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The Bush War Veterans Blog
Feb 19

Written by: The Ancient Armourer
2013/02/19 08:56 PM  RssIcon

Lectures were not without their little rondfok jokes, too. For example: “Is daar hier tussen julle ’n elektrisiën?” One guy, who still hadn’t learned his lesson, stood up. “Ja, Kaptein!” “Skakel asseblief die ligte af!”

One of our favourite lecturers was the major who was our company commander. He really could pick on you punctiliously for the tiniest things. If you gave an “incorrect” salute while passing him he would make you go back and practice it over half a dozen times. He was the most politically motivated of them all; but on the other hand, he would occasionally finish early and give us ten minutes of precious sleep. And if one sometimes dozed off for a minute or two in his lectures, he let it pass without comment – provided you didn’t snore! Despite everything, we showed great enthusiasm for these sessions. They were a chance second to none to just sit down, switch off and enjoy a break from the relentless round of physical activity that was Basics. We took notes and wrote little tests, on Fridays as I remember. But none of this stuff was exactly mentally taxing.

This aspect of our training had some entertaining moments. We were once shown a cartoon film about all the awful things a careless soldier could pick up, from foot-rot to syphilis (no AIDS in those days). We were lectured on how an infanteris marches on his feet. We were exhorted to wash and dry our feet carefully every day, to pull on clean socks dusted with foot-powder. They introduced once-a-week foot inspection. You would pull off your boots and socks, lie on your back in the spaces between the beds and lift up your knees to show the soles of your bare feet. The Korporaal would then move down the main aisle of the bungalow and inspect your feet, using a ball-point pen to check between your toes for, presumably, foot-rot. This delightful exercise did not extend much beyond the first six weeks, but it was a source of great amusement to us. You should have seen the expression on the face of the Korporaal. It really was a most distasteful task for him![1]

It is easy to sneer at all this. But an army has to try and motivate its soldiers to fight a war. If you think of the enemy as a human being like yourself, you’re never going to shoot at him. And to risk soldiers’ lives in fighting a war one has no intention of winning is immoral. As General Douglas Macarthur said of the Korean War, “There is no substitute for victory.” So, in any war, the generals and the politi­cians use propaganda. The National Party Government did. The ANC, PAC and a host of other political movements did. The Afrikaans press did, and so did the liberal English press. MK and the SADF did. They did what countries and political parties at war have always done, including the USA, Britain, the Soviet Union and Germany.

Propaganda is an integral part of the way humans have fought war through the ages. It goes wrong when its purveyors begin to believe it to be the truth. It goes wrong when victors’ propa­ganda is turned into history. Britain is particularly inclined towards this. It is a lesson South Africa needs to learn as well. Propaganda is there for a time, and when it is no longer required, then it must be discarded in favour of actual historical truth. On this particular issue, the TRC has done a lot of good in South Africa.

But we are still wrapped in a miasma of propaganda which makes sober historical dialogue difficult in the present era. [2] The next generation, far more removed from events which are still living memories to those currently aged 35 and over, will no doubt produce its revisionist histor­ians, who will see the whole Bush War era in a very different light. They must have non-propa­gan­distic, factual sources with which to work. That is why those of us who were “there” must pro­duce written records of our experiences, in order to provide them with reliable primary materials. If we don’t, someone else might do it for us.

Recently someone came into my history classroom, saw my SADF and (East German) NVA uniforms and shuddered in an advanced and sophisticated way. “All this display of war!” they said with a slightly superior air. I pointed out that war is a significant part of human history, and that objectively, it must be taught about, its reality made clear. I could hardly, as a history teacher, pretend it didn’t exist, nor should I downplay its ugly reality. The uniforms in my classroom represent a very real war that has shaped the era in which my pupils live. The response was another delicate shudder. Yet another case of Tolstoy’s sensitive-souled lady who faints at the sight of a calf being slaugh­tered, but afterwards tucks into a veal cutlet with relish at luncheon?

It’s all very well when one’s pacifism has been protected by the likes of brutes like us ex-soldiers, who actually wore the offending uniform and suffered the regime that went with it. Such pacifism is cheap at the price, and one enjoys the double bonus of despising the military and sleeping safely at night while it fights to protect you, its soldiers filthy from weeks of tramping through the bush without bathing, half-starved on rat-packs, constantly exhausted, sleeping fitfully in the rain under a thin bivvy in a foxhole slowly filling with water, in constant danger of death and injury, in order to secure and protect that warm bed, those hot showers, clean clothes and tasty dinners that the paci­fists and their children enjoy at home.

And while the pacifist is busy despising them, the soldiers are serving out of a sense of patriot­ism and duty in order to defend their country. Given the very elevated delicacy of this partic­ular person, I wonder: how would she, her like-minded friends and their children resident in a suburb overrun be a foreign army intent on rape and pillage, feel about us soldier-brutes then? Demand to know why we are not “doing something” and then accuse us of committing atrocities when we do?

I find the clichés and caricatures of pacifists in general incomprehensible, especially the perspective that the world is divided into advanced people who want peace and the soldiers, who want war. Remember “Flower power”? And that absurd old 60s slogan “Suppose they gave a war and no-one came”? But it is in fact the very soldiers whom they accuse of war-mongering who least want war. As a troep in the line of fire, would you really want to be shot at and killed? Or live in those half-starved, filthy, semi-human conditions for weeks or months on end?

It is the thought of defending one’s own country, rather than attacking the other fellow’s, that is upper­most in the mind of an ordinary soldier. And just as the pacifists obey and admire their gurus unques­tion­ingly, so a soldier is conditioned to obey his superiors’ orders unquestion­ingly – or else in his case! Are pacifists really of the opinion that we should not have fought against Hitler, for example, simply because war itself is wrong?

I freely admit that I served two years in the SADF, and am proud to have done so. I wanted to have the experience of being a soldier, and found my mili­tary service an over­whelmingly positive experience. I remain convinced that, had we not fought the war in Southern Africa, we would today be living in a different, far less attractive country. But I cannot say that I ever served in the SADF because I actually wanted war! Nor any of my bud­dies, for that matter. Soldiering is a duty, in the case of most of us, willingly accepted; and war is, regrettably, a sometimes necessary evil for which we need to be prepared. As an ex-soldier I must admit that I find pacifists, for all their proclaimed love of peace, a far more bloodthirsty and vengeful lot on the whole than any one of my soldier buddies ever was.

In the end, the reality of military life and war makes the influence of propaganda a very short-lived affair for the soldier, the more so if he has lost one or more of the buddies he’s trained with and served alongside. A soldier knows at first hand the reality behind the propaganda he has been fed. The same cannot always be said for the cultured despisers of war.


[1] In some units, this was also done after a route march. Big blisters, like the ones that formed on one’s heels, were drained with a hypodermic and injected with merthiolate. Eina! Didn’t happen during my time at Ladysmith – we merely popped them and applied mercurochrome to dry them out.

[2] For example there is a lot about the Border War, especially its later phases, where political propa­ganda and historical truth still need to be disentangled.

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 This is one of the olifants that had been captured by the Cubans on 23 March 1988

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