The deaths this week of three Kiwi soldiers in Afghanistan – including the first woman ever to die on combat duties in New Zealand army service - underscores the state of the defence budget. They died because they were in a Humvee when a mine went off. New Zealand hasn’t got armoured vehicles heavy enough to protect them.
Their loss brings the Kiwi death toll to five in the last three weeks Significant for a peace-keeping force, significant for a country the size of New Zealand. In a way it is unsurprising; New Zealanders have been working in Afghanistan, alongside US and other forces, for over a decade. Much of the task has been humanitarian. We’re known for it, and good at it. But the regional reconstruction teams still get caught up in the conflict. It’s dangerous work. And our Special Air Service has been actively in combat- it’s no coincidence that the only VC won by a New Zealander since the Second World War was awarded to Willy Apiata, for action in Afghanistan.
Kiwis serving with the British army have also been fighting as part of the British contingent, including the nephew of a friend of mine. He was decorated last year, by the British, for conspicuous bravery.
What worries me is that Afghanistan has a long history of chewing up armies and spitting them out. The British got it, back in the 1841-42 – the march of their army from Kabul and the solitary arrival at Jellalabad of William Brydon became legend. The Soviets learned the lesson in the 1980s.
The loss of these three brave Kiwis brings home the hard truth of war as a part of human reality. Wars have been part of the human condition throughout. Even people who don’t like fighting, whose beliefs reflect altruism, have to fight - sometimes. Imagine a world where nobody stood up to Hitler in 1939? It doesn’t bear thinking about. The generation of Kiwis who went to war then knew what war was like; their fathers had fought the First World War and been scarred by it. But they went anyway, lest the world enter a new dark age at the hands of appalling evil.
Sometimes, things have to be done to save us from a worse fate.
But it is important to ponder for a moment about how much better things would be if humanity acted with tolerance, reason and kindness. With forgiveness. With compassion. Looking back over the brutal realities of human history, I am not so naive as to suppose that the complex truths of the human condition will ever allow that to happen. There is a streak in humanity that makes us get angry and do stupid things.
But there is always hope that we can find better ways. And to me that starts by living according to those values of kindness, tolerance and reason. What do you think?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012.