Viewport width =
April 23, 2007 | by  | in Features |
Share on FacebookShare on Google+Pin on PinterestTweet about this on Twitter

We need You! (Maybe.)

Recruitment & Operations of the NZ Army

As the buglehorn is sounded at many a dawn parade this Wednesday, the tribulations of Aotearoa’s past armies will be remembered, from Malaya to the Somme. But the New Zealand military is not a thing of the past. It exists now, both in training camps around Aotearoa, and in some of the most tragic regions of the world. And given that they might pay your student loan in return for a little service, isn’t it time you shouldered a rifle in the service of her Majesty?

But hang on. When they say the army offers exciting and exotic travel opportunities – don’t they really mean a lifestyle of hired thuggery, offering you the chance to wave a gun in the face of our world’s most oppressed people? Or is this thought simply socialist hyperbole, tarnishing the good work our troops do in securing the lives of a myriad needy human beings? To commemorate Anzac Day, Salient takes a look at the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) as it exists in the present era. In particular, we are going to look at our role in Timor-Leste (formerly known as East Timor), the ‘poorest nation on earth.’ Are we sending our troops to this island to build a better world, or to help Australia earn an easy buck?

Free Study and Exercise: It’s Not Just A Career, It’s A Hierarchy

The NZDF employs some 15,000 people. It demands a moderate standard of fitness: if you are a man, you’ll need to run 2.4 kms and do 15 press-ups in 12 minutes; if you’re female, you’ll have to do the distance in 14 minutes and do eight press-ups. You cannot join if you have a criminal record, you cannot have long hair and piercings if male, or if female, more than two ear piercings. And, most importantly for Salient readers, you may be able to get assistance with your student fees. If you give them a year’s service, they’ll fund many University courses and not only those of practical benefit to the army, like engineering and med. Since the NZDF likes its officers to have a broad education, they will pay for you to study history or philosophy. However, they do not pay back pre-existing student loans after you join up. But they do have an army band performing all the hits from Glen Miller and modern swing to classic rock, so they can help you with your musical ambitions. Especially if those ambitions involve marching in a lil’ red outfit.

According to its promotional advertising, the army is “not just a career, it’s a lifestyle.” And who could resist a mascot as hip as Army Viv – that faux-Lara Croft CG chick, who demonstrates exercise postures in all her anatomically-correct glory, and pops up on telly to tell us about the new cool computer games on the Army web site. Our army’s advertising is in fact noticeably modest and sanitised in comparison with the bombastic dragon-slaying ads and pet NASCAR team of the mighty US forces: www.nzgirl.co.nz promotes the army as an exciting career prospect for the Kiwi sheila – “Have you got what it takes or are you a bit of a flake? Take our quiz and find out what you’re made of!”

For many members of the NZDF, this benign picture is not false. Most of our soldiers are not engaged in armed combat – they pass their days training, studying, working out, and saving the occasional cow from flood waters. But there is, of course, a darker side to the military. In December 2005, judge David Morris revealed 19 historic cases of sexual abuse in Waiouru cadet school, along with the manslaughter of 17-year-old cadet Grant Bain in 1981. The abuse was encouraged at the time as a way of enforcing obedience to hierarchy, although judge Morris rejected the existence of a culture of brutality in the school.

In theory, all NZDF members are expected to challenge any order they are given that contravenes international law. But in practice, judge Morris found that the military teaches soldiers to obey, stifling dissent and democracy. So while the army presents itself as a fun ‘lifestyle’ option, it is still a military – that is, it is an organisation dedicated to the use of force. But how is this force applied in the modern world? It’s time we looked at how our military is wielded.

NZ Forces in the Northern World

The NZDF’s key government goal is to “strengthen national identity” and “celebrate our identity as a people in a world who support freedom and fairness.” This suggests that our overseas missions are largely an act of symbolism, helping those in need for the explicit purpose of making ourselves look good. To achieve this end, we send forces to some pretty hairy places.

In March this year, our government announced its Afghanistan mission will roll over into 2008. The bulk of this mission is a 122-troop provincial reconstruction team in Bamiyan, 2.5 km above sea level. These troops are tasked with building concrete bridges and other infrastructure between April and November – during the winter months they stay inside, since it’s too cold to work. The NZDF also has two officers helping British forces train the Afghan military, besides a handful of other support personnel.

