Why Bill English has done the hard thing, with Hit & Run

It's too easy to call an inquiry just to put the questions to bed, so the Prime Minister has called it right. Why put people through the mill without incontrovertible evidence?

I don't want to be disrespectful to a fellow pundit, but to my mind Bill English has got it right by deciding not to hold an inquiry into allegations that New Zealand soldiers may have committed war crimes in Afghanistan. The evidential threshold just hasn't been met.

The ‘Hit & Run,’ exposè (a collaboration of Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson) made claims which if true would worry many New Zealanders and opened up a call for a full and open inquiry. Forgive me for being cautious. 

Inquiries are like torture chambers to those being investigated; they should not be called unless there is incontrovertible evidence to justify the call. Holding a inquiry just to ‘clear up the issue’ is not justified. The default position should be that we back those from amongst us that serve and risk their lives for our country.

I do have one reservation; that is whether or not the NZDF were upfront in their statements on cilivian casualties. Having long said concerns about civilian deaths were "unfounded", the NZDF now says it appears there "may" have been some collateral civilian casualties that occurred during the overall raid. But that is one of those dreadful consequences that unfortunately occur around such actions; that is not what most understand as the deliberateness and hatefulness of a ‘war crime’.

Maybe its an age thing, but I am getting cynical of calls for inquiries anyway. Usually there is a hell of a smoke in these claims, but damn all fire.

In the Hit & Run case, the Chief of the Defence Force, Lieutenant-General Keating, was overseas at the time the book was released with much PR hype just before the 6pm news.  There was no one about with the authority and knowledge to immediately answer the claims made in the book. After some days of media intensity, with different angles from different commentators putting different spins on the ‘evidence’, the Chief of the Defence Force returned and was genuinely grilled by the press.

I have seen cases before when the media have the blood up – that was all there. But I have to say Keating seemed totally on top of the subject, and was able to be specific and precise about where the book had it wrong. His responses were both substantial and credible.

Once he had spoken, the tone of the conversation quickly shifted. The continuing calls for an inquiry sounded increasingly desperate; hairs were being split all over the place. I heard one commentator saying the issue had been raised so we needed an inquiry to put it to sleep. That would justify an inquiry every time an issue was raised. OTT to the highest order.  

Like most New Zealanders, I hold New Zealand soldiers in high regard. Maybe it is a small country thing. Maybe its something in the water. But I am sure our soldiers instinctively behave better than soldiers from most nations on earth.

If soldiers everywhere adopted the New Zealand military culture, I feel very confident we would not see just horrible and dishonourable activities like the torture and prisoner abuse case that occurred at Abu Ghraib, when a relatively small group of US soldiers turned despicable in Iraq. Our soldiers are not perfect – nobody is – but I would like to see real evidence that something genuinely went wrong before an inquiry of any sort is organised. And after Lt-Gen Keating’s credible explanation of what occurred in Baghran Province, the real evidence necessary to justify an inquiry is not there.

And let's not miss that there is an irony here. From the politicians' point of view the easiest answer to a call for an inquiry is to agree – that quickly shuts down the issue. By the time it emerges from the convoluted inquiry process the world will have moved on and the personalities that might be held accountable if there really was a problem will be long gone. Or you get a Cave Creek type conclusion – the problem was caused by ‘systemic failure’; the whole system is to blame and no-one is accountable.

The hard thing to do in this circumstance is to say ‘no’ to the screams for an inquiry.  As it is so often the case, the hard thing to do is the right thing to do.