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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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Front cover of A Hell for Heroes by Theo KnellA Hell for Heroes: An SAS Hero’s Journey into the Heart of Darkness, Theo Knell (Coronet 2012)

The title and sub-title suggested that this book would be heavily sentimental or highly warnographic or both. But it turned out to be one of the most interesting, enlightening and well-written war-books I’ve ever read. If it’s not ghosted – and it doesn’t seem to be – Theo Knell must be a very intelligent man. More unusually still, he can write good prose and help you understand what war and soldiering are like: loud, frightening, mind-and-marriage-destroying. I’m not so sure about the vers-libre poems that end some chapters. They’re interesting to read, but they aren’t as skilful or understated as the stories that precede them.

His first stories are about his childhood, which was disturbingly violent and loveless. Lots of children wouldn’t have survived it. In some ways he didn’t, but it made him tough and good at fighting, so he chose the army as a career. Like many others, he was also looking for family and comradeship: there is no bond like the bond of facing death together. Knell has come close to dying many times and can give you some idea of what it’s like. One of the earliest times was on what seemed at first like a routine armoured patrol through a country district in Northern Ireland. An armoured car got a puncture and the patrol stopped while it was repaired. Then a Land Rover drove up from behind carrying technicians on their way to repair a TV mast. They received permission to proceed and carried on up the road. A few seconds later, there was a huge explosion. When the patrol went to investigate, they found a twenty-foot crater in the road:

Although they had initially been invisible, as I now looked around me it became apparent that what I had thought were pieces of rubble were in fact human body parts, arms, legs and chunks of raw flesh. As I took in what lay before me the corporal said something that shook me to the bone:

“That landmine was meant for us. The Ferret getting a puncture and that Land Rover coming along the road when it did was the best bit of luck we’ll ever have, though the same can’t be said for them.”

… There were few visible signs of blood, considering that five men had been literally blown apart, but the smoke, with its smell of iron mixed with cordite, had now invaded my nose, mouth and throat and still hung mercilessly all around us. (“Like a Demon at My Shoulder”, pp. 84-5)

You don’t have to be a psychopath to be a soldier, but it must help at times. Knell isn’t a psychopath, but he’s done things that are very cold and callous from the civilian point of view. Later, in “No Second Chances”, he describes sniping against a sniper, who’s rumoured to be a “Russian or East German” brought in by the IRA to kill a difficult target. It’s a real version of Ian Fleming’s short story “The Living Daylights”. He also writes about the hardships of training and selection, a vomit-inducing practical joke on a parachute jump, serving as a mercenary in Africa, working as a bouncer and saving someone’s life as a medic. It was a difficult job and required all his skill. But he was warned not to do it:

“Don’t work too hard, mate. He won’t thank you for taking him home in that state. Although his wife and kids will initially thank you, he will never forgive you.” Sadly he was right. Although I managed to keep the injured man alive, albeit confined to a wheelchair, he never did forgive me, and although he didn’t die until some years later, he never spoke to me again. (“Angel of Death or Mercy?”, pg. 193)

You have to experience war to fully understand it, but this book will take you as close as paper can go.

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