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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And Im Renee Montagne.
Great Britain is in the midst of a burning debate over the war in Afghanistan. And yesterday, when the bodies of five British soldiers killed there were returned to Britain, they traveled a well-worn path. The coffins of all servicemen killed in action are driven ceremonially through the countryside to a postmortem in Oxford. And one small town along the route has begun an unofficial tradition of mourning as the cortege passes by. Rob Gifford reports.
ROB GIFFORD: It began, so the story goes, with one man. When the first coffins passed through the small town of Wootton Bassett several years ago, he just stood beside the road and saluted. The coffins started to come through more regularly, and more people joined the man, for what has now become a regular ritual, not organized in any way by the government, but by the people. Joan Dance always turns out for the procession if shes in town.
Ms. JOAN DANCE: To show respects to the men that has given their lives, hopefully, to make this a safer place to live.
GIFFORD: You use the hopefully.
Ms. DANCE: Well, no one knows whether we're sure whether it's really doing a good job.
GIFFORD: Many of those waiting for the hearses express similar conflicted feelings about whether the deaths are worthwhile, whether theyre achieving anything.
(Soundbite of bell ringing)
The bell of St Bartholomew's church silences all conversation to announce the cortege has reached the edge of town. The black hearses bearing the coffins draped in the British flag pass slowly through Wootton Bassett, and the families of the fallen throw flowers. British people generally don't wear their patriotism or their emotions on their sleeve. They keep it all, you could say, in an inside pocket - it's there, but tucked away. Yesterday, though, as the cortege passed through, people wept openly.
Tony Ions had driven 70 miles to be here. He too was choked with emotion, but his view about the war was typical.
Mr. TONY IONS: Don't get me wrong, the support for troops is undying, you know. It's just they shouldn't be out there, because I think the whole policy is all wrong, you know? We just shouldn't be there.
GIFFORD: What's striking, though, in amongst the raw emotion, is how little real information people seem to have about the war in Afghanistan, and how confused many people seem to be about its aims. Ian Kerns is a specialist on Afghanistan at the Royal United Services Institute in London.
Mr. IAN KEARNS (Specialist on Afghanistan, Royal United Services Institute): Inside the U.K., theres been concern over the last year or so, that not enough care and attention has been taken by the government to look after our own troops, to look after the troops when they come home, when they, perhaps, are wounded. There's been a sense, I think, building up, that perhaps we are asking our troops to do a very, very difficult and perhaps near impossible job in Afghanistan, and at the same time, we havent quite been looking after them as well as we need to.
GIFFORD: So what has happened, exacerbated by an imminent general election next spring, is that the tabloid newspapers have started to drive the debate. The Sun�newspaper reported this week, how the mother of a soldier killed in Afghanistan was upset because Prime Minister Gordon Brown had misspelled her name in the personal condolence note hed written her.
The newspaper, which has declared its support for the opposition Conservative Party, has been accused of using the issue for political purposes. It released an audio tape of the apologetic phone call Gordon Brown made to the grieving mother, Jacqui Janes, which she recorded.
Ms. JACQUI JANES: The letter that you wrote to me, Mr. Brown, was a, you know, I don't want to sound disrespectful here, but was an insult to my child. There were 25 spelling mistakes.
GIFFORD: Gordon Brown pleads that it was just his bad handwriting, but Ms. Janes then goes on to harangue the prime minister about more than just his spelling.
Prime Minister GORDON BROWN (Great Britain): I know how strongly you feel
Ms. JANES: No, Mr. Brown, Mr. Brown, listen to me. I know every injury that my child sustained that day. I know that my son could have survived, but my son bled to death. How would you like it if one of your children, God forbid, went to a war doing something that he thought, where he was helping protect his queen and country and because of a lack, lack of helicopters, lack of equipment, your child bled to death and then you as a coroner have to tell you his every injury? Do you understand, Mr. Brown, lack of equipment?
(Soundbite of distorted audio)
GIFFORD: As Gordon Brown has struggled to defend his policies, a captain in the Grenadier Guards has been somewhat more successful. Home on two weeks leave from his third tour of Afghanistan, he complained to his mother about the one-sided negative media coverage of the war. She promptly called the BBC, who devoted 20 minutes of primetime to interviewing the soldier, Captain Andrew Tiernan.
Captain ANDREW TIERNAN (Grenadier Guards): Often we hear people saying, yes, we support the soldiers but we don't support the cause. Well, the soldiers support the cause, so if you really want to support the soldiers, then we too as a public should support the cause in Afghanistan.
GIFFORD: Tiernan described in detail the good his company together with Afghan troops and policemen were doing - providing security, building a school in one small corner of southern Afghanistan. And he had high words of praise for General Stanley McChrystals recent directive of so-called embedded partnering, working very closely with Afghan partners.
Cap. TIERNAN: General McChrystals directive - his directive is one of those rare documents that is so strikingly correct that everyone that reads it, from the lowest ground command to the most senior military commander, understands its worth, understands what it aims to do, and is very happy.
GIFFORD: As President Obama nears a decision on whether to send more troops to Afghanistan, Britain is preparing itself to be asked for more troops too, and no doubt the debate will heat up even more. But an opinion poll over the weekend said that 65 percent of British people think the troops should be brought home from Afghanistan.
Rob Gifford, NPR News.
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