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Fireforce - One Man's War in the Rhodesian Light Infantry
by Chris Cocks

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Southern African Review of Books, Issue 7, February/March 1989
Reviewed by Paul Moorcraft

Bullets versus ballots, reform versus revolution. Ah, the standard clichés of the massed army of rearguard writers on southern Africa. Few writers ever get close to real ballots, let alone live bullets. Military events have often shaped southern African history, but most analysis is cerebral and hands-off.

For example, one of the modern classics of war, The Face of Battle , by historian John Keegan, despite its brilliance, lacks the immediacy of being in a battle. An experienced warrior, from the British SAS, complained after reading the book that it did not portray, for example, the smell of conflict, the cordite, the stench of decaying bodies and, above all, the sense of fear. Very few books, written from any sides of the many wars in the region, capture the real feeling of what war is like. No amount of piety or righteous indignation fired off from the UN or Bloomsbury or even Lusaka can compensate for a well-written, first-hand account of the 'struggles' and the white racist counter-insurgencies to contain them.

Few men of action can write well. The exceptions, though, such as T.E. Lawrence, have contributed greatly to the study of war. An African example is Deneys Reitz's Commando: A Boer Journal of the Boer War , first published in 1935. A book in that classic mould, but this time about the Rhodesian war, and entitled Fireforce , has recently been published. Like Reitz's work, Fireforce, by first-time author Chris Cocks, is a personal account of frequent, close-quarter warfare.

The book is likened on the cover blurb to the famous novel, All Quiet on the Western Front . That is an exaggeration, particularly as the book has been slightly marred by the occasional, racially-biased, editorial intervention by the South African publisher, himself a former senior Rhodesian policeman and well-known author. As one starts the book, the reader may be tempted to think, 'Oh, no, not another gung-ho story of how the tough, good guys lost because the world betrayed them'. It is not. It is a unique, compelling, sometimes brutal account of a young conscript's three years of service in the elite Rhodesian Light Infantry during the height of the bush war (1976-9).

Cocks was an 18-year-old white Rhodesian when he was called up for 18 months. He had wanted to go to university in England, but that had to wait, he was told by the authorities. His family had been opposed to Ian Smith and he planned to avoid his national service by making his way out of Africa via Mozambique. He had attended a multi-racial school, where he had, he says, made many black friends. Cocks notes:

... in my youthful mind I appreciated vaguely that something had to be radically wrong with the policies of the Rhodesian Front. Yet, I still went and fought for the green and white flag of Rhodesia ... and I certainly was no patriot. I still cannot understand it ... even to this day.

He was persuaded by his family to give up the idea of going into exile. Instead, he joined the tough 3-Commando of the RLI, as an ordinary trooper because the army decided he was not officer material. Originally the RLI had been an all-volunteer unit comprised largely of white Rhodesians and South Africans. By 1976 the tempo of the war had forced the RLI to take conscripts as well as a veritable legion of foreign adventurers, rogues and anti-communist idealists.

Much of Cocks' time was taken up by 'fireforce' duties. The RLI was one of the main reaction forces to hunt and kill nationalist guerrillas. The object was to land as many troops as quickly as possible on the ground, using initially French Alouette helicopters (later larger ex-Israeli Bell choppers) and also aged Dakotas for dropping paratroopers. (One of the Daks had actually flown at Arnhem in 1944.) Each fireforce had a K-Car (Killer-Car) gunship, an Alouette with a 20 mm cannon, which usually carried the operational commander. G-Cars, ferrying ground troops to and from the contact area, supported the K-Car. Often a Cessna 'Lynx' would initiate the attack, using rockets and napalm, and then the K-Car would direct the ground troops to ambush the escaping survivors. Heavy resistance would bring out Hawker Hunter fighter-bombers and Canberra bombers.

Fireforce, which relied upon good intelligence, mainly from trackers and observation points, accounted for 12,000 guerrillas killed. In hard military terms, the fireforce concept was an operational development which has attracted much detailed attention in army staff colleges throughout the world. But the Rhodesian obsession with body-counts made them blind, like the Americans in Vietnam, to the political requirements of combating and even comprehending the nature of the protracted people's war fought by the insurgents. Hearts and minds do, after all, live in bodies.

Cocks saw a lot of fireforce action. In blunt terms he describes the first kill he witnessed. He writes that a corporal:

spotted what looked to me like a bundle of rags beneath a bush. In an instant his rifle was at his shoulder and he fired three shots. The bundle grunted and rolled over, a Communist AK rifle clattering to the side. I was astonished ... so that was a guerrilla. The bundle had seemed so inoffensive. I studied the body curiously. Still-smouldering napalm had bored ugly holes into the flesh, which gave off a sickly sweet smell. The skull had been shattered by a bullet and brains were oozing through the scalp in a riot of blood and plasma. The mouth was fixed in a grimace of death while the eyes stared upwards as if in a trance.
So this was death. It was gruesome. It was messy. I suddenly wondered if RLI soldiers looked the same when they were killed.... I soon learned the practice of immediately shooting at anything suspicious regardless of whether it was obviously dead or not. If in doubt, shoot ... that was the way you stayed alive.

Clearly, the book is not for the oversensitive, but it does describe what war is really like. It is messy and dirty.

