This is a great book that I really enjoyed. The author, Evan Davies, was a National Servicemen in the South African Defence Forces, fighting as an armoured infantryman in the border wars in Angola and Namibia in the early 1980s. This is a subject about which I know comparatively little and this is a cracking insight into it.
After a brief description of his early life in South Africa, he soon moves to the description of being called up and then entering the heartless training system for the South African infantry. He neatly captures the issue of being an ‘Englishman’ in a Boer Army; much of the conversation described is in Afrikaans (thankfully, there is a glossary and on-page translations!) and much of it is routinely abusive. Physical violence is common, as are seemingly random punishments and quite brutal training methods; this, coupled with a quite spiritual approach (far more so than you would see in the British Army), seems to produce the soldiers that the SADF wanted. They are tough, dedicated and disciplined.
The narrative moves on to the fighting and opens with a first contact that shocks the author and his peers, being on the wrong end as they are of a well-planned and –executed ambush. This is followed by patrolling, dealings with other units and the local people, Lariam-inspired nightmares and, by way of contrast, quite excellent descriptions of the environment that he finds himself in. This latter element captures both the terrain that they are serving in and the flora and fauna that come with it and occasional mundanity of life in the bush. This contrasts neatly with a quite superb description of an ambush on a larger enemy force and a private’s eye view of waiting for and then going into action.
The ending of the main narrative explains the issues with the conscript system; as the discharge date for all the National Servicemen approaches, bonds between friends start to fracture and discipline starts to deteriorate. This is clearly upsetting to Davies, especially when he manages to visit a badly-wounded friend. The change in his friend troubles him deeply and is readily apparent.
The epilogue details the author’s view that the border wars were akin to being South Africa’s Vietnam. Not in the sense of shocking defeat nor in widespread division in society but in how a nation treated its soldiers; as a conscript, Davies was sent to war in defence of his country, risked his life, saw his friends die and then returned to a society that ignored him and his fellow soldiers.
I recommend this book to everyone. Students of the era will find it a very useful addition to the bookshelf and others will simply find it absorbing. It is a quite superb description of soldiering from another time and culture.