Cocktails and corporate warriors

The following article appeared in the Otago Daily Times on 9 November 2010 in response to reports of private “war games” for businessmen with the SAS in exchange for donations.

Of all the embarrassments that have defined New Zealand recently, the SAS “weekend warrior” episode is the one that jars the most. It had a disturbing edge to it. Guns and money may be necessary evils, but they rarely mix well.

The revelations corporate CEOs were treated to a “fun day” at the SAS headquarters in Auckland, in exchange for a donation for a trust fund, does not make happy reading.

Coming on top of a few weeks where we have seen the country’s top defence scientist resign in bizarre circumstances, followed by the Government making up laws on the hoof to pander to a foreign multinational, it makes one wonder if New Zealand will be the first banana republic that doesn’t even grow bananas.

Any student of history will know that when “elite” military units butter up with wealthy private interests, it is never a good sign.

There is a lot of flag waving and chest thumping which surrounds the SAS.

This serves to quieten down any questions about what their purpose is.

They are risking their life and limb for civilians, we are told, so we should just be grateful and let them get on with the job.  Some of us wonder exactly what the job is when the SAS disappear to exotic destinations most Kiwi’s would have trouble finding on a map.

Part of this job can involve killing people, and as they do it in our name, it seems reasonable that they be held to the highest standards and accountability.

That’s why the media story of how corporate CEO’s were allowed to “hang out” for the day and play war games is so disturbing.

How is it that some private financial company can pay for privileged access for their clients to the military?

One awestruck CEO, despite instructions to keep quiet about his big day out, blabbed happily to the newspapers, not exactly proving his mettle under enemy interrogation.

According to this source, the corporate warriors were given special treatment because the army considered them “key players in export markets.”

I suppose one could see the logic in this. Most of our recent military deployments overseas are nothing to do with New Zealand’s security, but instead are about filling our role as a loyal minion of superpowers in order to get free trade deals signed.

Given that most New Zealander’s of my generation are paying 25 year mortgages to Australian owned banks, it does occur that maybe the focus on our national sovereignty and security should be a little closer to home.

Still, decisions about New Zealand’s economic export markets are the responsibility of the civilian arm of the Government. Not our commandos.

No wonder New Zealand is an economic basketcase when our so-called executives spend their days playing soldiers, while the rest of the population are toiling in the mundane reality of our low wage economy.

The fun and games the managers got up to on their day out of the office were on the sinister side.

The CEO’s were put in a darkened room and SAS agents in night-vision equipment removed selected “terrorists” from the group without anyone hearing them do it.

The corporate guests were also given access to SAS firearms and allowed to shoot at human cut-outs.

I wonder if any of our entrepreneurial giants had the guts to say, “No thanks. I’m just an accountant. I’m not interested in target practice on pretend human beings.”

But probably everyone just got into the spirit of the occasion and let rip with some taxpayer-funded hardware.

I also wonder how many women were in the group. Or was this a mission for the guys only?

The day apparently concluded on a civilized “James Bond” note with cocktails and handshakes with Willy Apiata VC.

What a curious contrast to the war zones of the world, with the carnage, the pain, the disease and misery, the “collateral damage” of dead civilians, the body count of “freedom fighters” or “terrorists” – depending on which side you are on. The families ripped apart.

Once private interests start building “special relationships” with what is supposed to be a high security, low profile section of the armed forces, we are walking onto a shadowed path.

A few simple questions need to be answered by the report Defence Minister Wayne Mapp has asked for.

Such as is this the first time this has happened?

Is someone in charge of the SAS or do they just do their own thing?

What security vetting was given to those attending apart from the fact they have fat wallets?

Who operates the Trust that the funds were paid into, and should private money – especially corporate funds – have any role at all in the armed forces or its associated trusts?

And what on earth is the Defence Ministry thinking when it says the SAS has “aligned itself with top-performing New Zealand organisations to share leadership skills with high-calibre and high-performing New Zealanders who strive for excellence.”

The SAS should be “aligned” and more importantly responsible to the people of New Zealand and our values – which are far deeper and more diverse than a bunch of corny capitalist mission statements.

The military, if they have a role, is to serve the instructions of a democratically elected Government and hopefully abide by the Geneva Convention.

Rather than soaring with the eagles, by the time this Dad’s Army pantomime has played out the participants will look more like turkeys flapping around on the ground in anticipation of early Christmas.

But despite the typically Kiwi buffoonery, the implications of this incident are serious.

You can only serve one paymaster.

Let’s hope that the SAS shut down the black tie operations and get their marching orders out of corporate hospitality business.

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