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Posts Tagged ‘mercenary’

Mad Dog Killers: The Story of a Congo Mercenary, Ivan Smith (Helion / 30° South Publishers 2012)

War is one of the most intense experiences a human being can undergo. Films or computer-games might give you a good idea of what war looks like and sounds like, but they can’t yet tell you what it feels like. This book can. Ivan Smith is a natural story-teller but not a polished writer. That adds to the authenticity of Mad Dog Killers. He’s an ordinary man who saw, did, heard, felt, and smelt some extraordinary things.

But that suggests he’s not so ordinary after all. He had to be tough to fight and survive in the Congo as a mercenary in the Armée Nationale Congolaise during the 1960s. But he isn’t a psychopath, because he’s still haunted by some of the deaths he dealt out or witnessed. Many of his fellow mercenaries were definitely psychopaths. On his own account, he owes his life to one of the worst, a “nerveless and totally ruthless man” called Boeta, who befriended him and watched his back in the barracks and on the battle-field. Boeta comes alive on the page thanks to death. He enjoyed dishing it out and was never happier than in the middle of a fire-fight. He could make night-clubbing go with a bang too:

Boeta eventually signed up for four contracts in a row and on the second one, some months after I had returned to a normal life, he visited a nightclub in Leopoldville [now Kinshasa]. The jazz band refused to play the music he requested. It was in the early hours of the morning so he would have been very drunk. He opened fire on the offending band with an FN [machine-gun]* on automatic fire and killed them all, as well as a couple of other patrons. The one band member turned out to be a relative of a high-ranking government official so Boeta was arrested, tried and sentenced to death. A week later he was back with his Commando; the funds he had accumulated from looting had allowed him to buy his way out of it all. (ch. 4, pg. 43 – *FN = Fabrique Nationale, the Belgian arms-manufacturer)

Later in the book, Boeta makes a visit to a “tatty café” go with a bang too: “The pistol came up and stuck in the waiter’s ear. The shot was muffled and blood and brains sprayed from the exit wound and splashed the wall and roof.” (ch. 11, pg. 155) What had the black waiter done? He’d jokingly claimed to be a “Simba”, or one of the rebels against whom the mercenaries were fighting. So Boeta casually murdered him. Earlier, he and another mercenary had casually murdered a black stranger because no-one could understand what he was saying after he was left with them by some white soldiers from an unknown unit:

“Hey, Harry, you speak Frog, what is he saying?” I asked.

“No, man, it is not French. The bugger is giving me a headache. Wish he would shut up.”

“Good idea. Watch this. Stupid Simba, you should have been quiet.” Boeta got up and beckoned the loudly complaining man over. “Stand over there, you dumb fucker.” He pointed to the edge of the bridge and waved the man to stand there.

Pete, one of the commandos who happened to have been at school with me, but was two years my junior, got up and went to join Boeta.

“Man, I can’t believe that nutcase. Surely the bloke can see it coming?” Harry puffed blue clouds of smoke.

“Don’t think they will do it, will they?” was my anxious complaint.

Boeta and Pete suddenly put up their rifles and fired from the hip, on automatic, long bursts. The complaining man was smashed forward and then lifted by them and thrown over the edge into the swift water below.

“Is that not better?” Boeta called. “No more fucking whining.” (ch. 10, pg. 137)

As Smith notes wryly at the beginning: Boeta became a mercenary because “in the Congo there was no law.” Did the two of them become friends because there was some echo of Boeta’s psychopathy in Smith? I’d assume so, although Boeta nicknamed Smith “Smiler” because of “my sometimes fixed smile” when frightened (pg. 44).

