Brian Edwards Media

Catch 22 and the war on terrorism


Some days ago I wrote a post in the form of a short story. In the story a young man walks into a New Zealand Army recruiting office. He’s 23 and his resume makes it clear that he’s the sort of candidate the Army would welcome with open arms. The recruiting officer can’t believe his luck. This kid is officer material for sure. He tells him as much. But the ideal candidate expresses a reservation about signing up. He wants an assurance that he will never be placed in harm’s way, that he will never be asked to go to war. The recruiting officer is astonished. With as much patience as he can muster, he points out that it’s the New Zealand ARMY the young man wants to join – a fighting force. Armies go to war. Soldiers are trained to fight. Though he might never be required to risk his life, the assurance he seeks clearly cannot be given.

“I know all that, of course,” the young man says, “I thought there might be exceptions. Thank you for your patience.”

Two weeks later a hooded gunman mows down 15 people at a Westfield mall. CCTV footage will  show him  hacking off the head of a late-middle-aged man with a serrated knife before running from the complex. In less than 12 hours Isis has claimed responsibility for the slaughter.

Within 24 hours the young man reappears at the door of the Army recruiting office. The recruiting officer looks up from the papers on his desk. “You’re back!” he says, “What changed your mind?”

I read the story back, then chucked it in the bin. The idea that someone wanting to join the Army could stipulate that he must never be placed in harm’s way or be asked to go to war seemed to me preposterous. Then, in the Herald on Sunday, I read that “… The Defence Force has confirmed soldiers will be given the chance to withdraw from the controversial deployment.”

This is apparently part of being “a good employer”. Personal or family circumstances or “ethical grounds” qualified as the principal justifications for not wanting to be deployed in Iraq. Apparently this has always been the case provided the serviceman or woman “had legitimate reasons”. “Otherwise,” said the Former Chief of Army, Major General Lou Gardiner, “your mates would always see you as a person who opted out. It’s human nature.”

It is indeed. But I would have thought that “legitimate reasons” for not being sent to a war zone would include not wanting to be injured or killed. That too is “human nature”. And, as a Defence Force spokesman reminded us, “military personnel are people who have lives and families and individual circumstances that mean they are less appropriate for a particular deployment”.

Well, if you’ll forgive the term, this policy strikes me as “a minefield”. Take this example: A and B both claim “personal circumstances” for not being deployed to Iraq.  A joined the Army at 19. He is now 42, has a wife and two teenage children. His wife is expecting a third child.

B is 20, single and a relatively new recruit.

A can justifiably argue that his teenagers and unborn child  ought not to be left without a father or his pregnant wife without a husband. And he has already served his country well. B can justifiably argue  that, at 20, his life has barely begun. If he is killed in Iraq, he will never have the opportunity to marry, have a family or pursue a career or follow his dreams. He will be denied all the experiences and opportunities that A has already had.

Then there are C, D and E.

C is 31 and a fundamentalist Christian. He loves the army and wants to go on serving his country. But he cannot go against God’s commandment not to kill. Nor can he be party to training others to kill.

D is Muslim and a  follower of Islam. He claims that he cannot be involved in any deployment designed to bring harm to his fellow believers.

E’s great-grandfather was a pacifist and  imprisoned for refusing to take up arms during the Second World War. Like C he loves the army but is reluctant to take part in a deployment which he regards as philosophically and strategically unjustified. He feels compelled to take a moral stance. We are, after all, he correctly argues, not formally at war with anyone. That being the case, the “rules of war” ought not to apply – even to someone in the  armed forces.

I call this policy “a minefield” because its implementation will require the Army to make value judgements not just on the relative strength of one soldier’s argument against another’s but on the relative value of one man or woman’s survival against another’s.

Is a childless bachelor’s life less valuable than the life of  a married man with children? And should a soldier’s “ethics” really decide whether they are more or less likely to be placed in harm’s way or killed?

I would have thought not.

In the meantime, if you’re thinking of joining our army, navy or airforce, you might like to first consider getting married, having some kids, keeping your wife permanently with child and espousing fundamentalist Christianity or the Islamic faith. Definitely safer!



  1. 1

    I believe the option of withdrawl doesn’t actually apply in wartime or for the purposes of defense, and in my experience of our very competent and well regarded military, it would be extremely unlikely for one of them to withdraw of their own choice without very good reason, such as the birth of a child or a terminally ill parent. Neither are the majority of them sophists.

