Dr Simon Ewing-Jarvie
23 August 2017
Another week and another call for an inquiry into the conduct of New Zealand Defence Force personnel in a war zone – this time in the form of a documentary (The Valley) by Fairfax / Stuff Circuit on Baghak (2010) and Urōzgān (2004) in Afghanistan. Running parallel is a legal application for a judicial review of the NZDF’s refusal to hold an inquiry into operations in the Tirgiran Valley (2010), Afghanistan discussed in Hager and Stephenson’s 2017 book ‘Hit and Run’. Turn back the archives a little more and there are several similar demands.
I want to begin by stating unequivocally that virtually all our troops, both in NZ and overseas, behave in an exemplary manner. But by letting media or public speculation go without comment or having some inquiry, aspersions are cast on every defence force member and undermines the social contract – the “Military Covenant” – between society and defence force personnel.
I don’t intend to debate the rights and wrongs of the military operations. I wasn’t there and therefore should remain silent on the choices commanders made on the ground. However, what is apparent is that clumsy handling by politicians and some senior service personnel of media interest in our deployments has cost us as a country. For our forces to be able to operate effectively, service personnel and society must share a bond of confidence.
This confidence has been undermined by the events of the last few years. Right now, a straw poll across the NZDF would find some shrugging their shoulders and saying ‘who cares’? Many will be blaming the media. A few are genuinely concerned about the need to manage public interest in due process better.
I know, personally, that media pressure can be challenging. However, it’s not helpful for service personnel to treat the media as the enemy. They are an essential part of a robust democracy. It is fair, though, to expect proper operational security so that information important to keeping service personnel safe is not published prematurely. Unfortunately, the previously ‘uncrossable line of OPSEC’ (i.e. ‘We do not comment on operational matters”) was breached by politicians during the period of the last Labour Government 1999 – 2008 and the subsequent National Government has continued the inappropriate level of detail supplied to the media. It will be next to impossible to put this genie back in the bottle as media and public expectations have been heightened.
In any case, all service personnel know that they can be listened to or watched by drones, AWACs aircraft, satellites, social media and cell phones so why act coy when the media have some information that they weren’t expecting them to have?
The response to demands for inquiries from senior political figures has been beyond disappointing . Not one current or former Minister of Defence or Prime Minister, with the exception of Wayne Mapp, fronted this subject in any meaningful way. This left some of the public wondering whether the National Party had somewhat cynically designated him as the whipping boy for the event with no electoral consequence for them. Prime Minister Bill English repeated the mantra that “he was satisfied with the advice he had been given that an inquiry wasn’t needed”. Gerry Brownlee, who was Defence Minister at the time of the Hager/Stephenson book release has made no official media releases on the subject on the beehive.govt.nz website. When questioned, his usual response has been along the lines of “I wasn’t Minister at the time of these events”.
Jonathan Coleman, Minister of Defence from 2011 to 2014 categorically denies NZ involvement in anything inappropriate while leaving open the silent implication that ‘someone else’ working alongside Kiwis might have done so. Current Defence Minister, Mark Mitchell has, likewise, said little to nothing in response to the latest documentary.
All this leads to the familiar and uncomfortable template of plausible deniability – politicians hanging public officials out to dry. However, the NZDF commanders haven’t helped themselves either. I find it uncomfortable to be publicly critical of former colleagues and friends, as are many of the current and former heads of the defence force, but I’m going to because more junior service personnel need to have a voice in this. You simply cannot keep refusing to accept findings from Courts of Inquiry and Lessons Learned Reports because they have ‘factual inaccuracies’ without re-commissioning new and more complete versions of the same. The truth always gets out and even if what gets out isn’t the whole truth, the swirling doubt that it causes undermines public confidence in the NZDF.
It is that public confidence that is so essential to morale – a key element of combat power. The NZDF needs to engage in some confidence building measures (CBM). They know what these are because they employ them in every operation. The UN’s websites list a useful overview of them which I’ve adapted to the situation: e.g. planned procedures to prevent hostilities with the media, to avert escalation, to reduce military tension with civil communities, and to build mutual trust between parts of society.
I don’t have great confidence that much will change politically – in fact, I’m taking a 2-1 position on there being a new Defence Minister after the election, even if National are still in office. That’s a really frustrating reality – that defence is such a junior portfolio, a stepping stone for other things and never features as a serious election issue when it should.
It’s time this was changed and the only way that I can see that happening is through the establishment of an independent Defence Force Association that operates along the lines of the Police Association. Like the Police, the NZDF can only operate with the full confidence of the public and it needs an organisation that can speak to the public on behalf of the silent thousands of Kiwis who give up their personal freedoms so that others don’t have to give up theirs.