Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Ways of Remembering

My letter to Beeld, the Afrikaans language newspaper, was published today.  In it, I said I thought the musical Tree Aan! was a sanitised and sentimental depiction of life as a conscript.  I also remarked on the striking similarities between this production and Somewhere on the Border, a 1980’s play by Anthony Akerman.  I have heard others say the same on both counts.

It is difficult to explain one’s thinking fully in the short space of a letter to the editor.  I thought it would be useful to clarify some of my comments here.

First of all, my main concern is not the similarities between the two productions.  The similarities merely make a comparison easier.  I know nothing about theatre, I’m an occasional theatre-goer, but I did think the two productions were close. 

While the main characters seem almost identical, they are often played differently.  For example:  the Jewish soldier, the bully, the English speaker who has doubts, a black base-worker who later morphs into a liberation soldier and a character who dies in action.  Deon Opperman adds a lieutenant and a girlfriend for romantic interest, which is where the two productions look very different.

One could say that a journey through military service described in a 2 hour (or thereabouts) stage production is likely to look similar.  National Service in the 80’s was a fairly predictable formula.  And Hollywood has produced films that follow recruits through training and into action.  Here I think of Full Metal Jacket, Hamburger Hill etc.  Others focus in on training e.g. Tribes, and many have chosen to take the audience straight into the war zone, e.g. Saving Private Ryan. 

My surprise did come only after I’d seen both productions, when I was told that Opperman was in the original cast of Somewhere on the Border.  I thought he might have decided to take another way of portraying the military sausage machine to make sure he avoided comparisons being made.  I suspect this may be of more interest to theatre critics and those in the business.

I went to see Tree Aan! because I knew I was going to Somewhere on the Border in Grahamstown the following week.  I was interested to see how an ‘80’s play compared to a contemporary interpretation of that period.  As it turned out, the ‘80’s play was the more powerful of the two by a country mile.  In the foyer afterwards, myself and two other border war vets stood shaking with the impact of the play.

Somewhere on the Border took me back to the bungalow at 1SAI in Bloemfontein, and off to my tent on the border.  The language was the foul, misogynist, sexualised swearing I remember all too clearly.  The Permanent Force corporal was, like so many I had the misfortune to be trained by, a nasty, sadistic piece of work who victimised those who were different.  Racism was ever present in its ugliest form (I was called a kaffir-lover for reading Andre Brink).  There was no tolerance towards those who questioned the morality or politics of what we were doing.  Ultimately Somewhere on the Border demonstrates how powerful the SADF was at moulding us to their needs.  The “total institution” wore most of us down in the end and we bowed to the authority of our commanders and did the bidding of their Apartheid masters.

By contrast, Tree Aan! is clearly designed as family entertainment and it succeeds.  By all accounts it has been playing to packed houses and when I saw it, standing ovations.  It glosses over a brutal, violent and morally dark period in South Africa’s history.  For me the only real jolt came when the list of those conscripts who died in action was projected onto the curtain at the end.  Some may say that it was a cynical ploy to generate tears.  Well, for me it worked.  I recognised some names of young men I’d fought with in Angola.

Tant Sannie would barely raise an eyebrow at the language or indeed any of the themes.  And that, I suspect, is Mr Opperman’s aim.  Like so much coming out of Hollywood, it is designed to make money.  Many will say that there is nothing wrong with that.  But in a South Africa still struggling to come to terms with a difficult past, this kind of nostalgic look back does little to add to the possibility of healing for ex-conscript war veterans and society at large. 

The SADF gave us no space for coming to terms with what many of us saw or did.  When I came out of Angola my mortar firegroup got less than an hour with an industrial psychology honours graduate:  a woefully inadequate debriefing.

There is a sense that we are beginning to talk about our experiences.  And we need to be able to tell our stories without censorship.  Many of us have censored our stories for decades.  My concern is that Tree Aan! regurgitates the myths and lies of the time, closing down the space where veterans can start talking about what really happened.  We were involved in what was often a very dirty business.  Some of us committed atrocities or stood and watched while others did.  Many went off to the army with deep reservations.  Still others believed implicitly in the cause and returned deeply disillusioned.  We need to find a healing path, and repeating old lies is not the way.

