New Zealand television usually trails 12 months or so behind programme-makers home nations so it was only this (2009) year that New Zealand viewers finally caught up with the Ross Kemp on Afghanistan, first screened in the UK in January 2008.
Ross Kemp is an actor who played a lot of tough guys in British soap-operas and made a name for himself as a front-man on TV documentaries with "Ross Kemp on Gangs" - a sobering look at the world's criminal fraternity.
Ross Kemp on Afghanistan is meant to be a look at the experience of soldiers in the British Army in the "war on terror" against the Taliban. It is however best described as a recruitment tool.
As portrayed the British Army consists of a bunch of brainless teenagers with guns. They have the same problems organising themselves as any bunch of hapless teenagers being shouted at by their superiors. They run around shouting and shooting and generally behaving like a bunch of kids playing paintball - except that their guns can kill people.
For the average teenage boy, that looks like lots of fun. Are you tough? Can you shoot? What does it feel like to blast away with a machinegun? Woo-hoo!!
So then with heavy hearts and lots of self-conscious tele-analysis of the kind that British people seem to do when there is a camera crew standing around watching them "emote", we pack off the East Anglian company Kemp has attached himself to, to Afghanistan.
The base in Afghanistan is 20 miles in the desert. No natives anywhere near it. The boys tell stories and cope with the heat - described as "50 degree". Then we go on patrol and finally - ta-da ! a contact! In fact it must be the most orchestrated contact in the world. The British have almost played a brass band to herald their arrival in order to make sure the Taliban know they are coming. The village is evacuated and there isn't much resistance. Ross Kemp makes a poor job of explaining that the "armour" (a bunch of mine protected trucks) won't accompany the soldiers because "it would get bogged down". In reality of course it might get blown up and that would not only be a pain in the bum logistics-wise it would look pretty poor on TV back home.
So there is a bit of a battle. It looks like a company of British soldiers plus an Apache helicopter against a Taleban rearguard of somewhere between three and seven. Real bullets fly past Ross Kemp's head! An RPG-7 rocket whizzes by! A British sniper kills the Taleban RPG launcher. No British casualties are shown. Then we have lunch and cucumber sandwiches.
How did the lads cope? Well they admit they were scared but its all part of the job. Blah blah blah. Ross Kemp looks steely eyed and tough. Roll credits and show the "join the army tvc".
It made me sick. A "join the army ad" with genuine bodycount; "snuff advertising".
What made me especially angry was the sterilisation of war for the cameras. At no time do we have to deal with the real problem of "civilians". There were none in the training in Britain and none in the "contact" in Afghanistan. It was all one big game. The real children, women and old people of Afganistan cleared out of the way so teenagers could get off some ordenance.
What kind of idiocy is this? The politics of Afghanistan cannot be reduced to good guys and bad guys. Anyone who has read Ahmed Rashid's "Taliban" knows that the situation in Afganistan is complicated and that ethnic and religious sympathies combined with some truly apalling behaviour on all sides makes it a seething cauldron of revenge, tribalism and politics. The issue of soldiering in places like Afghanistan isn't shooting people, its knowing when and who to shoot. You can't treat every Afghani as an enemy but you can't treat them all as your friends either.
This was not a documentary about the war in Afghanistan. This was a Survivor series about an actor being allowed to play soldiers in Aghanistan. The Ministry of Defence who were "surprised how close Kemp's crew got to the firing line" according to Wikipedia were no doubt supressing their glee that they had acquired a recruitment doco without having to pay for it. Even more galling New Zealand television has paid for it too.
Foreigners shooting Taliban is fundamentally not going to make them go away. Foreigners have gone to war in Afghanistan for centuries and despite (or perhaps because) the country is a medieval basket-case Afghanis have kept fighting back. In other words the British Army is engaging Aghanistan in its national sport - killing people. The sad fact however is that the British Army seems to enjoy it as much as the Afghanis do. Its pointless, sickening and thick.
What was needed was not an actor trying to prove how really tough he is by trailing around after soldiers after the enemy had been flattened by air support but a journalist trying to find out how ordinary Afghanis ( especially the women) feel about the struggle between militant Islam and militant Westerners going on in their country. A journalist (woman) prepared to go somewhere without body armour and body guards. In fact someone who really does have courage. Then we might start to learn whether the actions of our soldiers in Afghanistan are actually achieving anything or not.
But that wouldn't gain any recruits for the Army, would it?