By Eugene Bingham
Disgraced Brigadier Roger Mortlock's detailed deception to cover up the accidental shooting of a soldier included claims that one of the "enemy" had been shot.
The lengths to which the then Lieutenant Mortlock went to cover up the incident during the Vietnam War are evident in his confidential report on the incident, obtained by the New Zealand Herald yesterday.
Brigadier Mortlock, who resigned over the affair last month, wrote in his after-action report that his 14-man platoon had been ambushed by four Viet Cong troops. In fact, Lance-Corporal Malcolm Sutherland had been accidentally shot by one of his colleagues as they crossed a river in Phuoc Tuy province, South Vietnam, in 1970.
The two-page false account of the incident includes a sketch of the direction in which the non-existent enemy forces escaped.
It also claimed that one of the "enemy" had been wounded, prompting superiors to send out patrols in pursuit of a blood trail.
Dr David Dickens, a former soldier and Victoria University expert who has studied the Vietnam War, said the document further called into question Brigadier Mortlock's actions.
"This is an elaborate deception," said Dr Dickens, of the Centre for Strategic Studies.
"Every word he would have written here, he would have been thinking, `this is a lie'."
The detailed nature of the false report would have misled intelligence officers plotting the whereabouts of the Viet Cong and put other soldiers' lives at risk.
"He endangered more than just the soldiers who were wounded," said Dr Dickens, referring to the fact that a patrol was dispatched in pursuit of the "enemy."
Dr Dickens said the Chief of Defence Forces, Lieutenant-General Tony Birks, made a grave mistake when he kept a lid on the affair after discovering the truth in November 1997.
"He made a serious mistake and probably couldn't have stayed on as chief of defence forces." General Birks is due to retire this month.
But the Minister of Defence, Max Bradford, defended General Birks' actions and rejected any notion of an official inquiry.
General Birks said he had not accepted Brigadier Mortlock's resignation in 1997 because he had viewed his "error of judgment" in the context of time, and in light of the brigadier's career since then.
But Major-General Maurice Dodson, the officer who eventually demanded that Brigadier Mortlock resign and tell the Sutherland family the truth, viewed the matter as more than just an error of judgment, and concluded the brigadier's position had been compromised.
By Eugene Bingham