As a New Zealander who worked for the Red Cross two years in Vietnam (1971 and 73-74), and later three years in Afghanistan and more than half my career in conflict and post conflict situations, I have to ask our Government yet again, “why are we in Afghanistan?” Why are we sending young soldiers to be slaughtered in a war that will never be won?
The photograph I took above is the wildest game in the world, Buzkashi, played in Afghanistan, and is about game and power. * see explanation at end of article.
I was in for Afghanistan from 93-96 during a period of anarchy up until the Taliban took over most of the country, and covered it again with frequent visits from 2000 to 2006 in my regional Red Cross position based in India. I was also in Pakistan when 9/11 occurred and ran an operation to look after Afghan refugees who crossed the border for saftey. I am not an expert on war, but have seen the increasing suffering the civilian population faces as warfare becomes more brutal, and our role as humanitarian workers becomes more complex and dangerous.
According to a 2001 study by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the civilian-to-soldier death ratio in wars fought since the mid-20th century has been 10:1, meaning ten civilian deaths for every soldier death. I suppose most of my work over many years have been dealing with displaced people, refugees, victims of landmines, and in Vietnam, where the Red Cross still is dealing with the chilling effects of napalm, Agent Orange and landmines. The chamber of horrors in the storehouses of sorrow grown daily.
There are numerous books written on the US failure in that tragedy Vietnam and the Soviet failure in Afghanistan. Braithwaite’s Afghantsy which analyses the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979-89, writes, “ The intentions of the Soviet Government were modest: they aimed to secure the main roads and towns, stabilise the government, train up the Afghani army and police, and withdraw within six months or a year.. Instead they found themselves in a bloody war, from which it took them nine years and fifty-two days to extricate themselves. Then there were the almost forgotten three Anglo-Afghan wars betrween 1859 and 1919 where the British lost 20,000 plus troops. Any researcher or politician with a modicum of common sense, through a few days of research, would come to the conclusion that no foreign power will ever bring a lasting peace to Afghanistan. Afghanistan will, as it has done many times in the past, sort out its own internal problems. So why is New zealand fighting in a war it does not fully understand, and a war that will never be concluded?
The war that ravaged Vietnam were a human tragedy of appalling proportions. I saw it first hand and wrote to the Christchurch Press in the winter of 1972 in response to a NZ army colonel, saying that New Zealand had every right to be in Vietnam and the US with our support was winning the war. I responded, almost being fired from the NZ Red Cross, saying, “the north Vietnamese and it provisional government in the south, will be governing the country in three years. I was correct and returned in March 1975 when my close friend Mac Riding, leader of a NZ Red Cross refugee team was killed along with another Swiss doctor from the Red Cross, when their plane was shot down. Sadly, we were unable to find the bobies from the grieving families.
In 1989 a former Vietcong gureilla named Van Le handed Morley Safer a US TV correspondent a poem he had in honour of those millions of soldiers who died needlessly in a war without reason:
How many American soldiers
Died in this land?
How many Vietnamese
Lie buried under trees and grass?
Now the wineglass joins friends in peace
The old men lift their glassess
Tears run down their checks.
My own family is not without its own tragic history of young men dying at war.
I remember sitting on my Grandfather's (Thomas Farrow McNatty) knee as a child, playing with a medallion on his watch . After he died my brother was given the watch, medallion and chain and it had the year 1900 engraved on it and that his platoon had won a shooting competition in my home town Dunedin. When the 1st World War broke out my Grandfather was too old to go, but five of his brothers went to the war. He told me how his mother (Hannah) and his father (John) hearts were broken when they received news that their son Henry John McNatty had died on 06 August 1915 at Chunuk Bair, Gallipoli, Turkey and buried at Chunuk Bair. Over two year later John and Hannah received word that another son, Walter Ernest McNatty died of wounds, in France, on 03 October 1917. The three other brothers - 4/2202 Sapper Charles Burton McNatty, 65117 Private Frank Kingsland McNatty, 59033 Private Robert McNatty - all survived and I recall vividly meeting two of them in the first 15 years of my life. My Great Uncle Bert Hodgson, my Grandmother's brother, who left his Southland farm in about 1898-99 to join the Third New Zealand Rough Rider Contingent, as a member of the No. 5 Company, that went to South Africa to join the British Forces against the Boers. My grand mother told me how Uncle Bert was deeply affected by that war and would never speak about it.
Then to my Father James William Godrey McKerrow who fought with New Zealand's 23rd Battalion in Egypt and later Italy during the Second World War. My Dad had a horrible war, but like many of his generation, seldom talked about it. Although he suffered post traumatic syndrome for the rest of his life with nightmares, and as children were frequent woken from our sleeps with his screams. A few years before he died, one night he opened up and told me of the horrors he witnessed.I still am shocked by what he went through.
So please Damien O'Conner, my old friends from our river running and rafting days, please raise this issue in New Zealand's parliament, and stop this killing of innocent New Zealand soldiers and innocent civilians in Afghanistan.
* Buzkashi is a legacy of the early Mongol migrations. Whitney Azoy demonstrates in his book Buzkashi how play and politics, ordinarily perceived as separate, can interpenetrate one another. Written in 1982, it gives the reader an incisive analysis of Afghan political dynamics.