War kills women – in uniform, in civvies

Independent on Sunday, 27 January 2013

The assumptions that once kept women out of the military have been totally undermined by modern warfare

Thanks to modern communications, we now know the name of every British soldier who dies in Afghanistan. Most are male, but that may change if the Government follows the example of the US Defence Secretary, Leon Panetta, who has lifted the ban on females in combat roles. President Obama then welcomed the prospect of “our mothers, wives, sisters and daughters” playing a bigger role in protecting the country.

Obama’s heart is in the right place, but his choice of language is telling. He could have talked about female engineers, pilots and doctors, but he didn’t; even the President has yet to shake off the habit of seeing men through the lens of their careers, but women as members of the nation’s family.

For an older generation of career soldiers, the change is a step too far, as an email exchange reported in The Washington Post revealed last week. An Iraq war veteran, Valerie Warner, wrote to Volney Warner, her grandfather, who is a retired general, explaining how she’d like to see women incorporated into infantry units. In the 1970s, he helped integrate women into hundreds of non-combat roles in the US army, but he didn’t respond positively to her email. “I remain convinced that women are better at giving life than taking it,” he told her.

General Warner’s feelings may have been coloured by the death of another granddaughter in a roadside bomb in Afghanistan in 2005, but it used to be standard military thinking. As the proportion of women in the US military began to rise towards its current rate of 14 per cent, the pressure to allow them into combat roles has increased, and some commanders hope the change will reduce the US military’s alarming levels of sexual harassment and assault. According to General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, having “one part of the population that is designated as warriors and another that’s designated as something else” encourages the psychology that leads to abuse. I think it’s safe to say we’re going to witness a re-evaluation of what constitutes a “warrior” when more women start returning from war with battlefield injuries, including loss of limbs.

In any case, the assumptions that originally kept women out of the military have been totally undermined by modern warfare. For centuries, combatants were encouraged to think they were risking their lives to protect women and children at home. Of course, that only ever applied to the winning side, as the horrific rape of German women in the wake of the Second World War showed. Now it’s more dangerous to be a civilian than a soldier in a war zone: 90 per cent of casualties are civilians, according to Amnesty International; three-quarters are women and children.

Keeping women out of combat roles may protect traditional sensibilities, in other words. But the sight of flag-draped military coffins is a distraction from the reality of modern warfare, where women and children bear the brunt of injury, suffering and death.

All material on this site (c) Joan Smith 2010-2013

Red Ed looks more like Ed the Ready (for No 10)

Independent on Sunday, 20 January 2013

Gosh, how would things look if we didn’t have a shamelessly partisan right-wing press in this country? The coalition is fractious, the Prime Minister is irritable, the polls are dreadful, and that was before David Cameron had to postpone his big speech on Europe because of the hostage crisis in Algeria. It’s time for the Tory papers to swing into action, in other words, and look how well they performed last week.

No, cried The Daily Telegraph, the 2015 election is not yet lost! David Cameron “could be a transformative leader” if he had more confidence. The Daily Mail revealed that he’s a romantic at heart, gushing in The House magazine over his “date nights” with Sam Cam. The couple aren’t fans of the Danish political drama Borgen but they can’t get enough of The Killing, which they watched “back to back” over Christmas. They’re just like the rest of us, you see!

Not me, as it happens. I’ve never seen The Killing, I’m not as wealthy as the Camerons and I think his politics are horrible. But we have a vibrant free press and naturally the Daily Mail’s article about the couple was balanced by a – how shall I phrase this? – somewhat less flattering piece about the Labour leader. Don’t be fooled: Miliband is a “waffling Left-wing weirdo” and “son of a Marxist professor”. There were no cosy vignettes of family life with Justine, just a stern warning from columnist Richard  Littlejohn that “Red Ed” shouldn’t be allowed “within 100 miles of No 10 Downing Street”.

Oh, so that’s what they’re all afraid of. In 2010, a hubristic assumption that Ed Miliband would never be prime minister became common currency; it just couldn’t happen while confident, charming David Cameron was at the helm of the Conservative party. Now, after three years in government, the shine has come off Cameron and no mistake. When did you last see the Prime Minister appear relaxed and purposeful? These days he’s weak and indecisive, peering nervously over his shoulder at UKIP and his own backbenchers. Meanwhile, Miliband is doing well, making jokes at Cameron’s expense at PMQs and prompting him into displays of what now looks like habitual bad temper.

