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I saw active service in conventional, clandestine and covert units of the South African Defence Force. I was the founder of the Private Military Company (PMC) Executive Outcomes in 1989 and its chairman until I left in 1997. Until its closure in 1998, EO operated primarily in Africa helping African governments that had been abandoned by the West and were facing threats from insurgencies, terrorism and organised crime. EO also operated in South America and the Far East. I believe that only Africans (Black and White) can truly solve Africa’s problems. I was appointed Chairman of STTEP International in 2009 and also lecture at military colleges and universities in Africa on defence, intelligence and security issues. Prior to the STTEP International appointment, I served as an independent politico-military advisor to several African governments. Until recently, I was a contributing editor to The Counter Terrorist magazine. All comments in line with the topics on this blog are welcome. As I consider this to be a serious look at military and security matters, foul language and political or religious debates will not be entertained on this blog.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

USING HUMOUR TO COPE AND SURVIVE


I remember clearing for mines around a young soldier who had just stepped on an anti-personnel mine. His broken body had been dragged him into the shade of a tree and the medic was gently tending to his injuries and bandaging him up. The injured soldier was a good tennis player and he had just lost a leg.

Another sapper, eating some bully beef out of a tin with a stick, ambled over to his injured friend.  In shock and in pain, the injured man, understandably too scared to look at his injuries asked the sapper “Is it bad?”

His friend the sapper knelt down next to him and said: “Always look on the bright side – in future you only need to buy one “takkie” (tennis shoe)”.

This remark was made without malice or flippantly. It is the way soldiers talk to cope with the horrors they need to deal with. Living on the edge gives rise to a dark sense of humour only those who have been there can fully appreciate and even understand.

It therefore shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise to find some in the media complaining about recent photo of a French soldier wearing a skeleton mask. Wearing a mask or a scarf to protect one from the dust and debris is rather normal. The fact that his mask resembles a skull is part of the dark humour soldiers develop. It keeps them going.

 Photo by Issouf Sanogo, AFP

What did they think he was doing in Mali – baking a cake for the extremists? The next thing they will probably complain about is the aggressive-looking weapons soldiers carry or that their uniforms frighten the enemy. Or maybe even that their weapons can actually kill people.

I am sure that if a company of soldiers wearing masks such as these appeared out of the dust, even the most hardened enemy will be taken aback and worried that he is being attacked by death itself. Which is exactly what should happen anyway.

The photo has resulted in a flurry of condemnation. Even a French military spokesman apologised and stated that the wearing of the mask was unacceptable and not representative of French military action. A hunt is now on to identify the soldier in the picture. Why on earth is that?

Similarly, there are those in the British media who are complaining about Capt Wales (Prince Harry to those who know him better) commenting on the fact that he had fired his Apache helicopter guns at the Taliban and had taken some of them “out of the game” – a common term used instead of “Hell, yes, I blew them to smithereens and there was blood and gore splattered over the entire area”.

Predictably, his frank comments – which do not in the least appear to have been boastful - drew a backlash from anti-war activists who, no doubt when their lives are threatened will call for people such as Capt Wales to save them and take the threat “out of the game”. Perhaps they will hope that someone will come along and “whack” or “slot” the threat to keep them safe so that they can continue to complain.

Even the extremists are complaining – and getting publicity - about his attitude to killing – something they certainly have no qualms about.  

Now what did these good armchair analysts think he was doing in an Apache helicopter? Was he supposed to merely observe the enemy whilst they were firing at him or his friends on the ground?

Soldiers need to deal with the stress and fear that accompanies them every day of their lives when in a combat zone. They cannot grieve for their friends who have lost life and limb in a firefight – they need to get the job done as quickly as possible. To do this, they develop their own language to cope with the horrors they need to deal with, smell and witness.  This language is littered with dark humour outsiders will not understand. To maintain some sanity in an insane world, they wear strange things, do strange things and say strange things.

However, war is not some game that is played according to gentlemen’s rules.  The aim is to identify, locate, neutralise, annihilate, disrupt or destroy the enemy or break his will to such an extent that he no longer has the stomach to fight. If wearing a mask and using dark humour or saying strange things will speed-up the process of achieving the aim, then it should be done.

