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PTSD Blues: The Angola Conflict

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Ever since watching a CBC special on post-traumatic stress disorder, my mind has been filled with thoughts of family members who have lived through wars, and I realized, for instance, that my father was probably still in uniform when my sister was born, and that my mother lived through five wars! I suddenly realized why one family member could not sleep indoors when he came home from World War II (he dragged his mattress outside and slept on the lawn!) and I wondered why so few remember South Africa’s role in Korea, and the dreadful Angola conflict into which my son and other 16-year-olds were dragged by Henry Kissinger and Gerald Ford.
Who Will Be Extolled – And Who Will Be Maligned?

I am a South African expatriate who has been a Canadian citizen for many years, and although so much time has passed, I feel again today, the agony I felt when, as a school principal, in South Africa, I was obliged to hand out forms to male students, about to be conscripted as soon as they turned 16. Even more so when one of them happened to be my own son who, as consequence, would very soon be with the South African Air Force in Angola. Judging by recent notes on Facebook, and letters from many places around the world to which those ‘boys’ have fled, they expected a change of scene to heal the nightmares caused by imprinted memories of Angola which have not abated.

Today many have still not quite recovered from PTSD. Neither had a middle-aged man who sat behind me in church. But none is angry because of having had to go to war. When they talk about it, the conversation very quickly turns to their resentment at having their units recalled before the job was done!

I returned to South Africa a few years later, and, in doing research for a book, was able to talk to several people of that generation – some of them, former pupils – and herewith, for your interest, I have the temerity to pass on some of the remarks made, and noted, at a meeting in Johannesburg, and a great deal of correspondence before and since that time. In case readers are not interested in all the details, I shall mainly highlight whatever supports my argument.

“Angola!” the widow of a former school principal exclaimed passionately. Mark (her husband) got to the stage where it just about broke his heart, when, year after every year, as a new group of his boys turned 16, he had to start handing out the forms for registration in the armed forces. He’d seen too many of them return, changed forever! South Africans had never been conscripted before.

‘Our country has had a proud history of volunteering for active service – because our men and women believed in a cause!’ he would say desperately. ‘Now they’re being pulled into a Vietnam-like conflict that has nothing to do with them, and which they cannot understand; and, when they return, some maimed and crippled – not only physically, but mentally and emotionally – it is to find that others are occupying the jobs they might have had!’”

Was It Worth It?

“To this day I don’t think that any of that was worth it!” was my impassioned response. And in a 1997 interview with President Ford, he certainly didn’t seem to think so either. When the interviewer asked him whether he thought that if aid had been able to flow unimpeded to Angola it would have made a great deal of difference in the long run, he replied: ‘Probably not, because they’re still fighting there!’ He considered the net result to be that Angola was destined to have continued turbulence between the government on the one hand and rebel forces on the other.

“By the same token, didn’t someone actually go as far as to say that President Ford had permitted Kissinger to ‘design a disaster in Angola’?” someone else wanted to know.

Again there are so many controversies. One explanation was that the United States could not ignore Soviet and Cuban attempts to gain an African foothold when Angola was about to receive independence. And then, when Congress decided that no more money was going to be poured into this conflict, the field was left open for the infusion of additional Cuban troops and Soviet arms. I think it was John Stockwell, the chief of the CIA Angola task force, who said: “Most serious of all, the United States was exposed, dishonored and discredited in the eyes of the world.” They had lost, and 15,000 Cubans were installed in Angola “with all the adulation accruing to a young David who has slain the American Goliath.”

Operation Savannah, the South African Defence Force’s 1975–1976 covert intervention in the Angolan Civil War

“The South African Defence Force’s Fox-Bat, X-Ray and Zulu columns were already within sight of the lights of Luanda when they were recalled! Once embroiled in this, the South Africans, having entered Angola during Operation Savannah, had within thirty-three days, covered more than three thousand kilometres. Within artillery range of Luanda, they were forced to withdraw when covert Western support was withdrawn!”

“None of us harboured any resentment towards Ford, personally,” someone wanted to make clear to me. “The US Senate had withdrawn monetary support, and we just felt that America as a whole had let us down. I recently read somewhere, perhaps on the Internet, that South Africa was ‘defeated’ — but it was not! We just plain and simply had the carpet pulled out from under out feet!”

“And so the question, ‘What was it all for?’ remains unanswered,” was another rueful comment. “And for the boys who came home maimed — or the families of those who did not come home at all — was any of it worth it, in the end?” “How incredible it is that such controversy can still exist, about that part of it,” reflected a man from the Kalahari. “And it helps to remember that, while today, ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ is the chilling word in many countries, in those days it was ‘Communism’! I can understand that, with Mozambique just across the border to the East of us – with the border of what was then South-West Africa, not too far to the west, and with Angola above that, to the North, it must have given serious cause for alarm when, late in 1974, sizeable shipments of arms and ammunition were being ferried from the communist world to the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola. That had sprung from a Marxist party founded in 1956, with a strong following in the Angolan capital of Luanda.

