Book Review: Nicky Hager's "Other People's Wars"

Published: Tue 13 Sep 2011 10:15 PM
Nicky Hager's Other People's Wars :
New Zealand in Afghanistan, Iraq and the war on terror
(Craig Potton Publishing: Wellington, 2011)
Reviewed by Mark P. Williams

Other People's Wars is about the importance of accountability. It demonstrates that the New Zealand Defence Force's actions in foreign theatres have been presented differently to the New Zealand public and government from how they have been described internally. The main issue of the book is not whether or not military intelligence is a secretive structure, or whether New Zealand should co-operate with other military interests, but what interests that secrecy actually serves and whether it is the same as the interests of the New Zealand government and public.
Revealing Uncomfortable Truths
As an investigative project Other People's Wars reveals details about the military and its political agenda that have otherwise been concealed through ambiguous phraseology and recourse to unqualified assertions of necessary secrecy. Through a careful critical attention to deciphering and demystifying the jargon and euphemism of international military activity, Hager demonstrates how ambiguity of purpose can serve the very specific goals of vested interest and simultaneously help conceal those goals from scrutiny by presenting them as natural consequences of engaging in military activity.
Hager's sources are various -- some confidential, many public, some grassroots, many from higher echelons of diplomatic and military access, some now available thanks to Wikileaks. They are all marshaled to address a precise set of points:
• What were the NZDF's guiding principles in their activities in the last ten years?
• Were they in the interests of the people of New Zealand?
• How were they actually presented within New Zealand and outside New Zealand?
• How did they actually affect the people of New Zealand?
It is worth emphasizing that the key goal of the text is revealing the disparity between popular image and awareness of the military activities of the NZDF abroad and its internal policy, as revealed through internal memos and confidential interviews. According to Hager's research, the New Zealand military not only pursued a separate political agenda from the New Zealand government, but also that it actively manipulated the information it provided to the government in order to make it appear that it was compliant with government policy. The argument of the text is that this did not serve the interests of New Zealand, that it went against the reasons the NZDF gave the New Zealand public for its actions, and that it involved the deception of the media, of the government and the people.
Hager concludes that such activities are more likely, ultimately, to harm New Zealand interests internationally and should be investigated and brought to account publically. They are based on a model of identification between the military interests of other states and those of the NZDF which Hager argues is not held by the majority of New Zealanders. It is a matter of relationship and identification.
Special Relationships and The War Machine
British politicians make much of the 'special relationship' between Britain and the US, most often in times of conflict. According to this perspective the military and foreign policies of the US and Britain are, if not identical, then necessarily linked. For all that New Zealand has many strong influences which can be identified with British culture -- and a not inconsiderable number of Brits choosing to live and work here -- New Zealand draws very firm distinctions from British attitudes and policies on matters such as involvement in foreign conflicts and the military cultures of other countries. As a British visitor, this is both striking and refreshing; it questions the conventional wisdom of such 'special relationships' and suggests that there are alternative ways of negotiating the demands of foreign policy and domestic interests.
The argument in favour of such special relationships is often that they are necessary in an age of globalisation, but this presumes that the apparatuses of military intelligence networks are the only possible responses to globalisation; this is a perspective actively reproduced by an international defence industry which dismisses alternative conceptions and which will always defer to the interests of a dominant military -- intelligence power.
Contemporary cultural theory has posited that there are structures which have developed under globalisation which implicitly destabilize distinctions of national boundary and national interest. These structures function nomadically, crossing distinct boundaries, as part of their essential function; they challenge the distinctions of national interest. A key metaphor is the concept of the War Machine, i.e. the apparatus of military thought and activity, from its materiel to its philosophy. The War Machine (the defence services and industry) is called upon by the state to act on behalf of the state, but in a number of important respects it operates as a separate entity and, ultimately, behaves according to its own interests. Through the voices of military personnel on the ground and classified memos and documentation, Hager's book exposes the extent to which military structures operate to further their own political interests within an international defence industry, outside of the direct control of the New Zealand state they purport to serve.
In the theory, the War Machine subordinates static, rooted interests to its own nomadic interest at a structural level, by crossing social and political boundaries it implicitly challenges their validity; in Hager's book, he illustrates how New Zealand interests have been affected by the nomadic behavior of US military and intelligence networks which span the globe, creating an environment geared to specific interests -- this environment forms the determining structure for the dominant directions of both the defence industry and the defence policies of nations like Britain, Australia and Canada. Hager's book asks the very important question: are the interests of the US military and intelligence networks the same as the interests of New Zealand?
