Wednesday 27 April 2011

Forgotten Lessons

Cry Havoc: To hand over prisoners to mistreatment and torture is a clear breach of the Geneva Conventions - but this is what New Zealand SAS troopers serving in Afghanistan have been required to do. Those responsible for placing New Zealand servicemen in this situation must be held to account.

YESTERDAY was ANZAC Day. For most of us, 25 April 2011 was simply a day of remembrance: a day for recalling the 25,000 New Zealanders who, in the 97 years since the outbreak of World War I, have lost their lives on active military service.

For New Zealanders with some knowledge of their country’s history, however, ANZAC Day is about a lot more than remembrance.

It’s about the dangers of blindly committing ourselves to objectives we had no part in setting.

It’s about the folly of believing that any country, other than New Zealand, has the interests of New Zealanders at heart.

It’s about how easy it is to send young men to kill and be killed in far off lands – especially when those responsible for sending them are seldom, if ever, required to witness the killing or the dying.

When the casualty-lists ran into the tens-of-thousands we used to think that dying was the worst part of war. We look at all those names, weathered to near illegibility on a thousand memorial plaques, and we ask ourselves: “Why?”

Time passes and the answers change. Once we told ourselves it was for King & Country. More latterly, we’ve reassured ourselves our servicemen and women died for Freedom and Democracy. As New Zealanders, we’re willing to fight and die only for causes that are just and good.

Because what happens to a country when it finds itself on the wrong side of war’s moral ledger? When it’s no longer a matter of dying but “killing in the name of”? What happens when it’s no longer fighting to put an end to the torture and killing of innocent civilians – but alongside the torturers and killers?

Specifically, what happened in the little Afghan village of Band-e-Timur?

If the international award-winning investigative journalist Jon Stephenson’s account of this engagement, published in the latest edition of Metro magazine, is accurate, then New Zealand’s finest troops, the troopers of the Special Air Service (SAS) were ordered to involve themselves in something wrong and shameful.

According to Mr Stephenson, SAS troopers led the assault on Band-e-Timur in May 2002. During the raid, in which the village headman was shot and killed and a tiny six-year-old girl, fleeing in terror, tumbled into a well and was drowned, the SAS took scores of prisoners – including men as old as 70 and a boy as young as twelve. These prisoners were entrusted to the “care” of Americans – who then proceeded to abuse, terrorise and torture them.

This was not what the troopers signed up for – and they said as much to their commanding officer. We wouldn’t expect Kiwi servicemen to do anything less.

But what about their military and political bosses?

Sadly, they do not appear to have learned the bloody lessons of the Gallipoli Campaign.

New Zealand’s decision to participate in the Afghan conflict, like its decision to participate in World War I, was an act of imperial solidarity.

The United States had been attacked and we had no intention of staying out of the fight. After 16 years of cool-to-frigid relations with the world’s sole remaining super-power (not to mention the frowns and finger-wagging of all the other members of the Anglo-Saxon Club) here, at last, was an opportunity to once again become a member in good-standing. Or, as the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, put it: “Very, very, very good friends.”

Except the America we opted to march alongside in 2001 was not the America of Woodrow Wilson or Franklin Roosevelt. Twenty-first Century America was an altogether darker and more dangerous beast.

The America of President George W. Bush decided to ignore the Geneva Conventions. His war in Afghanistan would be fought according to an entirely new rule book: one in which the abuse, humiliation, terrorising and torture of prisoners would become a routine aspect of battlefield practice.

“You are either with us”, President Bush admonished an astonished world, “or you are with the terrorists”.

If New Zealand wanted to fight alongside the Americans, it would be according to rules no decent New Zealand soldier – or citizen – could possibly, in good conscience, accept.

At this point our government should have withdrawn New Zealand service personnel from Afghanistan altogether. But it did not. Instead, politicians, civil servants and the military’s top-brass contrived a form of words which they believed would protect our servicemen and women from charges of complicity in the torture and murder of suspected Afghan fighters.

But it doesn’t, it hasn’t, and it won’t. International law on this matter is unequivocal. Everyone involved in the arrest and detention of persons – of whatever status – has a legal obligation to protect them from harm.

In 1915 blind colonial subservience cost us 2,700 young lives. In 2011 we stand to lose something even more precious.

Our national honour.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 26 April 2011.


Anonymous said...

"Our national honour" eh.

As long as there's intellectual space that nonsensical concept, there will be room for its constant companion; justification of any atrocity in the name of king and country.

Anonymous said...


And a treason conviction for Helen Clark will be cathartic for the nation.

Anonymous said...

I'm reminded of the song "When the boys are on parade" by Dunedin folk singer Marcus Turner. Part of the lyric goes:

"In the pursuit of a community of decency and
And equal opportunity we stand prepared to fight
And if there’s a threat to our position from an
unruly opposition
Then with guns and ammunition we’ll defend with
all our might.

We’ll dehumanise and hate them, send in the
troops to decimate them
As in the name of our Nation all it stands
for is betrayed
And you may well prefer abstention but I feel
compelled to mention
You’d do well to pay attention when the boys
are on parade."

Dave Kennedy said...

I think it was Robert Graves who commented in his book "Goodbye to all That" that the cruelest allied soldiers he came across were the ANZACs. We glorify the efforts of our soldiers but there is always a dark side to any conflict that largely remains hidden. In this case it was probably good men placed into an unnecessary situation, but i do wonder what our real reputation is amongst the ordinary Afghan people. Can they really distinguish between the US forces and the small contingent from New Zealand? Is this a conflict in which we will remember our involvement with pride?

WAKE UP said...

Never ceases to intrigue me how we're always criticising ourselves in these situations, when we weren't the aggressors in the first place.