There are really two stories that authors Hager and Stephenson tell us about the SAS raids in the villages of Naik and Khak Khuday Dad on the 22 August 2010. The first story is about the raid itself – what motivated it, who authorised it, who commanded it and what rules of military conduct were broken during and immediately afterwards. The second story is the lengths to which our elected officials and those in the Defense Force tried to minimise, distract and blatantly cover-up the incident and its immediate aftermath. I won’t provide an overview of the first two stories, but I strongly encourage you to pick up a copy of Hit and Run and read it yourself. I made the mistake of driving from Auckland to Wellington and back over the weekend, and in the brief respites when my partner took the wheel I managed to get through its 122 pages pretty quickly. It’s concise, lean and full of movement – it is well-written and damning in it’s conclusions.
The reason I don’t want to re-hash it all here (aside from not doing it justice) is that there is a third story that I’d rather tell. And that is the story of the knee-jerk reaction, from ordinary folk, but most crucially from conservative critics, to not just the revelations themselves, but to the entire nature of criticism of those who rule us and rule in our name. What makes this general phenomena even more acute is that the criticism pertains to a particular institution, the military, which is the most revered and idolised by these critics and that commands the most unthinking and dead-eyed fealty.
The Defenders of Power
There is a playbook, well-thumbed and creased, that the conservative establishment uses in response to any revelation of wrong-doing, in particular any allegations related to internal or leaked information. And the central tactic, the absolute primary goal, is to destroy the credibility of the source of the information. This cowardly attack-plan was deployed over the weekend by both Leighton Smith and Mike Hosking with such blunt idiocy that not to call it out would be a real disservice to the New Zealand people.
There are many ways to do it of course, criticise their academic credentials, vilify them as politically motivated, throw around words like ‘conspiracy theory’ or just shrug like John Key and tell the media that you “don’t read fiction”. It doesn’t really matter how you do it – you can run the gamut from having the author legitimately challenged by their peers to just fomenting a general feeling that they are a ‘loon’, ‘unpatriotic’ or on some ‘mission’. It happened to Chelsea Manning, it happened to Snowden, it happened to Kim Dotcom, and it is happening right now to Hager and Stephenson.
These people are not perfect, nobody is. But the very use of this strategy should be a red flag to anyone with an interest in logical thinking and who prides themselves on being able to call bullshit at the right time. Surely if you disagree with someone’s position, and you’re quite sure you’re correct, then the wisest and most successful way to win is to counter their position with your argument. That’s called a debate, and if the truth is with you then when everything is weighed up, you’ll come out on top.
Except this is not how our conservative critics are responding. And the reason they’re not is very simple – they know that they can’t argue the point rationally and they’re not interested in finding out the truth. We should never forget, not even for one second, that these people are not journalists, they are not analysts, and they certainly are not men with any genuine integrity. Their sole function is to protect those in power and they exist only to keep people like you and I hateful, mistrustful and distracted from the truth. The fact they call themselves journalists is obscene. And their conduct this time, on this issue, is disgustingly blase.
Instead of reading the allegations, or doing any kind of research at all, Smith and Hosking decided instead to participate in nearly four hours of ad hominen and vitriolic attacks on the character of Hager and Stephenson. They reveled in reading out hateful and personal messages accusing them of being unpatriotic and generally up to no good. They didn’t want to talk about the contents of the book (Smith didn’t even bother to read it) but instead were content to vilify it as “fake news”. Just think about that for a second, the supposed journalist hosting a show on the serious allegations in the book hadn’t even bothered to read it. That alone tells you that these fools aren’t trying to inform anybody – they’re only out to whip up latent rage and direct it at the authors and by extension at anyone who agrees with their position.
But why do they do this? We’ve had a stab by showing that it’s the tactic they use when they know they can’t win a real argument. But there is something ultimately unfulfilling about this argument alone. It helps to explain the commentators themselves, who in this instance I do believe know very well that this story has legs, that an inquiry is imminent, and that the conclusions are damning. They are attacking the messenger on purpose to discredit the message. They may or may not be genuinely vile people, I don’t know – they are certainly weak ones. But they are doing this for another reason – because they know it works. But that begs the bigger and more important question, why does it work?
Someone once said that the American people are like children of alcoholics – they don’t get mad at the alcoholic, they get mad at the people who get mad at the alcoholic. I find this a helpful way of thinking about this issue. Smith and Hosking don’t want us to get mad that the SAS may have conducted a revenge raid, killed innocent civilians, refused to give them medical aid, needlessly destroyed their homes and, after seeing the villagers trying to rebuild them, returned a week later to destroy them again. They don’t want us to get mad that these actions were done in our name, with our tax dollars. They don’t want us to get mad that they were then covered-up, with lie after altered lie, by members of the SAS, the Defense Force, and Members of Parliament including the Minister of Defense and the Prime Minister. No, no, no – heaven forbid we get annoyed at that. These empty and unprincipled ‘journalists’ just want us to get mad at the people who suggested this behaviour seems to have occurred and have called for an independent inquiry to verify that. Again, the psychological rule is pretty clear – don’t get mad at the alcoholic, but get very mad at the person criticising the alcoholic.
This is really a pretty perverse masochism. Hosking and Smith, whether they know it or not, are like children (sadly abused themselves) desperate to protect a drunk father. Except in this case, the literal father is now the more abstract idea of power. The ‘power’ bestowed upon others, most importantly upon politicians and generals must be protected from attacks by the people, in this case the ‘liberals’, who people like Hosking and Smith perceive as being driven purely by the desire to destroy or discredit that power. This is their first error – they don’t believe that critics of the Afghan raid may be motivated by the idea of responsibility, accountability or the search for the truth. Their bias blinds them to these nuances. To them we are the horde coming for Daddy.