Smith was frightened a lot at the beginning and you can understand why. His childhood and education in South Africa had taught him to shoot and his work in a copper-mine had taught him to face violent death. Or so he thought: “This memoire is … a brief record of a few months in the life of a cocky young man who thought he was afraid of nothing, but who soon learned all about fear.” (Introduction, pg. 6) If the Simba had been better shots or less superstitious, he might not have got out alive. But they were bad shots and reckless fighters, because they often believed that the spells of “medicine-men” had rendered them invulnerable to bullets. Big mistake. In The Godfather (1969), men “sleep with the fishes”. In Mad Dog Killers, they lie with the butterflies:

At the scene of the first contact with the medicine man and company, a fluttering vibration filled the air over the bodies, which were oozing dark blood from multiple gunshot wounds. Busy clouds of brilliant butterflies were whirling over the scene and dense concentrations of the insects sat sipping the oozing blood. The salts in the blood attracted them and the green flies. The butterflies always appeared in a very short time after blood was spilt in the tropical forest. The still moist air quickly took up and conveyed the smell of fresh blood. That cloying scent along with the sharper reek of cordite was filling my lungs as I watched the fluttering insects; they took me back to childhood, to the happy hunting of the earlier days. Then it was back to here and now. (ch. 5, pg. 55)

That’s a surreal description worthy of J.G. Ballard. Africa is a cruel and beautiful place, and the Congo is the dark heart of Africa. The mercenaries often behaved badly in the Congo, but the Simba and the black soldiers in the official Congolese army were usually far worse. Both the Simba and the Congolese army routinely “liberated” towns and villages by murdering the men and raping the women. As Smith says, he spent only “a few months” fighting there, but they’ve stayed with him for the rest of his life. Regrets? He has many. Killing in the hot blood of a fire-fight was one thing, but killing in cold blood was another. Sometimes he’s not sure why he remembers some deaths and not others: “Whatever it was that bothered me about that line of running men still haunts me more than fifty years on. Yet they were just a few of the many I killed.” (ch. 8, pg. 99) Unlike Smith, Boeta enjoyed killing anyone anywhere anytime. That’s why he stayed in. Smith got out.

At least, his body got out, but his mind has often returned. Decades later, he written this book about it, trying to exorcise his demons. The old black-and-white photos add to the sense of another place and another time, but the Congo is still at war and horrors are still taking place there. First come the bullets, then the butterflies.

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Dirty Story: A further account of the life and adventures of Arthur Abdel Simpson, Eric Ambler (Bodley Head 1967)

Like many other readers, I finished Ambler’s The Light of Day (1962) wanting to hear more from its neurotic anti-hero Arthur Simpson, the Anglo-Egyptian petty crook who got caught up in a big jewel-robbery in Istanbul. He was a highly engaging character not despite his many flaws but because of them.

Five years later Ambler duly supplied more of Arthur in the novel Dirty Story. I finished it feeling very disappointed: this is a book to remind you that only the mediocre are always at their best. Perhaps it wouldn’t have seemed so bad if I hadn’t already read The Light of Day. But I had and I could see that Ambler had ruined one of his best characters by putting him in entirely the wrong setting. Arthur is a man of the city; Dirty Story puts him into the African jungle. He’s not a man of action; Dirty Story makes him into an armed mercenary. The incongruity is too big, unlike his involuntary transformation from petty crook to jewel-robber in The Light of Day. That incongruity was entertaining and made you feel sympathy for him. But Arthur as a mercenary?

No, it doesn’t work. Nor does the twist whereby, as in The Light of Day, he makes it out with a whole skin and a new ambition. But the book started promisingly. Arthur is back in Greece and wants a new passport. He gets into big debt to pay for it and has to work off the debt by becoming an assistant on a pornographic film. Helped by a thuggish and unstable Frenchman called Goutard, he recruits actresses for the film from Madame Irma, the madame who appeared in The Light of the Day. But Goutard tries to lure the girls away to a new brothel and Madame Irma is understandably annoyed. She denounces both Arthur and Goutard to the Greek police and they have to flee the country together on a ship.