When I met the three party leaders in November, just before Lord Justice Leveson published his report, the contrast between a tense, wary Cameron and the other two was striking. Indeed, it’s hard not to see a connection between Cameron’s craven response to the Leveson report and the way the right-wing press has swung behind him this month. The Prime Minister set up the inquiry and committed himself to implementing its recommendations as long as they weren’t “bonkers”. They aren’t and he hasn’t, while Miliband and Nick Clegg have been principled in supporting the victims of press intrusion.

Bear that in mind next time a right-wing paper trashes Miliband or urges Cameron to be bolder. Can it be that simple? Yes It Can.

All material on this site (c) Joan Smith 2010-2013

Tarantino dresses up violence. But it’s violence all the same

Independent on Sunday, 13 January 2013

Quentin Tarantino is a brilliant name for a movie director. “Quentin” sounds a bit cardigan-and-slippers. Then it whams you in the gut – a bit like his films – with a fiery Italian surname. “Tarantino” makes me think of hairy spiders and a manic dance called the tarantella, which gets its name from their bite. I know its actual meaning is prosaic, suggesting his father’s family has links with Taranto in southern Italy. (So does the spider.) But that turns out to be rather a good metaphor: both his name and his films promise more than they deliver.

Anyway, the director was in London last week, for the premiere of his new movie, when he suffered a meltdown on Channel 4 News. It’s a gem: during an interview with the mild-mannered Krishnan Guru-Murthy, who asked him about possible links between on- and off-screen violence, Tarantino started waving his arms and told the presenter he was “shutting your butt down”. (He also insisted “I’m not biting”, which sounded like, but probably wasn’t intended as, a witty reference to his surname.) I was surprised to hear Tarantino tell Guru-Murthy that he wasn’t his slave but, then, slavery is the theme of Django Unchained, which he was in the UK to publicise. “I’m here to sell my movie,” he gabbled. “This is a commercial for the movie, make no mistake.”

It wasn’t, actually, and I already had doubts about going to see the film after watching the trailer. (Leonardo DiCaprio, what are you doing in this “ironic” revenge drama where characters joke over toppling corpses?) Now I’m sure I need never go to another film made by this unappealing egomaniac. Extreme violence has been Tarantino’s leitmotif since Reservoir Dogs, and he must have expected it to come up in the wake of the Sandy Hook and Aurora mass shootings. The US Vice-President, Joe Biden, invited representatives of the film industry to talks in Washington about gun violence last week.

My own view is that the effect of screen violence in real life isn’t an open-and-shut case. I don’t think there’s a provable direct link, except in the case of a few deranged individuals, but it does have a desensitising effect. I squirmed through Reservoir Dogs, hating its conflation of violence and cool, but I was even more disturbed to hear people round me laughing during the notorious torture scene. Fans of Tarantino’s films tend to describe them as amoral, which seems to me a way of letting him off the hook.

I’ve always believed he hides behind genre, using its conventions as a cover for scenes of sickening brutality. When he does attempt a moral framework, it usually turns into a revenge fantasy. (Note to critics: female characters beating and kicking a man to death isn’t feminism.) I know he won an Oscar for the screenplay of Pulp Fiction but that was a long time ago. Thanks to Channel 4 News, the cat’s out of the bag: Quentin Tarantino is 49 going on 14.

Half the world’s food is thrown away. Come on, supermarkets, give us ‘imperfection’

The Independent, Thursday 10 January 2013

Special offers that go mouldy in the fridge are partly why people throw so much food away

Every Sunday morning, in a working-class suburb of Granada, there is a crowded, sprawling market. Unlike the city centre, which is decidedly posh, it bustles with immigrants from North Africa and local farmers with strong Andalucian accents. They sell misshapen vegetables, twisted red and green peppers which taste wonderful roasted with olive oil and garlic, and tomatoes so juicy they’re almost splitting open.

None of it costs very much, and shoppers leave the market with carriers bulging with the kind of produce you’ll never see on the shelves of a British supermarket. These vegetables are grown locally, for taste rather than appearance, and bought by people who may be poor but know how to cook. It’s very different from the way we shop and eat in the UK, and goes a long way towards explaining the shocking statistics in a new report from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. According to the report, up to half the food produced in the world each year – two billion tonnes – ends up being thrown away.

