.

In the UK, we have an annual charity event called 'Comic Relief'.  It's a televised event and draws millions of viewers due to its popularity.  The aim of the event is to raise money for charity, investing money into projects in Africa and the UK.  It's main draw are the numerous comedians that support it as well as other celebrities that endure some form of humiliation (in a humourous way).  It's a great event and goes on for hours.  The BBC hosts it, usually over two channels.  Comic Relief has made tens of millions of pounds since it first started many years ago, all for charity.

The one thing no one has asked is, why haven't things changed considering we have thrown hundreds of millions of pounds at it?

If a business had been given the same amount of money to invest, you can be pretty sure the investors would like to see the results of their investments.  Yet, in the case of Comic Relief, no one has.

I am not suggesting that Comic Relief is squandering the money in any way, but we have been shown the same thing for a fair number of years now and there seems to be no change.  The same problems exist as before millions of pounds were thrown at it.  Therein lies one of the first problem.  If you just ask for money, eventually people are going to ask why nothing appears to be changing or nothing appears to have been done.  The celebrities are always being filmed in the poorest parts of Africa, year after year.  Surely there must have been some changes?

At the end of the day, however, no amount of money is going to change the situation in Africa until the root cause has been identified and changed.  I am sure that all the charities involved over there are doing the best they can in difficult situations and any help that celebrities can bring must be a godsend for them.  Other charities have also benefited from celebrity endorsements and this is for the betterment of us all.

However, the real crux of this blog is celebrities getting involved in politics.

There have been cases, in the UK, where celebrities have taken up the gauntlet and changed UK policy due to the amount of public support they garner.  One key item that comes to mind is an actress, Joanna Lumley, campaigning for the rights of Gurkhas.  For those of you who are not familiar with this, I will give a very brief explanation. 

The British Army recruits Gurkhas from Nepal to be part of the Gurkha regiment.  The history goes back to 1814 when the British fought the Gurkhas as part of colonial expansion of the British Empire.  The Gurkhas have been loyal and hardy soldiers within the British military for a great number of years, yet when their service was complete they were not given the same pension as that of a soldier recruited from the UK.  This was obviously unfair and Ms Joanna Lumley supported the Gurkha Justice Campaign, along with other celebrities.  The campaign was successful and the rights of the Gurkhas was justifiably recognised and British Law was changed.

The UK is about to participate in a referendum to decide how we vote in elections.  It's called the Alternative Vote and I wont go into all the details.  However, a number of celebrities have voiced their support for one of the two various camps.  As far as I am aware, none of them are experts in British Law or constitutional politics, yet they are garnering support for whatever camp they believe should win.

At the end of the day, these celebrities are ordinary citizens and have a right to their own opinion.  However, by using their celebrity status, they have been given a platform by which they can campaign for whichever camp they deem to be the best.  They have had more influence than the elected politicians, not that that should be a surprise to anyone as British politicians have nearly been branded as corrupt as a result of recent investigations.  However, the celebrities have no accountability, unlike the politicians.

A key question has to be, do any of these celebrities actually know what they are talking about or are they just giving their personal opinions?  If I started to campaign for one of the camps, no matter how well informed or qualified I may be, I would not have anywhere near the same amount of influence as even the most minor of the celebrities.  The same appears true for the politicians.  They cannot influence as many people as the celebrities.

I am not suggesting that all or even any of the celebrities don't know what they are talking about and have just been given a script to read, but common people are drawn to them as a result of their popularity rather than the actual understanding of the content and value of their motivations.  There have been cases where some celebrities have campaigned for totally idiotic ideals.  Very entertaining to watch and read about but pretty scary in the amount of people that believed them due only to their popularity.

This isn't new and has been going on for years.  In the USA, a certain Hollywood star became a governor of California.  From what little I understand, he was a good Governor and was re-elected as a result, but I wonder how much influence his celebrity status had in getting him elected in the first place?  I was even wondering if the US was going to change it's law so that he could run for President, but that was going to be a stretch no matter how popular he was.  It wouldn't have been the first time a Hollywood star became the President of the United States, but as he was not born a US citizen, it wasn't an option.

