Barbara Sumner Burstyn and the war in Afghanistan

If you looked at the headlines last weekend you would have heard about an “outburst” that prompted a “fury” on social media. Terrible things had been said, apparently, and everyone was outraged.

These were the comments in question;

“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”

“She 100 per cent does not deserve our respect for her flawed choices. We are not at war. We are helping America invade another country for their oil. No more than that.”

“Go to war, expect to be killed. You can’t have it both ways – oh nice little career with the military and shock horror when you get blown up.”

The comments seem to reflect a frustration more than anything else; a frustration with New Zealand’s ongoing participation in the Afghan War – which is this country’s longest overseas conflict – over a year after Osama bin Laden was executed, and perhaps a frustration of the lack of a mass anti-war movement in New Zealand, and a jingoistic media who only pay attention to the war in Afghanistan when New Zealand soldiers are killed.

While comments like this probably appear on social media all the time, rarely will they come from someone as prominent as Barbara Sumner-Burstyn, an academy-award shortlisted documentary film maker, and the former social issues reporter for the New Zealand Herald. It is unlikely that comments like this would come from the keyboard of someone of similar status in the United States, where there is a sizable anti-war movement in which veterans play a significant role.

Burstyn’s comments are understandable, if misdirected. Jacinda Baker was a 26 year old army medic, and there is no evidence that she was involved in the killing of innocent people. Rank-and-file personnel are victims of imperialist policy. However, New Zealand “peace-keeping” involvement in Afghanistan legitimises an imperialist occupation that has continued for over a decade. This occupation is propping up the corrupt Hamid Karzai government, no better for most Afghan people than the Taliban – itself originally funded by the West. Blame ultimately lies with Western governments, including New Zealand’s Fifth Labour government

Burstyn seemed to realise that directing her attack on an individual soldier was not helpful to the anti-war movement, as she was forthcoming with an apology;

“I made a … thoughtless comment for which I unreservedly apologise to the family, friends and loved ones of Jacinda Baker.

“I do not in the slightest gloat at this young woman’s death – I bemoan the tragic loss of her valuable life. Certainly my choice of words at the time was not good.”

But this is not the end of the story. Burstyn wrote on her blog about the Facebook group that was set up in response to her comments;

“On it the men & soldiers of New Zealand threatened to rape me with chainsaws, to run me over, to burn down my house and murder me. I was told I would be stalked and hunted down. They extended the threats to my family.”

“This is the black underbelly of my country. Many of these men, and mostly they were men, posted these threats as members of NZ Armed Forces. They did so with no attempts to hide their identities.”

“Not one suggested that such violence and brutality might be an extreme response to careless words. No one in authority within the NZDF acted to control their staff in this extreme version of cyber-bullying.”

The media has quoted the above comments in part but has never made this the main story. Surely to many the way members of the military have opened threatened rape and extreme brutality is of more concern than a few “thoughtless” comments. These threats were not necessarily empty either; Burstyn’s home address and phone number were posted on the page and readers were encouraged to call her with abuse. She is currently in Canada but her family have fled their home until such time as they think it would be safe to return.

“The violence and brutality of the response has made me even more opposed to our presence in Afghanistan.” She writes

“And it begs the question if the men of the New Zealand Defence force behave like this at home, what are they doing when deployed overseas?”

It’s a question that should be explored. The same day that that this was front page news in New Zealand, the New York Daily Post began a two part series looking at the issue of rape and sexual assault in the US military. Last year alone there were 3,191 reports of sexual assault in the military, ranging from wrongful touching to rape. But the real figures for sexual assault are likely to be much higher. Even US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta says he believes that because it is such an underreported crime the real number could be closer to 19,000.

“The underreporting reflects how the majority of victims are too fearful to report the abuse, as many of the perpetrators are their superiors”

“Military officials, fiercely protective of their insular, macho world and strict chain of command, have ignored victims cries for help and often ostracize or force out women who report these crimes. As a result, advocates and lawmakers say, untold numbers of women especially younger recruits who are terrified to disobey superiors feel that sex is expected of them.”

There is currently no evidence of this sort of thing happening in the New Zealand Defence Force, but the public has just been presented with ample evidence that rape culture is alive and well within the military. Rape culture is a term used within feminism to describe a culture in which rape and other forms sexual violence are common and in which prevalent attitudes, norms, practices, and media condone, normalize, excuse, or encourage sexualized violence.

“If this is the culture that is endorsed by the NZDF then it is no wonder our country is blighted with domestic violence and child abuse.” Writes Burstyn,

“When men feel free to respond to a handful of words they don’t like with threats of extreme violence then you know we are a truly sick society.”

She ends her blog post by asking the question, “Since Jacinta is the focal point there, let’s ask ourselves how she would have felt about these horrendous threats of rape and torture, mutilation and murder posted in her name on Facebook.”


