Scoop Review of Books

The Angelic Face of War?

NZSAS – the First 50 years by Ron Crosby
Penguin Viking, 2009, $65.
Khaki Angels – Kiwi Stretcher-bearers in the First and Second World Wars by Brendan O’Carroll
Ngaio Press, Wellington, 2009


My grandfather’s war began shortly after he won the Wellington Cup at Trentham in 1940, and ended in the North African Desert, captured by Rommel as a part of the NZDF Expeditionary Force there, after which time he was captive in Germany as a POW. Two of my maternal great-uncles died in the mud of Northern France during the Great War, as well.

Both these recently published histories made me reflect on the experiences of these family members and the impact they made upon my life.

I found the stretcher-bearers’ histories – many based on interviews with surviving members – more sympathetic, although the illustrations are the kind that were never shown in the press at the time. The medical corps took many who didn’t want to see active service or fire a shot at war, including conscientious objectors and those with minor physical failings – but as a consequence of tending wounded and dying, and dealing with battlefield corpses, they were more often right at the front lines.

Khaki Angels sympathetically describes the horrors encountered by these (mostly young) men, however some of the photographs are not for the faint-hearted.

I would recommend it for teaching history at secondary level, but not to younger children, however keen on military history they are.

Grosby’s book is more of an official Crown history, and of a hagiographic style. He has published a biography of the leader of the Arawa Flying Columns, a 19th century unit used to chase Te Kooti and his followers into Te Urewera; and other publications extolling the Crown’s military endeavours over the past hundred or so years..

I found this history of the NZSAS to be astounding, not just for the meticulously ordered details of history disclosed, but also for the elisions and omissions which I found just as fascinating – merely by comparing reports of the 2003 deployment to Afghanistan to the descriptions in the text, having myself been a keen observer of the NZSAS during that time, in my personal and political roles as a feminist peace activist.

This is indeed myth-making of the highest order for one of the most secretive secure mission forces on the planet. Don’t think Doyle and Bodie, of the BBC TV series The Professionals of the mid-70’s based on Britain’s MI5 and MI6; think rather of shadowy, ‘black ops’ personnel, able to do a PM’s bidding without showing on the official records or bringing disrepute to the government of the day.

Recent media reports, such as that published by the Taranaki Daily News in July, 2009 , or the articles in The Economist of August 2009 , are less sympathetic to the actions of the US troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan – NZ forces are being made to answer to orders that sit uneasily in both the service members’ and the public minds.

These matters concern both the public and the politicians, as evidenced by questions asked in the House on the 5th August, 2009 by Keith Locke – which went substantially unanswered by Bill English, standing in for the PM – about whether the NZSAS could have contravened the Geneva Convention by handing over Afghan prisoners to the US forces without sufficient regard to their possible mistreatment in US jurisdiction, back in 2002. There are rumblings in Europe about possible actions to be taken at the Hague, with regard to War Crimes trials of those who unjustly persecuted and tortured the inmates of US forces’ Abu Graib, Bagram Air Base, and Guantanamo Bay detention centres.

This is not covered at all in the descriptions of NZSAS actions in Afghanistan, or elsewhere in the Persian Gulf, during the period 2002 – 2005 in the closing chapters of the history. Perhaps an update to this missive will be required in some years’ time, in order to correctly reflect the actions of the least transparent arm of the NZDF. There may be less ‘gung-ho’, and a little more reflection on how once more, NZ forces have been used to advance the aims of another State, without benefit to our own country or people, in the guise of improving our defence relationship with the ‘superpowers’ of our global military treaty networks.

But I won’t be holding my breath to see this written by the author of this piece of professional PR for our SAS forces, described by former CO Tim Keating as “a small, anonymous unit, … (who) would not stuff up any chances offered to us”, when he personally requested incoming PM Helen Clark for extra resources for his Unit in late ’99 on her first visit to the SAS base to review the Unit. He continued “It was a great opportunity for marketing the SAS – one of the best we had had with a new political broom … I distinctly remember her taking an immediate and active interest and taking her notebook out of her handbag and taking notes … She certainly had a very different attitude to the Unit right from the start than did Max Bradford [former National Govt Minister of Defence]”. One of the many very telling quotes in the book .

I suspect that this is news to anyone who listened to the former PM’s frequent denials in the House that we had any resources committed to the “Coalition of the Willing” in early 2003, when demonstrations against the Invasion of Iraq by the USA were snowballing all around New Zealand, occurring with monthly frequency in most cities and a few of the larger towns.


  1. Hon Max Bradford, 30. October 2009, 11:45

    Whatever Col Keating read from my comments to him in his retelling of our meeting, he got it wrong. The SAS in fact received increased funding during my time as minister of defence, and was never denied resources – unless of course his other Army colleagues convinced the Chief of the Defence Force otherwise. I have no idea what PM Clark did but I doubt whether she would have denied funding requests either.

    Col Keating was not privy to other debates on funding for the defence force at the time, so he could not have known that there was a “vigorous” debate between the 3 services for new equipment. What he couldn’t know then was the significant increase in funding for the defence forces re-equipment programme announced by the National government in 1999, including the Army.

  2. Kerry Tankard, 30. October 2009, 16:33

    Hi Max,
    thanks for stopping by.

    Sorry, I can’t do anything about what was published in the book, Ron Crosby’s your man if you want to take issue with how the events were represented.

    I suspect that what Col Keating was referring to was the increase in mobility that the unit gained while on active service in Afghanistan, which is detailed in the later chapters of the history, from 2001 to 2005.

    I thoroughly reccommend that you seek out a copy of the book, you may find various representations of the Unit’s activities to be as amusing as I did, for the ‘spin’ that has been put on the reality of how it all was.
    Or not, if you don’t have my kind of sense of humour.

    cheers, Kerry

  3. Dex, 1. November 2009, 16:44

    NZ Army…

    Pew pew pew

    Oh look, it’s just hard to be scared about the idea, really.