Too Fat to Fight?

The Sunday Times ran a story yesterday (£-paywalled) in which it revealed that over the past three years, 22000 British soldiers have been found to be overweight and therefore potentially at risk of health problems.  Over a similar period, some 34000 or so have failed their ‘Personal Fitness Assessment’ (PFA).  Shock horror!

At the risk of appearing complacent, this is probably not as serious a problem as it appears at first glance.  It isn’t a good thing that soldiers become unfit and overweight but the reasons that this happens are understood and, in most cases it can be and is remedied.

Think about this: for the past eleven years the British Army has seen significant numbers of soldiers deployed on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Whilst you’re in places like this, opportunities for good quality physical training can be very limited.  It certainly happens in the big bases, like Basra Airport in Iraq or Camp Bastion in Afghanistan, but elsewhere it simply may not be possible to follow a worthwhile training program.  Soldiers who are out patrolling and doing other tough physical tasks will maintain some fitness, although it’s unlikely to be the specific aerobic and local muscular endurance fitness tested by the PFA, but others who are desk- or base bound won’t.  They probably won’t get fat – when I returned for mid-tour R and R from Iraq in 2003 I found I’d lost nearly two stone and none of my civilian clothes fitted me – but they won’t be fit either.

At the end of a 6-month tour, soldiers normally get a period of ‘Post Operational Tour Leave’ (POTL) which often lasts for 4-6 weeks.  During this period, they will usually have a lot of accumulated pay and, almost inevitably I would suggest, a proportion of that will normally be spent on ‘high living’.  This is particularly the case as most deployments these days are ‘dry’ (or as good as).

When POTL finishes, it’s back to work. I’ll bet that the great majority of Commanding Officers hold a PFA for their soldiers as soon as it can be organised, and rightly so: it’s a way of gauging the state of the unit, apart from anything else.  In my experience, most military personnel I know will try to get themselves back into shape once they return from ops but, inevitably some either won’t, or won’t do enough, and after 6 months away and a month or so eating and drinking their fill, they will fail the assessment.

So what happens then?  Commanding Officers; Company, Battery and Squadron Commanders; Platoon and Troop Commanders will all get to work on physical training programmes for their soldiers, and as time goes by, they will get them back into shape, ably assisted by the army’s highly professional physical training instructors (and these men and women are really good at what they do).

It would be idle to deny that some soldiers, and some officers too, neglect their physical fitness and regularly fall below the standard.  The systems exist – and are used – to discharge them from the army and ultimately that’s tough shit.  But for the majority, self motivation, support and training will ensure that they are physically fit before they deploy on operations.  It can be mildly annoying as a commander to have to deal with the unfit minority but that is sometimes what the job entails.

So, as I said at the start of this post, we shouldn’t be complacent but the figures that the Sunday Times dug out of the system aren’t indicative of a catastrophic problem.  My own recommendation is that the army should buy a good fitness book for every serving soldier.

How about this one?


Lethal Injection

The bungled execution in April of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma has apparently led to an upsurge of the debate about the administration of capital punishment in the US.  There’s an interesting blog about it in the Daily Telegraph today.  Amongst the more bizarre claims that have been made is that lethal injection, the method favoured by capital punishment jurisdictions in the US, is somehow ‘humane’.

In reality, the lethal injection protocols used for executions in the US are anything but humane.  This is not particularly because they cause pain – if the execution is carried out properly with an effectively administered anaesthetic as the first drug it shouldn’t do –  but because of the drawn out nature of the process.  The lethal injection ‘protocol’ will normally require that an IV line is inserted in the prisoner’s arm or leg in the minutes leading up to the execution.  Many of those who have been executed have severely compromised veins as the result of intravenous drug abuse and the reality has been that it can take an extended period of time to even find a vein which will accommodate an IV line.  In the past, it was sometimes necessary for doctors to perform a small ‘cut-down’ procedure to locate an undamaged vein, although since the AMA banned doctors from participating in executions, that option has been lost unless performed by a nurse or paramedic.

Of course, whilst all this is taking place, the prisoner knows they are minutes away from death.  It’s hard to imagine a more completely terrifying situation to be in.  Can a society meting out dispassionate justice really want this?  Once the IV is inserted and the prisoner is strapped to a gurney and brought to the execution chamber, they are then forced to listen to whatever pantomime rigmarole the state which is executing them has devised before the drugs, hitherto a sedative, a paralytic and a poison are administered slowly in sequence.  Even if the process works properly, it takes some minutes for the prisoner to die.  If, as was the case with Clayton Lockett, the process is mishandled the prisoner can suffer extreme pain: Lockett survived his execution – he died of a heart attack.

My research into treason led to me taking a somewhat ghoulish interest in the administration of the death penalty in Britain.  Capital punishment remained on the statute books for High Treason until 1998 (the last executions – for murder – actually took place in 1964) but the method used, hanging, was refined over many hundreds of years so that, by the end, it was a relatively quick process, devoid of the rigmarole which still surrounds executions in the US.

When Albert Pierrepoint was Britain and Ireland’s principal hangman in the 1940s and 50s, he prided himself on the speed and efficiency of his work.  Preparation for the execution was made without any interaction with the prisoner and when the time came it was all over in a matter of seconds.  In the prisons in which executions took place, there was normally a purpose built condemned cell adjacent to the gallows in order to spare the prisoner a long and terrifying walk through the prison.  Pierrepoint made every effort to carry out hangings as quickly as possible and when he executed James Inglis on 8 May 1951 just 7 seconds elapsed from Pierrepoint and his assistant Dernley entering the condemned cell to Inglis – an acquaintance of Pierrepoint who had committed a gruesome sex murder – being dead on the end of the rope.  There was no question of prisoners being made to stand around – anticipating imminent death –  waiting for their charge sheet or sentence to be read out, nor of making it into a spectacle for the families of victims to watch, as seems to be routine in many American states to this day.  This is not to suggest that judicial hanging was humane but it was quick.

And Pierrepoint’s victims were dead. They were rendered instantaneously unconscious by a massive concussion to the head delivered by the brass eye of the noose, and killed by a high cervical fracture with severance of the spinal cord and occlusion of the airway. The heart might continue to beat for a minute or two after death but there was no question of lasting pain or consciousness after the hanging had taken place.

Perhaps even more effective was the guillotine, the only legal method of civil execution in France from 1792 until the abolition of the death penalty there in 1981 (the last execution took place in 1977).  Rapid decapitation leads to a catastrophic drop in blood pressure and consequent unconsciousness and death – without significant pain due to the severance of the spinal cord – in no more than two or three seconds.

There is nothing especially humane about execution by lethal injection… except perhaps for those inflicting it.  Making an execution look like a medical procedure disguises what it actually is, but it leaves the prisoner just as dead and when it is done badly, it is likely to impose a significant amount of suffering.  It is hard to see how this can be tolerable in a civilised society.


And it’s happened again: see here.  Whether you support capital punishment or not, it’s hard to see how it is tolerable to take two hours to execute a human being, however heinous the crime that they have committed.  This is no better than the kind of punishments that were meted out in the Middle Ages.