I was 27 when I was called up to protect God and Country from the twin evils of Communism and African Nationalism. God had recently become a Born Again Christian, and Country was a chartered company called Rhodesia.
My first experience of war was the basic training camp at Llewellyn Barracks outside Bulawayo: it was 8 weeks of hell. The drill sergeant kept threatening to ram his wand of office up our “dung funnels”. I was luckier than many because, with my short back-and-sides, my pencil-thin moustache, and my tilted beret, I bore a resemblance to Monty of Alamein, under whose overall command our drill sergeant had seen active service, in a war he sentimentally described as The Last Effort. Whenever he looked at me standing stiffly to attention on the parade ground, his eyes misted over.
There were three categories of so-called Territorials: A, B, and S. The As were one hundred percent fit for combat, the Bs had minor disabilities like colour-blindness, while the Ss were hopeless cases and were there for one reason only: they were white, and all white males from the ages of 18 to 60 had to be called up. I was categorized B. I had two minor disabilities: I was short-sighted and I was a school teacher. According to our trainers, from the Camp Commander down to the lance corporals, teachers had no skills and were fit for nothing but cannon fodder. Consequently we became riflemen; and it was with my rifle, my “wife”, that the real troubles began.
Part of our training was a competition on the shooting range, which involved the entire barracks. I came second last with a score of 13 out of 300. The recruit, who came last, an S-category, threw an epileptic fit on automatic fire. If the moon had been a target he would have achieved quite a good score. Coming second last was bad enough but some of my rounds went into the target of the guy next to me, and he came first with an incredible score of 340 out of 300. The soldiers running the competition were so disgusted with me and the epileptic that they made us run, on the spot, with rifles held aloft, until we collapsed.
Even the epileptic beat me in the competition to dismantle and reassemble our weapons in as fast a time as possible. The winning time was measured in seconds; I was at it for nearly an hour, and the final result was something more akin to an agricultural implement than a weapon of war – and there were bits left over, one of which was stuffed into my ear by a disgusted instructor.
My punishment was even worse the day I asked one of our trainers, who used variations on the word “fuck” to punctuate his lectures, which knots we should use when tying our white surrender flags to the barrels of our FNs (automatic rifles manufactured in Belgium). My heart wasn’t in this war. I was too old to be taken in by the crude propaganda of the Rhodesian government. I knew that I was on the side of the baddies.
After basic training I was called up every school holidays and deployed to various hot spots. I stuck it out for two years then left for England with a hundred Rhodesian dollars (worth fifty pounds sterling) in my pocket and a knitted tea cosy on my head. There I applied unsuccessfully for political asylum. After all, I hadn’t made the slightest attempt to assassinate Ian Smith or to down a Viscount, or to overturn the concrete picnic tables at designated lay bys.
Most of my time on call ups was spent digging bunkers or getting drunk on warm beer; but I was involved in one contact, near a post on the Mozambique border called Vila Salazar. I have described this contact in poetry (confessional) and in prose (mocking) and I reproduce the poem below. The contradiction of being a European-African has resulted in my speaking with voices that seem, and might well be, contradictory. I’m no Billy Budd, in whose nature there was neither the will nor the “sinister dexterity” of satire.
When our section went out on patrol or to set up an ambush, we left our grenades behind so that we could fill our kidney pouches with quarter jacks of cheap brandy or cane spirit. Then we would find a “safe” spot, usually half way up a koppie, disconnect our radio (it seldom worked, anyway), and sip our way into oblivion. We were sitting ducks.
Once our platoon commander decided to accompany us and that was the closest I came, in the War of Liberation, to being shot. Some “terrs” had been spotted in the area and it was our job to track them down. The platoon commander, in great excitement, told us to look for a certain pattern of shoe sole favoured by the enemy. For hours in the sweltering heat we searched the rock-hard ground for these prints. I was fed up. I saw a cow-hoof print in a gulley and called out: “Sarge, I’ve got their trail!” Would you believe it, he ordered the rest of the section to leopard-crawl towards me. “Look!” I whispered, pointing at the cow-hoof print. The platoon commander stared at it for a second or two, and then he stood up, cocked his rifle, let off the safety catch, and took aim at me. The next few seconds passed for an eternity. I won’t bore you with the details of my punishment. Alexander Pope once said: “Those who are ashamed of nothing else are so of being ridiculous.”
Read the poem . . . Spoils of war