Viewpoint: Charity Begins on the Home Front

As far as state-of-the-art weapons go, the US Predator drone which was showcased at Lielvarde airbase on August 8 is pretty impressive.

However, the ability to be in two places at once is even more strategically valuable. It's a skill mastered by Russian troops in Ukraine who manage to be 'there' and 'not there' at the same time – at least according to the shy international news organizations who still seem reluctant to state the obvious fact of their presence.

It's also a skill every journalist craves, and one that I was annoyed not to possess while watching the Predator buzz along the runway past a crowd of politicians, officials and uniforms who looked like kids on a school trip.

In an infuriating clash of defense-related diary dates, another press event was taking place back in Riga at precisely the same time, and I wanted to attend that, too.

This one could not have provided a more striking contrast – or so I assumed. The Zemessardze, Latvia's National Guard, was launching a charity appeal in order to buy equipment for its volunteers.

At this point I should declare an interest, of sorts. Back in April, in one of the periodic bouts of concern about the fate of the country to which people are increasingly prone thanks to the war of words between Russia and the West, I speculated about whether foreigners might be able to help the Zemessardze in some way.

Joining the ranks is (rightly) reserved for Latvian citizens, so I wondered whether it might be possible to form some sort medical auxiliary – basically the international stretcher-bearers of the First World War – or even make use of foreigners' skills in communications or catering. Support roles that don't require a uniform or a gun, in other words.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I repeated this idea to a journalist friend who wrote a story along the same lines (it was the August 'silly season' after all) and he even asked the Defense Minister and Zemessardze commander what they thought of the idea. They responded with a few nice words about how pleased they were foreigners cared about the country but the only real reply amounted to: give us some money.

And that was the purpose of the September 8 press conference – an appeal for charitable donations to pay for essential equipment for the Zemessardze.

One can argue whether it is right in principle to fund national defense from charitable donations. In extremis such things have always happened in the midst of war, but there is something uncomfortable in asking the public, which already pays for defense via taxes, to donate to buy basic equipment for serving soldiers.

For one thing, it suggests that the defense budget is simply inadequate. For another it may divert money away from other charities, including those caring for veterans.

However, I appreciate that those giving their time to the Zemessardze need decent boots, backpacks and uniforms to do their jobs. I asked the organizers of the press conference for a list of sample prices for such items so I might be able to donate enough to think that at least I had supplied some young man or woman with a decent pair of combat boots. If nothing else I would have saved a fortune in foot powder and blisters.

I didn't receive a reply but as it turned out I had the wrong idea anyway. The press conference revealed the charity donations are to be spent not on basic items for everyday grunts but on hi-tech equipment: primarily night vision goggles.

For reasons not entirely clear, the launch of the donation drive was attended by Roman Catholic Archbishop Zbigniev Stankevics, who gave his blessing to the project and invited everyone to pray for Latvia's defense. An odd thing for a secular organization.

It's worth remembering Stankevics' participation next time we tut-tut the sight of an Orthodox priest blessing Russian military equipment.

We won't dwell on the complete disaster of a previous attempt to buy night vision equipment for the military, which resulted in paying inflated prices for comically useless hardware.

I'm sure this one is much better. But it seems to me at least that pieces of night vision equipment costing upwards of €3,300 euros are precisely the sorts of things that should be coming from the central defense budget. It's not bedrolls and socks.

You can see a price list of the items required and even make a donation (if you speak Latvian, have a Latvian bank account and are prepared to give all your social media details and email address to some application called 'Funderful') at this web page.

There is also the option to make what is described as a "symbolic" donation of €10 or a "serious" one of €50 and upwards, or to call 9000 6886 and automatically give €1.42 (if you have a Latvian phone). I opted to 'donate' a medical kit in lieu of my stretcher-bearing.

Reading about the Zemessardze appeal as the US drone passed overhead, I had another bright idea. Perhaps we should aim higher in a very real sense and open up public subscription for a Predator of our own? Around $40 million should do the trick. 

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