Does seeing help believing?

New Zealanders and other Western countries have during the past few years increasingly questioned their military role in Afghanistan.

The reasons for invading Afghanistan, and Iraq before it, were debated at the time, and have continued to be divisive.

Involvement in foreign conflict was perhaps ''easier'' to justify the decade after the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001.

Any doubters were simply reminded of the horrific scenes when terrorism was visited in new and terrifying ways on ''home'' soil, in supposed safe havens.

But the deaths of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden did not end the violence and, as the death tolls mounted in each country, it has been increasingly asked whether the cost has been worth it.

In terms of the US alone, the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University put the estimated economic costs for the US's wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan at $3.1 trillion and counting.

The human cost is sobering: more than 6656 US troops have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, as have at least 3000 private contractors working for the US. Many more die after their return.

The US army suicide rate has doubled in the past decade and is now the leading cause of death in the army. Of Afghan, Iraqi and other Allied forces, more than 23,000 have died since 2001. And of course there are many tens of thousands injured.

When New Zealand soldiers started being killed - and it became clear we were not only involved there in a peacekeeping capacity - it hit home for the people of this country, too.

There were more questions about our role, our ethics, our legacy, our equipment, our training and skills, our patrols, the safety of those on the ground, and the decisions being made by army leaders and the Government.

There have been more questions in the past few days, particularly regarding the reasons for the unprecedented public release by the New Zealand Defence Force of a video showing a firefight between NZ troops and Afghan insurgents.

The August 4 attack occurred in Baghak last year and was described as the biggest battle involving our troops since Vietnam. A court of inquiry praised the soldiers, despite two of six wounded being injured by friendly fire.

Lance-corporals Pralli Durrer and Rory Malone were killed in the firefight.

The same inquiry also considered an August 19 incident in which Lcpl Jacinda Baker, Private Richard Harris and Corporal Luke Tamatea were killed instantly when their Humvee ran over an improvised explosive device.

The bodies were flown on different flights to Christchurch, and during a pathology examination a live grenade and two 9mm rounds were found on one of the bodies.

There have been suggestions the release of the video was a damage-control PR exercise by the army.

Certainly the release was unusual. The army has said it was done for reasons of greater transparency and education, to show the public the difficult terrain our troops are in, and the chaos that can ensue in a combat situation.

Lcpl Durrer's grandfather said the footage helped their family understand what happened as it ''brought it to life for us''.

But it is hard to imagine the families themselves, or even the public, are unaware of the realities of combat, given the wealth of reporting, writing and footage readily available.

Of course if there are those who have really been in the dark about the nature of conflict, seeing may help believing.

Rather than the video helping New Zealanders purely understand the situation, it might also make them ask more questions.

Why did we go there in the first place?

What could we hope to achieve in such an impenetrable landscape?

Should we be involved in such a mission again?

There are no easy answers, and regardless of the rights and wrongs, the video does show us what many already knew: war is ugly, terrifying, chaotic, and deadly.

And those in the firing line, who face it in the name of our country each day, are courageous beyond belief.

 

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