The language, training, uniforms, punishments, food, accommodation, even the familiar stereotypes of instructors, officers, PTIs, RSMs, etc. changed little with the passing of the years. If one served as an SADF troep, one enters a familiar if not cosy world every time one reads the authentic account of a fellow conscript, even when one is separated by years and one’s particular type of service.
With the large number of varied publications now available, reading has become an enriching and rewarding experience. You were an infantry rifleman, for example, with the medic tending to your medical problems and the tiffy fixing your rifle. You saw the bats enter and leave your camp with the SWAPOs they had shot. Their paths crossed yours, but you never really got to know much of what they did or how they lived. Despite the familiar, universal culture of the SADF that you all shared, you saw, as a rule, only your little bit. Today, you can read a book by a bat or an ops medic and see yourself crossing their paths – all within the milieu of the familiar SADF way of life. Only now, more than twenty years after it all ended, are SADF ou manne beginning to be able to see the big picture for themselves.
There is always an element of nostalgia involved in recalling the past. Yes, one does re-live the experiences of those days, and feel a certain longing for the good, and even the worthwhile tough times. But for us there is more to it than just nostalgia. Unlike the Ostalgie of former DDR citizens for the good they experienced despite the communist tyranny under which they suffered, SADF soldiers fought in a real war in defence of their country. They were immersed in an intense, all-embracing way of life-and-death. This was, of course, especially true of those who were actual combatants on the Border, or who served in camps that came under enemy fire.
But even those who did not come under fire lived in a tense, pressured environment where anything could, and often did, happen. Nowhere was this more evident that when one came home to the “States” for leave, and saw life carrying on as usual, and the ignorance, even disinterest, of those whom one knew from one’s pre-SADF days. You had been through the mill of one of the world’s toughest armies. You had been involved in a real war, tramping, for example, through the bush on patrols for sometimes weeks at a time; exhausted, hungry, thirsty, under constant tension because of the attack that could materialize at any time, and the fear that your next contact, even if it were your first, could also be your last. You were a world away from them. They seemed not to have changed at all, and were often unable to grasp what you were living through as an everyday reality, outside of those few precious days at home.
The SADF affected one in so many other ways. Confronted with such major and fundamental issues, one had to come to quick conclusions about one’s love of and loyalty to South Africa, and how far one was prepared to go in the service of one’s country. It transformed pathetic little mommy’s boy sissies like myself into tough young men. It gave the rebels, troublemakers and social misfits a second chance at life. I know no former SADF-conscript who will categorically deny that the tough regime of the SADF affected him for the better in some significant way.
All this and more is very much present in Ops Medic. Steven Webb is a British immigrant who was not liable for conscription. He is interested in things military, and his younger brother’s call-up prods him into volunteering. He has a great many complex motivations, from feeling that he owes this country something for all it had given him, to a desire not to be “left out” and an equally strong aversion to not serving while his younger brother does.
He shows all the familiar fears and anxieties, and wonders on more than one occasion whether he has not made a monstrous mistake – all of which feeling I, a G5 who managed get reclassified and stay in the SADF for two years, share intensely with him, as will many others who volunteered. I remember a number of British volunteers from those days. They were without exception sterling fellows, committed, loyal, believing themselves to be doing something good and right by choosing freely to offer themselves for military service. They had none of the prejudices that often plague their South African confrères. For example, at one point Webb says:
“I had felt the antagonism between the English and Afrikaners even while at school, but I had always managed to get on well enough with these guys [the Afrikaners], probably because my Afrikaans-language capabilities were fairly well below average. Come to think of it, they still are.
But at least I tried to talk to them in their own language, and I was always amazed that they never once laughed at me for trying…[on] the other hand the English always laughed at the Afrikaners when they attempted conversational English. If some of those souties had taken the trouble to listen to themselves they wouldn’t have bothered trying to speak Afrikaans [did they actually bother? – reviewer], because it was usually far worse than any of the Afrikaners’ English”.
This, I must confess, closely resembles my own experience in Ladysmith as an Italian in a bungalow where you could have cut the hostility of the Durban English-speakers with a machete – and in which situation I made a conscious decision to become an Afrikaans-speaker.
Webb describes his experiences well, and gives a fairly detailed account not only of how one was trained as an Ops medic, but what it was like to serve as one during more than a year at the Border, mostly in Sector 1Ø, where he was based at Etale. He tells his tale with great candidness, especially about his own feelings and reactions. He is eager to go on patrols to escape the boredom of camp life, but he is not afraid to express his apprehensions and fears. He has a good quota of funny stories. He is no self-trumpeting war-hero, but reflects an endearing modesty and humility. Early in the book he paints a picture of himself as a directionless wastrel on his way to achieving nothing, and expresses hope that the army will change him. At the very end he says, “I fully appreciate that my experiences might sound tame in comparison to those of men who were caught up in the full force of the war, but I am still proud to have been a member of an elite service as an Ops medic.” But he was courageous, not the least in being so honest about his real feelings, and in his reluctance to moralise when facing difficult and ambiguous situations. And his story is far from tame.
There are one or two curious expressions and words, most of which can be accounted for by his self-confessed difficulty with Afrikaans, which was the basis of so much SADF terminology and slang. He refers to COIN (counter-insurgency) as Tuin rather than TEIN (teen-insurgensie). And I cannot ever recall addressing the RSM as “RSM”, but rather “sar’major!” or “sammajoor!” His editor should surely have corrected “plaaslike bevolk” to “plaaslike bevolking”. But I mention these things not to nit-pick; the majority of his Afrikaans usage is spot on, and for one who claims not to have spoken it well, he has taken a lot of trouble to write it correctly. As an Afrikaans-speaker myself today, I appreciate and welcome the trouble he has taken to get it all right, and he will certainly not be laughed at by me!
Just one last point. Do not be misled, as I was, by the absurd blurb on the back cover, which, to my regret, put me off purchasing the book for so long: “In truth white National Service units achieved little success in the border war against an underrated enemy…We took a boy who had just matriculated, gave him two or three months of basic training — and threw him into the middle of a country that he didn’t know, people he didn’t understand and an enemy he had never seen. No wonder he didn’t do very well.” And so on. There is none of this drivel in the book, nor is it true in fact. SADF conscripts were better trained than the author of this comment would have us believe, and for the greater part did remarkably well. Very few combatants underrated SWAPO as an enemy, as more than one account makes clear.
Don’t be fooled by the jacket. Buy the book and read it. You won’t be disappointed. Thanks, Steven.
Added with the kind permission of http://www.warinangola.com/