Book Review: An Unpopular War

An Unpopular War, is a readable, though regrettably lightweight reminiscence of the Border War and service in the SADF in the 1970s up to the early 1990s. Subtitled Voices of South African National Servicemen and From Afkak to Bosbefok, first time author JH Thompson interviewed about 40 men, not all conscripts for her debut work. The book is dedicated to Guy Sajer “and other forgotten soldiers”, the reference being to an Alsatian Frenchman obliged to serve in the Wehrmacht during World War Two because of his German mother. His book, The Forgotten Soldier is widely regarded as a classic, though some now dispute its authenticity. Sajer served with the Grossdeutschland Division in Russia. As a private, he seldom had any firm idea where he was, or why.
Thompson copies this approach and – as is the case with Sajer`s book – it is both a strength and a weakness. The absence of dates, proper unit descriptions, full names and the like adds to universality. But it also undermines the value of the book – and allow for claims that cannot be verified from the printed material. An Unpopular War generally identifies interviewees only by first name and age, for example “Paul, 18.”

Thompson`s approach has much common with the (British) Imperial War Museum`s Forgotten Voices series (there is one for each of the World Wars), but these include a full name, a unit (RAF, 5th Punjabis), a theatre of operations (Burma, Mediterranean) and a year (1939 to 1945), thereby making the oral histories of actual participants more relevant and more useful to historians. It is verifiable and can therefore be used as source material. Neither Sajer nor An Unpopular War passes this test and in the case of the latter work this is a great pity.

The reviewer served as a NSM during 1987-8 and spent most of that period at Ondangwa in northern Namibia. While many of the descriptions ring true, particularly those relating to training, others are difficult to accept, particularly those dealing with purported atrocities. As previously said, these are impossible to cross reference or verify on the evidence provided.

The SADF was a reflection of the society it was drawn from and its NSM corps included people from all walks of life, including the sociopathic. It is therefore a “no-brainer” that orders, prescripts and doctrine went out of the window when convenient – or when too much booze was around – and that locals – and the enemy – suffered indignities beyond the exigencies of war. It is also true that the guilty parties were in most cases not punished – and most likely will never be.

However, it still irks that what appears to be unverified tales of woe and atrocity were included. Those who have the experience can tell the BS from the truth, but most others, including the many NSM who were never near the Border or in the township cannot. These are uncritical times and much that is sheer nonsense has gained popular acceptance. This is even more of a worry as the book went to the printers at least eight times in 2006, indicating that commercially it is certainly a success.   

This may indicate there is a market for such reminiscences – and the timing may be right. The border conflict lasted from 1966 to 1989 and the South African civil conflict from 1960 to about 1996. The highpoint of the war was arguably the years 1986 to 1989 – twenty years ago. The majority of ex-NSM are now established in life and middle age. Most have forgotten the unpleasant of that experience and regale in the happy memories of two intensely formative years in their young lives, “the best two years you don`t want over” as many subsequently described what amounted to a rite of manhood.                        
Thompson asserts in her preface that “today, it is not socially acceptable for these men to talk about their experiences.” This is certainly reminiscent of the decade after the US abandoned Vietnam and may give rise to the incorrect view that the SADF “lost” the Border war. But that is a discussion for another time. Relevant here is that the reviewer has not experienced this social unacceptability for himself. Whether talking to former NSM, “PFs” from that era, former insurgents, the current leadership of the SANDF or colleagues at the office, most are interested in that period and ask pertinent questions. So, let`s reminisce! 
JH Thompson
An Unpopular War
Zebra Press