Thoughts on ANZAC Day and the Inquiry into ‘Hit and Run’.

For the last few years I’ve become increasingly concerned by the way ANZAC Day is commemorated. To me, the commemoration has become less about acknowledging the horrendous losses of those who went to war — or equally importantly, about the need to learn from history and work towards global peace — and more about some kind of hand-to-chest nationalism that turns soldiers into superheroes and war-sites into must-see theme parks, another ‘bucket list’ box to tick.

This kind of glamorising, with a buffed-up military on carefully constructed pedestals, has very problematic implications, especially at a time when the conduct and intentions of our military are very much in question.

I have been disappointed by the uninformed responses to the announcement by the government that there will be an independent inquiry into the allegation in ‘Hit and Run’, about our SAS’s involvement in Operation Burnham. These responses range from ‘our military are the best and we shouldn’t criticise them’ to ‘it’s all secret and has to stay that way for the safety of our soldiers’ to ‘if the military say nothing happened, then nothing happened,’ to ‘that’s just war, shit happens, get over it’, to ‘it’s money that could be better spent elsewhere.’ Let’s unpack these points, keeping in mind how the over-egging of ANZAC Day works to reinforce these responses.

  1. Our military are the best and we shouldn’t criticise them. Without transparency, how on earth do we know this? The very fact that this is not the first time our overseas troops have allegedly been involved in dubious actions should ring alarms bells which, at the very least, mean we should look into the allegations in an open, transparent and independent way.  See Stuff Circuit’s The Valley, for instance, or my brother Nicky Hager’s book ‘Other People’s Wars’. Remember, our military are essentially public servants, paid for by the tax-payer dollar, tasked with keeping New Zealander’s safe. Shouldn’t every organisation funded by tax-payers be open to public scrutiny?

    A military who views themselves as exempt from the need for public and government oversight is a dangerous thing. Without this oversight, those at the top of the military are making political and strategic decisions well outside of the remit of other publicly-funded institutions. We have many overseas examples of military over-riding democratic processes and seizing the control. Do I think this is currently a risk here? No. But global and national politics are a very changeable thing. Why would we renege on transparency when human history is littered with examples of military power plays? Why would we back-off demanding transparency when we have examples of our military using obscurantism and  blatant PR exercises to muddy the waters when questions are asked? See NZDF admits Hit & Run had photos of village attacked by SAS. What is especially important to note about this latest revelation (which was only conceded after several OIA requests) is how the military, when interviewed after this, made a point of using half the time to talk about a specific soldier who had won a medal for bravery. This is the type of ‘superhero’ narrative used to shut all questions down. We deserve better.

  1. It’s all secret and has to stay that way for the safety of our soldiers. Yes, it’s possible that some military information is truly dangerous if put out into the public arena, but given that our troops were supposedly in Afghanistan and Iraq to ‘train’ and ‘reconstruct’, isn’t anything else they do outside of this remit open to discussion and further investigation? Shouldn’t we know if they are working with other military partners and why? As the military’s funders, shouldn’t we have some say in whose wars we fight and why?
  1. If the military say nothing happened, then nothing happened. Sadly, as mentioned in the example above, it seems we cannot trust the military to give straight answers. By putting on their big news conference after the publication of ‘Hit and Run’, with all their maps and whiz-bang presentations, most New Zealanders received the message the military hoped they would: nothing here to look at, move on. Only, now we learn that’s not the case and that, at the very least, they purposefully confused the situation to discredit the book and its authors. Doesn’t this worry you? It sure does me. Why are we so ready to believe they are apolitical or incorruptible? If they’ve got nothing to hide, they have nothing to fear from proper oversight and scrutiny. As it stands, it seems we can’t even trust them to come clean about the contamination of groundwater at Ohakea.
  1. That’s just war, shit happens, get over it. This argument is one that particularly concerns me, and one I think is closely aligned to the current ANZAC Day hype. Do we now just accept that it’s okay for our troops to kill innocent men, women and children, so long as it’s in a country on the other side of the world? The important word here is  Other important words are The Rules of Engagement. Yes, there are agreed international rules for how to fight a war, which we squeal loudly about if not followed by those we perceive as threats. So why would we not insist the very highest standards from our own troops? The very fact we are participating in perpetuating the myth of the brave and mighty NZ soldier, without question,  potentially protects those who break the rules. Yes, wars are shit. Therefore, the logical response is to put great effort into stopping them, not merely using this rhetoric to bury inconvenient truths.
  1. It’s money that could be better spent elsewhere. Really? I would have thought that knowing with utter certainty that our Defence Force is upholding the Rules of Engagement and are beyond reproach should be priority number one. If there are questions, then we should demand answers. If we want thorough and independent advice, then we have to be prepared to fund an investigation properly.

