My impression of the Defence establishment, admittedly from the perspective of an outsider who claims no special insight, is that it has a lot in common with the Catholic Church. Both are insular, hierarchical institutions that observe rituals and traditions that can seem mystifying to the uninitiated. This is not a criticism; it’s just a fact.
Both also strike me as being unaccustomed to, and therefore resentful of, outside scrutiny. Their natural instinct, when under criticism, is to close ranks and go into self-protection mode.
That seems to be what’s happened over allegations of civilian deaths in Afghanistan. The Defence Force has put its helmet on, hunkered down in its foxhole and is now waiting in the hope that the shelling will stop. Like the Catholic Church in its response to sexual abuse scandals, it seems ill-equipped to deal with public relations crises.
The government, too, seems to be hoping this will all blow over. Bill English appears to assume that the bland “Nothing to see here, folks” line that so often worked for John Key will be effective here too. He and other ministers are counting on public respect for the SAS and suspicion of Nicky Hager’s motives to pull the government through unharmed. Besides, it all happened so long ago and far away.
I think they’re wrong. Yes, lots of people don’t want to think badly of our much-admired SAS and would rather not be confronted by the unpleasant possibility that they might have killed innocent people. But as human rights lawyer Marianne Elliott said in a thoughtful and balanced response to questions on Q+A this morning, even good people can make mistakes.
There are two issues here: whether the SAS did what’s alleged, and whether it was then covered up to avoid embarrassment. Both questions are troubling, but the latter arguably more so. Soldiers shooting the wrong people in a war zone, in the (presumably genuine) belief that their lives were threatened, is one thing; drawing a veil over it in the hope that no one would find out is quite another.
I wish we could be confident that the Defence Force would have been scrupulous in wanting to get to the truth of the matter, admit any error and atone for mistakes made, but the evidence suggests otherwise. I think the NZDF has made the mistake of taking the Catholic Church as its damage-control model. It’s surely only a matter of time before English and his ministers will have to accept that the allegations are too serious to be brushed aside.