Nothing Personal

Tonight I watched a very moving insert on Carte Blanche, about veterans of the so-called bush war ‘on the border’ around 30 years ago. These guys are now from 40+ to 50-odd years old, (no they weren’t 10 at the time, it was a long war) and some of them made a pilgrimage back to the northern areas of Namibia and across the border into Angola, where they’d fought all those years ago. In each significant spot they handed over a wooden cross which they’d all signed, to local people or erstwhile enemies and it was nailed onto landmarks they recognised, like for instance an enormous baobab which is still a landmark in that area. Even after all this time, there remain traces of their presence back then. And the landmines that everyone had a part in placing… most of them are also still there of course, in spite of the hard work of organisations who specialise in removing them. There are no animals and there is no birdsong.

In other scenes one saw these men having a great time with their Swapo counterparts from those days, around a braai fire, understanding each other as only soldiers can. Soldiers returning from the border war were not debriefed, or offered any kind of counselling; they went back into our society as they were, with many haunting memories, and deeply scarred but doing just fine on the surface. Yes there were regular reports of entire families being murdered by the husband and father, but these tend to be part of the South African landscape by now.

This doccie brought back other programmes I’ve watched, of American and Japanese people mourning their dead together at war memorials. Sometimes it’s been English and German tourists together, often ex-soldiers among them, visiting battlefields on Armistice Day and weeping together.

Then there are the battlefield tours in KwaZulu-Natal where Zulus and English descendants of the Battle of Isandlwana re-enact the entire thing with great verve and then all party together afterwards.

Aren’t we human beings strange? There’s more than one anecdote of Germans and British soldiers playing soccer together on Christmas day during World War II and then going back to killing each other the next day.

It’s nothing personal… as in Vietnam, the ‘boys on the border’ here were on average nineteen years old.

Somebody once suggested that the heads of state involved in the dispute (and only they) should get into an arena (better still, a stadium) and lambaste each other’s naked bodies with wet towels and whoever lasts longest would win. It would be entertaining – think of the ratings! …and infinitely less heartbreaking and pointless than these old men (and women, e.g Queen Victoria, Margaret Thatcher) sending young men into battle. It’s a whole industry of course. Once when I worked at an ad agency I went with the copywriter (ex Rhodesian bush war vet) to visit a company involved in the making of weaponry, outside Durban. And there were all these displays (for uh… prospective clients, I guess, one can only imagine the shadowy people who’d come to view this and their many many bodyguards because after all their own bodies are very precious) – with solid 20cm thick metal sheets showing the damage done by Bomb X compared to Bomb Y at this distance, and at this distance and, and, and. There was one little number designed to explode just above the ground to distribute shrapnel that would take people’s legs off at knee-height or finish off whoever’s already on the ground. As the dude smilingly explained to us:  ‘We kill people more efficiently.’

What could be more personal than something that’s called ‘anti-personnel?’  I want to vomit when I hear of how these boys ‘gave their lives’. When women are raped as happens in all wars, is it said that ‘they gave their bodies?’ I don’t think so. It isn’t ‘their sacrifice’ – we, their countries sacrificed them because someone’s ego had to be appeased or opposed. I know it’s necessary to fight back sometimes but… have to say that towel story appeals to me and I think it would give a lot of people pause and would certainly expose among other things, the pointlessness of it all.

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