If the media and the politicians don’t like the way in which soldiers cope with their jobs or if they don’t like their humour or their sayings, perhaps they should go and do the fighting instead. We can then sit on the sideline and criticise.

To the soldiers out there, regardless of where you are, do not let the media and politicians dictate your humour and prevent you from “wearing a mask”. If that is what you need to do to cope or scare the hell out of the enemy and destroy him, then do it.   

30 comments:

Dave said...

Well said. Too many arm chair critics with the internet available to make themselved heard. Until you've lived it you'll never understand.

michael b said...

Maybe the French military should issue their soldiers with a dust mask which has a big smiley face on the front giving a thumbs up and the slogan that reads "we come in peace and love".
Why the hell did they send armed troops there in the first place? Surely not to line dance with the insurgents?

Mike.

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

The problem with armchair critics is that many of them are simply agent provocateurs, Dave. The internet has caused this problem as every Tom, Dick and Harry can now express his opinion as some great expert.

You are spot on: If you haven’t lived it, you will never understand. Mind you, I suspect many of these critics would do whatever it takes not to have to live through that, yet they are happy for others to take the risks – and the bullets – on their behalf.

Rgds,

Eeben

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

I suspect that even that will upset the activists and their allies, the extremists, Mike. They aim to attempt to get the senior officers to reprimand and stop soldiers from using humour and other things to survive. That way, they can demoralise the troops – and a demoralised soldier is an easy target.

Rgds,

Eeben

Herbert said...

Eeben,

Your posting, smack on target, brought back many old humorous combat experiences to me, as I expect it did for many readers. There is simply no use trying to deal with the fact that those who never experienced it cannot contemplate it. To think that the Foreign Legionnaires and paras in Mali today are in units whose Eebenelders fought, died, and went into captivity in the mud of Dien Bien Phu--and they are denigrated today because one wore a mask of some sort.

Your timing is apropos in the United States. In this morning's papers I see that the Marine Corps has court martialed a staff sergeant based on an investigation spurred on by a facebook picture taken years ago of several marines urinating on a dead enemy. By those standards the Marines who fought across the Pacific and won WWII would all be executed.

And this afternoon I see that the US will be opening all combat positions, infantry and otherwise, to women. I will not fight that battle here; I will only note that the article said "the objective was to change a long-standing culture."

I will state what I have said before on this site: Western armies no longer have the capacity and wherewithal to fight and win counterinsurgencies--and perhaps other struggles as well, based on what we are seeing today.

Rgds,
Herbert

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

It is indeed a very sad situation, Herbert – and somewhat of a joke to think that a soldier wearing a mask has resulted in such an outcry by those who support the enemy. Even worse still is that the army did not tell those who are so critical to go away. I hope they never identify this soldier. Yes, they are being denigrated because of a mask – how much more stupidity will we all have to tolerate?

I saw the article re the USMC’s court martial. I think that for someone to post photos like that was really a bit dumb and it also simply added fuel to the fire.

Similarly, the move to “change a long-standing culture” was worthy of a good headshake. Traditionally, many women have fought alongside men and given a good account of themselves. Many women are far more competent than some men I have met. That said, I do not think the current enemy will treat a woman with any courtesy – so too many serving soldiers. Women can and do play a vital role in the armed forces. I always believed that by including women, men could be freed-up to go and fight. I suspect some men are only too happy to let women do the fighting and they will cling to their cushy jobs for all it’s worth. I will have to think about this one...

I agree with your closing paragraph. I fear the West has exceeded itself in terms of political correctness, human-rights enforcement to favour the enemy, rules of engagement that get soldiers killed and maimed and inconsistency re supporting the enemy in one country and bombing the same enemy in the next.

Rgds,

Eeben

michael b said...

