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Through Twitter, word-on-the-street, and a suitably mysterious Facebook private message, I found myself packed into Unity Books on a Tuesday evening like the proverbial sardine in a tin. For what? I don’t know exactly. As a Twitter acquaintance will later quip, Nicky Hager is one of only a handful of New Zealand writers who could pack out a book launch for a book whose contents are top secret.
The book, it turns out, is co-authored with war reporter Jon Stephenson, a revelation which hears many gasps from the more savvy journo crowd. It is entitled Hit & Run (cue more gasps), and exposes that a New Zealand SAS raid in Afghanistan in 2010, which killed or wounded 21 civilians, was essentially retaliatory in nature. At this point I’m finding it difficult to focus on the authors’ statements given that the room temperature has reached somewhere in the mid-thirties; this is also because I’m standing directly behind NZ literary it-girl Ashleigh Young (like a book-world Alexa Chung) and am fangirling ever so slightly. When the inevitable media melee calms, however, I can’t resist purchasing a copy of Hit & Run and settling down with it at home.
Both authors have been careful to note that this is, at heart, not a political release, despite the upcoming election, and this is reinforced by the book’s own tone. I think that many arguments about Hager as some kind of egotistical or fame-hungry political activist would easily be deflated by reading any of his works, but perhaps especially this book. Without becoming uncomfortably preachy or moralistic, Hager and Stephenson speak of honour and integrity, juxtaposing these self-proclaimed values of the New Zealand Defence Forces against the horrifying tenor of the events the book describes.
I’m not a non-fiction reader at heart and found the beginning chapter almost a little dense in detail. The wealth and breadth of research, which spans Hager’s work in New Zealand and Stephenson’s in Afghanistan, is initially rather overwhelming. However, the easy explanatory style of the book soon sees the reader settle into its contents, guiding us through the context to, events of, and aftermath of the military operation, before providing a framework for further inquiry from the Government and Defence Force.
The most significant chapter for me is when Hager and Stephenson pause to deliver “Through the Villagers’ Eyes”, which works to overcome any preconceived notions of Afghanistan, the village communities, and victims affected by the operation. This is Chapter Four, and so the book’s structure sets empathy strongly at the heart of Hit & Run.
I would suggest Hager and Stephenson’s work is strongest when it calls on a central humanity to elicit compassion and desire for justice, rather than nationalism. Perhaps my lack of patriotism shows through here, but I’m not interested in an approach that calls for an inquiry into war crimes on the basis of our image as New Zealanders, or even the values our country purports to uphold. I understand this in terms of the book’s ability and scope to act as a catalyst for action, but this New Zealand-centric focus was an angle that I felt came through a little strongly at the launch event. If we truly believe that these civilian deaths were unnecessary, that international law has been breached — then Hit & Run becomes less about our country than our humanity.
I’ve deliberately not elaborated on the contents of the book in great detail. I think that if you’re at all interested in investigative journalism compiled with evident heart and passion, you’ll read it for yourself.