Thursday, 16 January 2014
Morality of Border War goes unquestioned
By Gary Baines
The body of literature on the "Border War" has grown exponentially in the last decade or so. These writings have included veterans' memoirs, novels, unit histories and military histories.
Leopold Scholtz's work falls squarely into the last category for he posits that his The SADF in the Border War 1966-1989 (Tafelberg, 2013) is "primarily a military rather than a political history".
He labelled the approach of those who argued that major changes were determined by the outcome of significant military engagements as "battle-centric" history. Scholtz does not fall into this trap but he comes close to doing so.
Scholtz is well qualified to write a military history of the border war but he feels a need to defend the role of historians in providing balanced, well-informed accounts of the border war against those who uphold the authority of the eye witness as somehow inviolable.
Contributors to the recent collection of SADF veterans' writings compiled by (retired) General Jannie Geldenhuys under the title We Were There claim to know what "really happened" by virtue of their participation in specific battles or campaigns.
But they merely offer a perspective that should be subjected to scrutiny as with any other version of the events.
Personal narratives or experiential stories have their own particular shortcomings as history. But, then, the same is true of other primary sources. Scholtz has drawn upon a vast array of documents, interviews and published accounts to provide a comprehensive history of the border war.
It surpasses extant works by military journalists such as Willem Steenkamp and Helmoed-R?mer Heitman because of the author's willingness to approach the subject of the SADF critically rather than as an apologist.
However, Scholtz still avoids addressing thorny questions about the morality of the war and the criminal conduct of the SADF.
Nor is he prepared to acknowledge that the armed struggle waged by military wings of Swapo and the ANC might have had significantly more political legitimacy than the counter-insurgency of the SADF and its surrogates.
Although there can be no denying that the liberation movements, too, were guilty of human rights abuses and the TRC pronounced all military formations "perpetrator organisations", the level of violence committed by the SADF was disproportionate to the perceived threat to the country - especially when it is remembered that most of the destruction was wrought upon innocent victims in neighbouring states.
Scholtz is critical of the upper echelons of the SADF for micromanaging the war and so limiting the freedom of the commanders on the ground.
He argues that the SADF's strategic objectives in Angola/Namibia were blunted by generals who were concerned about losses of national servicemen and the concomitant political fall-out among the white constituency.
He reckons they were "skittish" about such losses and that this hamstrung their operational success. Scholtz seems to think that it was the job of the politicians rather than the generals to be sensitive to levels of casualties that might prove politically unsustainable.
In fact, the Nationalist Party leadership, especially the intransigent and unpredictable PW Botha, was inclined to ignore both domestic and the international community's condemnation of the SADF's actions.
And Scholtz's account of the negotiations that culminated in the New York Accords of 1988 reveals that diplomats and soldiers were far more astute than the politicians when it came to finding a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
Ironically, generals such as Geldenhuys recognised well before the politicians that there was no military solution to the apartheid wars.
Scholtz clearly admires field commanders such as Major-General Roland de Vries who he believes developed a doctrine of mobile warfare suited to waging the war in the vast expanses of Angola/Namibia.
As a military theorist, de Vries was apparently not taken seriously by others who attached more value to practice.
But de Vries had considerable experience and became commander of 61 Mechanised Battalion in the late 1980s just as the border war entered its most critical phase.
After having crushed Fapla forces on the Lomba River in late 1987, 61 Mech was obliged to participate in the attritional combat in the Tumpo triangle rather than being allowed to attack Cuito Cuanavale from another direction.
Scholtz blames the ensuing stalemate on cautious SADF leaders who were unable to envisage waging a "decisive battle" against the combined FAPLA/Cuban forces.
Scholtz is rightly dismissive of the SADF generals' outlandish claim that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a result of the apartheid state's "defeat" in Angola.
But he endorses their argument that they "bought time" in waging a prolonged war against the military wings of Swapo and the ANC that allowed the communist threat to dissipate.
The argument holds that had Swapo and the ANC come to power in the late 1980s then these organisation's "dictatorial leaderships" would have instituted repressive regimes.
In other words, the delay enabled the transfer of power in a post-Cold War unipolar world that favoured the establishment of an order based on neo-liberal capitalism and human rights, favourable terms for white South Africans.
Scholtz even contends that the SADF fought to preserve the freedom of the press, an independent judiciary, a multi-party democracy, and a vigorous civil society!
Such claims are risible when there is incontrovertible evidence that the SADF sought to defend |the status quo: white power and privilege.
Scholtz's work is a substantial addition to South African military history.
The SADF in the Border War is a weighty tome in every sense of the word.
But it is by no means the final word on a conflict that is still being waged in the battle for memory. - published November 10, 2013