What do you do when your boss tells you to do something you know is stupid and can only lead to disaster? If you don’t obey their instructions and they find out – well, not so good. If you do what they say and as predicted it all goes pear-shaped; well the blame usually somehow doesn’t end up where it should go. Suppose you somehow, knowing the probable consequences of what you’re being asked to do, manage to mitigate the worst of the damage. This could be the worst option of all. People don’t like being rescued from the consequences of their actions. Often, the rescuer is the only witness to someone’s craven cowardice, deceit, or blatant incompetence. Folk don’t generally appreciate having such witnesses around. More often than not, they will do everything they can to destroy their rescuer and remove them from the picture. Not so good.
A couple of years back I heard someone being interviewed about Afghanistan on a Canadian radio current affairs programme. What the woman had to say was both balanced and sensible. Last Friday that voice came very close to being silenced. The woman being interviewed turned out to be Associated Press journalist Kathy Gannon. What she had to say in the interview was in such contrast to most of the nonsense peddled about Afghanistan that in a case of "praise where praise is due" I contacted her to say how much I appreciated hearing a voice of reason among the general ill-informed babble. I've been to Afghanistan a couple of times. Kathy turned out to be a really nice woman. So, imagine my feelings when I switched on the radio on Friday morning to hear that she had been badly wounded in a shooting that had claimed the life of her photographer colleague Anja Niedringhaus. A well informed public is a crucial component of what passes for western democracy. Perhaps if the world had paid more attention to events in Afghanistan after the Soviet pull-out the past 14 years might well have been very different for a lot of us. Sometimes gathering and bearing witness to events involves an element of personal risk. The people of Afghanistan have few better friends than the likes of Kathy Gannon who work hard to shed a light on what is really happening in their benighted country. I wonder if the Afghan cop turned gunman who tried to murder her, apparently in revenge for the death of family members in a NATO bombing raid, appreciated that.
The Americans apparently believe they didn't lose a war until Vietnam. What then, it has to be asked, was the War of 1812 when the United States tried to take advantage of the Napoleonic War to annexe Canada? The war ended with the 1814 Treaty of Ghent restoring the pre-1812 status quo. The US failed to annexe Canada, therefore it suffered a defeat. I have a real problem understanding what present day Americans believe the war was about. I suspect many think the British invaded the United States and were driven back. The Americans at the time tried to justify the invasion of Canada by complaining that the arrogant British had been kidnapping their sailors for service in the Royal Navy. Putting aside the number of deserters from the Royal Navy who were crewing American ships, the Atlantic states were by far the least enthusiastic supporters of the war. That suggests "impressment", as it was called, was an excuse for war rather than a reason. Which brings us back to national myths. The real reason the United States failed to sweep aside the skeleton British force in Canada, aided by local volunteers, was that the war was unpopular. The bulk of the US troops were militiamen who had signed up to defend their own homes, not invade other countries. The American invasion was half-hearted, if not quarter-hearted, and that is why it failed. Sadly, the lessons of 1812 were not learned. Well, one lesson was learned: when a large part of Mexico was annexed by the US in 1848, the job was put the hands of the regular army. Just over 150 years later, it did not take long for the American public to work out that their sons were being sent to die in Vietnam to prop up a deeply unpopular, and often downright criminal, regime. One of the lessons here is that the United States cannot win prolonged wars overseas that are unpopular at home. It is a lesson that has been plain to see since 1812.
You have got to love the way the BBC puts quotation-marks around the word massacre, as in Batang Kali Massacre. I guess if Her Majesty's Government says the Scots Guards did not gun down rubber plantation workers in cold blood in Malaya in 1948, then it's important that the BBC should cast doubt on claims that 24 men were murdered. The BBC spent a lot of money in the 1990s making a television documentary which concluded the massacre did happen. But I suppose the BBC can't be expected to take the word of its own journalists when their claims conflict with the Government's official line. Last week an English court condemned the government's continued cover-up and said the confessions of some of the Guardsmen involved that the ethnic Chinese workers were indeed shot in cold blood and not, as was and is still claimed by HM Government, shot while attempting to escape should have been properly investigated in the early 1970s. But the judges declined to order a public inquiry, on a technicality which they felt might well be challenged successfully in a superior court. Much of the BBC's coverage of events last week was careful to put quotation-marks around the word massacre. I just wish the BBC showed the same caution, evidenced by the use of quotation marks, when it comes to other stories involving Her Majesty's Government. I don't recall any quotation marks around what the Government claimed were old military flares washing up on the beaches of south west Scotland in the early 1990s. They were not flares; they were the extremely flammable phosphorous cores of Second World War incendiary bombs. They were supposed to have been dumped far out in the Atlantic after the war ended but some were thrown into the sea between Scotland and Northern Ireland. They burst into flames, which could not be quenched, as soon as the phosphorous dried out. That doesn't sound like any flare I've come across. And yet the BBC insisted on continuing to refer to these potentially lethal and destructive left-overs from the war as flares long after they had been tipped off about their true nature. But given a choice, the BBC seems to prefer the Government's word to the facts.
There is much debate at the moment about the impact of the First World War. For a long time I believed that it had made my life tougher than it needed to be. Neither of my grandfathers met their fathers. Both of their fathers, who would be my great-grandfathers, were killed after volunteering to fight in the First World War. The two men left behind widows with three children a-piece. The lives of the families they left behind were hard; very hard. One of them had a good job on the printing presses at Glasgow-based book publisher Wm. Collins before he joined up. It would not have been unusual for his sons, grandsons, and even great-grandsons to follow him into the skilled and unionised world of commercial printing. And I could have been one of the afore-mentioned great-grandsons. I always liked and admired the print and production folk at the papers where I worked as a young journalist. I particularly liked the fact that they had a strong union. Media employers only needed to find people who could read and write to fill the columns of their newspapers or the short amount of broadcast airtime devoted to news. Even that’s a qualification they seem to have dispensed with. The BBC World Service told me this morning that Crimea had voted to split from Russia. Its Canadian equivalent informed me that the last words heard by the crew of the missing Malaysia Airlines 777 jet had been “Alright, good night”. I suspect those were the last words known to have come from a crew member, in this case the last message broadcast by the co-pilot. Anyway, back to great grandfathers. I always thought great-grandpa’s death in Gallipoli had killed any chance of skilled unionised berth for his descendants. But recently I found out that Wm. Collins went out of its way in the 1920s and 30s to find jobs for the children of its workers killed 1914-19 when they themselves reached working age. I have no idea why my grandfather did not take up that offer. Perhaps his own service in the Second World War took him off in another direction. Maybe the hiring policy changed. But what modern day employer would even dream of having such a hiring policy?