  1. the workers party ? how things change , are there any workers in it ?? why do u support someone , ”who spends its time commuting between NZ and Canada “””/ the wealthy the privileged and educated !!!! be honest with your selves and call yourselves” the party for the sons and daughters of the rich with uni education as their parents are as wealthy as Midas who also cannot get a job unless its in the public service “”” i would vote for you on the basis of your honesty , how i would love to spend my time commuting between county s instead of working my guts out to pay for these parasites and getting no where
    peter coleman

  2. Brett Allen says:

    This person needs to understand the amazing work our soldiers are doing in foreign soil at the risk to their own lives and with the blessing of their families. How would you feel if it was your country that women were treated worst than the family dog. Because this is the situation of Afghan. Get your facts rights before you belittle the work of amazing service personnel who everyday in very very trying circumstances bring families and villages together to ensure not only individual but community values are not suppressed but valued above terrorism and small minded individuals, GO THE NZ Defence Force and the rest of their comrade in arms servicing in very trying countries, Are you a suppressor of equal rights??????

    • In terms of the oppression faced by Afghan women, here is a quote from a woman working in the area:

      “Under the Taliban, women were confined to their homes. They were not allowed to work or attend school. They were poor and without rights. They had no access to clean water or medical care, and they were forced into marriages, often as children. Today, women in the vast majority of Afghanistan live in precisely the same conditions, with one notable difference: they are surrounded by war.” – Sonali Kolhatkar, Afghan Womans’ Mission

      The Karzai government may be more of a friend to the West, but it’s no more a friend to women than the Taliban. Pro-women forces like Malalai Joya and the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan oppose both Islamic fundamentalism and military occupation.

      NZ reconstruction work in Bamian legitimises this prolonged occupation. At the same time NZ forces are reported to have handed prisoners over to the US for torture.

      Burstyn is wrong to blame the soldiers rather than Western governments, but she is right to oppose the occupation.

  3. A difficult situation in Afghanistan. New Zealand is not ‘making a difference,’ rather prolonging the agony. We are not the Worlds Policeman, nor should we be. The Western World has to understand that there are limits to what can be achieved by putting in an army.
    When we talk of The Taliban, I suspect we are actually discussing a whole bunch of tribes with individual war lords, or paramount Chiefs, in charge. They should be fighting each other. Instead they are fighting us. It has been so since we arrived and provided them with a target. We should leave. And we should never have gone there.

    • Really, and u know this how? Obviously u have been deployed as part of a PRT (I prob know u if that the case )? I beg to differ if u look at it now compared to when we first went there I’d say there’s a big difference, i should know I have been there twice beginning and just recently believe me there is a big difference but every other person on here who has never been there ever seems to know better!PLZ PPL don’t judge!

  4. The military uses swear threats of physical violence and rape because they deal with this stuff daily. Are that stupid that you think they sit and write a well thought letter. In life we use what strengths we have. remember cyber bullies are 90 pound weaklings something like you writers. True writer can see both sides of the story and don’t attack the innocent.

    This about a writer hacking up the memory of a sister, daughter and a soldier with a machete shaped key board.
    Your writers I feel punishment for these comments and your story no one should read your short sight garbage your worthless in the to supple the truth to the public.

  5. Burstyn summed up the situation more succinctly than I could. Don’t ever apologise for stating the bleeding obvious. NZ is there seeking brownie points in the US led occupation force and the locals like in Iraq are understandably getting very restless over western imposed puppet governments. The NZDF like other military forces is there serving the geoppolitical motives govt and it’s cronies not defending the people. If they were no-one would leave their own shores.
    For soldiers getting killed thats par for the course -diddums; no-one cries for an accordion when it’s squeezed. Expect the celebrations to be prominent next ANZAC day.

  6. Great article here.

    I think all socialist organisations and activists would agree that Sumner Burstyn’s commentary was politically accurate BUT that she was unskilled in her approach and incorrect to attribute killing directly to an individual when there is no evidence of that.

    I went and had a look at Sumner Burstyn’s blog and noticed that it’s got a Marx quote on it ‘From each according to his ability to each according to his need’.

    What actually needs to happen is that progressive people need to be able to take political lead from or be able to join a legitimate socialist party/organisation that does know how to put forward critiques on touchy subjects in a skilled way that doesn’t compromise politically.

    Progressive individuals who are detached from the class and class organisms as film producers, journalists, lecturers etc are *entirely bound* to make the kind of mistakes she’s made.

  7. So why didn’t Burstyn make these same comments a month ago, when the soldier was still alive? Burstyn is a skilled wordsmith – and I am not for one minute convinced that her comments were at all “thoughtless.” I’d bet every NZ tax payer dollar Burstyn received, that her thoughts were calculated and deliberate.