The picture Hager paints is highly suggestive. Certain members of the New Zealand Defence Forces and intelligence services act in ways which are far closer to the military cultures of the US or Britain than to those of other New Zealand troops. The desire to become part of the US deployment, and part of the intelligence network directing that deployment, is clearly of overriding importance to some of the people Hager cites. Equally clearly, this is not the interest that certain other figures in the NZDF feel should be pursued, hence their agreeing to speak to Hager on the subject in the first place.
Some of the most important questions about the policy directions of the New Zealand military come from within it; their concern is that the Defence Forces are in danger of becoming distanced from the kiwi culture they are defending. Hager is very careful to separate the stories of these military men and women performing their actions from the policy decisions directing and guiding those actions. This extends equally to his acknowledgement of the distinctions between how troops from other nations are told to behave and what to expect, from how they may come to feel about their role in larger political actions.
There is a specific piece of jargon which is particularly instructive for understanding how these things fit together; it is one of the most important jargon terms in the book: 'interoperability' and it is all about joined -- up thinking.
Broadly, interoperability means the ability to co-operate, but as a strategic principle it has some very significant implications.
As Hager indicates, interoperability is 'not the same as political compatibility' (15) but its implications may actively supersede political distinctions; it refers not only to use of equipment, to training and tactics, but also to systems for processing intelligence. In this way, interoperability is not only the capacity for one military structure to work with another but also the capacity for its troops and systems to fit seamlessly into another military structure, adopting short-term tactics which will ultimately serve its longer-term strategic interests -- in this case, the capacity of New Zealand Defence Force troops to fit into the military structures of British, Canadian and Australian forces, under the umbrella of US forces and intelligence networks.
Hager illuminates the ways that, in a number of very important senses, interoperability acts to prepare the ground for further cultural overlaps with US and British objectives in Afghanistan and Iraq. The ability to facilitate closer relationships becomes a pressure towards following through those relationships. The decisions regarding troop deployment in Afghanistan which, Hager persuasively argues, directly undermine the stated political interest of the New Zealand political parties, particularly Helen Clark's Labour government, in remaining neutral on divisive issues such as the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Using a selection of sources from various levels of involvement in policy development, Hager concretely links the exchanges and interactions of co-operation with US-British forces and co-operation with US-British strategic interests. By exposing private memoranda and reports, he demonstrates how limitations, and comparing them with the overt policies which were passed by government and the covert policies on manipulating the information provided to ministers and the media on the nature of New Zealand involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Ambiguity is of utmost importance to the significance of interoperability as a phrase and its relation to the other revelations Hager makes; because interoperability 'can also be about nations being able to do such activities as peacekeeping and disaster relief together' (ibid.). The issue is one of involvement. It is in many instances one which is subject to degrees of removal and it is a very complex set of relationships which Hager unpicks very carefully over several chapters. In charting the historical development of the NZDF's relationship with US military and intelligence officials since 2001, Hager demonstrates how army and naval structures have, for years, been determined by the expectation that New Zealand forces will operate within the overarching structures of US led forces around the world. This appears at odds with the political dissent from US political decision-making and the independence of spirit that is in many respects presumed to be a part of the national character, as determined by prominent public statements and exhibitions such as those found in Te Papa, which celebrate New Zealand's stance against nuclear proliferation.
Other People's Wars suggests that the active pursuit of a capacity for interoperability with British, Canadian and Australian 'traditional partners' was a prime motivation for limiting the information passed on to the media and to the government; he argues that the NZDF sought to increase its engagement with US interests, gaining visibility and prominence as an American ally, while concealing this goal from its government by presenting its primary activities as geared purely towards increased peacekeeping and infrastructural support presence. Such purity and limitation of purpose is impossible: Interoperability and military conditions within an overarching supply structure allow for slippage not just of definitions on paper, but of actual roles on the ground -- much the same way that vague goals and objectives can lead to 'mission creep'. The specific functions of supply and support and the overarching ends of aid delivery or military delivery can be presented as highly distinct in Public Relations while still operating as part of the same structures.
Hager's book details a myriad of ways that the 'updating' of military equipment and training was geared towards the goal of increasing potential engagement with US interests. Using the example of deployment in Afghanistan, Hager shows in some depth how the central confusion over the actual activities of military personnel -- the precise terms and conditions of their deployment -- was employed both to exaggerate their contribution to activities such as infrastructural aid and development (often minimal but presented as the main justification for their presence), and also conceal their connection to the supply chains of US directed military command.
