Tunnel Vision Review – Part 3

The Ammunition Theory

The big question for any conspiracy theory which seeks to explain the decision by the Government and the New Zealand Defence Force to deny or hide the existence of additional tunnels within North Head is “Why?” Whilst some conspiracy theorists start out with “The planes!” it does beggar belief to think that there is some large-scale, state level conspiracy to hide the existence of two dilapidated Boeing Seaplanes. ((Even if you think the treasure trove on them is mighty, the cost of running the conspiracy is probably mightier))

The most common, contemporary version of the North Head Tunnels Conspiracy Theory focuses on what I like to term “The Ammunition Theory”. The claim of conspiracy in this group of theories is the New Zealand Defence Force and the Government are trying to keep secret/hide that when the Army decommissioned North Head’s defences, they did not properly dispose of the ammunition.

The stock version of the Ammunition Theory is that the discarded ammunition is slowly rotting away in some hidden tunnel, and the reason why the Powers-That-Be won’t allow said tunnels to be found is because rotting ammunition is highly explosive and sensitive to vibration. Pop the tunnel open and up blows the Head. ((And down comes all those property prices in Cheltenham.)) However, Butler’s version of the ammunition theory is all about Mustard Gas.

There is a little mystery about our nation’s stock of Mustard Gas ((Yes, we had chemical weapons.)): what happened to it? The mystery is due to what looks to be a discrepancy in the accounts: we have a list of how much mustard gas we had and we have a list of how much mustard gas we disposed of, and the numbers don’t match. Butler argues that one plausible reason as to why the tunnels are being kept secret/hidden from us is that the missing barrels are deep within North Head.

The only real link Butler provides between the North Head installation and the missing canisters of mustard gas is a vague account from Ken Bartum, who claimed to have seen “sinister canisters” in a now lost tunnel inside North Head and a newspaper report. In re the first piece of evidence, it’s hard to know what to make of Bartum;s report: seeing sinister canisters is neither here nor there, since I’m not sure that thinking a canister seems sinister in any way tells you the contents are actually sinister. ((This is a bit like the “But he seemed like such a nice man” response people give when told their neighbour is a serial killer. Judging books by their covers, blah blah blah (secret plan!).))

The newspaper article is more interesting, but I think Butler infers too much into it. He links a report of man getting his hands burnt by mustard gas with the fact he did his chemical weapons training at the Narrow Neck training grounds. He thus infers that the burn occurred at Narrow Neck. However, to do this he has to infer that the description of the chemical burn in one paragraph is linked to the discussion of where he undertook weapons training in the next. Whilst that’s a possible reading of the article, it’s not actually entailed and, given the paragraph break, doesn’t even seem to be what the writer intended to convey. ((The other issue here is that the Narrow Neck base was the general training academy, so, of course, chemical weapons training would occur there but that doesn’t actually tell us much, if anything, about chemical weapon stockpiles in the vicinity.)). Even if that was what the writer intended to convey, there is still the problem of North Head and the Narrow Neck installation not being the same place, and there is no evidence to say that any the alleged canisters of mustard gas being held at Narrow Neck were shipped to North Head. If there is more evidence, it’s certainly not presented in the book. ((In correspondence I have challenged Butler to provide more evidence if he had it for a number of his claims. He has assured me that he has more more evidence but he won’t present it for the time being. Indeed, he seemed to think I should just assume he has more evidence and thus take it on trust his arguments are well-grounded. He didn’t seem to understand why I might think this is a problem.))

The presence of chemical weapons within North Head would be a fairly dramatic discovery, and if said weapons are there, you can understand why the Government and Military might be trying to keep their existence secret. Not because we might need them for some future war but because, well, chemical weapons are not the kind of thing Nuclear Free New Zealand should have access to.

The mystery of the missing barrels of mustard gas is a known problem in our military history and there are various theories to explain it, all of which explain away the discrepancy as essentially being an accounting error. However, even if there is no accounting error and there are stocks of mustard gas somewhere in the country, the evidence that they might be in North Head presented by Butler is so vague and speculative that it’s hard to credit it as plausible.

Indeed, reading through the last half of the book, I really did wonder why Butler pushed the conspiracy line at all, other than that he seemed to be looking for a conspiracy to explain why the received history of North Head is so bitsy, and thus has a number of gaps. We know there’s a lot about the history of North Head we still don’t know and might never do, although the work undertaken by the Department of Conservation in reconstructing that history has shown that, given sufficient resources, we can learn a lot. Butler, however, treats the Department of Conservation record as suspicious because he thinks the people behind the investigations were out to obscure the truth, rather than reveal it. As such, he throws away evidence from the investigations as being irrelevant and relies, instead, upon masses of what seem to be problematic witness accounts.

I’ve read the reports of the archaeological investigations, and the investigations seem sound. I’m talking here from a point of relative expertise, since my undergraduate degree was in both Philosophy and Archaeology (well, Anthropology, but specifically Archaeology as a sub-discipline of Anthropology). However, Butler doesn’t just take issue with the investigations, but also the way in which they were funded. He thinks more could have been done and that the amount of money spent on the investigations was meagre, thus showing that the reports would be a whitewash.

Butler calls the Department of Conservation investigations “beer and chips” parties because he thinks they were done on the cheap. However, he fails to contextualise the “cheapness” of the investigations. The Department of Conservation spent $140,000 on the site investigations of North Head, looking for the additional tunnels. That $140,000 was the entire Auckland archaeology budget that year. By Department of Conservation standards, the investigation of North Head was not just incredibly well-funded but it also meant that no other investigations could be undertaken elsewhere in Auckland that year.

Butler thinks the investigation was a “beer and chips” party because he thinks more money could have been spent. He says something like: “This seems to not have been as well-funded as it could have been (thus they must have decided the verdict from the beginning)” but you have to compare like with like. The Department of Conservation investigation was, by their own standards, incredibly well-funded. The only way to decide that the Department of Conservation investigation was lacklustre would be to compare it to similar archaeological work in New Zealand undertaken and then compare the costs of the investigation and the methods used. That might tell you that the investigation of North Head by the Department of Conservation was slipshod. The money, by itself, tells us nothing.

In the next, and final part, I sum up and, probably surprisingly to those reading, give my support to Butler to engage in a new archaeology dig on North Head.