The question begs, where is the political, public outcry when African rebel soldiers go into combat barely dressed and festooned with all manner of talismans to ward off enemy bullets? A jab here at the butt naked brigade from West Africa. These goofed bozo`s ran amok lopping off peoples hands as a sport and drank "Witch doctor" brew and smoke Khat to fend off bullets. Where is the mass outcry or hilarious laughter at these maniacs? Hell they killed like it was a day at the office rubber stamping visas. Humour has to be employed in order to remain sane.

I went through conscription in the SAAF and i loved every moment of it, even volunteering to do two camps. I then strolled into EO and found myself way in over my head at first because my mouth wrote cheques my body paid for. I wrote of my military mayhem in my blog and humour is a HUGE part of telling the story of camaraderie. A silly skeleton mask does not make the French soldier a criminal, it merely makes him moderately cool in my eyes. Look, it`s not like he was running around wearing a vagina as a hat!

The French have some truly awesome soldiers but that means bugger all if they are "ONCE" again let down my impotent commanders and politicians back home in Paris. Personally i consider their FAMAS bullpup assault rifles as tragically inept just as the British SA 80 L85a2 is a donkey of a gun. I fired one and was most let down. The South African CR21 bullpup was also a dismal failure and also a dog of a weapon, but i digress, this whole story has just become a Media coup for the bad guys in the end.
Mike. (laughed hard in the military)

Makaeddie said...

Greetings Lt. Col. Barlow:

My name is Eddie Diaz, I’m honors a student at California State University of Fullerton. First off I must say that it’s an honor to be writing this message you. As an avid follower of the private military industry, or the Circuit, I read your blog (and sometimes Twitter) whenever I get a chance.

The purpose of this message Mr. Barlow is to ask for your assistance. As a student in my university’s prestigious honors program we must complete a Senior Honors Project, it’s sort like a Master’s thesis, in order to graduate in the program this May (2013). For my project I will be analyzing the role and justification of private military companies by looking at its historical implementation (Romans and Pinkerton Agency) to more recent events (Executive Outcomes & Black Water).

I was wondering if you would do me the honor of conducting an interview (on your terms and conditions) whether it be by phone, email, video chat, or whichever manner is most convenient to you. I can also send you a copy of my completed project so that you can approve it. Having your expertise on this project would be the crown jewel considering your many accomplishments in the field. I follow your blog and read your twitter posts and I understand that you do not like speaking to the media or journalists (as they tend to change the facts), but I read that you speak at universities on the private military industry and this only an educational project so it’s perfect. This project will only be seen by a few people: me, my mentor for the project, the honors program director, and one copy will be stored in our honors center as a reminder of all our hard work, so there is no fear that this project will be manipulated by the media.

To verify I’m not some wacko, I am more than happy to send you an official letter and documents verifying my Senior Honors Project. As an honor student I always strive to raise the bar, as so having you onboard the project will make it something truly special.

With that, thank you for your time and I hope to hear from you soon.

Best regards,

Eddie Diaz

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Despite attempts by some in the media to give them legitimacy, rebels are never “soldiers”, Mike. They are thugs and usually nothing short of criminals as their acts of utter brutality and terror they inflict on the populace prove.

Soldiers across the world develop their own phrases and terms to cope with their job. Their dark humour is merely a coping mechanism. Wearing a mask, regardless of what it is or supposedly represents, to prevent dust inhalation is no crime or sin – it is called common sense. If it scares the enemy, so much the better.

Ironically, I note that some journalists wear body armour and helmets whilst reporting from conflict areas – are they trying to send a message that they are now soldiers? Why are they wearing these essentially military items when they are not soldiers??

Rgds,

Eeben

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Some months back, I posted that I will no longer entertain journalists or students, Eddie. There are several reasons for this but basically it is because many refuse to do even basic research or expect me to do the research for them and to hurry up in the process as they are facing a deadline.

Recently – and very stupidly - I relented to a journalist only to find that he had twisted well-known facts to suit his agenda. Amongst numerous blatant and obvious “errors”, he even stated that EO had essentially been kicked out of Sierra Leone by the rebels. It is precisely this type of unprofessionalism and lack of honesty that resulted in me making the decision. Whereas some of these “errors” were rectified, it nevertheless left a very bad taste in my mouth – again.