    Burstyn wasn’t being progressive or political. She is well aware the internet is a free market, and she used this media tool and a young female NZ soldier to gain herself free advertising.

    As for NZ soldiers putting threats on Facebook – well everyone knows the Police can track down cyber-bullies, and wouldn’t it be interesting to see who really was writing those threats of rape and muder!!!!!!

    Soldiers have a lot more important things on their minds, like dodging bullets and bombs, building, cleaning, shit work that no-one else wants to do in Bamiyan, Christchurch and in other parts of the world, and they are not glory-seeking themselves a name unlike Barbara Sumner-Burstyn, the academy-award shortlisted documentary film maker.

    • As an educator, middle manager, feminist and additionally the wife of a military trained aircraft engineer I have seen absolutely no evidence whatsoever of a of “rape culture” within my experience of the NZDF, in fact quite the opposite. Much encouragement is given to women and active support provided for them to excell in the “non-traditional gender” roles such as engineer, pilot etc. I think taking the comments of a few people who were unable to express their anger in an eloquent, articulate and appropriate way as evidence of a culture within the military that condonces rape, sexual violence and is anti-women is abhorrent. The screen grabs of Burstyn’s comments were pasted all over the internet – I have yet to see any of the threats made towards her. Has anyone? It seems a little odd. Something that I have failed to understand within this saga is why did she single out Jacinda? Why did she attack the one female killed? As someone who herself professes to be a feminist, it again seems a little odd that Burstyn would choose to single her out to make her point.

  8. Put things in perspective. What Sumner did, in essence, was akin to turning up to this young soldiers funeral – in front of family, friends and loved ones – to share her ‘uninformed’ views. With what was said, it’s no wonder some, or even most, would react angrily. Place yourselves in their shoes for that moment, if you can.

    She is well entitled to her opinions, I accept that (through the years I believe soldiers have fought, on our behalf, for those very rights to do so) but there is a place and most tellingly, a time for such outbursts.
    Sumner has issued an apology and then goes on to say she is disgusted at the level of violence and abuse directed at her and her family. By her own admission “my choice of words at the time was not good”. People say things, of which they show remorse for later. If anything, I think she herself, should show understanding on the comments made through social media. Lest we forget, it was not just Jacinta Baker’s name that was slandered… but every soldier past and present. And judging by the many supporters, soldiers the world over.

    To every action, their is an ‘equal’ reaction.

  9. It’s interesting the sections of this issue that you’ve focused on but “horses for courses” I guess.

    The vileness of BSB’s original comments transcend social classes & beliefs. Your description of them as a “frustration more than anything” is naive & partisan.

    Her so called “apology” was merely a platform to play the victim card & decry those who had met her thoughtless comments with idiocy of their own.

    And the thinly veiled suggestion that NZDF personnel acted inappropriately towards woman whilst serving abroad (with not a skerrick of evidence to back it up) showed that Barbara Sumner Burstyn cannot help herself.

    She may well be a darling of the activist world now but I find her beneath contempt.

  10. I find it simply amazing that some people are prepared to make uneducated and fact less baseless comments and pass them off as knowledgeable and truthful. The real shame is that these same people will be the first ones to cry for help when their world turns to crap and then will decry those that turn up to aid them. There is plenty of evidence to show the good our servicemen and women have achieved in the decade they have been in Afghanistan, and I will let this evidence speak for itself.

    I have never known a person to join the services with any greater goal than to make a difference and to help. At least they are prepared to stand in harms way in the pursuit of this and ask for nothing in return.

    As for Sumner Burstyn, she seeks nothing but her own gratification. She was after the publicity and nothing more. The drafters of the passage to which we are all commenting on are exactly the same. That they are prepared to pass judgement on the worthiness of someone who was and did sacrifice themselves in the honest pursuit of the greater good without actually being factually or morally correct is disgusting and is worthy of nothing but our utter and total contempt. What gave them this right, and what morale high ground can they claim? None and none for they are not prepared to take the action to claim the high ground.

    For those that adversely comment on the good our servicemen and women have achieved, then I challenge you to put your money where your collective mouths are……….Get off your fat butts and go over there and do better!!!! If you are not prepared to undertake this very simple action, then shut your collective mouths. Until you have done better, then you have earned neither the right nor the privilege to pass comment. Your like make me sick. You are happy to criticise, belittle and pass judgement on those who step forward to serve while not being prepared to do so yourselves.

    You are cowards, and I spit on you and your kind. I truly hope that karma comes and bites you in the place you most deserve it.

  11. Don Franks says:

    Ian’s reply there sums it up very well.

    New Zealand troops should not be in Afghanistan.
    In humanitarian terms, their mission is bullshit, dressed up by comfortable politicians and fluffed up media fronters for the interests of their business paymasters.