That’s indefensible when so many people go hungry in the developing world. Over-supply isn’t even good for those of us who live in affluent countries, distorting our ideas about food and creating alarming levels of obesity. The report cites poor transport and storage infrastructure as one cause of the problem, but it’s impossible to ignore the role of the big supermarkets, which have encouraged people to be fussy eaters. Here’s another statistic from the same report: up to 30 per cent of vegetable crops in the UK are not harvested because their physical appearance doesn’t meet the expectations of consumers.

Supermarkets demand “cosmetically perfect foodstuffs”, says Dr Tim Fox, the head of energy and environment at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. The result is a disordered relationship with food which has disastrous effects on our health, cooking habits and farming. What we have in this country isn’t so much choice as the illusion of it: I know supermarkets are convenient, which is why I use them, but what’s actually on their shelves? Look at the average vegetable counter, where everything is bright and shiny and symmetrical, quite unlike the vegetables in a French or Spanish market. How come every single blueberry is the same size, with next to no taste?

I’m sure Independent readers know that not all tomatoes are red, any more than not all beetroot is purple or carrots orange, but you won’t find many alternatives on the high street. Black tomatoes are fantastic in salads. Golden beetroots are delicious roasted, and purple carrots are healthier than the orange sort; we’d be eating them as a matter of course if British supermarkets hadn’t conditioned us to believe that each vegetable comes in only one colour.

The result is a massive waste of land, water and energy resources as farmers find they can’t sell even slightly “imperfect” crops. That’s one end of the food chain; at the other, supermarkets encourage over-consumption with special offers that end up going mouldy in the fridge. Three-for-the-price-of-two offers are hard to resist but I do my best, knowing perfectly well that I won’t want to eat the same thing three days in a row; I’m sure they’re one of the reasons why half the food bought in Europe and the US is thrown away after it’s bought.

This kind of over-consumption emphasises the growing gap between the food-rich, who can afford to chuck unused food away, and the food-poor. The UK now has so many hungry people that food banks are springing up in towns and cities, providing emergency supplies to adults and children who don’t have enough to live on, let alone too much.

At the same time, millions of people have got into the habit of buying snacks and ready-made meals to stick in the oven. Excess weight is causing debilitating  diseases and shortening life expectancy, so it isn’t as if all this so-called “choice” is producing healthy outcomes for the rest of us. On the contrary, convenience food has disrupted the process of buying, cooking and eating, changing our perceptions of food in the most damaging way. Eating has become another means of instant gratification, a way of changing mood, something to be got out of the way with the minimum time and effort.

I don’t want to romanticise the lifestyle of European peasants two or three centuries ago, before the industrial revolution. But there’s something ethically wrong about regarding food as so easily disposable, and it certainly suggests we’ve lost a sense of its value. There are very good reasons to think about what we eat, and one way of doing that is to restore the link between shopping, eating and cooking. I know people say they don’t have time, but I can’t help thinking about all those statistics showing how many hours the average person spends watching television.

For many people who live in towns and cities, cooking has become a chore. Supermarkets offer an easy solution but it isn’t really a solution at all, evidenced by the astonishing quantity of food we throw away. There are many things I like about the modern world, but this casual contempt for an inescapable relationship – food, cooking, health – isn’t one of them.


Guns won’t protect Indian women. Look at the US

Independent on Sunday, 6 January 2013

What was going through Barack Obama’s mind as a member of staff told him about the Sandy Hook shootings? In a dramatic photograph released by the White House last week, the President leans against the back of a sofa, arms folded and head bowed. It’s a sombre moment: six adults and 20 children had just died in the massacre in  Connecticut. No one could avoid shock on hearing the news, but the President must surely have been wondering how on earth to persuade millions of Americans to give up their delusional attachment to guns.

They think owning guns will make them safer. Some women in India seem to have come to the same conclusion following the gang rape and murder of a student on a bus, with reports that hundreds of women in Delhi have applied for gun licences. The numbers are low – 274 requests for licences and 1,200 inquiries since 18 December, two days after the attack – but it’s a worrying trend. Far from protecting women, there’s plenty of evidence that guns make them more vulnerable. In the US, one of the most heavily armed nations on earth, many women die each year as a direct consequence of laws which allow individuals to own firearms.

