The story of the War on Terror is riddled with controversy and failure. From the moment two passenger planes were flown into the Twin Towers in New York, the West has been challenged over its ability to meet an ill-defined enemy with conventional militaries in asymmetric warfare.

From the false reasoning behind the war in Iraq to the horrors of Abu Ghraib prison, there have been events that have undermined the moral claim Western democracies have held to as their purpose for a conflict that has consumed a generation.

Now, we have our own suggestions of a scandal in a new book, Hit & Run, from journalists Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson. We have been told that the estimated 25,000 civilians killed in Afghanistan now include six people whose deaths fall at our feet. Those six people include a 3-year-old.

As in other countries, the scandal has escalated from individual soldiers to embroil their commanders and then politicians who sent them there. It is right they do so. In democratic societies, soldiers do not place feet on the field of battle without the blessings of their democratically elected governments.


New Zealand joined this global war cautiously. Our contribution to Iraq was at a careful distance with engineers used on PR-friendly infrastructure projects. In Afghanistan, the NZ Special Air Service was deployed to deserts and mountains effectively as gatherers of intelligence.

Our most high profile contribution was in Bamyan, high in the mountains to the northwest of Kabul, where a decade was spent running a Provincial Reconstruction Team that helped replace a destroyed infrastructure. Carefully, we navigated the troubled waters of conflict which has sprawled across the world.

But as our involvement in Afghanistan progressed, so did our closeness politically to the United States. The NZ SAS mission shifted from intelligence gathering to mentoring to taking the lead role in combat actions. It would have been difficult, as our role shifted, to stay clear of those same sins which have bedevilled our allies.

We now stand at a crossroads, one which mimics the roadmap laid out by the authors of Hit & Run. The book is a story of two parts - one which deals with the attack said to have left six dead and 15 wounded and another which claims it was covered up. The NZ Defence Force has bluntly rejected the deaths of any civilians on the August 2010 raid. Both cannot be true.

As a nation, we face a choice. The first part of our story is behind us.

The second part of our story is what we do next. Our allies have not always acquitted themselves well in this regard.

It is no small matter for governments to halt the business of running the country for introspective study into events which have passed it by. On occasion, it is critical we do so. Inquiries are a health check on our democracy and the War on Terror has infected some of the principles which underpin the democracies of allied nations.

Historically, we have prided ourselves on doing better. Now is our chance.