    • I’m not sure who you are referring to as “sophists”. A spokesperson for the army is quoted in the Herald article as saying: “We recognise that military personnel are people who have lives and families and individual circumstances that may mean they are less appropriate for a particular deployment.” My question is “Why?”

      • 1.1.1

        Usually it boils down to whether they have dependents or not, or cultural contexts (women, for example, might be problematic if required to negotiate with Waziri war lords). I suppose there are also some public squeamishness about women on the front line too, though I think this is on the way out. There is a diversity of roles within the military, many are non-active, so this is not usually a problem. If it’s a question of technicalities I am sure that their is an army spokesperson who can explain teh details.

        The idea that the military would be forced to make judgements of one soldier’s argument against another’s is sophistry because it would be so incredibly rare in our military culture. We have a voluntary professional military, so it’s already self-selecting for people who are aware of the dangers (our army has been regularly in active deployment in places like the Middle East for as long as most of our active service personel have been alive, so it’s not like it’s a surprise), believe strongly in what they are doing, have a sense of duty for their country, and don’t have a problem with what that entails.

        • If, as you say, the Army is “already self-selecting for people who are aware of the dangers… So it’s not like it’s a surprise… believe strongly in what they are doing, have a sense of duty to their country and don’t have a problem with what that entails” then why is the Army offering those same people a get-out option in this instance? And where do a soldier’s “ethics” come into it? Can a professional soldier really say: I’m against war and killing so count me out on this one”? I think the sophistry here might be on your side. Like you, I greatly admire our armed forces. My post has to do with the problems inherent in an opt-out policy for members of any army.


            Well it is something of an intellectual exercise to ask “Can a professional soldier really say: I’m against war and killing so count me out on this one”?” because as we have established the army pre-selects against the sort of person who might, hence my cheeky sophistry barb. Given the unlikelihood of that happening, I imagine the army has done the math and feels it can suck it up. In a war situation the soldier doesn’t have the option, and in other situations I expect most NZ soldiers would only request such for something reasonable involving dependents or immediate family circumstances that one would normally apply for leave for. It’s not as though it’s a new clause and hasn’t caused any problems so far.

  2. Most soldiers would start out as B and go on to become A. Christianity has been more of a fillip than a bar to soldiering historically; C sounds very hypothetical. I’ve no idea how many Ds there are in the NZ defence force, but I daresay there may be a few only. And it sounds counterintuitive for E to love the army having had his Great Grandfather’s story told to him through his formative years.

    Lou Gardiner will know more about soldiering than any of us, and his words ring true to me. Try Sebastian Junger’s “War” and David Finkel’s “The Good Soldiers” for an insight into the commitment of modern soldiers to each other, if from an American perspective.

    I rather like the idea that our soldiers have the option to go to their superiors and discuss their willingness to go and take part in a foreign war. But I doubt they would take it up very often.

  3. Its very simple. The age of patriarchs and matriarchs ordering young sons to die for them (through social and gender peer pressure), is gone (the US and UK and the Middle East are the only countries where this nonsense is tolerated). So is the idea that sons should die for women and their families. Feminism has firmly put an end to that ‘gender myth’. (AP wood will rage, but I know him well. Nonsense). Nowadays it is simple. You want to appear to have ‘guts’ socially . Then you go and feel the hot blood and the brain spatter, you have your legs shot off. You writhe on the battlefield with your innards hanging out. War is total gender role BS. And every single son who died in all the conflicts in the last hundred years started by old men, knows this fact to be true. Why do we send sons to do our dirty work?
    What our childish PM doesn’t realise is that patriarchal and matriarchal BS, is just that. Its the purest of gender lying BS.
    What and out of step patriarchal fool we have as a leader!

    • 3.1

      Have you actually bothered to ask your “sons” their opinion on the matter? It may be considerably different to yours and, after all, it is their lives. This rather does seem to be a case of baby boomers arguing with other baby boomers, neither of home are likely to end up on a front line anyway.

    • “The age of patriarchs and matriarchs ordering young sons to die for them (through social and gender peer pressure), is gone (the US and UK and the Middle East are the only countries where this nonsense is tolerated)”

      You have a peculiar view of the world.I would say that the French,the Russian and some African States to name a view also tolerate this form of nonsense as you put it.

  4. This policy may well be a “minefield” but I’m sure its one the army is well able to deal with – would you prefer that soldiers had no right at all to seek withdrawl from any deployment ever, for any reason?

    I think few would opt to use such a right, and the vast majority who join the army would actually like the opportunity to use their skills in a real-world situation, not in just in yet another training exercise.