Whereas I appreciate the importance of your studies, I am afraid that I shall not be able to assist you.

I wish you luck with your studies.

Rgds,

Eeben

Makaeddie said...

Greeting Mr. Barlow,

No worries. I completely understand & respect your decision. Sadly the unprofessionalism of others, particularly the media & journalists, is the very reason that the private military industry gets a bad reputation. Rest assured that I did not plan on having you do the research due to procrastination as the project is well over 60 pages haha

I just wanted to be able to say that the founder of Executive Outcomes played a role in my project to make it stand out. The interview would've been 10-20 minutes tops. I'll just consult your book "Executive Outcomes" in my research. Nonetheless, thank you very much for taking the time to respond to my inquiry.

Best regards,

Eddie

Juku Mus said...

"We train young men to drop fire on people, but their commanders won't allow them to write "fuck" on their airplanes because it's obscene! " Quote from Apocalypse now. Suits here,i think

Feral Jundi said...

Eeben,

Well said. That mask has been worn by numerous soldiers and contractors over the years in Iraq and Afghanistan, and for these folks to get all weird about a French soldier wearing it is dumb. It also shows how detached society really is from the realities of the war fighter out there.

Here is to a new year, and Africa is definitely bringing it in with the war in Mali and this latest assault in Algeria.

michael b said...

Good day Eeben, i have written a short piece on Eugene De Kock and my feelings pertaining to his incarceration which i do feel is token at best. I know he is not exactly on your most favourite list of dudes but even after his faux pas back in 1993(?) where he was "requested" to to take you out (dinner not included), i still believe that he was what people would call a patsy. He was tasked with absorbing all the blame for the "evils" committed while his superiors who signed off on his actions and are complicit walked free like birds from the TRC. I would just like to reiterate my loyalty to both EO and yourself but hope that you will not see my suport of the Free Eugene campaign as a kick in the pants. I am very concerned by this but i do believe that Gene has been incarcerated unfairly and deserves to walk out of C Max, even if it means he has to go into exile in Namibia on his one and only friends farm. The past is indeed in the past and i truly belive that he serves no more purpose in jail than merely being a token for an inherently corrupt and hateful regime. The generals who rubber stamped his ops all walked free and Gene was sent to sit which smacks of unfairness. I do realize that you possibly do not care too much for him in leiu of the whole Danny street meeting when he was tasked by the very corrupt to pay you a "visit" but i do think that he deserves amnesty as was afforded to all those who okayed his actions while the "war" was still on.
I have written my little piece but still feel compelled to explain myself to you as i have respect and maintain loyalty to you. Eugene was simply a pawn that was used and misused because of his willingness to appease his masters who turned on him when the pinch came.
Mike( proudly an ex EO employee)

Alan said...

Dear Eeben:

Excellent article as always.

Regards, Alan

Axel B. said...

Dear Mr Barlow,

I am a French young guy working in the defense and security sector.
Just to give you a quick follow-up on this topic, the soldier has since then been identified and he now faces disciplinary sanctions. This is just sick...

Who is more cynical there ? France when it pretends sending its troops to protect "Human Rights & Democracy" in Mali, or this poor guy, actually risking his life on the field, while the eggheads decide to send our guys to Africa between two amendments about same-sex marriage or marital name status ?

This is just sick. I am sick of it. We European (and particularly we French) are DONE. We have no more common sense or perception of reality whatsoever...

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Good luck with your project, Eddie – and sorry again.

Rgds,

Eeben

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Very true words, Juku Mus. As Barry McGuire sang “You’re old enough for dying, but not for voting”.

Rgds,

Eeben

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

I still find it somewhat sickening, Matt. I know that many wear that mask but we seem to becoming so politically correct that we have lost the plot. The enemy hasn’t though and exploits our weaknesses.

Mali has only just begun.

Rgds,

Eeben

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Although I appreciate it, you never have to justify your actions to me, Mike. We all do what we think is the right thing.