I’m not just thinking about mass shootings like Sandy Hook, Columbine or Virginia Tech. These dreadful events make headlines around the world, but other forms of lethal violence are less widely reported. Take murder-suicides, for example, in which a perpetrator kills one or more people and then commits suicide; there are on average 12 of these incidents in the US each week, accounting for more than 1,300 deaths annually. Most adult victims are women killed by a current or former partner, and guns feature in around 90 per cent of incidents. “Domestic violence and guns make a deadly
combination,” observes a report from the Violence Policy Centre in Washington.

Here’s another statistic that might make women in India think twice about applying for a firearms licence: American women who have guns in the home are almost three times more likely to be murdered than those who don’t, according to a 2003 study. After Sandy Hook, an idiot from the National Rifle Association claimed that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. But what if the bad guy disarms a good woman? What if he isn’t a stranger but someone she trusts who turns her own weapon against her?

President Obama knows this. But America’s gun addiction isn’t rational: it’s actually responsible for much of the crime that people say they buy firearms to prevent. The Second Amendment enshrining the right to “keep and bear arms” is centuries out of date, encouraging individuals to take the law into their own hands. It’s unnecessary in a modern tate, which has a police force to protect citizens and arrest perpetrators. That’s what’s gone wrong in India, but the answer isn’t more women acquiring guns.


The Government has gone to great lengths to restrict acces to university. Where was Willetts’s concern for the disadvantaged then?

The Independent, Friday 4 January 2013

The Universities Minister’s professed concern for white working class boys is risible

Almost three years after it was elected, I can’t pretend that the Coalition government has many achievements to its name. But I think I’ve spotted one that’s been overlooked, namely the rapid progress it’s making towards a society in which virtually everyone belongs to a competing minority. By the time of the general election in 2015, millions of people will have been identified as a social issue and have their very own government policy.

Benefit claimants, single parents, the disabled, the elderly and the chronically sick: one minister or another will have claimed them and come up with a more or less painful solution to all their problems. Judging by past performance, the Government will also manage to blame them for their own predicament and require someone, preferably not ministers, to do something about it.

Obviously, this doesn’t apply to that very special minority of people with comfortable living standards who live in and around Chipping Norton. That’s because it’s everyone else’s fault, the amazing number of troublesome minorities the Government has discovered, and the latest group to be redefined in this way is working-class white boys.

Alarmed by a dramatic reduction in applications from this sub-section of the school population for college places – and I wonder how on earth that could have come about – the Universities minister, David Willetts, wants them to be treated like an ethnic minority. “I do worry about what looks like increasing underperformance by young men,” he has said.

Willetts believes that teenage white boys from a working-class background should be included as target groups for recruitment in access agreements, which universities have to sign in order to be allowed to charge higher fees. The Office for Fair Access is able to take into account ethnicity and social class, “so I don’t see why they couldn’t look at white, working-class boys,” Willetts told The Independent yesterday.

I suppose it’s a change to have working-class white boys as problem of the week – it’s usually black boys failing at school and getting involved in knife crime – but it’s also a convenient way of diverting attention from the real issue. Working-class boys have been under-performing at school for years, a fact that’s reflected in greater numbers of girls applying for university places. In some subjects, such as law, medicine and dentistry,
they outnumber boys to a startling extent.

Now, though, demand for university places from both sexes is falling, just as critics said it would when the government introduced a steep hike in fees last October. Applications are down for the second year running but the slump is much greater among young men. It’s the “culmination of a decades-old trend in our education system which seems to make it harder for boys and men to face down the obstacles in the way of learning,” Willetts observed sadly. I rather like Willetts, who is affable and regarded in some quarters as suspiciously clever for a Tory. I can even imagine him shaking his head over the apparently inexplicable inability of boys to act in their own interests.

But this is sticking-plaster stuff, a diversion from the fact that ministers have just made a chronic and well-known problem much worse. Of course, tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year are putting off applicants from working-class families, where there is no tradition of starting working life with huge debts. Would I have gone to university if I’d had the prospect of emerging with terrifying levels of repayments for the next couple of decades? Of course not, and I’d have missed an education that’s stood me in good stead for years.

