Reviewed by Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) Simon Ewing-Jarvie RNZIR PhD
Bravo Kiwi: New Zealand Soldiers, Afghanistan and the Battle of Baghak. By Major (Retired) Craig Wilson NZGD. (Auckland, David Bateman Ltd, 2018). 239 pp. Paperback. ISBN 978-1-86953-856-9. Glossary, photographs, maps/diagrams. RRP $39.99. A percentage of the proceeds goes to the Fallen Heroes Trust.
“The Chinese are all business, and right or wrong is not high on their agenda. It probably takes a country that still has development and corruption problems of its own to understand a sustainable way to operate in Afghanistan (p141).”
Referring to an agreement between the Chinese and Afghan Governments to relocate a village allowing the construction of a large power station, this remarkably forthright statement by Major (Retd) Craig Wilson is typical of the ‘call it as you see it’ style he employs throughout this account of his military career from 2009 to 2012. ‘Bravo Kiwi’ begins with his posting to 2nd/1st Battalion, Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment in Burnham Camp as Officer Commanding B (Bravo) Company. It traverses the period of a normal unit and sub-unit training cycle through to pre-deployment training for Afghanistan.
This book is really three stories in one. Part one focuses on Wilson’s transition from life as a Special Forces (SF) officer in the NZ Special Air Service back to his parent corps of infantry. There is clearly regret at moving out of the SF but he focuses on lessons learned and how he can use that experience to get the best out of his new command. Part two begins with the direction to prepare his company and others for deployment to Afghanistan as the next Provincial Reconstruction Team in Bamyan Province for the 20th rotation of Operation CRIB (CRIB20 / Kiwi Company). It ends with his near-fatal wounding by insurgent gunfire and subsequent evacuation in the early stages of the Battle of Baghak on 4 August 2012; NZ’s largest combat engagement since the Vietnam War. The third and final part is an assortment of stories which also cover the deaths of a further three of his soldiers in an IED attack on their vehicle while he was recovering in a hospital in Germany and his repatriation to NZ. At the beginning of the book, the author explains he has mixed reported facts (from others after his wounding) with speculation on his part (such as the enemy perspective of the battle). This, he says, enables him to tell his story and he accepts that an official history may record things differently. Wilson also points out that he wrote the book while recovering from his wounds and under heavy medication.
‘Bravo Kiwi’ is a gritty, soldier’s eye view and account of life in training and on operations. It has some great belly laughs, such as the 2/1 Bn swimming sports and his soldiers’ entry into the synchronised swimming event (p24). Wilson is upfront about his temper but also exposes his softer side when talking about his wife, children and the families of his soldiers. He doesn’t shy away from telling his troops how terrifying combat is based on his prior operational experience. You come away with the feeling that there is a lot more to him than just his self-definition as a combat leader (p14). However, there are several comments that will raise eyebrows, particularly in his reference to individuals or groups acting bravely or performing as well as his ‘Purebreds’ even though they weren’t infantry. Wilson doesn’t hold back from naming people with only a few exceptions. He describes people how he saw them warts and all, including some of his Afghan allies.
The inclusion of five maps provide useful context with two showing the layout of Bamyan Province and the location of the Kiwi Company bases. The three others provide a time-staged situation map of the Battle of Baghak with operational information overlaid on satellite photography. Numerous photos in both gray scale and colour help to bring the scenes to life. All but two of these photos are copyright NZ Defence Force which seems at odds with claims elsewhere that the NZDF had blocked the publication of this book since its completion in April 2013.
There has been very little in the public arena about the Battle of Baghak apart from a few media stories, the NZDF’s heavily redacted findings from its Court of Inquiry and the Stuff Circuit series ‘The Valley’. Whether you agree with the story Wilson presents or not, ‘Bravo Kiwi’ is an important addition to the literature available on a significant moment in New Zealand’s military history. It presents the Clausewitzian concepts of ‘fog’ and ‘friction’ in war starkly.
Wilson dedicates his book to the memory of the five Kiwi Company soldiers who died on CRIB20 – Corporal Luke Tamatea, Lance Corporal Jacinda Baker, Lance Corporal Pralli Durrer, Lance Corporal Rory Malone and Private Richard Harris. A part of the revenue from the book is being donated to the Fallen Heroes Trust. Works like this are a cathartic experience for the writer and you do get the sense that this has been the case for Craig Wilson. It’s hoped that many more will tell their stories of service in the future. Recommended reading.
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