New Zealand has previously sent three SAS patrol groups of around 50 troops to Afghanistan. In 2004, US President George W. Bush awarded a presidential citation to the first patrol for capturing 70 potential al-Qaeda members from tunnels, caves and camps. The suspects were held for up to five hours, then handed over to the US with a request that they be treated “humanely”. New Zealand contributes more troops to Afghanistan per capita than any other nation, a fact that allows Bush to hide his embarrassment at having a nuclear-free buddy.

We also have a number of troops working with the United Nations in Korea, the Balkans, and the Middle East. Eleven observers remain in Bosnia and one in Kosovo. We have 18 personnel clearing mines and observing in Lebanon and Israel, 26 soldiers transporting and training others in Sinai, and a single officer in Iraq. Three more help run “Operation Enduring Freedom” from Florida, and four Kiwi troops keep an eye on the Demilitarized Zone in Korea.

New Zealand in the South Pacific

Closer to home, an airforce contingent and other forces help monitor the Antarctic in the summer. All three branches of the military provide search and rescue and civil emergency support within Aotearoa. And in November 2006, New Zealand led a combined 150-member task force with Australia to put down violent pro-democracy riots in Tonga and to reopen the airport.

Since the inception of the Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) in July 2003, we have had troops in the islands – primarily to ensure order is obeyed around the capital Honiara and inside Rove Prison (our troop numbers peaked at 1,700). In April 2006, riots broke out in Honiara following the election of Snider Rini, destroying much of Chinatown (participants believed Chinese businessmen were responsible for rigging his election). New Zealand responded by upping its force from 46 to 125, though it has since been reduced to 44. Helen Clark said that this mission was intended to send “a very clear signal” to rioters that their form of protest would not be tolerated (RAMSI went on to arrest three opposition MPs).

Last but not least, the NZDF has 150 troops in Timor-Leste. We have had troops in the country since a 1999 referendum, which overwhelmingly voted to end the bloody 24-year-old Indonesian occupation, but met a violent response from pro-Indonesian militias. The Australian-led INTERFET force intervened, allowing Timor-Leste to be declared independent in May 2002; INTERFET was then replaced by a UN-led mission (UNTAET). This month, the Defence Force has been ensuring security for Presidential elections.

But all has not gone well for the new nation. In 2002, Osama bin Laden placed a fatwa on Australia for separating Christian Timor-Leste from its Muslim occupiers. Fretilin forces, who led the resistance to Indonesia, have since clashed with UNTAET troops, and in 2001, two Jordanian soldiers were evacuated home after injuring their penises while trying to engage in sexual activity with goats.

According to Human Rights Watch, Timorese policemen “regularly use excessive force during arrests, and beat detainees once they are in custody.” The Aloha Foundation regularly reports on violence against women. In December 2005, then-PM Mari Alkatiri restricted press freedom and criminalised the defamation of public authorities. Then last April, Alkatiri fired almost 600 western Loromonu soldiers (almost a third of the army) for striking against discrimination by their Eastern Lorosae counterparts (Easterns had led the rebellion against Indonesia).

The soldiers subsequently rioted, along with sympathetic policemen. Thirty seven people died and 150,000 fled their homes. New Zealand and Australian governments rushed more troops into the area, forcing Alkatiri to resign in favour of Jose Ramos-Horta (a Nobel Laureate and ouspoken supporter of the US invasion of Iraq).

As these riots happened during coffee-harvest season, their effect on Timor-Leste’s economy has been dire. Many of the rioters caught by Australasian forces are still awaiting trial in damp, Indonesian-built Becora prison. Meanwhile, our troops have kept themselves busy chasing rebel Loromonu leader Alfredo Reinado around the countryside.

So, things are going pretty badly. Both sides in last April’s dispute have been accused of atrocities. This month’s elections have been widely labelled as fraudulent. But the current state of distress cannot compare to the level of death and intimidation that the area suffered under Indonesian rule. Things may have gone from awful to quite bad, but they have improved. And according to the NZDF website, the latest intervention has allowed children to return to their schools and sports fields; they sometimes call out “Kia ora Kiwi number one!” when our troops pass by.

Imperialism?

