Lieutenant Colonel (retired) James Heard reflects on recent deaths in Afghanistan, and the debate about New Zealand's withdrawal from that country.
Bringing the troops home has become a headline topic, after the deaths of five members of the Provincial Reconstruction Team, killed in Bamiyan in the past fortnight.
Those most recently lost were Lance Corporal Jacinda Baker, 26, Corporal Luke Tamatea, 31, and Private Richard Harris, 21, who were killed when their Humvee hit a roadside bomb on August 19. Lance Corporal Rory Malone and Lance Corporal Pralli Durrer, both 26, were lost earlier in a short intensive fire-fight.
Embedded in this media coverage has been subdued discussion as to whether our people in Afghanistan should have been equipped with mine-resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicles such as those of the United States and Australia.
Prime Minister John Key has disclosed that Defence Force officials in Afghanistan had earlier approached their American counterparts about using US mine-resistant vehicles in Bamiyan but were told they were unavailable. The Defence Force has said no vehicle would have saved Jacinda Baker, Luke Tamatea and Richard Harris from the massive blast.
This has uncomfortable echoes of the equipment shortfalls experienced in Vietnam where New Zealand soldiers had a well-earned reputation for "borrowing and acquiring" equipment over and above that issued by the NZ Defence Force.
While we have consistently contributed and in many respects "punched above our weight" in regional and global conflicts since the Boer War, we have acquired a reputation for being "poor cousins" but highly professional; a reputation enhanced by the actions of Corporal Willie Apiata that resulted in the award of a highly merited Victoria Cross and extensive media coverage on selfless courage and excellence.
The news confirms what we almost intuitively know: just like the All Blacks our SAS men are world-class. And they are that not only because our soldiers are good, the selection processes demanding and professional, but also most of all because we have deliberately invested in making the NZSAS world- class.
This is not true for the rest of our Defence Force.
The lack of a "clear discernible threat" to New Zealand has long been offered as justification for the repeated pruning of the Defence budget. These sustained cuts have inevitably resulted in a loss of capability and capacity. We are so geographically distant from war-shredded regions that the Defence budget is always under siege from growth of the competing needs of those who are welfare payment-dependent.
Our geographic separation allows the political elite to ignore the facts that the "war to end all wars" did not achieve that propaganda goal and "peace in our time" also failed.
Since World War II there has been more conflict and more combat in more regions of the world than there was before either World War I or World War II.
The "war on terror" has allowed success to be claimed while simultaneously generating renewed resentments, bitterness and anger. Suppression and deprivation are the seed beds of tomorrow's rebellion and combat. Trade and technology intertwine us globally. Financial markets link us to opportunity and disaster.
While we may be an island nation we cannot afford to allow our thinking to be separatist and isolationist. The realities of global finance require us to be players and contributors to the International Monetary Fund, to help in the best way we can to make good the damage caused by rogue operators and the resultant global financial crisis. Similarly, while it would be financially convenient and philosophically comfortable to dismember our Defence Force, we have a part, however small, to play in securing freedom and opportunity for the suppressed and deprived.
And there will inevitably be casualties. And it will take time and a sustained effort.
As a nation we devote more thought and energy to the leadership and performance of the All Blacks, Warriors, Valerie Adams and significant sporting others than we do to the readiness and performance of our soldiers, sailors and airmen.
More media focus has been given to Graham Henry's performance as All Blacks coach than the political guidance and preparation of our Defence Force.
For those on the sidelines, it may help to know that those who elect to serve in our Armed Forces know the risk of death and crippling wounds, but chose to serve anyway.
Just as important, those on the sidelines need to know that the conflicts of today are not over when the bombs and bullets stop. The power structures that sustained suppression and enforced deprivation need to change.
And this takes time, for it is about hearts and minds not political systems.
Part of paying tribute to those who put their lives on the line is letting those who serve complete the job they started. Then they can come home with honour and proper acknowledgment.
Lieutenant Colonel (retired) James Heard is a Vietnam veteran and former task force and battery commander, and chief instructor of artillery.
- © Fairfax NZ News
How do the chores get shared in your house?Related story: Housework - not just a woman's job