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Dead soldier's mother leads attacks on Brown

By Melissa Gray, CNN
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Brown's letter row
  • UK PM criticized over his government's policy on Afghanistan and personal "gaffes"
  • Gordon Brown under fire over equipment shortages for troops, not bowing at a war memorial, and misspelling letter to soldier's grieving mother
  • Britain has 9,000 troops in Afghanistan

London, England (CNN) -- UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown was under mounting criticism on Tuesday over his perceived casual attitude towards soldiers killed in Afghanistan as support for the mission collapses.

Attacks over equipment shortages for British troops in Afghanistan, his failure to bow at a war memorial, and his misspellings in a condolence letter to a soldier's grieving mother all led one commentator to ask: "Can't Gordon Brown do anything right?"

The Afghan and military issues dominated the British prime minister's monthly news conference at 10 Downing Street on Tuesday, taking up 40 of the 50 minutes he spent at the lectern. Brown stated over and over his sympathy for the families of fallen troops and his determination to see the war effort through.

"Each life lost is an irreplaceable loss from a family," Brown said. "It reminds us all of the stark human cost of armed conflict in the service of our society."

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The latest embarrassment for the prime minister emerged Monday, when The Sun newspaper told the story of Jacqui Janes, who received the condolence letter from Brown after her 20-year-old son was killed by a bomb in Afghanistan.

Janes told the paper she was "so angry" that the hand-written letter was filled with spelling errors -- including her own last name, which Brown spelled "James."

Brown also crossed out a mistake in spelling the soldier's name and spelled four other words wrong, the newspaper said.

"The letter was scrawled so quickly I could hardly even read it and some of the words were half-finished. It's just disrespectful," she told The Sun. "He said, 'I know words can offer little comfort.' When the words are written in such a hurry the letter is littered with more than 20 mistakes, they offer no comfort."

Brown called Janes to apologize after the article appeared, according to The Sun. Janes recorded the conversation and gave it to the paper, which recently announced on its front page that it was dropping support for Brown's Labour Party in favor of the Conservatives.

The paper printed a transcript and published the audio Tuesday; in it, Janes tells Brown that the letter was an "insult" to her son and that the spelling mistakes were "disrespectful."

The prime minister says in the conversation that he had only "good intentions" and sympathy for the mother's loss.

"The last thing on my mind was to cause any offense to Jacqui Janes, and I think people know me well enough to know that it would never be my intention -- by carelessness or by failure -- to cause any grief to a grieving mother," Brown said at the news conference Tuesday.

Just two days earlier, some criticized Brown for another military gaffe -- not bowing his head when he laid a wreath at the Cenotaph, the London military monument those who died in the two world wars, on Remembrance Sunday. It was fodder for talk radio and Twitter, where people debated whether it was intentional.

"It's disgusting because it is not respectful," an unnamed former Royal Air Force serviceman told The Daily Telegraph.

Some columnists seemed to forgive the prime minister for not nodding his head.

"He attends Remembrance Day at the Cenotaph looking solemn and dignified, black tie and poppy carefully in place, lays a wreath, steps back in thoughtful silence -- and is abused in the papers next day for failing to bow his head," wrote John Walsh in The Independent. "If a politician lays a wreath at the Cenotaph, it's not an insult; it's an expression of respect. And forgetting to adjust your head a certain way indicates you have personal feelings and aren't just going through the motions."

The Guardian's Tom Meltzer suggested that Brown -- who is blind in one eye -- may have been "distracted by the difficulty of walking down the steps backwards" after he laid the wreath and simply forgot.

But simply the fact that Brown was criticized for not bowing his head indicates how widely unpopular he has become, wrote Richard Littlejohn in the Daily Mail.

"These so-called 'gaffes' can be attributed to Brown's characteristic clumsiness and social dyslexia," he wrote. "But they are magnified by both the unpopularity of the war and the (prime minister) himself."

Brown has already come under repeated criticism for the level of equipment for the 9,000 British troops in Afghanistan, which some have said is too low. The prime minister has defended equipment levels and said he seeks assurances from military officers in the field that troops have the supplies they need.

Last week, Brown defended equipment levels in a major speech on Afghanistan. It followed the release days earlier of a military memo, sent in early June, from a British officer that warned a shortage of helicopters was putting British troops at risk because they were forced to travel on the ground, increasing the chances they could be killed by a roadside bomb.

The memo was written by Lt. Col. Rupert Thorneloe, who died a month later in a roadside bombing. He remains the highest-ranking British serviceman to die in combat since the 1982 Falklands War.

Janes brought the issue up in her recorded phone conversation with Brown, saying her son bled to death because there was no helicopter to take him for treatment. She said she had even had to buy military gear for her son to use -- something other military parents have said as well.

"We have tried to provide the best equipment in the world," Brown said Tuesday. "We have increased the investment we have made in helicopters and in vehicles and in the equipping of the armed forces in a way that we have never done in our country before."

Asked about Janes' accusation that her son died because of a lack of helicopters, Brown said he had asked for a full report on all aspects of the guardsman's death.

"I am assured that in normal circumstances, there is always helicopter capability," he said.

Tuesday was also the day that the bodies of six British soldiers killed in Afghanistan returned to Britain, their coffins draped in the Union Flag. Five of them were killed in a single incident November 3 at a base in the southern province of Helmand, when an Afghan policeman they had been training fired on them.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for that attack.

The somber day and the days of criticisms led The Guardian's Meltzer to write, "Can't Gordon Brown do anything right?"

Roy Greenslade, a media columnist for The Guardian, said no -- not because Brown is doing things wrong, but because the press gives him little slack.

"Brown, it would appear, has no ally in the popular press," Greenslade wrote. "He is being hung out to dry and it is painful to watch. I fear it will get even worse in the coming months."