The details are there for the military specialist, but it is also an anti-war tract for the layman. And it is more: the sociologist's eye, the novelist's ear for down-to-earth dialogue and the unpretentious, sometimes amusing, narrative add up to a surprising tour de force . The style is very simple; initially it appears almost simplistic. At the end of the book, however, like Bunyan's Pilgrim, you have travelled a long way. This might seem like excessive praise, but, in this writer's opinion, after many years of researching on and working in African war zones, Cocks' work is one of the very few books which adequately describe the horrors of war in Africa. Vietnam seemed to have grabbed the stylists.

Like Bunyan's Christian, Cocks' load gets heavier. Towards the end of 1978, he confides:

One of the American Vietnam vets brought a "Doors" tape to the barrack room and the melancholy, almost death-laden voice of Jim Morrison, saddened my already numb and exhausted mind. We lost track of the kill rate as the days wore on. None of us really cared any more. Did scores matter anyway? The enemy had an inexhaustible supply of replacements, no matter how many we killed.

As the war escalated in 1979, the Rhodesian security forces advanced towards the heart of darkness. Cocks' friends are killed or badly wounded. They continue the grotesque tradition of looting the corpses of dead insurgents, despite their officers' disapproval. Cocks hears about an RLI machine-gunner who shot an African child he had enticed with a sweet. Cocks explains that atrocities were never encouraged, and that he worried about repeating a My Lai when civilians were caught in crossfire. He describes the psychopaths and the weirdos, such as a soldier who went to war in a tall black top hat adorned with a yellow AA badge. (As the war intensified the army tightened up on combat dress.) There are the booby-trapped radios and guerrilla uniforms treated with contact poisons. Cocks and his men didn't disapprove of the dirty tricks. 'After all, if it was effective it saved us the job of going out to kill them and maybe getting killed ourselves in the process.'

There are landmines and raids into Zambia and Mozambique. By this time few prisoners were taken. After a firefight, the now promoted Corporal Cocks gives the order to finish off a wounded guerrilla.

A year ago we might have saved him, but not in 1979. We didn't want guerrilla prisoners who might only get a gaol sentence, or even be reprieved and integrated into the army as a reformed ally. Execution in the field, we rationalized, saved the troops extra work ... to say nothing of taxpayers' money The officers still insisted that Special Branch badly needed captures for information purposes, but the intelligence we got in the field was always out of date and second grade anyway ... so what did it matter. Besides that a whole chopper would have been taken up to casevac [casualty evacuate] him, which meant a stick [patrol] would have had to stay out over night.

Besides life or death issues, more mundane matters intrude: letters home to his fiancée, and the obsession that all frontline soldiers have with food and with the soldiers who never leave the safety of their barracks, 'jam-stealers' in Rhodesian parlance.

When Cocks leaves the RLI in January 1979, the guerrilla onslaught is swamping the security forces. Cocks describes how on occasions cooks, clerks and bottlewashers were pulled into the front line. As he walks out of the barracks, the burden falls from his shoulders: 'I felt the weight of my fifty years lifting. Perhaps it was because I was still only twenty-one'.

Cocks asks himself what was it all for. 'I do not believe I had any blood lust. It was just a big adventure which slowly began to turn sour only when I discovered that upwards of thirty thousand people had been killed in the conflict.' Cocks was initially a reluctant conscript. Yet he volunteered to stay on as a regular soldier to complete three years of very active duty.

Cocks' minor masterpiece explains why people fight. Cocks risked his life for his mates. Not Ian Smith. Most soldiers fight well because of peer group pressure -- solidarity with small unit or larger regiment -- no God, Queen or country. Cocks was no exception: it was the camaraderie of the highly professional RLI 3-Commando which motivated him to volunteer, and to fight, sometimes three times a day, in fireforce actions.

A small minority of whites refused to fight. Some slipped off quietly to colleges or exile in Britain and a few publicly registered as pacifists. In most wars the bravest of men are usually found in the ranks of either frontline combat troops or conscientious objectors.


"Fireforce is bound to enjoy a large readership . . . Of the many books that are appearing dealing with Rhodesia and the war years, this is probably the best." - Armed Forces South Africa

"The Rhodesian bush war, like most conflicts, has spawned a large number of books but none has been written with the passion of Fireforce. Cocks' book, more than any other of this particular conflict, smashes home the gross corruption of youth by war . . . it is an immensely moving story." - Patrick Taylor, The Citizen

"Chris Cocks' Fireforce . . . is informative, entertaining and, at times moving stuff." - The Frog, Pretoria News

"This (book) is however notable in that it is the first account of the Zimbabwean war by a Rhodesian soldier which does not attempt to deify the Rhodesians or their war. The strength of the book lies in that in the same way as Platoon refuses to disguise the psychological trauma consequent on youth being conscripted into the army, Fireforce highlights some of the debasement and brutality which face the average recruit." - Oudtshoorn Courier

"Chris Cocks has resisted the temptation to glorify the fighting to any extent at all. He sees it for the catalogue of destruction, suffering and death that war is all about; and in the bush it was, very often, a matter of face-to-face combat at point-blank range." - "Homefront" The MOTH Magazine.

"Fireforce will be to the Rhodesian War what Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front was to World War 1. A high claim indeed, but perhaps valid, for this moving book is a classic in any sense." - Jim Mitchell, The Star.

"This is one of the best books to come out of the Rhodesian War . . . these pages put you right back in the bush." - Armed Forces South Africa.

"Few books have brought home the reality of war as well as Fireforce . . . Fireforce is not a book for the tender- hearted, but it makes for a cracking good read." - Jean Gardine, Personality.

"It (Fireforce) is one of the few books to emerge from that era which is brutally honest, and intensely moving." - Joy Cameron-Dow, SABC - Radio South Africa's "Talking of Books".

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