An indictment by another name.

After I noticed that my name had been taken yet again in vain by my friendly antagonist Tom Hunter over at No Minister, I went over to see what the fuss was about. Nothing much, but then I discovered a post about the Operation Burnham Inquiry by Psycho Milt. I made a comment (now several comments) in response, then decided to edit the original comment, add a few things and make it a short post here that outlines what to me is the bottom line of that report. Here it is:

As the old saying goes, “the original sin was bad, but the cover up was worse.” Had the NZDF simply come out after the 2010 engagement and said that there were civilian casualties resultant from the “fog of war” in a nighttime SAS operation designed to kill or capture people responsible for attacks on NZDF patrols in Bamiyan that resulted in several NZDF deaths, I bet that the majority of the NZ public would have accepted that war sucks and bad things inadvertently happen. Then, when Jon Stephenson’s first story on Operation Burnham came out it would not have caused such a stir because there would not have been a glaring gap between his account and that of the NZDF (Nicky Hagar got involved later and took primary credit for the book “Hit and Run” although most of it was researched and written by Stephenson–-Hagar never set foot in Afghanistan).

Although the Royal Commission (RC) sugar-coated it, the report is absolutely damning of the SAS and Army leaders of the time (and not the troops on the ground that night, although issues regarding the TAC (Tactical Air Controller) and SAS mission commander’s understanding of the Rules of Engagement (ROE) were not addressed in the public version of the report). The testimony of several officers taken under oath was labeled as not credible by the Commissioners. The RC Report states that no institutional cover-up was at play, but that is laughable in light of what it says about the testimony of most of the senior officials involved. In other words, this was an institutional cover-up by another name, and the name given to the process instead of coverup or whitewash was shoddy records-keeping and miscommunication on top of bad memories. This pushes the onus of responsibility onto individuals rather than the military as an institution. And for those individuals, I guess “incompetent” is a better mark on one’s service record than “liar.”

How those records were lost or mislaid, and whether those bad memories were a product of in-group cohesion or contempt for the process is a matter of conjecture. What is not is that civilians were killed and at least one suspect handed over to Afghan forces to be tortured, both breaches that under international law must be investigated. What is now known is that the possibility of casualties and the transfer of a Taliban suspect to ADF units known for torture was known immediately by the NZDF chain of command and NZ intelligence services attached to them, yet until late in the Inquiry, the NZDF admitted to neither. There is much more by way of deceitful and devious NZDF behaviour, but let’s just come out and say that uniformed officers lied to their civilian superiors for years after the operation and then some lied under oath at the Inquiry. The National government at the time Operation Burnham took place and in the years immediately afterwards may not have wanted to hear the truth in any event and so accepted what they were (not) told by the NZDF brass at face value, but the RC was keen to hear the unvarnished details.

It took them several years and $NZ 7 million of taxpayer money to find out. It remains to be seen what the Labour government will do with the RC Report’s findings and recommendations, but one thing is certain: it going to wait until well after the election to do anything. And there is one other irony in all of this. At the same time that the NZDF was engaged in its campaign of obfuscation and deflection regarding the events of 2010, Transparency International gave it very hight marks for command integrity, transparency and accountability. These marks were the average of scores provided by a select group of specifically chosen “experts” on defense and security. I know because I was one of them and I pointedly gave low marks when it came to exactly these three criteria, so can only assume that my scores were discounted when calculating the overall average. But who gave them such high across-the-board scores if it mine were not included, and what were they thinking?

In any event I urge readers to read Chapters 2 and 12 of the Report, which address issues of civilian control of the military and ministerial accountability to Parliament in a Westminster-style democracy. The RC found that the actions of the NZDF leadership (specifically, misleading, stonewalling, whitewashing and misrepresenting what happened to the civilian political leadership and ministers of the day) wilfully undermined both fundamental democratic principles.

Everything else is gloss.

I do not expect that much will change given the delicacy of the report’s language and the fact that all of those responsible for the worst offences are retired (one only resigned three months ago when the draft report came out and his statements were found to be particularly unbelievable to the point of possible perjury). But it is now on official record that the NZDF has a culture of playing loose with the truth and disrespect for the constitutional principles underpinning its role in society. If implemented, perhaps the recommendation to create an independent Inspector General of Defense may help refocus NZDF attention on those principles. We shall see.

No matter what one may think of Hagar and Stephenson, in the end, minor errors and some hyperbole aside, they were vindicated. That is evident in the Report, which states that the book “Hit and Run” performed a valuable public service by exposing some ugly truths about how the NZDF operates, not so much in the field (although there were some issues identified there as well), but in its interaction with the political class and the larger society which it ostensibly serves.

That is the bottom line.

3 thoughts on “An indictment by another name.

  1. Pablo … can I again thank you (this time on your blog) for your thoughtful comments. We probably agree to disagree about the incident itself but not too much on everything subsequent. In my comments I have used the analogy of the special forces (SAS) being a club within a club playing by their own rules. That can’t continue.

    There are lessons to be learned and one hopes they will be but I also have to say the sanctimonious bullshit by some on the left who think the professional of arms is the embodiment of evil gets fair up my hooter.

    You have rightly identified Chapter 12 of the report as worthy reading. I am particularly concerned with the military/government interface. Very few senior officers understand the political dimension. Early on in my career as a relatively junior officer I was appointed as the Minister’s ADC … bag carrier, to hear but not speak. In later years that person has evolved into a Colonel equivalent but I suspect in many instances it is a ‘side-ways’ appointment. The Report endorses the suggestion by ex-Minister Coleman that officers appointed to the Minister’s office should be from the ranks of those being groomed as service chiefs. You would know from your experience that the US military are adept at doing that. After I left the military and when I was more active in politics than I am now I had occasion to debate this with the then CDF. He rubbished the idea saying that he could buckle on his sword and see the Minister anytime he wanted to … he just didn’t understand/want to understand the point at all.

  2. Thanks Veteran.

    You may have heard me say this before but something happens to NZDF officers as they move up the chain of command. It may have to do with what you describe in your comment. They go from being mostly righteous junior and field grade officers to some sort of insular 06/flag rank cult where being honest and open about what is at best a very precarious occupation is replaced by a “holier than thou,” “we do not have to explain to you plebs” type of mentality. That includes their relationship with their political overseers. Perhaps some democratic civil-military relations 101 needs to be taught and various command and general staff colleges.

  3. Pablo … It was covered, to a very small degree, when I attended the airforce Command and Staff College. But I suspect that, for most lisening it went in one ear and out the other … politics for the politicians and the military for the military and never the twain shall meet save for pistols at 15 paces at dawn.

    There will always be creative tension between the two but it must never be forgotten who are the masters.

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