Soldiers Without Guns – a review

Late in 1997, the New Zealand Defence Force led a peacekeeping mission to war-ravaged Bougainville. This wasn’t it’s first ride in the rodeo, following a couple of years after its three-rotation deployment of an armoured company to Bosnia in 1994/5 and building on its history of peace support operations in Rhodesia, the Sinai, Iraq, Cambodia, Angola, Moxambique and the former Yugoslavia to name a few…

This new operation had a unique point of difference: it would be unarmed, its weapons instead would be smiles and guitars…

To be blunt about it, the New Zealand Defence Force is pretty crap about telling its stories. That’s sad because it has so many great stories to tell. Thus is falls upon independent producers to seek out and tell these stories. Soldiers Without Guns is producer Will Watson’s take on the Operation BEL ISI story, building on an earlier documentary Hakas and Guitars.

Will Watson has assembled quite an ensemble to support this story. Lucy Lawless narrates and the soundtrack draws on such Kiwi talent as Fat Freddy’s Drop, The Black Seeds, Anika Moa, Tiki Taane and Kora. The military leads are Major (rtd) Fiona Cassidy who was, from memory the PRO for the initial deployment, and WO1 (rtd) Des Ratima, who was, from the same memory, Brigadier Mortlock’s key cultural advisor. There are interviews with key leaders like Roger Mortlock, Jerry Mateparae and Don McKinnon, who was the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade at the time of the deployment.

Soldiers Without Guns is, though, very much the Fi and Des show. That’s not a bad thing and more power to them for seizing this opportunity to tell their part of this unique mission. It does however skip over the scope and scale of the operation and doesn’t really impart the sense of nervousness that surrounded it until the initial lodgement was complete.

The coverage of the repairs to the airfield runway that were only completed just before the first C-130 landed is mildly dramatic in its own right but doesn’t really acknowledge the engineers that completed these repairs in an environment of some uncertainty. The operational coverage skimps over those soldiers who were deployed, unarmed, to remote team sites to engage the local population and defuse tensions. Nor does it do anything more than hint at the logistics (my minor part was procuring the bright yellow hats two weeks out form D Day) and sustainment challenges that had to be overcome for the mission to succeed. This especially applies to the roles of HMZNS Endeavour and 3 and 40 Squadrons RNZAF without which the whole hting probably would have fallen over.

An Iroquois from 3 Sqn RNZAF in its distinctive orange mission colour scheme

Operation BEL ISI’s success was undoubtedly due to its unique and innovative approach to peacekeeping, which was based itself on Roger Mortlock’s insights and analysis of the core issues underlying the conflict – it wasn’t just about copper – and his grasp of the matriarchal societal environment into which he would be deploying. It the mid-90s, the dual themes of female leads and unarmed forces were radical and unheard of – this was a time when The RNZN still thought that Larissa Turner just needed to get over herself, and the shooters were riding the wave of the post-DESERT STORM ‘revolution in military affairs’ – and there were many internal sceptics (but try to find one now).

I don’t remember much media comment at all at the time and certainly nothing along the lines of “… this radical idea of sending soldiers without guns was condemned by the  media because they felt the soldiers would be massacred given the first 14 peace attempts had failed …” If anything, I’m not sure that the media really cared that much about an area of the the South-West Pacific that no one knew or cared much about. Similarly, I think it is misleading to say that “… the first 14 peace attempts had failed …” BEL ISI was built on the foundation of peace initiatives stretching back to the late 80s. Like many things in irregular warfare, there are few quick fixes.

The soundtrack was one of the selling points for me (pre-purchase) and I was looking forward to some pumping Kiwi sounds. The much-touted soundtrack is very subdued to the point of ineffectiveness and it would have been nice to have just the tracks as an option.

It has screened and been well received overseas.

Soldiers Without Guns is definitely worth watching. It is currently still screening around the country and it’s only a couple of hundy to arrange a screening or $19-20 to buy the DVD. It tells the story of the group of Kiwis who went off into the jungle and did something that had never been done before. It would be a mistake to think this approach can be cookie cuttered into any environment but it worked in Bougainville – that’s what Soldiers Without Guns is about…

A Kiwi story told by Kiwis largely for Kiwis…but others will get it too…