Of course he was a scapegoat for many. That said, he also abused his position as far as I am aware. Having power does not mean one should abuse it. Then of course, he had his fan club – one of whom visited me along with Eugene. But that fan club soon went and hid in the shadows when the guillotine started dropping. Cowards will always remain cowards. That is a sad fact of life.

I know that there are many who are trying to get him amnesty. I hold no grudge against him for what he was planning towards me. He has to live with himself.

Rgds,

Eeben

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Many thanks, Alan.

Long time, no hear. I trust all well?

Rgds,

Eeben

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Thank you for the feedback, Axel B.

I find that most distasteful. I am equally sorry that the soldier in question was identified. My mother (French descent) was very upset at this as she says the French are being dictated to by their enemy.

Despite the reasons for the deployment of French forces into Mali, the men did an excellent job. I know that the situation will deteriorate when they leave but the men who went there, went with the intention of killing the enemy. Now, a mask has resulted in detracting from their successes. That is really stupid when you think about it. I suppose the next best thing to appease the enemy will be to charge every soldier who killed an enemy with murder.

Good luck with your career and take care.

Rgds,

Eeben

Axel B. said...

Dear Mr. Barlow,

Just another quick update.

The soldier was condemned to 40 days of imprisonment and sent back to France, the maximum penalty he was facing.

France is definitely the country with the most f*cked-up people in the world.

My opinion is that we are not being dictated by our enemies. We are only being dictated by our own stupidity. Even our enemies are not that stupid. We are a threat to ourselves.

I am through with all that. The first opportunity to go working and living overseas, I'll take it.

Regards

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

That is absolutely sickening, Axel B!

I am sure the enemy must be laughing all the way into their hideouts. It seems the enemy’s best friend happens to be their enemy. I hope that someone has the courage to condemn this sentence and make something big out of it.

From what you tell me, I do not blame you at all.

Good luck!

Rgds,

Eeben

michael b said...

Many thanks for your reply and frankness. Yes Eugene was most certainly bo boy scout and did enjoy his job a little too much, that is beyond question but his status as patsy still stands. Cowards are plentiful when the "Federali`s" come knocking but i still believe he should be paroled or pardoned. One man cannot stand as the grotesque figure for what was an insurgency fought by other means and rubber stamped by those higher up in the command chain. A signal had to be produced for everything from authorising cross border ops, political assassinations, "team building" outings in Buffalo,procuring beer and even getting permission to take a dump. The old defese force`s proclivity for paperwork was legend. In the interest of true reconcilliation he should be be quietly set free. Our current regime are corrupt to seemingly higher degrees than the one before it.

Eugene is old and far from any threat to anyone anymore. One thing that the old military did have in abundance was a very odd sense of humour and it may have sometimes been dark but that is exactly as you said,, how men in difficult times cope and survive. The mere fact that the French have charged and punished the soldier in the picture is totally ridiculous and shows just how impotent their commanders are that they would allow themselves to bow to such infantile pressure. In solidarity, his company should all don masks!

Once again thank you for your reply and have a great new year (Chinese) that is.
Mike

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

I take your point on Eugene, Mike.

As for corruption, all governments are corrupt to a lesser or greater degree. It is the belief that power affords opportunities that must be exploited for self-gain and self-benefit.

As for the French soldier, I agree wholeheartedly – they should all don that mask. What has happened in this case exceeds the ridiculous. The senior officers who saw that photograph probably thought it may upset the enemy and impact negatively on their human rights.

Rgds,

Eeben

eet kreef said...

We had an issue in Basra a few years back. We weren't allowed to use our Caspirs anymore - because they looked too aggressive.

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Haven’t heard from you for some time Eet Kreef! Hope you well?

I am surprised to get a comment as I have been told that my blog’s comments are being blocked by “someone” out there.

Yes, I can only shake my head in amazement at the foolish things we do to appease the enemy and in this process, we work really hard not to frighten him. Silly really.

Rgds,

Eeben

sarahlee880 said...

The greatest way to live with honor in this world is to be what we pretend to be. See the link below for more info.

#pretend
www.inspgift.com

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

A true comment sarhalee880.

Rgds,

Eeben