Gallant Deeds: New Zealand SAS troopers returning from a bitter fire-fight at the Kabul Intercontinental Hotel, Afghanistan, June 2011. The NZ Defence Force is fanatical in its determination to control the totality of information emerging from the theatres in which its personnel are engaged. Independent journalism, of the sort so vital to the workings of a viable democracy, is aggressively discouraged.
WAR AND DEMOCRACY do not mix. They never have and they never will.
Even during World War II – the “Just War” to beat all Just Wars – a drastic curtailment of domestic civil rights was deemed unavoidable by fascism’s democratic opponents.
The Cold War, similarly, engendered a climate of fear and suspicion. Tremendous courage was required to challenge the “Free World’s” interpretation of international affairs. At home, dissidence of any kind was met with vicious persecution. Failure to toe the official line on “the communist threat” could seriously threaten your career; your liberty; even your life.
Governments have always preferred to fight their wars in black and white. Shades of grey are regarded as, at best, confusing, and, at worst, demoralising. In the fraught aftermath of the 9/11 attack on the United States, President George W. Bush made it chillingly clear that the Global War on Terror would be waged uncompromisingly on this crude binary basis. “Every nation in every region now has a decision to make”, intoned the President. “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”
Such statements are hostile to the very essence of democracy, which, since its earliest manifestation in Ancient Athens, has been about the people’s right to deliberate upon all matters relating to their interests; about weighing the options carefully and responsibly; and, most importantly, about their right to disagree.
But these, the fundamental tenets of democracy, are not the fundamental tenets of waging war. Soldiers do not deliberate. They are not encouraged to weigh their options. And they are absolutely forbidden to disagree.
America’s experience in Vietnam demonstrated how rapidly the efforts of the armed forces can be undermined by democratic disagreement at home. The moral ambiguity of the Vietnam conflict made some degree of tension between the battle front and the home front inevitable. The justifications offered to the American public for the fight against fascism, which had kept them behind the war-effort for the duration, simply weren’t available to America’s leaders in their brutal struggle against Vietnamese peasants. Such justifications as they did attempt were routinely demolished by the uncompromising journalism of America’s war correspondents.
Never again. Less than ten years after America’s final, panicked retreat from Vietnam, the British were waging a war in the Falkland Islands from which any chance of independent and uncensored war journalism was being ruthlessly excised. The concept of “embedded” journalism (if not the expression) ensured that the content and supervision of the war’s media presentation would remain firmly in Mrs Thatcher’s hands. The Americans were only too happy to follow the lead of their British cousins. By the time Uncle Sam was ready to pull on his desert camouflage gear, independent war reporting had joined long hair and flared jeans as just another icon of the seventies.
British and American politicians were as keen to apply the new techniques of media management on the home front as the military had been on the frontlines. Understandably so, since the military and civilian impacts of war are impossible to separate. As the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George, said of the horrors of World War I:
“If the people really knew, the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know and can’t know. The correspondents don’t write and the censorship wouldn’t pass the truth. What they do send is not the war, but just a pretty picture of the war with everybody doing gallant deeds.”
The True Face Of War:
"If people really knew, the war would be stopped tomorrow" - Lloyd George
The depiction of gallant deeds lies at the heart of the New Zealand Defence Force’s media brief. It is what their political masters demand, and their commitment to the task borders on the fanatical. Nothing strikes fear into the NZDF like the news that an independent Kiwi journalist is in the field asking questions, interviewing locals, following leads and painstakingly assembling stories that owe nothing to, and may sharply contradict, the official narrative. Operating in regions where New Zealand forces are deployed, unembedded war correspondents are considered little better than terrorists.
This is how New Zealand’s wars are brought back home. Ultimately, “managing” the media means subverting the media. It’s about co-opting and corrupting the profession upon whose independence and integrity a healthy democracy depends. A journalist persuaded to pull his or her punches for the sake of “our men and women on the ground” may prove equally cooperative in relation to other, equally “sensitive”, government policies.
And it doesn’t stop there. New Zealand’s coroners will soon be legally prevented from inquiring too closely into battlefield deaths. In the interests of “national security” future investigations will be left to the NZDF. According to an NZDF spokesperson, it is important to strike a balance between independent investigation and ensuring judicial scrutiny does not encroach into “matters of state”.
War’s aversion to democracy could hardly be more plainly stated.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 3 March 2015.