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Basra

Liam Fox, defence secretary, with Air Marshal Stuart Peach <em>Picture: Tech Sgt Michele A Desrochers</em>

Liam Fox, defence secretary, with Air Marshal Stuart Peach Picture: Tech Sgt Michele A Desrochers

By Stuart Crawford

Defence secretary Liam Fox’s grip on his ministerial portfolio looks weaker with every passing revelation about his plans for Scotland’s military. Hot on the heels of the announcement on the future of military bases north of the border, details are emerging which indicate a lack of intellectual coherence and which make previous incumbents of his post look positively competent.

Having attempted to assuage both the military establishment and the SNP with a smoke-and-mirrors plan to close bases here, promise new developments there and dress it all up as an enhancement to the defence footprint, it’s becoming plain that some of the planning is expedient at best, desperate in some cases, and just false and untrue elsewhere.

Take, for example, the idea of selling off the army’s barracks at Dreghorn and Redford in Edinburgh, and the HQ at Craigiehall, and to build a brand new, modern military complex at Kirknewton. Figures published elsewhere in the media suggest that the likely sell-off price for the existing barracks might be in the region of £70 million.

The cost of building a new barracks at Kirknewton, on the other hand, might come in at £400 million – and this does not include accommodation for married personnel, who will be obliged to commute from existing MoD housing located in – wait for it – Colinton, next to Dreghorn and Redford.

This is clearly a nonsense. Predictably, the MoD has dismissed these figures as “speculation”, but equally typically it appears unable to produce figures of its own. I wonder why? I feel an freedom of information request coming on?

Add to this the recent revelation, via a leaked memo from the head of the army General Sir Peter Wall, who tells his underlings that there will have to be an additional 5,000 redundancies in the army by 2015, on top of the 7,000 already underway as part of the Strategic Defence and Security Review. (As an aside, why does important military information always seem to come via a leaked memo? These people work for us.)

There is the distinct impression that people are just making it up as they go along, that there is in fact no plan, just a series of finger-in-the-dyke hole-pluggings, anything to get them through the day.

Sadly, one of the ramifications of these machinations to reduce the size of the regular army might well be the demise of our very own Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, at least as a regular infantry battalion. Despite a long and glorious history, the Argylls are damned by being the junior battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland (RRS), the deeply unloved amorphous organisation that replaced Scotland’s historic infantry regiments.

As was said at the time of their disbandments and the formation of the RRS, it is far easier, in presentational terms, to axe a numbered outfit – in this case 5 SCOTS – than it is to do away with a regiment with a proud and resonating title. And so it has come to pass.

So the Argylls seem destined to join the Territorial Army, and to provide soldiers on the cheap for a government whose defence posture seems based not on foreign policy and defence of national interests, but on how much it costs and how much they can get away with – if you’ll excuse my cynicism for a moment. And I don’t think the Argylls will be the last, either.

So, let’s just draw up a quick résumé of Britain’s recent defence policy performance. Defeat in Basra, fiasco in Afghanistan, combined deaths to date 556 and rising, with goodness knows how many wounded and psychologically damaged.

Two aircraft carriers ordered, one of which may never become operational, and no planes to fly off them since the Harrier fleet was scrapped and its replacement is not due in service for at least another ten years. RAF Kinloss closed and the Nimrod MRA4s scrapped after a £4 billion spend. RAF Leuchars to close and become an army base and, in due course, HQ to a “mobile brigade”. Possibly. And to top it all, soldiers with the Argylls and various other battalions facing redundancy after recent tours in Afghanistan. Just brilliant, isn’t it?

Whilst we can’t place all of these disasters at the door of the current Westminster government, there isn’t any light at the end of the tunnel to suggest they can do any better. Our involvement in Libya is in danger of becoming a running sore, without any exit strategy except the pious hope that Gaddafi will eventually sell the jerseys and the rebels will somehow, sometime, get their collective act together and impose a modicum of stability, enough to let us get out.

The defence secretary’s report card is looking pretty grim so far. Criticisms that Dr Fox is out of his depth are increasingly persuasive. It’s easy for me to say that’s what you get when you put a GP from East Kilbride in charge of national defence policy, but it’s also true. A combination of ignorant (in the true sense of the word) politicians and supine and compliant senior military officers – who seem to have eyes firmly on the next promotion and for whom the prospect of resignation on a point of principle is as likely as Aberdeen winning the SPL – is making an expensive comedy of Britain’s defence and its military.

We can only hope an independent Scotland could do better. Let’s hope we get the opportunity to prove it before too long.

Stuart Crawford is a retired Lieutenant Colonel of the Royal Tank Regiment.

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Dr Bill Wilson MSP

Dr Bill Wilson MSP

By Bill Wilson

Recently I had an article in the Scottish Left Review, also published on a number of websites. It described the horrific situation in Fallujah in Iraq, where women have been advised to avoid becoming pregnant due to the very high risk of gross birth deformities in their children.

It is notable that the first signs that something odd was happening (changing birth-gender ratios) appeared shortly after the first Gulf war. Since then, evidence has been mounting that a significant factor in the very high level of genetic abnormalities is the use of depleted uranium (DU) weapons.

I mention the events in Fallujah not because it is an isolated case, but because the situation – doctors advising an entire city of women not to become pregnant – is so extreme. However, the use of DU was not limited to Fallujah. In Basra there is a new cancer hospital, necessary due to the substantial rise in childhood cancers, and man’s inhumanity to man extends beyond Iraq.

