Fireforce: One Man’s War in the Rhodesian Light Infantry. Written by Chris Cocks. Published by 30 Degrees South, Johannesburg South Africa. 2006
There is always a book somewhere out there that should have been read, but has not. As an author and writer on themes of African warfare and general history it is incumbent on me to read as much on the subject as is available, and there is a lot available. The Rhodesian War has generated an enormous amount of biographical material and general military analysis over the years, to the extent, I sometimes feel, that the whole episode has been mythologized far beyond the scope and significance of the war itself.
To put it in a brief historical context, the Rhodesian War was fought in real terms between 1965 and 1980 as the culminating chapter of an almost century long effort by the white settlers of Rhodesia and the British Government to find some sort of formula whereby a transplanted white minority could retain substantive power into perpetuity in an African territory. When this was ultimately proved impossible, and as African decolonization was accelerating throughout the 1960s, Rhodesia, under Prime Minister Ian Smith, took the provocative and highly suspect decision to declare independence from Britain unilaterally. By doing so Rhodesia effectively isolated itself from direct British moral or military support, facing the inevitability of civil war entirely alone.
The military history of Rhodesia at various phases has been well covered, and no doubt will continue to be examined in the future, and military biographies of the bush war abound. Having read quite a few of these, however, I was conscious of never having read Chris Cocks’ memoir Fireforce, which is not new to market, and which has over the period since its release been widely recognized as a landmark narrative. I recently mentioned this fact to Chris, who kindly sent me a copy, and feeling somewhat that I might be sitting down to read yet another iteration of an old and tired story, I settled down to read.
Within a few pages it had become clear that this is not so. This book is a vital and important chronicle, very different in style and context to most others, and certainly deserving of the accolades it has amassed.
Having said this, it is not easy to put my finger on why this is so. In this, Chris’ first book, the style of writing is neither as literary or as polished as his later work would be, and yet there are many more tutored writers out there who have covered the same subject with a great deal less of the visceral impact that oozes from the pages this book. There is a keenly observed human intensity in the narrative that is amplified and improved by loose grammar and the liberal use of slang and profanity. This immediately detaches the reader from the expectation that yet another ballad of the glory boys of the Rhodesian war is to be sung with all the crude, violent and nasty aspects of the experience bleached out. This is precisely not what Chris Cocks achieved in this book. Those who lived through the times will remember the Rhodesian Light Infantry for all the incredible work that the unit did during the hardest days of the war, but also, at times, reflective of all that was base and repugnant about white Rhodesia during the 1970s.
The men of the RLI, in a nutshell, were the doughboys of the Rhodesian army. They were regulars, informed by a highly militaristic society, itself informed by a laudable if somewhat anachronistic determination to maintain the best attributes of the British Imperial period. The battalion did much of the hard fighting during the war, and in doing so carved a reputation in military circles that has endured ever since.
As Chris Cocks reveals, however, and as most white Rhodesians of the time were quite aware, the RLI was a rough and ready conglomeration of men, mostly young men, some hardly men at all, who knew how to fight, and fought hard and consistently. It is also a fact that they brawled, drank, stole, vandalized and philandered freely in a society that tolerated such misbehavior largely because The Saints suffered such hell on the front line, and could hardly be expected to maintain order when stood down – and also, perhaps, because, en-mass, the RLI could be extremely intimidating and difficult to handle, and anyone trying could run into a pack of teenage terriers ready and able to tear a person to ribbons.
There was also a culture of impunity surrounding much of the RLI misbehavior during this period, and although I do not wish to dwell on this aspect more than is merited, it is a fact that commanders were often indulgent because they had no choice. Chris Cocks makes the observation towards the end of the book that by 1979, 24 men on Fireforce duties at Grand Reef were covering the entire Operation Thrasher area, and call outs were a daily occurrence, sometimes twice daily. If a section of these men tore their way through bars and clubs in Umtali over any given weekend they could do so knowing that the army could hardly afford to reduce strength further by taking them off the line for any sort of disciplinary action. I quote a comment from an old RLI national service member, Jo’ van Tonder , who later served, and was seriously injured, as a territorial member of the Rhodesia Regiment.
‘Out of action,’ van Tonder remarked, ‘…the RLI were slapgat… but as soon as the bullets started flying the guys were quick into shape.’
And without a doubt this was true. The RLI were a light infantry commando battalion, often operating below strength, but highly trained, well led and extremely efficient at what they did. This is more than anything else the story that Chris Cocks tells, and the dichotomy that he perfectly illustrates. He does not waste a lot of time dwelling on the politics or the morality of white Rhodesia, but paints a picture of life in the rank and file of the RLI that is arguably the most authentic on the market. From arriving at the gates of Cranborne Barracks to his first active deployment, training is described in terms both accurate and colorful.
It used to be said of the regular Rhodesian Army that a career therein was a choice made by those who had no practical alternative, and so it was. The RLI tended to be populated , initially at least, by much human flotsam, which thereafter defined somewhat the nature and character of the battalion. This was the case even after the RLI ceased to be a last chance career choice and began to attract men of a much more intellectual cut, such as Chris Cocks himself, and others from many different social niches in Rhodesia, and indeed internationally, hoping for a slice of the action, or perhaps the glory, or even, as Chris himself observes, for the pure love of killing.
There is also a great deal of technical information for those with an interest in terms of operational procedure, tactics, equipment and weaponry. However, it is the action sequences that deliver the most honest portrayals of the book. The grim reality of being under fire, the human responses in desensitizing circumstances and the gradual layering of stress and horror as ever greater emotional demands are made on an ever decreasing pool of men. Looting bodies for cash, drugs and souvenirs, grotesquely distorted casualty figures such as regularly characterized external raids, and the chipping away of the battalion itself as infrequent but consistent fatalities in action gnawed at the morale of a small and tight knit unit. Fatalities might have been infrequent, but they were coupled with a great many more emotional and physical injuries that tended to pitch broken men back into a society that was itself in a crisis of collapse, and had neither the wherewithal nor the expectation of any long term future under which to care for veterans.
There is great humor and pathos in this book, but more than anything an overarching sadness that will be felt most acutely by those whose lives at some point overlapped the period of white rule in Rhodesia. Within it there is a sense of loss and futility that seems to exceed that of any ‘normal’ war, for the soldiers in this army arguably lost no single battle, and moreover, in ultimately losing the war lost everything else besides. Although many do not necessarily grieve the fact, it remains true that there is almost no semblance remaining in Zimbabwe of what once was, and what was once so bitterly fought over. There are no heroics or official recognition of achievement. There are no pensions, no after care, no counseling and no respect other than what is exchanged within the fraternity itself. The Rhodesian war is now a discredited period of history, and the Rhodesian Army a discredited institution. Whatever might have been the true facts of the situation, this is what we are all left with, and if writing this book was an act of catharsis for Chris Cocks, then congratulations to him. He speaks on behalf of a generation of men who simply did what soldiers do.