    Armies have always had particular missions for which they seek volunteers from the ranks, with a greater or lesser ability to opt out, so its hardly unusual.

  5. I agree the Army is trying to have its cake and eat it. It should simply have said that Iraq deployment is voluntary.

    The unreliability of the army and population it is deployed to work with and train is sufficiently extreme to make this no ordinary engagement and justify use of volunteers.

    Voluntary so long as we approve is just ridiculous.

  6. To none of the previous commenters in particular:

    I have no personal experience of army life other than being a highly reluctant member of the Combined Cadet Force when I was at grammar school in Belfast. But my understanding of the concept of “army” is of a highly disciplined body of men and/.or women whose primary function is to defend their country against attack and possibly to enter into alliances with other countries to defend their communal interests or to take proactive measures to protect the interests of allies or like-minded peoples against aggression or tyranny.

    Rigid discipline, based on a hierarchical structure which requires every soldier to obey the legal commands of superior officers, seems to me to be at the very heart of army life. Without such a command structure, no army could function effectively.

    Some of these comments seem to suggest an “if it suits me” mentality in the New Zealand Army which I very much doubt exists. “Opting out” of a deployment suggests that sort of approach. “Sounds a bit dodgy, Sir. Not my cup of tea. Count me out!” More like Dad’s Army than the New Zealand Army.

    I can imagine situations where a member of the armed services might reasonably expect to be excused from a deployment – a seriously ill child or partner for example – but not the “Hands up anyone who wants to go to Iraq to help fight terrorism” mentality,, nor the “it’s really against my ethical principles to train people how to kill other people” scenario. If this is how you think, why the hell did you join the army?

    • You seem to be inventing situations without any basis in fact – on one hand you now seem to approve of the concept of requesting to be excused from a deployment, then ridicule it by imagining some farfetched reasons which might be given.

      I would have thought it would be better to congratulate the army on showing some flexibility, not ridiculing it by assuming without any evidence that it will accept ridiculous excuses.

      • Oh dear, I sometimes despair.of people accurately quoting what I said.

        “Inventing situations without any basis in fact” –

        “Personal or family circumstances or ethical grounds” were the scenarios given by Major General Gardiner as potentially acceptable reasons for opting out of an Iraq deployment. All of my scenarios fall within that definition. The breadth of the definition may be precisely why I see this as a potential “minefield”.

        “…you now seem to approve of the concept … ”

        in fact I was citing one of the very few reasons I could think of that most reasonable people would consider justified opting out a deployment – a seriously ill member of the soldier’s family.

        I have no intention of “ridiculing the army”. I have simply offered a number of scenarios that could fall within the definition of potentially acceptable reasons for being allowed to opt out. The term “ethical grounds” can include “anything that offends my moral sensitivities”. That just about covers every conceivable objection to anything. It invites ridicule.

        And yes, I did have a bit of sarcastic fun in my final paragraph. Really sorry about that,

        • No need to despair at being misquoted Brian, seeing as I didn’t actually quote you even once!

          It seems fair to say based on the above comments that you approve of the concept of requesting to opt out of deployment on some grounds, but simultaneously satirise it based on the wide criteria indicated in the Herald article.

          This post seems to be a Pythonesque reductio ad absurdum distortion of what seems a fair and reasonable, even enlightened, policy.

          Compare this to the WW1 situation in regard to conscription – it was possible even then to be excused on various hardship grounds, although extremely difficult to claim conscientious objection – I’m no expert but I believe it required prior active membership before the war of various religions.

          Sending people to war zones is a serious business, so I’m not sure if ridicule / sarcastic fun is the best way to address the issues involved. Sorry if you feel any further despair!

  7. This reminds me of the New Zealander who was a serving as an officer in a frigate in the Royal Navy at the outbreak of the Falklands War.He resigned his commission because he stated that when he joined up he didn’t believe he would be required to fight in a war.
    It always struck me as bizarre that he didn’t realise the absurdity of his statement.

  8. Perhaps soldiers if squeamish, could be offered the choice of live ammunition or blank, before going into combat. Of course the burden of their safety would then fall on those around them and they may have all taken the safe option. Probably best to leave the uncommitted at home when heading into a questionable war.

  9. 9

    Jasperdene Harmonious

    Give our boys another chance to earn a VC. Pull your buddy from a burning armoured personnel carrier — anything less is cowardice — and Hey, Presto! a medal is in the offing.

  10. Monty Python got it right again I see…