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Think of the nations of the former Yugoslavia, think Gaza, think Afghanistan. Does it stop even there? Once in a while dust will arrive in Scotland from North Africa. Once DU particles enter the water, once they become dust, where does the pollution end?

Even if the dust never arrives, the effects will. Our servicemen and women are no more immune from breathing in, or drinking, the DU particles than are the civilians in the target zones. Of course the Ministry of Defence and the US Department of Defense continue to deny that DU presents a risk. Yet the Italian government paid some 170 million euros in compensation to their soldiers, and a coroner’s report in the UK quite specifically identified DU as the cause of death.

However, it is not my intention to discuss the evidence or effects of DU here. Those interested can check my home page, or can read the Scottish Left Review.

This article looks specifically at disinformation. When challenging the vested interests of the powerful, it is not unusual to have to deal with disinformation campaigns – think of smoking and climate change, for example. Such campaigns are fairly standard. So that there is no room for doubt, I am not referring to genuine scientific debate, but specifically to disinformation:

1 – the use of errors in minor details to cast doubt upon an entire case;
2 – the distortion/misrepresentation of facts;
3 – the creation of new facts lacking any evidence for such (which might also be referred to as lying);
4 – character assassination.

It did not take long for me to become aware of a disinformation campaign surrounding DU and its effects. Perhaps the first clear indication I had was from a former US colonel, who wrote an angry email noting that the DU campaign was based on lies, that the use of the word “weapon” was misleading, and that “There is no such thing as a uranium weapon. That is [the] term that they made up to make DU kinetic energy penetrators look like weapons of mass destruction instead of tank killing bullets”.

As the argument goes, it certainly fits into category 2, as I cannot really see any difference between a bullet and a weapon. There is an attempt at 1, as even if a bullet is not a weapon the end result, particularly with DU, is the same. And certainly 3, as DU is also used in “bunker busters” and other munitions used to attack buildings and is not restricted to use against tanks. (Hence its use in Gaza, where the Palestinians have a distinct lack of tanks.)

In case you think that I am splitting hairs, I should note that this self-same US colonel went on to argue that DU could not have been used at Fallujah because there were “no tank battles in Fallujah”. In effect, he was using the “fact” that DU was only used in anti-tank shells to cast doubt on their use in Fallujah. Thus the point is not one of hair-splitting, but rather more significant than that. All this within a matter of hours of my dipping my toe into the DU nightmare!

Dr Doug Rokke is a retired US Army major. He was appointed by the Pentagon to devise the protocols in handling DU, and how/if it might safely be used. Dr Rokke duly provided the Pentagon with the required report and protocols. He also had responsibility for the limited clear-up of some sites in Iraq. There is a tragic side to this, as Dr Rokke, an honourable and decent man, is seriously ill, and many of his team are dead or likewise seriously ill. Dr Rokke has no doubt as to the source of their ill-health: DU does not just affect civilians.

Why the detour to describe Dr Rokke and his team? Well, the disinformation did not stop at modifying or redefining facts. It went on from there. I was reading a blog article on DU and glanced at the responses below. I was immediately confused. A respondent angrily attacked Doug Rokke because he had been supporting the DU lobby in viciously attacking him when the respondent had written on DU. This was bizarre, really bizarre.

Dr Rokke was actually accused of working with a man who had regularly smeared him. More confusing was that the arch anti-DU campaigner had suddenly become a DU supporter. What the heck was going on? It was clear that the original author of the blog was equally dumfounnart – to use the Scots word for dumbfounded.

There followed a confused and lengthy exchange between the blog author and the respondent. It moved on to the respondent wondering about Dr Rokke’s email address, as his IP address seemed similar to that of a notorious DU supporter. To cut a long story short, the respondent concluded with: “I am now watching the real Doug Rokke on YouTube”.

Somebody had gone out of their way to make it appear that Doug Rokke was working with the pro-DU lobby. This of a man seriously ill from the effects of DU, who is furious that the Pentagon has ignored his advice and protocols – insult to injury!

The above would certainly fall into my fourth category of disinformation: character assassination. A pretty unpleasant form of character assassination, given the circumstances. But of course it does not stop there. I have received a large number of emails specifically attacking the qualifications and character of various individuals with whom I have corresponded, or to whom I have referred in my articles/press releases.

Doug Rokke is specifically accused of having lied about his army service, lied about his depleted DU findings, and having very unpleasant connections (apparently somebody he knew had written something which may have used something else which may have come from an organisation with dubious repute – no, seriously!), and finally he is accused of smearing the man who sent me the email smearing Dr Rokke. I assume the latter works on the principle of distracting people from your own thieving by shouting, “Catch the thief!”

I have concentrated on Dr Rokke not because he is the only individual about whom I have received unpleasant (and dishonest) allegations, but rather because he seems to have earned the most vitriol.

Having become rather tired of all this, I wrote to the US ambassador asking if the individual who had been putting out many of the smears (I named him in the letter) worked for or had worked for the US government. I await the reply with anticipation.

Let me end with some useful Arabian advice for Doug Rokke and my other correspondents fighting for justice: “Tell the truth, but keep one foot in the stirrup”.

- Dr Bill Wilson is a list MSP for the West of Scotland.

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