Unfortunately, New Zealand’s forces in both the Solomons and Timor-Leste often seem to be acting as Australia’s lap dog, present solely to make a unilateral team of Aussie gunslingers seem more international – as in, we throw a few Maori soldiers into the mix so that these missions seem less like white imperialism. They also allow New Zealand to weasel its way into the USA’s good books, so that Helen Clark can avoid talking about nuclear ship visits when she meets Bush for tea.

The unhappy truth is that we do not have a spotless record of humanitarian idealism in regard to these islands. New Zealand and Australia both averted their eyes for 24 years of Indonesian occupation in Timor-Leste, averted their eyes from the killings of some 102,800 locals, and even looked the other way when five Australasian journalists were killed in the initial invasion – and again when a New Zealand student died during the 1991 Motael Church massacre.

At the risk of sounding cynical, it is hard not to suspect other, less lofty motives behind our intervention in Timor-Leste besides mere humanitarianism. And the cynics have some damning evidence on their side, for Timor-Leste is home to some rather rich under-water oil resources. In 1989, at the height of the Indonesian occupation, Australia signed the Timor Gap Treaty with Indonesia. This treaty allows Australia to exploit rich natural resources lying underneath the Timorese side of the seas between Timor-Leste and Australia, and is based on the assumption that the boundary between the two gives Australia 85 per cent of their shared ocean (instead of the UN-standard 50 per cent).

In 2001 the treaty was rewritten. Timorese President Xanana Gusmao wanted a normal boundary half-way between the two nations, but Australia refused. Since 2004, the Aussies have “generously” allowed Timor-Leste to receive 50 per cent of the revenue from oil and gas taken from the Timorese side of the sea, but Gusmao stated that Australia’s share of the revenue ($365m per year) is illegal, and far outstrips the amount of aid donations Australia gives to the fledgling nation (around $43m per year). So Timor-Leste continues to suffer from 50 per cent unemployment, and has the lowest annual GDP per capita in the entire world: $357.

According to left-wing Aussie journalist John Pilger, known for his innovative documentaries on Palestine and Timor-Leste, the Australian Defence Force has admitted that its first objective in Timor-Leste is to gain “influence over East Timor’s decision-making.” Meanwhile Indonesian politicians implicated in atrocities have been shielded from prosecution.

Similar claims of economic exploitation have been levelled at the Australasian Mission to the Solomons. A 2005 report by the Solomon Islands Government found that foreign logging companies have been routinely dodging taxes by bribing officials, and that activity by these companies has tripled since RAMSI’s inception in 2003. Yes, such companies may provide employment, but their maverick attitudes do not bode well for the local ecosystem. A 2003 government report stated that logging levels were unsustainable, yet they continue to rise.

The First Casualty of War is a Simple Moral Conclusion

In the end, the only way to decide whether New Zealand’s military deployments are a form of neo-imperialism or a dedicated attempt to stabilise nations in need of our help would be to make a detailed assessment of the effects of our troops, and carry out a thorough survey of feelings towards these same troops held by the populations of Timor-Leste et. al. Thus far, no-one has done so – not the pro-troop mass media which likes to focus upon matters of reconstruction, aid and public safety, nor the socialist media so fond of calling out “imperialism” whenever we send men with guns over the seas to boss about poor people. Until such in-depth analysis is carried out, we simply do not know whether the NZDF is primarily engaged in charity or oppression. So far, the only alternative to the 1999 Timor-Leste intervention raised by the socialist media is a scenario in which the Timorese people liberated themselves from Indonesia – despite the fact that Timor-Leste’s rebel leaders publicly stated a preference for foreign intervention as it was less costly in terms of human lives. So, should we trust the military’s claim that it is saving the lives of small starving children, or should we feel uneasy about pointing guns at some of the world’s most poor and frightened folk? Since this is a student rag, it would be fitting for me to opt for the latter and say “stay away from these hired thugs.” But… the world is a little more complicated than that. Sometimes suffering people need outside help, and sometimes this help involves firepower. It isn’t pretty, and in the case of Timor-Leste, the underlying stench of profits cannot entirely be avoided. Yet motivations of both charity and greed can be present in one action. So instead of giving you some hip radical conclusion, all I can say is this: Most humans are both greedy and empathetic, and the army is no different. Yes, it does indirectly help rich nations pursue profits, but NZDF personnel are not all cruel, heartless imperialists, and many of them do strive to care for people.