Finally, I’d ask that on ANZAC day this year, rather than buy into the ‘glory myth’, perhaps you focus on the ghastly destructiveness of human nature, and explore how we could all work together for a lasting and equitable global peace. If all the money, pomp and posturing was put to work with this goal in mind, then I think we’d really be honouring those who have lost their lives to wars of the past.

hit and run

3 Comments

  1. US civil war commanding General William T Sherman said ‘War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it.’

    Although I admire your goal of trying to do so. Or at least trying to hold to account people who perpetrate atrocities, in this case NZers.

    On this issue read Nick Turse’s ‘Kill anything that moves’ about the US involvement in Vietnam. As someone noted in that book, ‘My Lai? There was a My Lai every two weeks in Vietnam.’

    Atrocities were committed in the NZ wars. In the South African war NZ troops helped herd women and children into concentration camps and burned their homes, killed their livestock and destroyed their food supplies.

    The Imperial Japanese Army murdered 300,000 people in Nanjing in 1937 and 100,000 people in Manila in 1944. Atrocities happen every day in war – war IS an atrocity. But if you can hold people to account it might make people think twice about their actions, although, as my uncle who served in WWII told me, in war, once your blood is up thinking goes out the window.

    In WWI there were no civilians involved so it was just soldiers committing atrocities against each other, which we don’t mind. In modern conflicts the combatants don’t even meet or see each other, they only meet civilians who may or may not be friendly or may want to kill you. You can’t tell who is who, which leads to the aforementioned ‘kill anything that moves’ syndrome. Or the ‘kill all, burn all, loot all’ policy of the Imperial Japanese Army in China, instituted by constant Chinese guerrilla attacks.

    You have a fight not only with the NZDF on this issue, but with the general disinterest and apathy of the general public to murders, massacres and atrocities committed by soldiers in wartime.

    Good luck anyway.

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    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Nigel. I do agree this kind of thing has been going on forever. I guess I live in hope that one day we might grow up enough to do things differently. If we never try, we’ll never know!

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  2. It’s a terrible conundrum or dilemma: you’ll never be able to prevent war atrocities, but to live in a decent and just society or to live as a decent just human being you have to try and stop what cannot be stopped. And try to bring justice to people who were the victims of a specific war atrocity. This MUST be done otherwise society erodes to a point where it becomes a jungle. Again, Vietnam set the model for modern conflicts between a massive war machine vs a civilian population. Read the official rules of engagement for American troops in Vietnam, which were very reasonable and realistic, and then read what was done on the ground. The troops used to (metaphorically) wipe their asses with those rules of engagement. John Pilger has been uncovering and telling the awful truth that people don’t want to hear for decades and God bless him for that. And he’s been called all sorts of horrible names, as all people who upset the official narrative are. The least you can hope for is that at least what’s happened is put on the record. I saw a movie about the Korean ‘comfort women’ and one of them said that, really, no-one actually cares. But due to activism by those seeking justice the ‘comfort women’ have been acknowledged and have received at least some compensation.Which is a tangible and visible good. US President Teddy Roosevelt said that every death is a tragedy otherwise life itself is. So you can’t just brush the deaths of the Afghan people killed by NZ troops as if they don’t matter.

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