Investigative journalist Nicky Hager reveals a culture of impunity and cover-ups within the New Zealand Defence Force.
A string of current and former New Zealand Defence Force staff have contacted Hager with stories of wrongdoings they’ve witnessed – from war crimes and sexual violence to drunkenness and prohibited battlefield souveniring. “The men and women who contacted me are all thoughtful people who are not happy about the culture of impunity in our armed forces and the cover-ups they say suggests a Defence Force operating above the law,” says Hager, whose 12-page investigation is published in North & South tomorrow.
A former Special Air Services (SAS) member told Hager that Chief of Defence Force Major General Tim Keating’s flat-out denial of a botched SAS raid that led to a number of civilian deaths in Afghanistan – as alleged in Hit & Run – “was the end” for him. He was no longer able to remain silent, so sat down with Hager in Wellington to express his concerns.
He recounted another incident in Afghanistan – not covered in Hit & Run – that saw an NZSAS medic awarded a New Zealand Gallantry Decoration despite his breaching of NZDF and Geneva Convention rules in a raid that resulted in the deaths of two village boys, among other casualties. In actions that might otherwise have seen the Kiwi soldier court-martialled – medics are strictly required to keep out of offensive actions – he was instead given a medal and the incident was covered up.
The former SAS member told Hager he was disgusted by the whole thing: “Courage, commitment, integrity” – the NZDF’s espoused values – “they’re joke words and no one will be held to account over them. The SAS is the extreme end of thinking they’re above the law, that they don’t have to be accountable to others… I’m pleased to be out.”
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The former SAS member also described an extreme drinking culture within the SAS, which flagrantly ignored the alcohol ban in Afghanistan – a Muslim country – in the early stages of the war. When supplies were flown in from New Zealand, the outer layer of the large pallets would be boxes of ration packs. But much of the load, hidden inside the ration packs, the source said, was “beer, spirits, everything. You name it, it was in there. The [SAS] unit organised it all.”
And, he added, the SAS personnel drank “shitloads”.
North & South asked the NZDF if SAS troops ever drink or have drunk alcohol on base or in their mess, during deployments in Afghanistan. Their response: “Small quantities of NZSAS-branded wine and spirits… paid for privately by Papakura Camp Mess members, were taken into Afghanistan for consumption and used as gifts for coalition partners and friends.”
The current and former Defence Force members who shared their stories with Hager described other actions that point to a culture of impunity, including a “warrior brotherhood” that keeps SAS wrongdoings firmly under wraps.
Sexual abuse and domestic violence within the Defence Force are also regularly covered up, Hager’s sources said, and mental health problems have created a “ticking time bomb”.
After 17 years of deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, there are large numbers of people unwell and suffering. “Three to six months after a deployment, you start to see people with alcohol problems, domestic violence, drugs, financial problems, affairs, suicide, anxiety and depression. For a soldier to tell you all this stuff – it’s gone pretty pear-shaped,” a former army officer told Hager.
Most disturbing, says Hager, is an NZDF culture that sees serious allegations denied rather than confronted, a PR machine intent on burying bad news and a climate of fear and intimidation. “Most New Zealanders have no idea what goes on inside the Defence Force,” he says, “and this secrecy is a big part of the reason why all sorts of worrying things can occur.”