When a French photojournalist captured striking images of western soldiers emerging from a Kabul firefight earlier this year, New Zealand would have been one of the last places he might have expected his pictures to make front-page news.
But the photographs were swiftly published here and caused a sensation. The bedraggled, rifle-toting commando, depicted walking away from a battle which left three Taliban dead, was New Zealand’s most famous soldier, pictured as never seen before.
Cpl. Willie Apiata, a member of the elite Special Air Services, had first come to prominence three years ago when he was awarded a Victoria Cross for having carried a gravely wounded comrade to safety across an Afghan battlefield under fire. The only living New Zealander to have received the Commonwealth’s highest military decoration, and the first since the Second World War, he became a welcome source of pride for the army in a country with a pronounced pacifist streak.
Despite belonging to the publicity-averse SAS – New Zealand’s crack special forces unit, whose activities and membership have traditionally been kept secret for “operational reasons” – Apiata was reluctantly wheeled out for a round of stage-managed media engagements to acknowledge the honour. Wooden, monosyllabic, and patently ruing every moment, Apiata trotted out the humble platitudes expected of a soldier, then retreated to his private life. Nobody registered that the newly minted hero might eventually return to the scene of his heroics.
His re-emergence, then, in the thick of a close-quarter skirmish, had an electrifying impact on a number of fronts, the most immediate and least consequential of which was to reconfigure him in the public eye as a formidable sex symbol. The image of the bearded soldier with the action hero gait and thousand-yard stare was barely reconcilable with the bristling, meticulously groomed figure familiar to the public. From the moment Prime Minister John Key, responding to a reporter’s question, confirmed that the unnamed soldier was indeed Apiata in his natural element, a surge of admiration was unleashed online.
More significantly, however, the images jolted the New Zealand public out of its innocence surrounding its government’s involvement in Afghanistan. It had been no secret that New Zealand had been a member of the coalition since the early days of the conflict, but, with the precise role of the special forces shrouded in mystery, attention had focused on the more palatable work of the regular forces, engaged in reconstruction and similarly uncontroversial duties. The sight of Apiata in the flush of battle put paid to the popular misconception New Zealand had somehow signed up for something less than a “hot war”.
No sooner had the images been published than accusations were levelled at Key and the media of endangering the troops by identifying Apiata, who would inevitably be viewed as a prized scalp. Key condemned the media’s breach of protocol and said he was not prepared to lie: “If it’s Willie Apiata, it’s Willie Apiata.” The government had foreseen the traditional silence surrounding the work of the special forces eventually becoming unsustainable in the environment of the Afghan capital, which is well populated with international media. A heated debate over the extent of the public’s right to know about the SAS’s mission was settled with Key promising a new policy of greater openness.
Earlier this month, in keeping with that pledge, he announced that 15 SAS soldiers had been embroiled in a gun battle following a bombing in Kabul. Seventeen insurgents had been killed in the fighting. A new media consensus emerged, with news outlets uniformly obscuring the faces of the soldiers involved. SAS members have since griped anonymously in the press about being “sold out” by their political masters, but on the whole the public has welcomed the greater transparency over what is being done in its name in the great, intractable conflict of the age. A base of support for the SAS mission endures, despite the now unavoidable evidence that, in Key’s words, “They’re not there to eat their lunch.”