Crying shame for the New Zealand army

LIFE has not been easy for New Zealand's tiny army, navy and air force since former prime minister David Lange's anti-nuclear policy provoked the United States into withdrawing all military co-operation. After nearly 40 years of rubbing shoulders with the superpower under the Anzus alliance, the snub left the armed forces feeling isolated.

The inheritors of a fighting tradition that distinguished itself on the slopes of Gallipoli, against German paratroopers in Crete, and in the front ranks at El Alamein are virtually confined to civil defence tasks at home. Yesterday, for instance, the air force was dropping hay to snow-bound sheep on mountain tops.

Embarrassing then for the army to be facing the case of the crying major. Newspapers last week were full of the sad story of a man who cracked when posted to the United Nations force in Angola. A court martial was told that after arriving in Luanda, Major Anthony Queree, 38, a 20-year army veteran, refused to be assigned to a remote, abandoned village which a reconnaissance report said was surrounded by minefields, had no water or food, no habitable buildings and an unusable air strip.

Said to be suffering agoraphobia and upset that he had been posted overseas without his wife, Major Queree broke down in tears and insisted on being sent home. The Major was charged with an act likely to prejudice service discipline or bring discredit on the army by refusing an order. He was acquitted on the grounds that he should not have been sent to Angola in the first place.

The case came as military chiefs anxiously awaited the results of an inquiry into their behaviour during a conflict with Mr Lange at the time of the May 1987 military coup in Fiji. It was revealed recently that after an Air New Zealand aircraft had been hijacked at Fiji's Nadi airport, Mr Lange had ordered an air force plane 'with sufficient military personnel aboard to act as required to protect New Zealand's interests', be dispatched immediately. The order was cancelled an hour before take-off after the lone hijacker was overpowered by a crew member. But it was clear that defence chiefs, fearing a clash with the Fijian forces who had taken over the country, had stalled.

The Prime Minister, Jim Bolger, has ordered an investigation into procedures for committing New Zealand troops to action overseas. But the military's woes don't end there. Defence spending was cut again in this month's budget. The air force is flying 25-year-old transport planes with little hope of getting new ones. And although the navy is to get two new frigates, the Defence Minister, Warren Cooper, recently speculated that it may not be given the additional two ships it says it will need at the turn of the century.

The biggest embarrassment this year, however, has probably been the failure of the army's top snipers to kill a wild dog - which has slaughtered thousands of sheep on a South Island mountain farm - after they were ordered in to save the farmer from bankruptcy. The snipers, using hi-tech night-scopes, spent months tracking the dog. They hid in sheep pens for several days and wrapped wool around their boots to hide their smell. But the dog outwitted them, and the army has now been pulled out.

(Photograph omitted)