    Those who question that setup are not cowards, they are just working people who think for themselves and take consideration for their fellow workers in other countries.

    • all wars seem good and just at the time , afterwards they seem like a waste of time and lives , historical knowledge will show u that any war in Afghanistan will never be won , if we were not there the same people who don’t want us there know would be saying we should be there due to the 10 th century behaviour of the Taliban
      the opinion of a Champaign socialist who jets between Canada and nz is worth nothing , , especially when its a attacking a poor dead girl whose life was worth much more than the rich girl who likes to get handouts from capitalists and use quotes from marx on her site
      she is a disgusting human being no matter what politics she has ,

  12. Her making assumptions about all the threats coming from “uniformed soldiers” are incorrect. There may or may not of been soldiers who threatened but that is a wild accusation to say that they were all uniformed soldiers. I am an ex Military Police Corporal in the Army and i can catagorically say that there is NOT a rape culture in the Army. I have never felt uncomfortable or in a position where i felt uneasy. There are loads of woman in the Army and i had never in my time as a Military Police operator dealt with a sexual situation. Sumner Burstyn is an unresearched unprofessional so called Journalist. Whether you agree with the war or not does not give her a right to make slanderous comments about people she knows nothing about. In my opinion that is deffamation of character and she is criminally liable as the people who “threatened” her. Mens Rea You cannot govern a mans thoughts, that person must be able to carry out his purpose to be guilty of his thoughts. Her comments were not thoughtless either as she slandered more then one soldier in her online rants about other fallen soldiers. She is quite frankly horrible.

  13. after she was attacked she brought the blame on to “”men “” as men generally defend woman what does she expect , she quotes a comment , rape her with chain saw > well its might be disgusting but it is not serious , he is saying she disgusts him and would not touch her with his body only with a instrument , she does not mention the other comments but only the most extreme , her comments about the deceased soldier were so upsetting you can expect any comment or threat to be made against you . burstyns has a big head proberly from her constant international travel and thinks normal human behaviour does not apply to her

  14. Sumner raised a good point, maybe in a poor way. New Zealand is not ‘making a difference’ in Afghanistan. Our trops would be far better employed in the South Pacific helping people who want schols etc., not in Afghanistan where the schools and hospitals are destroyed as soon as we abandon them.

    • Hate to brake it to you but we already work in the south pacific building schools community areas etc etc you obviously have no idea what we do that’s also including these things in afghan wake up plzzzz!!!!

      • ‘The Job is not Finished Until it is Maintained.’
        To put in equipment and not have any viable method of maintaining the stuff is a total waste of money and manpower. And womanpower. Maintenance is critical. My experience was in Hong Kong. The British Army ran around putting all sorts of stuff on the outlying HK islands. Eventually I got annoyed about it and phoned up the officer responsible for the work. “How are you Maintaining the stuff?” His answer was, we dont. We go back in ten or fifteen years and do the job again.
        If there is no maintenance plan then the effort and cash is totally wasted. Which then brings me to the Pacific. We can monitor that the work is working. We can ensure cash is not wasted. We get a long term relationship with the people.
        David, please go back to school and think before you make comments that are so easily demonstrated to be wrong.

  15. thousands have made the point , everyone has been run out of Afghanistan who ever went there , it s a waste of time materials and lives . her views may be valid in fact they are , all im saying is she is a nasty big headed monomaniacal vile type , with money to burn ,
    if some one gave you a hard time , in her case it was some things written not physical could you get on the plane the next day to Canada ? how much money does this woman have ? even people with a bit of money would hide out in the south island , she is so wealthy she flees to Canada and i guess she is eating and living well there as well . she is proberly on the list of new Zealand s top 10 for being the most wealthy capitalists

  16. She wanted a reaction she got one she has her freedom of speech we have ours, we should ignore her stupidity as she is probably getting off on all this hype and attention as we speak! She’s in show business (which means she will do anything to know get recognised) to be honest she probably needed to spark her career so she created this mess! Low to say the least! Shame on you and i don’t care what happens to you and KARMA is a bigBBBBIIIIIGGGGGG bit&h lady! UNFORTUNATELY U WILL GET WHAT’S COMING TO YOU !!!! (Probably from some enraged person out there and you seem to has pissed of majority of your country so good on you!!!!)lol unlucky for you Barbara oh that’s right your the victim now!!!!woman plzzzzzz

  17. correct , it nothing to do with politics . left or right , it just another celebrated big head who knows better than all of us except how to behave in a decent manner, apparently the soldier that gave her the hardest time was next to her and a another soldier when they died , what can you expect ? a nice young girl with her life ahead of her , a medic . what has happened in the world that someone would say these things about her

  18. I find it amazing that people can talk about a military occupation and say the conversation is not about politics.

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