On Nicky Hager’s new book

Nicky Hager’s book launch press conference.
Video credit: Anne Russell

In late 2001, I remember interviewing Helen Clark on another subject, but took the opportunity at the close of the interview to suggest she needed to act now to protect Army chief Major General Maurice Dodson – who was then the target of a series of leaks and allegations from within the Defence establishment aimed at undermining him, and stopping him from enacting the Clark government’s defence policies set out in the Defence Beyond 2000 document. Clark’s reply: “I’m well aware of what those sharks in Stout Street are up to.” Dodson, she intimated, would be protected.

Not really, not at all. Dodson, who had been a Vietnam war hero, ended up being sacrificed by Clark, regardless. This, despite the lack of impropriety on his part (as confirmed by an investigation conducted by the armed forces Inspector-general Colonel Bob Bywater-Lutman) and despite later findings by former State Services commissioner Don Hunn that a small number of mainly Army officers had leaked documents to promote Army causes at the expense of the other services, while a competing group within the Army had targeted Dodson, and sought to undermine his credibility. The top ranks of the Defence establishment were a pool of sharks, indeed.

The Dodson case is worth keeping in mind, in the light of Nicky Hager’s latest book Other People’s Wars. If there are fantasies involved here, they are not on Hager’s side of the equation. The real and wilful fantasy is that the defence bureaucracy always passively enacts the defence policies of the government of the day, and would not have tried to subvert the Clark government’s defence stance, if given half the chance to do so.

I’m not going to retrace and re-document here the compelling evidence that Hager has amassed about (a) the blurring of lines between the New Zealand military aid and reconstruction efforts in Bamiyan and the war fighting and intelligence gathering work it has conducted there, in collusion with the Americans and (b) the blurring of lines between the surveillance actions of our frigate in the Gulf, and the US war effort in Iraq.

Suffice to say that, as Hager reminded us on RNZ this morning, the concern about such blurring is a matter of record – and it was clearly expressed in a report by Army Major-General Martyn Dunne, now New Zealand’s High Commissioner in Canberra.

The over-riding value of the book is that it solidly documents a crucial chapter in the history of our foreign policy. (It is entirely apt that it be published on the cusp of the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.) At the end of the 1990s, the New Zealand Defence establishment was being yanked, kicking and screaming, out of its Cold War mindset, and from its automatic deference to the defence priorities of our traditional allies in Canberra, London and Washington – to whom the bureaucrats in question had all kinds of interwoven filial ties.

For all of its lip service to those traditional defence ties, the Bolger/Shipley government had been happy to take advantage of the collapse of the Soviet threat and to run down our armed forces – as was exemplified by the highly embarrassing equipment breakdowns that occurred during the NZ deployment in Bosnia. Thus, the incoming Clark government was faced with two huge policy decisions. It had to (a) devise a new policy framework, given that the Cold War was over and (b) find an affordable way of re-equipping the armed forces for this new role.

The answers that Clark came up with? The new rationale for any armed forces deployment would be under the umbrella of clear and explicit UN resolutions and would thus be largely independent of the priorities of our traditional allies. Logically, the re-equipping of our armed forces for this new role would be affordable only if our armed forces became Army-focussed, with the Air Force and Navy in largely support roles. That vision was expressed in the Defence Beyond 2000 document, and Dodson was willing to enact it in the face of fierce opposition from the residue of Cold Warriors within the topmost ranks within Defence, and from its recently retired former leadership.

As Hager points out, Clark had a weak defence Minister in Mark Burton. Overall, it suited her not to confront her opponents in Stout Street, but to sacrifice Dodson and then – throughout the rest of the decade – to fund the Defence chiefs for whatever equipment needs they put on Burton’s table. Up to and including a brand spanking new Defence HQ building, no longer situated in Stout Street.

By choosing to use the happy coincidence of the economic boom to buy off the opposition to her policies within Defence rather than confront the culprits, Clark left behind the same festering problem – and has enabled business-as-usual to resume, now that a National government is back in power. Thus, in last year’s Defence White Paper, our links to our traditional allies were once again to the forefront. No need for the surreptitious subversion of the old, quasi-independent Clark-era foreign policy that Hager documents so well, and so absorbingly. The old firm is firmly back in control.

Every New Zealander should read this book. It shows us the workings in current Third World hot spots of the pattern of subservience to Canberra and Washington that the current government is busily resurrecting. And it gives chapter and verse on the brief period (punctuated by the 9/11 attacks) when New Zealand briefly sought to put some distance between it and the neo-colonial tendencies of our traditional allies. Evidently, this was an independence that the radical conservatives within our Defence forces did all they could to subvert.

I suppose we can, in some ways, feel grateful. In other countries when soldiers take it upon themselves to decide that their political masters are being misguided, they take even more drastic action. Hager has shown however, that the same tendencies are not absent from the New Zealand context. Incidentally, and as a piece of solid, instant history researched and written without government grants (and finished quickly enough to still have policy relevance) Other People’s Wars puts our professional historians to shame.

Finally, while the necessary constitutional separation between the armed forces and the executive has been touched upon in the reaction to Hager’s book, the publication has also thrown into relief a quite different constitutional issue with regard to the new Governor-General, Jerry Mateparae.

On only his second day in office, Mateparae has been drawn into explaining and defending practices within the military and intelligence organizations that he used to head. Hardly the neutral, dispassionate role, far from the political hurly burly, that the Queen’s neutral representative is expected to play.

The military are not, and never have been political virgins. What Hager’s book shows is that during the late 1990s and 2000s, the Defence establishment was a hotbed of political intrigue – and in that climate, some people in the field may well have taken a nod and wink from their superiors all too seriously, and acted accordingly.


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