One of the most important characteristics of good journalism is is also its plainest: simple persistence. It's worth bearing that in mind in light of Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson's new book, Hit and Run.
As Andrew Geddis explains here, the book focuses on a retaliatory raid on a village in Afghanistan in 2010 – a mission "our SAS planned, manned and ran in all its aspects" – which it says left civilians dead and injured. Our government and military command have long claimed the mission resulted in the deaths only of insurgents, 12 of them. The book says no insurgents were killed, only civilians. And that what happened in our name had the characteristics of a revenge attack, and a war crime.
This new reporting doesn't come from a vacuum. It builds on work done by Hager in his best (and possibly least-read, on account of its length and density) book Other People's Wars, and on work by Stephenson that included his landmark feature for Metro, 'Eyes Wide Shut'. The consistent theme in both sets of work was clear enough: that we had not been told the truth about what was being done in our name by our military forces. That theme also underlies Hit and Run.
That history puts an intriguing complexion on the analysis of the book since it was revealed at 5pm yesterday. The Guyon Espiner who interviewed Paula Bennett on Morning Report today was the Guyon Espiner who conducted a crucial interview with then-Defence minister Wayne Mapp in April 2011 (and, to be fair, also the Espiner who got well out of his lane in pulling the "I've been to Afghanistan" card on Hager later that year).
On Newsroom, Tim Watkin, Espiner's producer on Q+A at the time, explains the context of the Mapp interview, which was booked in anticipation of Stephenson's Metro story, but instead went with a tip about a more recent event than those described in the story, about the raid in Bamiyan:
We knew little about the details, but wanted to know if New Zealand soliders had been involved and whether it was a response to O'Donnell's death.
I've since spoken to Mapp about that interview. Despite the rants of some genuine conspiracy theorists, the interview wasn't a negotiated deal where Mapp could reveal the raid in his own way. He was blindsided by the question about the raid.
The way he described it to me, he knew he had two seconds to decide whether to confirm New Zealand's involvement, thereby revealing operational matters he would have had no desire to reveal, or try to dodge, evade or even lie.
In those seconds, he chose transparency. He didn't want to lie to the public and, he figured, we probably had more knowledge and sources than we were initially revealing. He was wrong on that front. We were flying a kite.
You can see in the transcript that he tries at first to deflect Espiner's questions, saying "operations do take place". But ultimately decides to not deny SAS involvement, thus implying it played a role.
We had a similar moment later that year on our former TV show Media7. The show featured Hager, Stephenson – and retired chief of the New Zealand Defence Force Sir Bruce Ferguson, who had remarked on RNZ that he wondered "what Nicky Hager has been smoking” in writing Other People's Wars.
The Sir Bruce who turned up on Media7 was a different man. He was thoughtful and responsive. But it took until an online-only extended discussion (we made the call on the fly to keep recording) that he addressed my question about the military whistleblowers who had spoken to Hager for his book and Stephenson for his print media stories. Was it a breach of duty for a soldier to voice his disquiet in such a way – or his duty to do so?
It’s probably a combination of both. My first, my gut reaction is very disappointed that people whisteblow with respect to the military. I do take Nicky’s point though, there will be people who are concerned. In every war, again, soldiers will see things or be ordered to do things about which they are not happy.
It takes a very gutsy soldier, sailor or airman to go to the commanding officer and say “I don’t want to do this”. Now, until probably about 20 or 30 years ago it would probably end up with them being put in the slammer.
But if they get no traction from that and they still firmly believe in their views, I can understand, while not sympathising with them, I can understand why they may go further.
I would not ask Nicky for his sources because I know damn well he wouldn’t give them to me. And actually it doesn’t worry me anyway, because I’m retired.
I would always continue to be disappointed that people felt so strongly about it they couldn’t go to their commanding officers. But they may well have done, and I would not have known that. They may well have gone to their commanding officers and the commanding officers, to use their words, covered it up. I would not see that.
Sir Bruce was acknowledging not only that there could be a cover-up, but that in such circumstances, whistleblowing to journalists might in fact be the ethical thing to do. It made some headlines.
As is sometimes the case, the extended discussion proved to be more compelling that the broadcast programme. In this case, it provided quite vital context around the SAS, Afghanistan and the transfer of prisoners covered in Stephenson's work. Jon, I recall, was quite elated afterwards at what the discussion had produced. He felt vindicated.
Unfortunately, that part is long gone from the TVNZ website and was never uploaded to YouTube, where Media7 episodes dwell in the twilight of crappy metadata. I'm looking to retrieve that and get it posted, but in the meantime, you can still watch that 2011 programme, which I think was one of the best we made.
Jon had always indicated to me that there was more to tell about Afghanistan and our role there. And then, being Jon, said no more until he was ready to report. I suspect there's more yet. He and Nicky Hager have called for an inquiry into the incident at the centre of Hit and Run.
It's a long story. But, let's not forget, Afghanistan was New Zealand's longest-running war. There's a lot to tell. And while what took place in the little village of Khak Khuday Dad in 2010 may seem like a tiny part of the enormity of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is our part to account for.
We already know that we have not been told the truth about our part in other people's wars. The evidence presented by Hager and Stephenson says we're still not being told the truth. And that is the problem.