Hager spends some time on key examples; here are two brief summaries of significant instances.
# # # # #
December 2001: New Zealand air force personnel are given approval to act as part of an air lift support in Afghanistan, seconded to British command, mandated by the UN as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) aiding the Afghan Interim Authority (AIA).
As far as most people are concerned back home in New Zealand, this is distinct and separate from overt, invasive military functions which would not be mandated by the UN. British Foreign Minister Jack Straw had 'promised the Security Council in writing, that the ISAF would "have a particular mission authorized by a Security Council resolution that is distinct from Operation Enduring Freedom" [Jack Straw, Letter to UN Secretary General, 19 Dec. 2001]' (81, n. 51). However, by being part of the British command -- as Hager says, 'The Royal Air Force was a very bad choice of location for New Zealand peacekeepers. As the United States' closest ally in this war, Britain was anything but neutral'(79). Because the New Zealand forces were placed within the operational command of British interests this meant that when the British interest turned from support for the UN mandated mission towards Operation Jacana, a Royal Marine 45 Commando -- led offensive which formed part of Operation Enduring Freedom, then the activities of the New Zealand loaders also changed focus. Hager quotes the joint forces commander Martyn Dunne expressing concern with the 'blurring' of distinctions between these politically very different missions.
The blurring of such lines appears to be systemic.
March -- May 2003. The New Zealand frigates the Te Manaand Te Kaha are deployed in the Persian Gulf/Arabian Gulf region. The nature of their duties are called into question in Parliament, asking why the ships were involved in escorting ships that were part of the Iraqi invasion.
According to the statements made before Parliament, the frigates were there to defend shipping against potential terrorist takeover. Hager's sources reveal a few more specific details about the actual orders the ships were acting under: 'escort duties, boarding operations, force protection, management of detainees and self-defense', particularly 'High Value Unit escort operations' [Commander Andy Watts, 'HMNZS Te Mana Operation Ariki Deployment Report' 28 March 2002](121, n. 45).
Hager informs us that 'High Value Unit' has a very specific meaning for the US Navy and Coast Guard: 'US Navy/NATO Aircraft Carriers, submarines and Military Sealift Command sealift and pre-positioned vessels carrying ammunition or other critical cargo' [Joe Direnzo, 'Maritime anti -- terrorism at the crossroads on national security and homeland defence', National Defense, 1 Feb 2005] (121, n. 47). Similarly, frigates have a primary purpose of defending larger ships against attack from submarines and other threats: their purpose is wedded to the existence of larger military vessels to escort. They are, perhaps primarily, concerned with interoperability; the decision to maintain and update frigates is primarily a decision to stay connected to the Navies of larger military structures.
# # # # #
Other People's Wars asks to what extent it is possible to separate military activities into different sectors with different goals once they are in action?
From Hager's research, it appears that the Public Relations side of the NZDF acted as though such a separation were easily possible. The internal communications Hager highlights suggest contrarily that easy separation was a functional impossibility in some instances, but this was withheld or omitted from information presented before Parliament or the media.
The reason for this comes down the meaning of phrases such as 'Civil-Military Operations'.
Civil-Military Operations
Interest is everything; there must be reasons for engaging in any given activity which benefit those involved in a directly traceable manner in order for that activity to be justified. A military justification for an activity and a political justification for an activity may be completely at odds but both allow it to take place. Other People's Wars indicates that Public Relations is an important part of military considerations, aimed at leading political decisions and justifications to the same end goals by manipulating the justification.
Hager describes the ways humanitarian aid and military intelligence are designated by the same military rubric as 'Offensive Information Operations', in US and British military manuals. These place 'Civil-Military Operations', that is aid or humanitarian operations, 'alongside psychological operations [Psy Ops], electronic warfare, deception and, interestingly "Public Affairs" -- public relations and media activities' [Coalition Operations Manual, Ch. 4 -- co-written by New Zealand delegates at the American-Britain-Canada-Australia Armies (ABCA) meetings](177, n. 12). In other words, not only are humanitarian activities to be understood as attempts to win 'hearts and minds' of locals by actively engaging with people on the ground, bringing useful gifts, asking how they can help, but also being seen to be doing this by media sources are described as part of the same mechanism. The press releases and reportage of New Zealand activities in Afghanistan are to be considered parts of the same organized campaigns of information acquisition and control.