There’s no doubt that the fees are exacerbating class divisions in education: entry rates for 18-year-olds from advantaged areas are three to four times higher than those from disadvantaged areas, according to Professor Les Ebdon, the director of the Office for Fair Access. But the Government’s policy can’t be questioned, no matter how dire its effects, so working-class white boys have to be separated off and given special status. Then it’s the universities’ problem, not the Government’s, even if the analysis makes no sense: the problem of working-class boys’ under-performance starts long before the age of 18 or 19, when high achievers are thinking about heading to university. Dumping it in the lap of universities also risks discriminating against working-class girls who’ve worked hard at school and find themselves, unusually, among the better-off in this argument.

Under-representation in university applications is just the final stage in a lengthy process. The consequences of failing at school are dire, for individuals and society as a whole, as working-class boys from a variety of ethnic backgrounds fail to get qualifications, become teenage fathers, and, in some cases, end up in prison. The failures of the state-school system in this respect show up dramatically in the prison population, where 95 per cent of inmates are male.

Half of male prisoners have a reading ability at or below the level expected of an 11-year-old, and a staggering four-fifths have a writing ability at or below this level. Half have been excluded from school and have no qualifications. The same proportion are fathers, which means their problems with illiteracy and low achievement are likely to be passed on to the next generation.

Experts and politicians have spent years coming up with theories to explain these educational failures but the most obvious factor is poverty. Teenage boys from poor families tend not to value education, and their schools don’t have the resources to challenge so many connected problems. They also have competing models of masculinity, linked to sexual performance conspicuous consumption and violence. Ofsted has identified the problem succinctly as the lure of the three Fs: fighting, football  and fucking.

Getting more working-class kids into university is something I’m very keen on. But it shouldn’t be done by setting boys and girls from working-class backgrounds against each other, which is what Willetts’s proposal could end up doing. It’s a popular tactic under this Government, which has been picking off vulnerable minorities ever since it came to power in 2010. Once people have been divided up into competing groups, the Government can just sit back and watch as they fight for scarce resources.


2012: A year I won’t forget, for all the wrong reasons

Independent on Sunday, 30 January 2012

I can’t remember when I’ve ended a year so angry. Goodbye 2012 and good riddance. In this country, a “much-loved” entertainer with a warm relationship with a former prime minister was exposed as possibly the UK’s most prolific sexual predator. The most nauseating document released from national archives under the 30-year rule was a letter from Jimmy Savile to Margaret Thatcher, as she then was, thanking her for lunch in 1980 and telling her that “my girl patients” pretended to be “madly jealous”. Savile dropped a heavy hint that he’d like a knighthood – Thatcher duly gave him one – and went on to spend 11 consecutive new year’s eves with her.

As the tally of Savile’s alleged victims rose above 400 in the autumn, half-forgotten “celebrities” queued up to cast doubt on his accusers. It was all different in the Sixties, they insisted, as though sex with under-age girls wasn’t a criminal offence in those far-off days. What sounded to me like sexual assault was recast as “a kiss and a cuddle”, and it was suggested that famous men couldn’t be expected to know the age of girls they’d met in studios and dressing-rooms.

It was also the year in which politicians gave us the benefit of their “wisdom” on the subject of rape, with a Republican Congressman explaining that victims rarely get pregnant because the female body has mysterious ways of shutting down. I have to give a special mention here to George Galloway, who gifted us the priceless notion that “not everybody needs to be asked prior to each insertion”. Galloway is a keen supporter of hacker Julian Assange, who is resisting extradition to Sweden where police wish to interview him over sexual assault allegations. He’s just spent the first of what I hope will be many Christmases in the Ecuadorian embassy, so it hasn’t all been bad news.

In Pakistan, a teenager who campaigned for girls’ education was shot in the head. In India, the death was announced yesterday of a 23-year-old student who was left with brain damage after a gang rape in Delhi. In the UK, new campaigns burst into life on the internet, targeting everyday sexual harassment and demanding an end to Page 3.

Meanwhile the first female head of the TUC and the president of the Girls’ Schools Association highlighted sexist attitudes in business and education. Frances O’Grady argued that quotas are needed to deal with the entrenched sexism of boardrooms, while Hilary French said that girls are still expected to be homemakers and believe that raising children is more important than their own ambitions.

A “royal source” chose this moment to reveal that the Duchess of Cambridge, a woman who has never had a proper job, is likely to take time off from her royal “duties” in 2013 as a result of her pregnancy. Once again, the royal family sets the worst sort of example for women. I don’t know whether to laugh or howl with rage. Happy new year from one very cross columnist.