Editorial: Rules of engagement

By Peter Jackson

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Nicky Hager. Photo / File
Nicky Hager. Photo / File

New Zealand soldiers have always been regarded as well trained and disciplined. They were widely recognised as the most effective infantry during World War II's Western Desert campaign, with special praise reserved for the Maori Battalion, earning the respect not only of those who fought alongside them but of the enemy.

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel famously asked, rhetorically, what he could have achieved had he had a division of New Zealand Maori at his command.

New Zealanders have also earned a reputation for 'fighting fair'. Indeed, they were responsible for any number of incidents of chivalry in the desert, to the point of sending medics across to the German lines to treat the enemy's wounded, after which hostilities resumed. That reputation persists.

New Zealanders are now widely regarded by many as the best peacekeeping troops in the world, not least for their ability to befriend people of all colours and creeds. And when it comes to combat, the SAS is recognised as a superb fighting force.

All that is relevant to the calls now being made for an inquiry into an incident in Afghanistan in 2010, when SAS troops were allegedly responsible for civilian casualties in the course of an assault on two villages.

The claims made by Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson in their book Hit and Run are serious, not only because those responsible for atrocities committed in war deserve to be held accountable, but because they strike at the heart of a hard-won reputation.

It would now be a good thing if those allegations were to be the subject of an(other) official inquiry, if only to dispel any doubts anyone might have regarding the behaviour of the troops involved in this engagement, but many old soldiers must be spinning in their graves as people who have never fired a shot, and have never endangered their lives on active service, seek to impose their morality over actions taken in circumstances of which they have no understanding.

Many thousands of civilians have died in the wars that have been waged in the Middle East over the last however many years. The manner in which those wars have been and are being fought all but guarantees that non-combatants will die.

This engagement in 2010 was typical, involving New Zealand and American troops against insurgents who were not immediately identifiable - the principle that combatants should make themselves recognisable by wearing uniforms has never applied in that part of the world - and deliberately concealed themselves amongst the civilian population. How many times have we heard that Middle Eastern insurgents have used civilians as human shields?

At this point we have no reason beyond untested allegations to doubt that New Zealanders serving in Afghanistan have functioned according to the accepted rules of engagement, or that they have done their duty with the skill and honour for which they and their predecessors have long been admired. Their problem, perhaps, is that attitudes at home have changed, although that is not a new phenomenon.

Civilians have died for as long as mankind has been waging war. That is an inevitable consequence of war, but is clearly no longer seen as such in some quarters.

Some of those who led the defence of Britain during World War II, at a time when the nation's survival was very much in question, have since been reviled. They include then Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and perhaps most famously Sir Arthur 'Bomber' Harris, who led the RAF Bomber Command, and was following his government's orders (although the World War II victors never accepted that as a defence for those charged with war crimes) when he adopted the policy of 'area bombing' German cities, most infamously Dresden.

It can, and has been, argued that those bombing raids played a part in the Allies' eventual victory in Europe, but a generation that was not alive then tends to see it differently. The Queen Mother was jeered when she unveiled a statue of Harris in London in 1992, some of those present shouting that he was a criminal, and it needed a 24-hour guard for some time after its unveiling to protect it from vandals.

The claims made by Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson in their book Hit and Run are serious, not only because those responsible for atrocities committed in war deserve to be held accountable, but because they strike at the heart of a hard-won reputation.

Dresden, horrific as it was, paled into insignificance in comparison with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, defended after the fact as the all but total destruction of two cities, and their civilian populations, as a means of saving the lives of combatants and non-combatants who would have died had the war against Japan been protracted.

That argument is not helped, however, by the fact, known at the time, that Japan had all but run out of oil, and was in no position to continue fighting.

All that is a long way removed from a skirmish in Afghanistan in 2010, the question now being whether we can have faith in the ability of our troops to serve in battle with honour. Most New Zealanders, surely, will not accept the allegation that the assaults on those two villages were launched as revenge for the death of a New Zealander some weeks earlier, or that SAS troops deliberately, or carelessly, fired upon those who were clearly identifiable as civilians, including a 33-year-old child.

It is highly unlikely that no New Zealand soldier has ever committed what might reasonably be regarded as an atrocity in the last 100 years and more, although, to the writer's knowledge, no New Zealander has been charged with a war crime (although, as author Dan Brown has said, history is always written by the winners).

It is incumbent upon today's generations to consider the circumstances in which their forebears risked, and gave, their lives, however. It is grossly unfair to impose a standard of behaviour demanded from within the safety and security of 21st Century New Zealand given circumstances that we cannot begin to imagine.

It is right that we should expect the very highest standards of our troops, whether they be the SAS of today or the farmers, school teachers, accountants, dentists and shop keepers who volunteered to die in World War II, but it is unlikely that anyone objected to the RAF Bomber Command's tactics in 1942. Not when a German invasion was feared as imminent. Not when Britons had seen what the Wehrmacht had done to Europe.

Not when homes in London were being bombed to smithereens and innocent civilians were losing their lives every night.

Sir Arthur Harris expressed it well.

"The Nazis entered this war under the rather childish delusion that they were going to bomb everyone else, and nobody was going to bomb them. At Rotterdam, London, Warsaw and half a hundred other places, they put their rather naive theory into operation. They sowed the wind, and now they are going to reap the whirlwind."

No Briton, at least those within the reach of German bombers, would have disagreed with that, even if their children and grandchildren begged to differ 50 years later.

Acceptance that what needs to be done must be done is indisputably more likely when people fear that their lives are at stake. It is so much easier, years after the event, to cast doubts from the comfort and safety of a peacetime desk, although that would not excuse the deliberate killing of civilians in Afghanistan in 2010. If that actually happened.

Should an inquiry be conducted to determine the veracity of Hager and Stephenson's allegations? Yes it should. If they are right, we deserve to know. If they are wrong, they deserve to be discredited.

- Northland Age

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