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.”