The army is not a pure, idealistic humanitarian aid squad. It is founded on the idea of force, and carries guns designed to kill people. But it is nevertheless engaged in rebuilding ruined lives, so while I won’t praise it to the heavens, I will not condemn it either.

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Pin on PinterestTweet about this on Twitter

About the Author ()

Tristan Egarr edited in 2008. He threw a chair once.

Comments (4)

Trackback URL / Comments RSS Feed

  1. Sue Larsen says:

    I am sure who ever wrote this article thought they were mildy funny, sarcastic and amusing. The last paragraph was supposed to pasify those of us who thinks the Defence Force does a good job. As a person who has a tertiary education from one of New Zealands fine Universities, and a person who has a husband serving six months in Sinai to help,aid and protect people I find your article full of holes and pretty judgemental. Maybe a few months in the Territorials having to look after yourself and your mates would make you appreciate what some people do “in the line of duty” Its good that you pointed out that the army carry guns designed to kill people – most of the general public would find that enlightening and new knowledge Maybe you could point out that the Police carry batons or the Navy float in the water in ships.

  2. Tristan. says:

    Sue, you state “I find your article full of holes”

    And yet you never attempted to point out what those holes were.

    Please enlighten us exactly what you find to be incorrect.

    On your last point – no-one forgets that the navy float in ships, but it is easy to forget that the army kill people when the media only ever talk about peace-keeping. I have no doubt that most members of our army are indeed trying to keep the peace, but it is necessary to point out that this involves killing. Or would you prefer that we forgoe serious consideration of the world and instead turn outselves into the NZDF’s advertisement/PR wing?

  3. Dan says:

    As a soldier i say:
    The army’s purpose is to serve this country in whatever manner is required (within its mandate), it is a purely executive arm. Any action it initiates is a reflection of the government’s intent and through the government the will of the NZ public. We act as we are orderded to (within NZ law) by (ultimately) you, the public of NZ. Soldiers do not act like civilians we are subject to service law and a stringent code of conduct, we must always act as professional soldiers irrespective of our needs, wants or personalities. If you have problems with the work we do, then pressure the government, its your right and duty as a citizen in a democracy.

    As an individual:
    I am deeply offended by your article, particularly your attitude toward service personnel who have sworn an oath to protect you and your interests both here and overseas. Our service involves significant hardships for us, our families and friends your accusation that we are hired thugs or imperialists has so little grounding in reality that i wonder if you know anyone who is currently or has previously served. If you wish you should e-mail me with any questions or issues you have.

  4. Tristan Egarr says:

    Dan, as you say, you have sworn an oath “to protect you and your interests”. My article does not attack individual soldiers or accuse them of atrocities.

    The problem is in what our “interests” are. I believe that the soldiers in Timor-Leste are trying to do their best to help secure the livelihood of the Timorese people. But if Australia is ultimately leading the intervention in Timor-Leste to make a profit, then these altruistic aims are subservient to a much less altruistic end. Therefore, it may be that, in suffering much hardship in the name of good, our soldiers only cause more harm.

    It troubles me that you would take offence from this. Don’t we need to question why we embark on each military adventure? How are we to know if our best interests are being served if we do not question what these interests are? I totally agree that we should not simply call our soldiers thugs because they carry guns, and I did no such thing. But I repeat: we need to ask why our soldiers are in Timor-Leste, given that they are there in our name.

Recent posts

  1. An (im)possible dream: Living Wage for Vic Books
  2. Salient and VUW tussle over Official Information Act requests
  3. One Ocean
  4. Orphanage voluntourism a harmful exercise
  5. Interview with Grayson Gilmour
  6. Political Round Up
  7. A Town Like Alice — Nevil Shute
  8. Presidential Address
  9. Do You Ever Feel Like a Plastic Bag?
  10. Sport
1

Editor's Pick

In Which a Boy Leaves

: - SPONSORED - I’ve always been a fairly lucky kid. I essentially lucked out at birth, being born white, male, heterosexual, to a well off family. My life was never going to be particularly hard. And so my tale begins, with another stroke of sheer luck. After my girlfriend sugge