The search for truth in the wake of the publication of the book, Hit and Run, has been simply excruciating.
The authors’ initial statement was absolute. Innocent citizens had been killed in Afghanistan as a result of an attack by New Zealand SAS forces. Equally emphatic was the response from the Defence Force – the attacks never happened. Then came the first modification – they never took place in either of the two locations the authors claimed. And now, there is the authors’ admission that while they had the village right, they had the wrong locations within it. Both the authors and the Defence Force have been engaging in a very painstaking dance on the head of a pin. And the public is still none the wiser as to what did or did not happen.
Along the way, there have been the reported misgivings at the time of the then Minister of Defence and the apparent comments of anonymous members of the SAS. The Chief of Defence says he has seen video footage of the incident, but at the same time says he has read only the executive summary of the report prepared into the incident, which he also says did not happen.
It is extremely confusing and more than a little Gilbertian. Despite all the disclosures since the publication of Hit and Run, the public still has no clear picture of what did or did not take place.
Over the years, the SAS has built up a highly deserved reputation, based on its skills, professionalism and integrity. It is extremely well regarded. Indeed, it is no coincidence that most recent Chiefs of Defence have come from an SAS background. As a consequence, the reputation of the New Zealand Defence Force has also been high, particularly in the areas of post conflict reconstruction and peacekeeping for which it has become renowned. Our military are not the sort of people who in the normal course of events would become involved in war crimes or militarily improper action.
All of which makes the seeming reluctance to hold some form of inquiry into what did or did not happen all the more puzzling to understand, especially given the variability of the accounts now emerging. The only thing we know for certain is that something happened, somewhere, sometime. Beyond that, the rest is speculation. It is reminiscent of Churchill’s comment on truth and rumour, “a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”
If the Defence Force is confident of its account of events, what does it have to fear from an inquiry? For their part, the book’s authors say they would welcome an inquiry, but they have no credible option but to say that. In the context of the wider security debate, the government has often pedalled the trite and simplistic mantra, “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” to justify wider intrusion. Well, now the boot is on the other foot, and the question can properly be asked in respect of its position on an inquiry. What does it have to hide? What does it fear?
Well, maybe, there is another aspect to this which we are all missing. What if the Defence Force’s rebuttal is correct as far as it goes, and the SAS was not involved in the attacks, and the video footage also confirms that, but also shows that another force, the Americans, were more explicitly involved than has been indicated to date? Does New Zealand want to be the source of exposing that right now, given the unpredictability of the current administration? So is that the real reason why there is such official coolness on the idea of an inquiry to clear the name of the SAS?
Yes, that is just supposition. But to paraphrase Churchill, while truth is fossicking around in the dark looking for its trousers, rumour and speculation take hold. And in today’s world of instant communication that quickly becomes the new unshakeable truth. Alternative facts some might call them. Surely all the more reason why an inquiry is needed – and pretty soon now.