The good news is that Arnold Schwarzenegger will be making films again instead of advertisements asking the British to come and visit California!

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Dawn

I know that this may be hard to believe, but there are two four o’clocks in a day!  The first time I discovered this was while I was in the army.  Trust me, it was a terrible introduction!  I still remember it clearly; stood in a trench with a fellow recruit, dead tired as we had been run ragged throughout the night by our sadistic instructors, we watched the dawn creep slowly over the hills and trees.  It wasn’t a spectacular dawn as described in books and paintings, but a dreary one, promising rain.  It was, to be perfectly honest with you, a totally miserable experience.  The shock of being awake at such a ridiculous time mixed in with the fact that we were going to be wet and miserable for the rest of the very long day was enough to make a grown man cry.  We didn't, of course.  Mainly because we could barely classify ourselves as grown men and the fact that our tear ducts were too tired anyway!

But that was a long time ago now.  I have been up countless times since, and the experiences have been mixed.  I do remember one outstanding dawn, in Saudi Arabia, just before we were going to teach a bloke called Saddam that he really shouldn’t have occupied a nearby country.  I was stood on the roof of a building we had ‘borrowed’ and was having a well deserved cup of tea and a smoke, when I noticed the sun rising over the desert.  Now that was the sunrise as described in books; the darkness turning from a deep, dark blue to an orange, then red and finally yellow and blue as the sun crested the dunes.  It happened so quickly that you could barely believe it.  I would like to have classed it as the perfect sunrise, but our situation seriously dampened any poetic or romantic notions!  It was very pretty and I have yet to experience another like it.

And here I am, again, at dawn, experiencing another four o’clock.  This time, however, I am at home, listening to the noise of birds chirping (does anyone else find that annoying?) and wondering why the hell I am awake!  Even the dog is snoring quietly in his bed, having looked up earlier and watched me make a cup of tea.  I wonder if he thought I was a complete idiot being up this early?

For me, though, being up at this time is due to circumstances beyond my control.  Some poor souls have to do it every day through necessity.  I really feel for the men and women that have to be up at this time of the day because of their jobs.  Having never been a ‘morning’ person, I imagine their misery at having to do whatever they are doing at this time of the day and, all the time, wishing that they were back in their warm beds, sleeping and dreaming dreams of Easter bunnies or whatever their subconsciousness conjure up!

There are, however, weird bunches of people who actually like being up early.  To me, that’s about as natural as me eating grass and producing orange juice!  I can understand wild animals being awake – they have to be for a variety of reasons; from getting something to eat to just ensuring that they aren’t the something to eat for another animal!  But people?  For me, the call of a lovely warm, comfortable bed and being in a deep, blissful sleep is by far the best way to not experience a dawn.  But not these people, they are up, making tea or coffee and doing stuff.  How wrong is that!

These ‘morning’ people are probably aliens, sent to spy on us while we are all asleep.  Ok, probably not, but they may as well be.  What on earth can you do this early in the morning?  Nothing is open, TV is rubbish and even the postman is only just waking up!  But there they are, walking the dog (who is probably very annoyed about being dragged out at this ridiculous hour – my dog would probably look at me as if I was completely insane, bite me, then go back to his bed.  And who could blame him!) and probably making their way down to the news agent to get a paper (the news agent is probably not a morning person but is one of those poor souls that have to get up early).  And then what do they do?  They go back home, sit down with their paper and a cup of tea, waiting for the rest of the world to wake up!

I am not one that would judge a person on how and why they do things; ok, maybe I am.  I am sure that I have some foibles that people would consider strange (like writing about people being up early in the morning) and, no doubt, people may think that I am slightly weird (but in a good way, naturally!).  But as dawn turns into day, I sit here wishing I was asleep without a worry in the world, while the real weirdo’s walk their cats and greet each other with happy smiles and waves.  And to top if all off, it isn’t even a nice dawn.  It's cold, it's damp and I'm awake!