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Feb 19

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

I can’t say that many guys were particularly committed to the political lectures we received at 5SAI during the early 70s. Propaganda eventually palls, and if the person delivering it is not convincing, it often has no effect at all. There were a few real gems, such as our Captain’s description of us as noble soldiers, not "members of the grey, bespeckled civilian mass.” Unfortunately for him, that is exactly what most of us wanted to be! We were doing our National Service, and a substantial percentage of us were quite willing to be there doing it. We wanted have the experience of being soldiers, and we wanted to serve our country. But few of us saw it as our future...

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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Recent Blog Comments
Re: 23rd of August 1978 01h15 I remember it distinctly.
Remember that night and still hear the Red Eyes flying.
By Coenie (Sdpikes) Groenewald0 on: Sunday, November 22, 2020
Re: 23rd of August 1978 01h15 I remember it distinctly.
Hi Alistair, I have set up a Facebook page titled '3 SA Infantry B Company 1977 - 1978'. Feel free to check it out and join up. This applies to anyone else that may be interested. Thanks.
By Hugh L Hudson on: Saturday, October 31, 2020
Re: Exclusive Photo Gallery of Operation Protea added
I was at Ladysmith 5 SAI from July 1980 and was a rifleman in OPS Protea went through Ondjiva Xangongo and Pupu And was hoping to get some photos I could recognise I was in Charlie company i
By Steve Emond on: Monday, October 19, 2020
Re: 23rd of August 1978 01h15 asking for more info and pictures of the incident
We want to do a short film about Katima and would like to have more information about the town of Katima and also your thoughts on what you think shaped the region
By frank Tapira on: Tuesday, September 01, 2020
Re: 23rd of August 1978 01h15 I remember it distinctly.
I was in the mortar platoon of B Company 3 SAI based in Wenela. We, along with all others, returned fire across the cutline at Katima Zambia. I will always remember this day, like any veteran remembers as one filled with noise, but you did your job. I don't have nightmares, I remember and honour those we lost.
By Alistair Jameson on: Monday, August 24, 2020
Re: Photo Gallery of Operation Sceptic (Smokeshell) added
Die beste is maar om vir my die fotos en jou stories per epos aan te stuur na johan@warinangola.com. Die WarBlogs is 'n heeltemal aparte portaal van die www.warinangola.com een, maar as jy daar geregistreer is kan ek altyd hier ook 'n rekening met dieselfde besonderhere skep... Laat my maar net weet. Ek kom net so eenmaal 'n maand hier om gou op te vang, terwyl ek elke dag op die War In Angola portaal is.
By SuperUser Account on: Friday, October 25, 2019
Re: Photo Gallery of Operation Sceptic (Smokeshell) added
Hi johan ek het probeer regestreer.Kan nie inkom nie was ook daar saam vegroep 3 ons bev was j Jacobs het ook n paar fotos wat ek graag sal wil opsit het ook n foto van ons bev. laat weet wat ek moet doen is nie rekenaar vaardig nie kan my sel net net help. groete
By A H Du Plessis on: Monday, September 30, 2019
Re: 23rd of August 1978 01h15 I remember it distinctly.
41years later. Remember Lorry Lesch my driver, Erasmus Alpa gunner. Scary and prepare us for more later.
By Danie Rousseau on: Friday, August 23, 2019
Re: Operation Savannah
Will there be another reunion .?
By Jack on: Thursday, April 04, 2019
Re: 23rd of August 1978 01h15 I remember it distinctly.
Was a gunner in that attack . Was in 1SSB and slept in the isle on that night, in the bungalow .Ran out of the bungalow after first red eye was shot
Slept in a bunker after that attack.Still have nightmares about that attack.
By Barry Callaghan on: Tuesday, April 02, 2019
Re: An SADF Conscript Remembers the Early 70s – Part One
hi to all
just wandering if any of you served with my dad , Derick Anthony Beard on the Angola border in the 70s .
he was in the Kaffrarian rifles unit according to my mom
My Dad passed away in 2016 August and would like to find out more about his amry days
By Bruce Berad on: Thursday, January 10, 2019
Re: The outbreak for the border war
This is a great information about the history you put in here. thank you go to website
By Chris on: Sunday, December 16, 2018
1980 camp in katimo
My last 3 month camp in Katimo in 1980 after doing stints all over swa was the best of all. Slept in a bunker next to the river spying on the pont that was crossing over the zambesi river.cathing tigers in the river .
Would love to return to that erea of the world.
By Gordon Rudman on: Tuesday, October 16, 2018
I used to be able to log in but can’t do so any more.
Johan can you assist.
Thank you
By Rocky Marsicano on: Saturday, September 08, 2018
Re: An SADF Conscript Remembers the Early 70s – Part One
Very interesting read. I was also a Durban 1973 intake ( may 1973 to 4 SAI ) My experience of the whole 'boertjie - soutie ' thing was a little different. Right in the beginning there was a bit of " Wat kyk jy jou blerrie Engelsman" / " What's your problem clutchplate / dutchman" but I would say that by halfway through basic that had gone almost completely. The platoon I was in after basic was probably 70 % English 30 % Afrikaans but in reality there was no distinction at all among us. Our platoon had an Afrikaans lieutenant , the other two platoons in the company had English speaking lieutenants . There was not a man in either of those two platoons who would not have jumped at the chance to join our platoon. It sounds like a stupid war cliche but we really would have followed that man into hell and back. We loved that man and would have done anything he asked. He never shouted at us to do anything . Only ever asked and it was done. Just before we went to the border we lost him. He had to go home on compassionate leave and he never rejoined us. We all felt like we had lost a father. And here is the thing. He was also just a DP like us who started off the year before us and naturally being degreed was older than most of us. Anyway that was my experience. One other little thing. You mentioned that they were not allowed to hit you ?. No-one told the PTI's or PF instructors that at 4 SAL lol . I had the shit kicked out of me on the shooting range so hard I fell beneath the 'skietpunt'. When I clambered back the staff sgt inquired in a faux concerned way ' Het meneer seer gekry ?. Will meneer n klagte afle ?. Moet ek vir meneer n vormpie gaan haal. ??. I just managed to stammer 'Nee staff' to all three questions. I had stood up and turned around after getting a stoppage and got the man's point. Anyway this is your blog not mine. Thanks for your blog.
By john jones on: Monday, August 06, 2018