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Herald on Sunday Editorial: No good ranting without facts

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Barbara Sumner Burstyn may have stepped over the line with her inflammatory Facebook comments. Photo / Michael Craig
Barbara Sumner Burstyn may have stepped over the line with her inflammatory Facebook comments. Photo / Michael Craig

Everyone is entitled to their view on the war in Afghanistan, the more so given the death of five New Zealand soldiers there in the past few weeks. The continued presence of this country's Provincial Reconstruction Team in Bamiyan province and the whole point of the United States-led international force continuing to fight the Taleban are matters of valid debate.

However, filmmaker Barbara Sumner Burstyn stepped way over that line with her inflammatory Facebook comments. They were woefully awry in terms of both accuracy and respect and could hardly have been more ill-timed.

Sumner Burstyn's target was Lance Corporal Jacinda Baker who, with Private Richard Harris and Corporal Luke Tamatea, was killed by a roadside bomb. "Oh, so fallen soldier Jacinda Baker liked boxing and baking - did they forget she also liked invading countries we are not at war with, killing innocent people and had no moral compass," Sumner Burstyn wrote. "She 100 per cent does not deserve our respect for her flawed choices."

Among Baker's choices was to join the Army as a medic five years ago, and to serve subsequently in the Solomons and Afghanistan. The latter posting involved working as part of a team whose main mission lies in projects associated with infrastructure, health, education and agriculture. Again, the effectiveness of this work may be debated, as may how much of it will endure once the Provincial Reconstruction Team is withdrawn from Afghanistan next year. But its role should be portrayed accurately. So, too, should the motives for New Zealand's involvement. "We are helping America invade another country for their oil. No more than that," wrote Sumner Burstyn. Afghanistan has no oil.

Just as damningly, Sumner Burstyn's Facebook message coincided with the arrival at Burnham of the caskets of the three soldiers. As her words were gaining attention, soldiers wounded in last month's first fatal attack in Bamiyan were paying their respects. In the circumstances, it was unsurprising that her message was greeted with a torrent of online abuse.

It was, of course, unacceptable that some of this response, including from Defence Force personnel, also stepped over the mark by inciting violence against her. This represented a departure from a professionalism that soldiers pride themselves on.

Members of the Provincial Reconstruction Team will have personal views on whether they should be in Afghanistan. Some, as in the earlier conflict in Vietnam, may think what they are doing is futile, and that their best efforts will count for nothing if a resurgent Taleban eventually claims power. But they continue to do their best because of a pride in their job and the purpose they derive from this. That characteristic demands the utmost respect.

It got nothing of the sort from Sumner Burstyn, of course, even in her half-hearted apology. Initially, displaying a staggering lack of self-awareness, she defended her comments as mild. Later, while saying she was "especially sorry to the family, friends and loved ones of Jacinda Baker at this very difficult time", she could not resist a comment about the "brutality and viciousness" of Baker's comrades' online posts.

She continued in the same vein later in the week, alleging she had been ignored when she contacted the New Zealand police and the Defence Force.

Certainly, the public was never going to ignore Sumner Burstyn's wretched outburst. In a few short weeks, the country and its small military force have been rocked by the death of its first female soldier in combat and four of her male colleagues, all in an area previously considered remote from the worst of the fighting in Afghanistan.

Both the tone and timing of Sumner Burstyn's obnoxious outburst could hardly have been worse.

- Herald on Sunday

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