A problem which Hager highlights is the way that these activities operate counter to the New Zealand traditions of peacekeeping work. They are derived from a US policy of linking the provision of aid to attaining military goals such as acquiring intelligence about 'insurgents' or 'Anti-Coalition Militia' (310), a tactic which Hager reports aid agencies as finding distinctly counter-productive and dangerous to the provision of aid since it makes humanitarian organisations potential targets -- a reason cited for the reluctant withdrawal of Medicine Sans Frontiers [US leaflets in Afghanistan linked aid to co-operation and, consequently, aid staff came under attack(see 261-62)].
Social Responsibility and Social Media
Not everything in Hager's book concerns secrecy. Hager praises the actions of military personnel both for acting conscientiously, questioning their actual and perceived functions, and responding thoughtfully to their orders -- they, and we, want to be able to have faith in the decisions which affect their lives.
Other People's Wars shows that the same means which enable or facilitate the dissemination of secretive intelligence can also facilitate its revelation and its critical analysis. This is particularly interesting in Hager's chapter on the working relationships of intelligence personnel and their affiliation to various agencies (US National Security Agency, UK Government Communications Headquarters). It provides fascinating insights into their professional interconnection (anonymously), and humanises them in the process, reminding the reader that Hager's book is not about faceless machinic structures rolling over the world but about people and people's choices within systems.
Hager concludes with the express wish that his text should contribute towards better understanding of New Zealand's place in the world -- it expresses the desire to share uncomfortable truths in order to allow people to make more critically informed judgments about those who represent them in the world. This book is a call for increased autonomy and understanding; it will resonate with people from many different backgrounds and deserves both careful reading and a wide readership.
Postscript: Response and Reaction
The political responses that Hager's book has garnered deserve some mention, since they inevitably colour the reader reception of the text itself.
The reaction to Hager's book has so far been dominated by two distinct polarised responses: on one hand, a generalised repudiation without entering into any kind of discussion, and, on the other hand, a more specific attack on what they perceive to be the central argument of Hager's book ("the NZDF uses secret intelligence and that this is inherently bad"), by staunch defences of the uses and importance of secrecy and co-operation with other military intelligence organisations. Neither approach actually engages with what Other People's Wars is saying; Hager's central questions concern representation and accountability in an increasingly globalised world.
Hager asks:
1) To what extent do the activities of co-operation by unelected military and intelligence officials go against the express wishes of democratically elected government officials?
2) To what extent do these actions therefore run counter to the national and cultural interests of New Zealand?
From this, the further questions follow:
3) Do these actions actually harm New Zealand's standing internationally as a consequence of following the interests of other national military and intelligence structures?
4) Will these matters be addressed in a public inquiry or similarly open and accountable forum?
The involvement of the US and its allies such as Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand in Afghanistan and Iraq has posed a great many awkward problems of justification and motivation to all those concerned. Hager's book suggests that addressing these issues remains necessary; the reaction to his book only serves to underscore this point.
Finally, then, Other People's Wars emphasizes the importance of accountability and representation for maintaining the political neutrality of organisations devoted to public service. The book argues very powerfully that the attempt to use information to further political interests can take hold of any organisation and ought to be subject to checks and balances.
Mark P. Williams is an academic with interests in contemporary literature and politics who has recently moved to New Zealand. His PhD was entitled 'Radical Fantasy: A Study of Left Radical Politics in the Fantasy Writing of Michael Moorcock, Angela Carter, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison and China Miéville'.
Mark P. Williams
Political Journalist and Independent Academic Researcher
Journalist and independent academic researcher with primary interests in politics and literature.
As a researcher I am a contributor to various academic publications, including Alluvium journal of 21st century literature, The Literary London Journal, The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies, and Critical Engagements: Journal of the UK Network for Modern Fiction Studies (UKNMFS).
As a journalist, I have worked as Parliamentary reporter for Scoop Independent Media and International editor for the Scoop Review of Books.
Contact Mark P. Williams

Next in Comment

Hang On A Minute, Mate
By: Philip Temple
Cheap Grace And Climate Change: Australia And COP26
By: Binoy Kampmark
Funeral Rites For COVID Zero
By: Binoy Kampmark
Dunne Speaks: Labour's High Water Mark
By: Peter Dunne
Our Man In Washington: Morrison’s Tour Of Deception
By: Binoy Kampmark
Melbourne Quake: Shaken, Not Stirred
By: Binoy Kampmark
View as: DESKTOP | MOBILE © Scoop Media