Arthur is back in the soup again: he’s lost his home in Athens and his attractive young Greek wife and has no prospect of getting them back. After all, he has no real right to live in Greece and no real nationality: that was why he was trying to buy himself a new passport. He and Goutard end up in Djibouti, where the authorities give them a week to get out or get into big trouble. And now there’s one last chance for Ambler to supply a worthy sequel to The Light of Day. Arthur is wondering what he can do next:

Aden was only one-hundred-and-fifty miles away by sea across the Bab el Mandeb strait. I thought that if I could get to Aden I might be able to land a job as a steward on one of the boats that stopped there. They didn’t know me in Aden, and anyway it was a busier port than Djibouti. I had no union card, of course, or seaman’s papers, but I thought that some of the cargo liner captains might not be too particular about that if they happened to be short-handed. (Book I, ch. 6)

Who knows what interesting adventures he could have had working as a steward on a holiday liner? He could have got involved in smuggling or a ship-wreck, become an accidental hero, even had another run-in with the jewel-robbers of The Light of Day. But he doesn’t become a steward and none of that happens. Instead, Goutard, a veteran of wars in Algeria and Indo-China, helpfully finds him work as a mercenary for a mining firm in an unnamed African country.

Arthur has given him a false impression of his own military experience, you see: “Of course I am not, strictly speaking, an old soldier, but because of my father I sometimes feel like one.” The job doesn’t seem too bad: he’s told it will involve “showing some stupid macaques how to secure and protect a strip of land” (macaque, literally a kind of monkey, is coarse French slang for a member of the Black Community). In fact, it will involve a lot more than that and although Arthur won’t have to fight, he will have to operate a radio while bullets are flying.

Because he’s operating a radio, he gets a chance to betray his employers to a rival mining company. By then, he isn’t a good character any more. He is out of his milieu and there are no fascinating glimpses into an exotic culture and its history, as there had been in The Light of Day. I finished the book no longer caring about Arthur and no longer wanting to hear more about him. Dirty Story may have inspired Frederick Forsyth’s The Dogs of War (1974), which is also about mercenaries, mining and double-crosses in Africa, but The Dogs of War is a far better book. Forsyth doesn’t have Ambler’s sophistication or subtlety, but he can tell a rattling good yarn and the technical details of The Dogs of War are much more interesting.

So read Dogs, not Dirty. If you liked The Light of Day, I doubt that you’ll like Dirty Story. I certainly didn’t and I’d prefer to see it as an apocryphal Gospel, purporting to be by Arthur but really by an imposter. But there are glimpses of what might have been here and in 2017 there’s even more pathos in the bathos of a dialogue right at the beginning. Arthur is trying to get a British passport and is being interviewed by “H. Carter Gavin, Her Britannic Majesty’s Vice-Consul in Athens”:

“This states that your name is Arthur Abdel Simpson, that you were born in Cairo, Egypt, on October the sixteenth, nineteen hundred and ten.”

“I know what it states.”

“It also says that you are the son of Regimental Quartermaster Sergeant Arthur Thomas Simpson of the Army Service Corps and his wife Mrs Rhita Simpson whose maiden name is given as Rhita Fahir.”

“What of it? My mother was Egyptian.”

He put the photostat down. “Quite so. But she was not married to your father.”

“That is a despicable lie.” I was still calm. “The certificate was signed by the Adjutant of my father’s regiment.”

“No doubt. Possibly he didn’t read what he was signing very carefully.” Sneering all the time. “Possibly he didn’t read it at all. As Regimental Quartermaster-Sergeant your father probably gave him a great many papers to sign.”

“My father was an officer and a gentleman,” I protested angrily.

“He became an officer certainly.” (Book I, ch. 1)

Note the first line of dialogue: Arthur was born in 1910. If he were a real person, the storm-and-stress of his life would be long over by now. I doubt that he would have made it past the 1980s. Indeed, you could say he was killed off in Dirty Story. But he still lives and breathes in The Light of Day and readers must still finish that book wanting to hear more from him. I haven’t re-read it since finishing Dirty Story and I’ll be interested to see what this apocryphal Gospel has done to my appreciation of the real thing. Improved it, I hope.

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