British grief over body count warning for Key

Politicians who feel compelled to send young men to war are not to be envied - our own prime minister included.

And if the public mood in the United Kingdom - coupled with the omens for anything but a finite period of engagement - are anything to go by, then John Key and the Government should kit-up for a rough ride.

Early last week, Britain suffered its 200th military fatality in Afghanistan. The newspapers, television and radio stations have been full of it.

Bitter bereaved parents, wives, and relatives assailed the hapless defence secretary Bob Ainsworth.

Others accused Gordon Brown's Government of sending their beloved into a war zone hopelessly ill-equipped to combat the roadside bomb ambushes and sniper tactics of the Taliban foe. Others described the Nato intervention as a lost cause.

The mother of the 200th soldier killed in action said British soldiers were treated as second-class compared to their United States counterparts.

"They are all first-class heroes and should be treated like it," said Hazel Hunt whose 21-year old son, Richard, died from blast injuries the weekend before last. And still, with the elections over and the results being counted, the casualties continue to arrive "home" - some in coffins draped with the Union Jack.

The thing that strikes you about them is their extreme youth: last week's casualties - 24, 22, 18.

Afghanistan is a long way from New Zealand. To date, the work of the Kiwi reconstruction teams in Bamiyan province has been widely praised, and thankfully, largely casualty free.

But if there is a sense of unease in some quarters over the deployment of the SAS to that unforgiving country, then it is probably largely because the Nato strategy is so opaque.

Is it to quell any remaining remnants of al Qaeda? Is it to punish their ideological helpmates and hosts the Taliban? Is it to convert the centuries-old lawless feudalism of Afghan tribalism to 21st-century democracy? Is it to halt the drug trade which arms many of the tribes? Is it to allow women the right to an education and to appear in public free of the burkha?

Any and all of these might be admirable motives in themselves, but together they constitute what some are calling an impossible task.

Regardless, body bags arriving back in New Zealand will only amplify the latent anxiety of a commitment based only on the most skeletal of explanations: there will be a clamour for greater clarity and coherence, as there has been in the UK.

If Afghanistan triggered both outrage and national angst over premature mortality last week, we also encountered it during a short sortie into literary tourism.

The Moors are a baize of browns, greens, and, at this time of year, the vivid purple of flowering heather.

You can't go this way with anyone over 50 without at least the flicker of a shadow crossing the conversation: Ian Brady, Myra Hindley and the infamous Moors Murders, the vast rolling acreages stretched like an unruly cummerbund across the torso of the north concealing the tombs of their young victims, one never found.

But it is just a flicker and soon we are in Haworth, home of the celebrated Bronte family.

From the parsonage here in this picturesque hillside village, the sisters Charlotte, Emily and Anne all made their indelible mark on English literature: Emily with her poems and the much-loved classic Wuthering Heights, Charlotte with the equally celebrated Jane Eyre, and Anne with the lesser known but remarkable The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

They were three of six children. Their father, Patrick Bronte, a learned Irishman, outlived them all. Their mother died in 1821 aged 38, soon to be followed by the two oldest daughters, Maria and Elizabeth, at 11 and 10 respectively.

Next to go was the only son, Branwell Bronte, thought to be the most artistically gifted of all the children. He died at 31 in 1848 of a combination, probably, of tuberculosis, alcoholism and opium.

Emily died a couple of months later also of tuberculosis, followed by Anne, similarly six months following that. Emily was 30, Anne was 29. Charlotte died in 1855 at the ripe old age of 38, having married late and being in the early stages of pregnancy.

The story of their remarkable lives is set out in the house they lived in, now an attractive and revealing museum. Who knows what they might have gone on to produce had they lived.

In those days it was poor sanitation and killer diseases such as tuberculosis, rather than roadside bombs, that took Britain's "flower of youth".

Simon Cunliffe is assistant editor of the Otago Daily Times.


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