One of the final lines of Opperman’s musical is crucial:  (apologies if this isn’t exactly right) “who will remember us in 20 years?”  There are different ways of remembering:  A way that allows us to be honest about what happened up there and allows us a way of making some measure of peace with our present, with ourselves and the country we live in today.  Or a way that locks us into the past, a way that denies the difficulties of the time, and colludes in suppressing the pain many still feel.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Journey Home - by Steve de Witt

[I am very grateful to Steve for writing this eloquent and powerful article about his experience of combat and his own journey home;  the journey that has brought him back to the fullness of his humanity.

Steve was in an infantry platoon based on the Namibia/Angola Border a few years before I was there - Paul]

Your first combat experience profoundly impacts your life. No military training fully prepares you for the sudden intensity and violence. It’s a shocking experience that momentarily paralyses you, then turns you into a killer. That’s the reality – you must kill the enemy before he kills you. It is some experience to be the one still standing afterwards, a man dead at your feet. It was you or him, and you prevailed.

The bush is quiet afterwards, and a series of emotions wash through you. Astonishment, elation, horror, pride, regret. Your comrades congratulate you quietly, search the body, then wander away. Suddenly you’re alone with your thoughts. You sense you’ll never be the same again.

And you never are. You’ve just taken an exponential leap away from the person you were only minutes before. You have crossed into the dark side. Once there, you’re part of a foul brotherhood, the killers of people. And it just gets worse. A long war looms ahead, more death beckons, and you’re one of its proven agents. In this world, others hold you in awe, spurning a corrupted pride. Your morality is the next casualty, followed closely by your soul.

So we became a band of unhappy brothers, effecting death casually in the end and preying on the weak. I’d entered the dark night of my soul. It was a frighteningly long night. We had many perilous adventures and committed countless grave misdeeds. Along the way we lost some of our own. This was another order of profundity, dealt with by heavy drinking and emotion suppression. Besides, there wasn’t time to linger. Tomorrow there were more people to hunt and kill.

Suddenly the war was over and I was ejected into the normal world.

And so began the Journey Home. It’s the journey back to your self, the rekindling of your humanity, the discovery of your compassion. It takes decades but at some point you feel healed, and you realize what’s happened on the journey – that you’ve forgiven yourself, and started to make amends.

I thought I’d killed that first man thirty years ago. I realize now that he actually took my life away. I’ve only now, decades later, resurrected my scarred self into someone new. Paul, my brother-in-arms, may you travel safely on your own journey and come home soon. There’s a place by the fire for old soldiers like us. Here our stories are significant to those seeking their own way in an uncertain world.

Monday, July 11, 2011

My Heart of Darkness - a movie

There are many different experiences of war and many ways of dealing with its effects.  Not everyone’s post-war journey follows a healing path.  While some may look to psychotherapy and others take a spiritual journey, many have resorted to the oblivion of alcohol and drugs. 

Marius Van Niekerk has made a remarkable and compelling movie about part of his own journey.  Returning to Angola, the ex-paratrooper meets up with three other war veterans to undertake a journey through the beautiful Angolan landscape;  a beauty in stark contrast to the horror of their stories.  The men had fought on different sides: a FAPLA soldier who had fought for the Angolan government, a UNITA soldier who had fought for Savimbi’s rebels, and a Bushman soldier who had fought for both the Portuguese colonial army and later the South Africans.

In a parallel to Joseph Conrad’s story, the four men make their way up an Angolan river by boat and travel deeper into the darkness and horror of their respective pasts as they go.

During the course of the private screening in Grahamstown I found myself feeling shocked, horrified, moved to tears and finally left with feelings of hope.

My Heart of Darkness is to be premiered in South Africa later this year.

Follow this link to see a trailer of My Heart of Darkness: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DJxX6ShOO9w