Wednesday, April 25, 2007


It’s odd the way things that, to start with, seem completely unconnected suddenly coalesce in your mind, and from randomness, a pattern emerges. Three things have drifted across my mind recently which have come together, rather oddly, into focus.

Firstly, I watched with dreadful fascination the antics, and there seems no other word for it, of the guys who were taken hostage in Iran. Firstly we now have the i-Pod as an essential piece of kit for the British soldier, then we have a ship which doesn’t seem to know where it is, and an operational chain of command on the vessel which, to try and be fair without knowing all the facts, seems to have acted with less skill than the Navy has displayed in the past.

Then we have a strange display of responses from the 15 people captured, whilst in custody. You can’t put yourself in their place, and I’m sure their captors scared them witless, but, am I being unreasonable in thinking that they are supposed to be soldiers, one of whose job is to fight.

Then, the tawdry “story selling” episode.

Then we have people increasingly high up the MoD pecking order, who somehow seemed to come to a conclusion that making the stories available was acceptable.

Then, we get to Mr Browne, our Defence Minister, who apparently took a fleeting look at the issue over his Weekend Croissants, missed totally the political implications of this particular grenade, and promptly pulled out the pin.

And then to cap it, when the man goes before Parliament to explain himself, we have an opposition who cannot nail him to the mast (actually Lord Carrington might have done well for the Tories here), and an exquisitely constructed quasi apology which, if he had sat up as long thinking about the original issue as he did in formulating his weasel reply, would probably have prevented much of the political fall out he was trying to escape.

One of his arguments is that “No-one got hurt.” But that’s far, far too naïve a view. Foreign policy is subtle stuff, and the way nations “see” each other is a critically important part of one country’s standing in another’s eyes. This “perception” of one country by another is a vital component in the way international politics moves. And what we have done here, in spades, is to give Iran, a country where the political issues are most definitely going to get worse before they get better, the distinct feeling that Britain is a soft touch – so push a bit harder next time.

It’s not as if this is all new stuff. Just look at a couple of snippets of history.

Duke of Wellington (1810) - talking about how the enemy was looking at his troops – “I don’t know what effect these men will have upon the enemy, but, by God, they frighten me”. He won.

Look at Kennedy and Khruschev in the Cuban Crisis. I recall as a simple 17 year old thinking for about 10 days that all the revision I had just put into my Latin Vocab was about to be vaporised into a ball of chalk (not sure about the chemistry there, but you know what I mean). Russia had to believe that Kennedy wasn’t going to blink, otherwise the balance of (Nuclear) power in the world was about to change quite abruptly. He didn’t blink, and who knows what effect that had on the way the world went on its way over the following couple of decades.

On a slightly lesser scale, look at the All Blacks Rugby team and the “Haka” they perform before each match. Why do you think they do that? It’s not because they’re trying to become a competitor for the Welsh male Voice choirs. Just look at the opposition when this noise is rending the atmosphere. That answers the question.

It’s all about perception, and what’s just happened in Iran has, from the small i-Pod, to Des Browne still remaining in the office of Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, has reduced our standing in the world, when, right now, we need exactly the opposite.

I’m on a roll now, and just in the mood to write something down about our Cricket team. So secondly, having just watched Sri-Lanka play New Zealand, and seen what cricket can produce, you have to sit and have a private weep at the England efforts over the past few weeks. It’s not just that we lost, because we simply were not good enough. But it’s the way we lost which gets at me – some of the team didn’t seem to want to win. Out of the whole squad, Collingwood and Pieterson stood out as good batsmen, Panesar was solid (but not much better), and, to me, Bhopara was the find of the series for England. But thank God for Paul Nixon. If you were up to your neck in muck and bullets, isn’t he just the man who you’d want alongside you? Excellent.

But that’s it. The rest were, to say the very least, disappointing, and when they needed to stand up and be counted, were out falling off pedalos instead.

So there’s two examples of where you, or at least I, have to wonder what’s going on. Now, it’s easy to sit hear and gradually morph oneself into one of the two guys who sit in the balcony of “The Muppet Show”. Actually, I think I’m actually becoming the one on the left, you know, the rugged (in a non Brokeback Mountain kind of way) looking one with the moustache. Sorry, I digress.

But there’s a serious point here – the third thread, which contrasts very starkly with the first two, and really gets me thinking.

I took my 8 year old Grandson into town last week, and we visited Shrewsbury Castle. This is home to the Shropshire Regimental Museum, where the history of the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry is laid out. It’s not a large display, but there is a significant collection of letters, artefacts, snippets of the KSLI (and its predecessors) history, much of it on a personal level. Even the KSLI is not a regiment you would think of first when looking back at this country’s military history.

But the impact this had on me, compared to the two other thought trains of the Iran affair, and the English cricket team, was considerable. The quiet, dignified, understated but mentally strong approach which the Shrewsbury Museum gave out about the way one should conduct oneself in difficult times was in depressing contrast to the feelings I was left with after watching the other two. In this area, we have not progressed.

It was a rather moving and humbling experience.



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