Watch Out for the Tall Tales of War By Tracey Barnett ©May 2011


I have a cautionary tale.

Once upon a time, a long time ago, our government sent troops to fight the bad guys in a far away land.  They stayed and stayed.  They stayed so long that we got a new government and a new leader who decided to send back more of our best fighters to this dusty country.

As you can imagine, when almost a decade had passed, with costs now at about 35 million dollars a year, some good citizens were becoming doubtful this was still a good thing.

Our new leader thought about it.  We trusted him. He said he would think hard about our “exit strategy” before he sent in more good fighters.  He said he wouldn’t put our fighters in dangerous risky “mentoring” roles with less-trained local fighters. He said our elite fighters would have a “very limited” role in battle. He said he was keen to withdraw our larger contingent of nation building troops who “suck[s] up a lot of resources”. He went on television. He talked to the press.  He reassured his citizens. He said all these things around July of 2009.

His loyal Defense Minister reassured us too. It would be an “unlikely event” that our country would take any more prisoners and hand them over to the country’s notorious prisons.  We got smarter.  We learned there were widespread reports of electrocution, beatings with steel rods, stringing up detainees, mock executions and rape.  We didn’t like the sound of that.

Long ago in 2002, our troops had made the unfortunate mistake of handing over 55 prisoners in good faith that they would be treated well.  It turns out, it didn’t quite work out that way.  Even our own soldiers complained of prisoner abuse to authorities—twice.  After all, we were supposed to be the good guys, not the ones handing over prisoners to other “good guys” who torture them.

An award-winning journalist wrote about it in-depth in 2009.  His Kiwi colleagues applauded him for digging so deep. It didn’t feel right that our good country may have been unwittingly complicit in torture.

So our leaders came up with a plan.  They said, let’s just make sure it’s the host country that does the actual arresting.  That way, we won’t feel so bad if detainees are sent to a bad place and beaten.  They just won’t be our prisoners in the first place.  And so it came to pass.

After all, our leaders are smart men.  They looked around at their partner countries in this long war and realized they, too, had run into big problems transferring prisoners to bad “good guys”.

In the UK, the High Court has now ruled their soldiers can’t hand over their prisoners anymore to certain local authorities who have a reputation for torture.

The Danes are having problems too.  An ex-detainee is suing them after he was handed over to American authorities who tortured him in 2002.

Indeed, about the same time as our leader was deciding to redeploy our elite troops in 2009, Canadian MPs were fighting with their own government to release documents from one of their senior on-the-ground diplomats who was still worried about what he was seeing.  But when he testified, the Canadian Defense Minister’s office dismissed the diplomat, saying he “did not come across as credible.” **

Time passed and frankly, we got even more tired of reading news of a very old war.

Then, one quiet Sunday morning this January, I read something quite strange. This little story said our elite commander was just awarded a big prize by the Americans for making more than “60 high-risk arrests” in “deliberate detention operations” while partnering with local fighters.  That’s funny, I thought.  That is certainly a little different than what our not-so-new leader had once told us he was going to do.

High-risk, partnering and mentoring local troops, detention—I wondered if anybody remembered.  Our Prime Minister managed us with very different messages three years ago. Those were the very things our leader had so confidently once reassured us we wouldn’t be doing.

I know this because that same dogged journalist who had continued to work on the story on and off for four years, wrote another article this month in Metro Magazine.

Fearing that nothing much has really changed since 2002, opposition parties jumped up and down and called for an independent inquiry.  But what did our now older new government say?  No.

In fact, our now wiser leader went on television and said something funny, something I now realise I’ve heard before.  It was a brilliant move. He tried to make the journalist the story. It almost made us forget to listen to the real one. Jon Stephenson, he began, “is not a credible source.”

It’s a good thing our Prime Minister warned us against the credibility of that journalist, because as we all know, in any good land the most important thing is trust.

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