And so eventually they see any criticism of the government as a real danger to power, to the father-figure from which that power flows, and on which they have either consciously or unconsciously made themselves dependent. Think about it. If you are weak-willed enough that you need to find your strength by some magical association with the dominant power structures, then anyone exposing those sources of power, anyone who may reveal that they have ‘clay feet’, and especially anyone who hacks at those feet, is an enemy. Hosking and Smith’s inability to individuate beyond their love and dependence on power means that any attack on it is an attack on them. I argue this helps to explain the intensity and knee-jerk nature of their reactions. What I think is even more important, is that the supreme power, the power par excellence in our toxic masculine society is military power. It is the one we don’t question, the one we can’t critique, the one that must be allowed to do what it wants and that doesn’t need to tell us about it because of ‘operational security’. It is the pure fount of power from which weak-willed men, all across this country, must derive their sense of worth and security.
Goodbye to all that…
Since the book has been released there has been agreement on the need for an inquiry from all across the political spectrum. However, yesterday, Bill English made the decision that no inquiry is required. Who did he consult to make this decision? From which independent sources did he gain counsel? Turns out, none.
English appears happy that no activity unbecoming of the military was carried out because the military said so. He is apparently under the delusion that just because the current Chief of the Defense Force (CDF) is not the same as the one during the raid, well, he can be trusted. He also seemed content with the ‘independent’ report from ISAF coalition forces, which (if you read the book) are anything but independent. English is saying he’s happy to accept a review of the military if it’s done by the military. I don’t even need to stress how absurd that is. It’s more than absurd – it’s weak, cowardly and pathetic. I don’t like to trade in personal attacks, but for a man who considers himself devoutly religious, he’s shown a cruel disregard for human life. I suppose as long as it’s brown, has a weird-sounding name and is thousands of miles away, then it doesn’t matter.
I want to impress upon the reader that the main attributes the military has shown throughout this whole saga are weakness and cowardice – which is ironic, if not expected, from an arm of society that barks on about its strength. I don’t know what it means to serve, I don’t know how it feels to be attacked and to fear for your life. But I do know that getting hot-headed and pumped-up on vengeance is unbecoming of an officer. Gathering poor intelligence to justify a rushed revenge raid is unbecoming of an officer. Using Apache helicopters to wantonly blow-up whole parts of a village is unbecoming of an officer. Refusing to provide first-aid to those injured is unbecoming of an officer. Having an Apache gunship chase after and mow down people running away from a conflict zone is unbecoming of an officer. Returning a week later to destroy homes being rebuilt is, aside from peculiarly sadistic, unbecoming of an officer. And then constantly covering-up, lying and refusing to take responsibility is just the icing on the cake.
It is useful to contrast the hot-headed braggadocio that fueled the early morning raid with the insipid lies and cowardice that surround the calls for an inquiry – you get a clear picture of the weak and terrified man – all strength when in possession of firepower and an enemy, all craven bullshit when the spotlight is on them. One of the most telling insights from the book is a description from an unnamed source of the mood in the helicopter on the way back to Kabul following the raid – normally it would be all jubilation and thrills, instead it was deathly quiet. These soldiers knew they had done wrong, that’s why many of them agreed to be interviewed.
We also need to realise the incentives the government has to block an inquiry. Basically, the NZDF is the military with the best PR sheen. Remember how we got into Afghanistan – we weren’t even a military at all – we were a “reconstruction team”. This need to sanitise the NZDF is both alarming and potentially fruitful for the peace movement in NZ. Clearly, the government and the NZDF felt the need to present our involvement in a saccharine way, presumably because they knew the NZ public would not support full ‘military’ involvement. This is disingenuous, but it also speaks to the fact that PR is designed to get around real barriers, in this case the anti-war sentiment that the powers that be thought New Zealanders share.
New Zealand: A happy pawn?
This is part of why an inquiry must not occur – it would tarnish a well-crafted PR image of the NZ military as ‘different’ from other military, especially the United States. The US relies upon our rosy image and uses that image to forward their own campaigns. We must not let them do so. This will become ever more an important issue in the future, when we consider our role in the great power-play of these times – the increasingly aggressive stance towards China.
As New Zealand citizens, we pay for membership to a secretive club of illegal surveillance (Five Eyes) that has a direct role in the monitoring of this potential conflict. Do we continue to unthinkingly participate in that? Why are we accepting this undying loyalty to the US, despite the invasion of privacy and human rights? Is it all about powerful Daddy again? No matter how drunk and abusive? Why do we have to be on either ‘side’ of this looming conflict? What happened to our much-lauded sovereignty in these matters? We gained international esteem by standing up to powerful nations who sought to use the South Pacific as a testing arena for the nuclear age. And yet in July the Defense Force is scheduled to join in on a military exercise known as ‘Talisman Sabre’ (you couldn’t make these names up…), which is basically a war-game rehearsal for an all out assault on China. Do we really feel comfortable being a part of that?
These are questions that don’t normally require any approval from the average New Zealander – they are lost behind the shroud of mystery and security in which the military cloaks itself. We should all remember that most of the time this has little to do with ‘operational security’ and much more to do with keeping us ignorant. Our military kills people, sometimes civilian people, and then lies about it. Our military is planning with the United States for a ‘coming war with China.’ It does all of these things with the tax-dollars you and I give to it. Dead Afghani civilians are as much the military’s responsibility as they are mine. The first step is transparency, knowing about it, and Bill English has made sure that ignorance will again rule the day. Except I really don’t think this story will go away. It will rear its head over and over again. The cowards at the top have chosen the path of most resistance, and I certainly hope they rue the day.