Willie Apiata, the “Jesus gun” and other secrets

War hero Willie Apiata is back on the frontline. New Zealand troops are armed with so-called “Jesus guns”. Our troops are training Afghan soldiers and police in counter-insurgency operations. Now, why shouldn’t we know that?

The healthiest development of this month has been the sudden emergence of some real public debate about our military involvement in Afghanistan.

Thanks to a French photographer’s accidental exposure and Prime Minister Key’s deliberate confirmation, we now know that war hero Willie Apiata is back in the battle.

Thanks to an American television network’s investigation of stories that have been bobbing round the blogosphere for the last four years and the confirmation of the New Zealand government, we now know that New Zealand troops in Afghanistan are carrying the controversial “Jesus guns” – weapons fitted with a special sighting system that has biblical references cast into its casing by the American manufacturer.

Thanks to a Norwegian general’s revelation, we are finally getting some parliamentary questions asked about the role our SAS troops are playing in training Afghan army and police personnel to counter the Taliban – Al Qaeda insurgency that threatens to overturn the nearest thing the Afghans have to a recognisable form of government.

At long last, we have some real argument running over the public’s right to know about our troops’ involvement in the war that is being fought in our name in that dusty, graveyard of empires called Afghanistan.

Let’s dispose of the easiest issue first – the parliamentary questions that John Key can expect to field when the House resumes sitting on 9 February. Did the SAS fire shots during the recent defence of Kabul? Were they on a joint mission with Afghan commandos? Did the Prime Minister break a promise he made last year when he told the people our elite unit would not be mentoring Afghans by fighting alongside them?

Key will fend off these questions with ease. He says he has been advised that the SAS had a very limited role in the Kabul battle and fired no shots. There is no evidence to the contrary. He will stand by the policy of not revealing operational details of SAS activity. He will point out that his statement about mentoring related specifically to involvement in the controversial International Security Assistance Force effort to embed foreign specialists within newly trained units of the Afghan army or police to carry out mentoring during their operations in the theatre.

The Prime Minister will have more trouble with questions about those blessed “Jesus guns”. Since that story hit the American networks last week, the New Zealand Defence Force has gone into overdrive. We had quick confirmation that NZDF has 260 of the rifle sights that the American media revealed had been marked with biblical reference code numbers, such as JN8:12, a reference to the Gospel of St John chapter 8, verse 12: "When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, 'I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’”and 2COR4:6, Second Corinthians 4:6 of the New Testament:"For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ .”

It summons up a schoolboy’s vague memory of the bloody history of the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny in India, provoked by rumours that grease-coated paper cartridges troops were required to open as they were loaded in the new Enfield rifles had been coated with the fat of cows or pigs – one, offensive to Hindus, and the other offensive to Muslims. Just imagine the capital that Al Qaeda and the Taliban could make out of the new, biblically enscripted weapons that the “infidels and crusaders” are now employing against the true believers of Islam.

“Inappropriate,” said John Key. "Undesirable,”echoed Defence Minister Wayne Mapp. “Yes, sir,” said NZDF headquarters, and promptly ordered our troops to grind the references off the sights. If they had only waited another 24 hours, they would have known that the good Christian American manufacturer had pledged to provide a corrective kit to US forces in the field and to foreign military forces that have purchased their product. I hope NZDF HQ discovers this news much more quickly than it took them to recognise the hidden propaganda potential of their “Jesus guns”.

Finally, let’s turn to the most difficult question. Should our news media have published the photo revealing that Willie Apiata is back in Afghanistan? I would not have known it was Willie Apiata if the Prime Minister had not confirmed it, and I would not recognise his companion sans helmet and shades. The NZDF’s complaint that the photo could put the VC winner in jeopardy as a highly-prized scalp should be directed to the prime minister rather than the hapless Herald editor who published it as the image of the unknown New Zealand soldier.

The real bottom line is that the NZDF put Willie Apiata in jeopardy by acceding to his request for a return to combat duty in Afghanistan. If Apiata had the misfortune to be taken prisoner there, he would have been required under NZDF operational procedures to provide his captors with his name, rank and serial number to gain protection as a prisoner of war under the Geneva Convention. A quick click into Google, and any half-able Taliban or Al Qaeda commander would soon know the scale of the prize scalp in their hands.

Let’s work through another scenario. What if Dexter Filbin of the New York Times had been even better informed about the identity of the New Zealand soldiers he spotted strolling through the smoking battlefield in the centre of Kabul? Imagine what he would have made of the presence of a recognized war hero, the subject of an NZDF/SAS endorsed television documentary, the poster boy of NZ SAS recruitment campaign. It would have been the stuff of international headlines – a scoop that our media could not and should not ignore despite the NZDF’s self-serving claims about a gentleman’s agreement with the New Zealand media to protect the identity of SAS troops and the nature of the armaments.

If NZDF sincerely wishes to keep the operations of the SAS in Afghanistan secret, then it should have assigned them to covert activity in remote areas – not to helping the Afghan army or the police in countering terrorist raids or hostage-taking in the country’s capital. Or it should have instructed them not to wander bareheaded and photographable through the debris of an urban battle scene that had to be a magnet to the resident and visiting media.

Other countries are developing special force joint operations doctrines to cover publicity management in awkward situations like this. Our defence gurus should follow their lead instead of using the local media for cover.