So many books to read, so little time.

Books That Should Exist, But Don’t: The South African Military

with 11 comments

Millions and millions of books. Even in the history field, thousands and thousands. Usually monographs on pretty narrow topics. But amidst all that, despite the numbers, you sometimes find that a book you want just does not exist.

Books which should exist, but don’t, deserve a special place in the antilibrarium. I offer one example here.

I got thinking about South Africa recently, due to a perusal of Ralph Peters’ remarkable essay The Lion and the Snake. And it occurred to me that I knew less about the South African military than I’d like. It is a remote corner of the Anglosphere which I’d like to know more about, and being me, I wanted to start from the military angle. I went looking for something like Granatstein’s history of the Canadian Army, Canada’s Army: Waging War and Keeping the Peace , or this collection of essays on the military history of Ireland. I found remarkably little. There are unit histories, and a series of official (or semi-official) histories of South Africa in the Second World War, and some books about the South African Army from the 1980s, and a few other odds and ends, such as this short essay, and this interesting list of books (click on “literature”). So there is a fair amount of material out there, but nothing comprehensive. I want someone else to do the research, the heavy lifting, and put the whole thing together for me, with a nice annotated bibliography.

Despite substantial searching, I am forced to conclude with regret that there is no one volume history of the South African armed forces, or military history of South Africa. I think we are too close to the transition from the apartheid regime to the successor regime. Old wounds are still open.

Still, too bad. It would be a very fascinating story, told as a continuous narrative. Lots of military, political, cultural and racial drama. The Dutch settlement, the British capture of the Cape, the Zulu Wars, the Boer War, South African expeditionary forces in both world wars, the Cold War era struggles against guerillas in adjacent countries, The military’s involvement in sustaining the apartheid regime, the clandestine nuclear program, the current ambiguous situation, including the virtual privatization of important segments of the South African Army into mercenary bands for hire, and some predictions and guesses about what the future might hold. What a tale. Even if it covered only the 20th century, starting with independence, after the Boer War, it is a story which would certainly have a lot of interest and lessons. It belongs in one volume. I hope someone writes it.

I close by opening the floor to our readers: Do you have any book recommendations about South Africa, Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, etc., not necessarily limited to the military angle.

More generally, it would be good to hear about other books that should exist but don’t. I can think of a bunch of them, but that will be for another day.

(Originally posted on ChicagoBoyz.)

Wow. I don’t think this Wikipedia article existed when I first wrote this post. Good to see it. Still, a book would be better … .


Written by lexingtongreen

October 24, 2008 at 2:48 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

11 Responses

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  1. You could certainly e-mail Werner K, a South African infantry officer who maintains a blog about his experiences in the field. I am certain he could help you find some better books and sources than I am going to offer below.

    (Soldier Of Africa)

    As far as books I can suggest these…

    Martin Meredith is a good bet. I’ve read two of his works on SA and was quite impressed.

    In The Name Of Apartheid: South Africa in the post-war period

    Diamonds, Gold, and War: The British, the Boers, and the Making of South Africa (Cannot recommend this enough, exceptional study of South Africa from 1870-1910 with the interplay between different groups and the leading personalities behind what happened)

    The Afrikaners: Biography of a People (Reconsiderations in Southern African History)…

    this is in the reading list for a South African history class I want to take next semester, supposed to be quite good, adding their side to history.

    Osprey always has good primers on militaries.

    Well reviewed
    32 Battalion: The Inside Story of South Africa’s Elite Fighting Unit

    A History of South Africa, Third Edition

    (author is a bit too opinionated in his history, especially regarding racial issues, but he offers an expansive view of geography, trade, culture, etc.)

    This last book is useful in parts, especially regarding internal South African political maneuvering during apartheid. It overstates a bit the US influence on S. Africa, especially that of anti-apartheid forces, but it is well-sourced and engaging on South African politics, economics and cultural mores in the post-war apartheid period.

    Loosing the Bonds


    October 24, 2008 at 4:02 pm

  2. I don’t know of any histories of the SADF, Lex. But I’d recommend ‘Tip and Run’, by Edward Paice – it’s an account of the German East Africa campaign (1914-18), in which South African forces played a prominent role.


    October 24, 2008 at 7:22 pm

  3. I saw a review of that book, and it sounded pretty gripping.

    With the creation of an Africa Command for the US military, revisiting these horrible, remote and now forgotten campaigns may be a good idea. The description of shoe-string military operations against elusive and often primitive enemies amidst noxious insects and tropical heat and stinks is certainly a better depiction of the future the US military will be facing, rather than the massed artillery and multi-million man armies of the Western Front. An improvement in terms of numbers of casualties, but not for each of the individuals who undertakes these tasks.


    October 24, 2008 at 7:28 pm

  4. “Mukiwa” is a good firsthand perspective of the Rhodesian war. There is a good essay on the Rhodesian war in Carter Malkasian (ed) Counterinsurgency and Modern Warfare although it is biased (the writer is a former Rhodesian soldier). As for South Africa, I would be especially interested in the history of 32 Battalion.


    October 24, 2008 at 7:41 pm

  5. It was a very good book.

    One of the points that Paice makes is that this forgotten campaign actually sucked up an enormous amount of money and manpower (South African and Indian troops mainly), and incurred vast casualties. Rings a bell for people who follow military operations today.

    I have in my library an old Penguin edition of Denys Reitz’s ‘Commando’ – Reitz was a Boer who fought under Smuts in the South African War (1899-1902), and after the war, while in exile, he wrote a memoir of his experiences. Like Smuts, he later became reconciled with the British, and led South African troops in the German East Africa campaign and on the Western Front during the Great War. It’s a good read, and an insight into Boer operations.


    October 24, 2008 at 8:01 pm

  6. I am certain Major Werner Klokow of the South African Army can help you find some great reads. He blogs @ Soldier of Africa. His blog is worth a read now and then too, if anything to see military life from an expeditionary South African perspective.

    I left a comment earlier today with a list of books. It may have been eaten up by mods…
    Needless to say there is a good history of “32 Battalion”..

    32 Battalion: The Inside Story of South Africa’s Elite Fighting Unit

    Martin Meredith offers two great reads.. one about the culmination of British & Boer competition in Southern Africa from 1870-1910 that explains a lot of South Africa’s history afterwards and notes the overlooked role the British played in a lot of the problems S. Africa had. The second explores S. Africa during Apartheid.

    Diamonds, Gold, and War: The British, the Boers, and the Making of South Africa

    In the Name of Apartheid: South Africa in the Postwar Era


    October 25, 2008 at 1:01 am

  7. Thanks for the good book recommendations.

    Lexington Green

    October 26, 2008 at 4:16 am

  8. I agree with EB about 32 Battalion…YOUTUBE has some movies about it too…good stuff…My dad fought in WWII (with the British…left school age 16 to train as a bomber).


    October 28, 2008 at 12:03 am

  9. Hi, Lexington

    I have read your article and was wondering if you could tell me where you got this idea from? “including the virtual privatization of important segments of the South African Army into mercenary bands for hire”.


    Werner Klokow

    November 2, 2008 at 9:16 am

  10. Werner, thank you for your response.

    Werner, from reading about various groups of South African Army veterans who worked for one or more private security firms, including one called Executive Outcomes.

    I cannot recall the exact citations.

    Of course, I could be wrong in whole or in part in my description of the events.

    As I hope my post indicated, I am the opposite of an expert on the subject.

    Lexington Green

    November 2, 2008 at 6:24 pm

  11. I believe Lexington Green is referring to P.W. Singer’s book “Corporate Warriors”


    November 4, 2008 at 4:31 am

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