The NZ Defence Force manipulated the Battle of Baghak video video

NZDF

The NZDF's edited version of the Battle of Baghak.

OPINION: Truth, it is said, is the first casualty of war.

And during the 16 years of the war in Afghanistan, truths have been trampled on and obliterated as much as in any other global conflict over the past century.

But in New Zealand, a country which respects transparency and freedom of expression, we probably assumed a higher standard of the Defence Force.

NZDF

The raw video of the Battle of Baghak paints a different picture to that told by the NZDF.

Which was why it was a jolt to read in a Defence Force statement last week an admission it had manipulated the truth in information it released to the public. Another name for that, particularly in the context of war, is propaganda. 

READ MORE:
The Valley: NZDF disputes accusations bodies of dead Afghan fighters
The Valley: Defence Force responds to Afghanistan investigation

In a 34-page statement in response to the Stuff Circuit documentary series, The Valley, the Defence Force made several concessions about what we revealed. 

• Reveals disturbing details about the Battle of Baghak, where two Kiwis died
• Visits Afghanistan and the scene of the firefight
• EXPLORES THE TRUTH ABOUT SECRET NZ ACTIONS IN AFGHANISTAN

But it was firm about manipulation of a video clip released to the public in 2013. Its explanation suggested it was only trying to do the right thing. 

After reading that explanation, though, a stench remains. 

And so, too, do a number of questions.

The manipulated footage of the Battle of Baghak replaces dialogue with gunfire.

The manipulated footage of the Battle of Baghak replaces dialogue with gunfire.

What was the video?

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During the Battle of Baghak in August, 2012, a firefight in which two New Zealand and four Afghan soldiers died, some Kiwi soldiers filmed what was going on, using their personal devices and cameras.

It provided a raw, confronting account of what that awful day must have been like.

A view of the Shikari Valley taken on the day of the Battle of Baghak.

A view of the Shikari Valley taken on the day of the Battle of Baghak.

At a June 2013 press conference to release the findings of a military Court of Inquiry into the incident, the Defence Force showed journalists a three-and-a-half minute clip of some of that video footage.

The clip played on news websites that day and led the television news bulletins.

Why did the Defence Force release the video?

The Stuff Circuit team: from left, Phil Johnson, Paula Penfold, Eugene Bingham and Toby Longbottom.
CHRIS MCKEEN/STUFF

The Stuff Circuit team: from left, Phil Johnson, Paula Penfold, Eugene Bingham and Toby Longbottom.

At the time of the release, Major General Dave Gawn, Chief of the Army, told journalists he wanted them and the public to be able to understand the terrain, the "uncertainty of ascertaining exactly what is going on when you're in a situation like that" and how loud it was during the firefight.

But he also said it made one other important point: "You'll be able to identify with the junior commander who is quite calmly laying out the dispositions of his patrol." 

The Defence Minister at the time, Jonathan Coleman, said: "What you see on that video, that is the reality of Afghanistan."

A still from a helmet camera video of the battle at Baghak, Afghanistan.
SUPPLIED

A still from a helmet camera video of the battle at Baghak, Afghanistan.

Well, yes and no.

Was the video released to the public actually what NZDF said it was?

Over a period of years, Stuff Circuit journalists have sought to obtain more of the footage filmed by the soldiers at the battle.

When we eventually received the raw version, we realised the three-and-a-half minute clip which had been publicly released, had been edited.

The version released to the public via journalists at the press conference was different in several key respects.

The editing of the footage wasn't actually mentioned in The Valley, but in the statement released on Friday, the Defence Force decided it needed to explain why it was done.

What was the Defence Force's explanation for why it had manipulated the video? 

In short, the Defence Force says it was just trying to do the right thing by one of its people by editing the footage.

Under a section curiously headlined "No good deed goes unpunished", the statement says the sound was altered "in one regard". 

"This difference comes about because Defence Public Affairs staff thought they were doing a decent thing, sparing embarrassment for one of the soldiers who was, literally, swearing like a trooper. So NZDF communications staff did remove the soldier's expletive-laden remarks."

Is that right?

No. The manipulation of the video is far more than just the removal of swearing. 

Whole chunks of dialogue taken out are conversations which indicate the level of confusion at the battle site. And of the deleted parts, most of it has no swearing at all.

And where there is swearing, why not just bleep the individual words?

There is also audio from a soldier added into the edited video, which does not appear in the original. Gunfire was added too, covering sections where conversations between soldiers had been cut out. 

What was the effect of the changes made to the video?

For starters, yes, it did hide the fact that one of the soldiers in particular swore during the battle.

Plenty of F-bombs (and the occasional C-bomb) were dropped that day - but that was the reality of the situation they were in. 

Removing it led to the illusion that things were a lot calmer than they actually were - not that that's a criticism of the soldiers on the ground: it's what they were faced with.

Adding in the sound of gunfire, meanwhile, helped support the line fed to journalists at the press conference about listening to how loud it was during the gunfight.

But actually, it's worse than that. Removing other (non-swearing) parts of the audio disguised the extent to which soldiers were confused and did not know who was where. (It's also worth noting The Valley revealed radio communications were not working properly that day). 

This was a major issue during the battle, and its censoring gives, at the very least, a disingenuous picture of how things played out.

Why is this important?

In telling journalists and the public that the video clip was going to reveal the reality of the situation the soldiers confronted that day, the Defence Force should not have then manipulated that reality. 

It dishonestly set the media agenda and enabled the Defence Force to put a spin on how the battle unfolded and what occurred that day. 

It glossed over how confusing it was, and removed a reason for journalists to look closely at things which had gone wrong.

Again, that is not a criticism of the soldiers on the ground that day - they were faced with a terrifying situation which, according to people we spoke to for The Valley, they were not prepared for. 

By disguising the truth and not being honest about what happened, the Defence Force has let down not only those soldiers but all those who will be deployed in the future. How can you learn from mistakes if you're not admitting them?

In its statement last week, the Defence Force said "With the benefit of hindsight, in the future the NZDF will be clearer about when it is edited [sic] a video, even when trying to do the right thing by one of its people."

How about just being honest from the start, warts and all? Everyone will be better off in the long run.

 - Stuff

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