“I find myself less angry now after coming to believe that there was ample evidence of the extent of the military support flooding into Angola, to the MPLA, throughout the 1975 run-up to the elections. But what I still find inconceivable is that Cuba would protest that Castro only decided to send troops to Angola on November 4, 1975, after the South African invasion of that country, rather than vice versa, as America’s Ford administration persistently claimed.

“By the time Angola achieved independence in November that year, and by the last day of February in 1976, which, as I recall, happened to be a Leap Year, all the Portuguese forces had withdrawn. Cuban forces had begun to move into Angola in April of the previous year, and South Africa then faced the prospect of a communist state bordering South-West Africa.”

“Which at that time, in terms of the Peace of Versailles, was still a South African protectorate,” I put in, nodding my head in comprehension of what that situation would portend.

“Precisely. One school of thought has it,” the business executive put in, “that, after the reverses Henry Kissinger had recently experienced in Vietnam, and the paranoia about Communism at that time, he would naturally have wanted to support the pro-west ‘National Union for a Total Independence of Angola’, which, as you must know, was a largely military force in the Angolan Civil War fighting Angola’s Marxist regime. Experts describe the Angolan war as ‘one of the most prominent Cold War conflicts, with one side being aided militarily by the United States, and the other, receiving similar support from the Soviet Union.’

“My own, personal belief is that the insurgencies of Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA rebel movement in Angola, the ‘Mozambican National Resistance’, as well as the CIA-backed advance of South African troops in Angola, were indeed supported by America. After all, Kissinger did make it clear that unless Cuba withdrew its forces from Angola and Mozambique, diplomatic relations would not be normalized.”

“My husband would have agreed with you, wholeheartedly,” said the widow, a nurse. “And that entire Angola-South-West African thing went on interminably! You know, I am ashamed to confess that, until this moment, I had forgotten how widespread the anti-Portuguese revolution was. My earliest recollection is of lying on my bed in the Nurses’ Quarters, listening to the Lourenco Marques radio from Mozambique, because we did not yet have a commercial radio station of our own in South Africa at that time, and hearing what was probably the first sounds of impending trouble, shortly before the transmission was interrupted. Lourenco Marques used to be a favourite holiday resort, and it was sad to learn that friends who used to live there had had to flee to Portugal.”

What Was It All For?

“A friend happened to show my husband and me an article in the New York Times, written by Bernard E. Trainor, now Lieutenant General Trainor. He wrote about how starkly evident the high ‘human cost of the 15-year conflict along the border between South-West Africa and Angola’ was, and went on to comment that most of the wounded at the No. 1 Military Hospital in Voortrekkerhoogte (near Pretoria) were teen-age soldiers serving in segregated units of the South African Army. He particularly mentioned one eighteen-year-old who had ‘lost his right leg when rebel jet fighters attacked his unit. Like most of the white patients, he was doing his required two years’ duty in the military.’ Someone to whom Trainor spoke, assured him that the army would ‘fit him with a prosthesis, train him in a civilian skill, and give him a lifelong disability pension.’ But that was enough for us! That was day we started becoming voluble in our opposition to South Africa’s participation in the conflict.”

“And yet,” the businessman responded thoughtfully, “I still think that what made it all worse for us – even for me who, as I said, did only three-month stints at a time, myself – was the fact that, when we were so close to winning, the government suddenly withdrew our troops. … That made it all so futile! What was it all for?”

A young man who had lost a leg and now, at peace with himself, counselled Angolan Vets who suffered from PTSD, admitted: “Do not think for one moment, that I was always like this! Because of my own experience of healing, I am dedicated to helping the people to whom I minister. I just long for them to have the same peace restored to them, that I have been blessed to find once more!” He handed out a slip of paper, explaining that the extract printed on it, had been copied from an essay written by his teenage daughter, Lucia, as part of an assignment entitled, ‘When my father was young!’

“I am so grateful that I was able to tell her about this part of it,” he said, unemotionally and without rancour. “There are no longer any buttons that dare not be pushed!” With a smile that might have been perceived as apologetic, he added: “But I still wish that we had been allowed to finish the job! To have been withdrawn just when we were winning, makes it all so tragically futile, doesn’t it?”

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About Marie Warder

Born in South Africa, became a journalist and later trained as a teacher before establishing my own school - "Windsor House Academy, of which I remained the principal until I emigrated to Canada. Love to write, and have published 27 books. Played the piano in my husband's dance band for 33years. Founder and President Emerita of the the Canadian, South African and in International Association of Hemochromatosis Societies, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marie_Warder