Sunday, April 8, 2012

Congo Mercenary: A Review

This is an older book (1967) that I recently picked up through Paladin Press. It's author is Mike Hoare, a mercenary Colonel that lead forces in the Congolese civil war in the early 1960's.

The writing style is less of a technical manual than a biography which makes it a pleasant read. There are details for the equipment-philes like me but not so much that it distracts from the story. Luckily I have a decent reference library (and Google) to help w/ vehicles or planes I was unfamiliar w/.

Spoiler alert:

To sum up the war from the side of the mercenaries, one can only use the expression 'comparatively easy' especially when one reads memoirs of similar insurgencies in Rhodesia such as 'Fireforce' by Cocks or 'The Bushwar in Rhodesia' by Croukamp. The reasons for this are best summed up early in the book:
As an extension of this belief (Witchcraft/superstitions) Mulele introduced a new doctrine to his followers. Believers in him had only to shout the words "MAI Mulele" and their enemeis and worst fears would be overcome. In battle, after taking the dawa, a specially prepared medicine, the would be immune to all danger, bullets would turn to water or pass through them harmlessly, and they would be invincible. Having taken the dawa they would be possessed of superhuman powers; for instance, they only had to 'throw their eyes' on their enemy to render him helpless and impotent for ever.. The Mai, literally 'water', would be dispensed by the witch-doctors. The medicament was, in fact, nothing but water and was administered from small glass phials. This, together with liberal doses of marijuana, rendered the recipient insensible to pain and totally incapable of intelligent action....

Whilst the effect of this doctrine would be negligible on white soldiers the effect it produced on the Congolese of the National Army was nothing short of catastrophic. Thhe mere announcement that 'les Mulele-istes' were on their way, or worse still, the sight of them standing drugged, hands outstretched, throwing their eyes in their direction, was sufficient to reduce entire garrisons to a state of instant panic and headlong flight, in which they frequently abandoned their arms and equipment to the advancing rebels.
So basically you had modern troops entering a battlefield of a stone-age culture that were armed w/ automatic weapons. This comes across throughout the book. Yes, there are multiple incidents of the mercenaries being wounded by poisoned spears and arrows. Some of the described incidents of torture used regularly by the Congolese put me in mind of some of the scenes from the movie 'Tears of the Sun'.

Anyone versed in tactics would cringe at some of the antics. The first vignette has Hoare leading a platoon of what are mostly untrained civilians on an impromptu beach assault. Had they gone up against even marginally competent insurgents, they would have been slaughtered within minutes. It wasn't until well into his second 6 month contract that effective, regular training was established and by then the communist guerrillas were already being ground down through their own incompetence, opposition of the general populace, and political infighting of their leaders.

The third section of the book, describing his third 6 month contract and the effective end of the war, peaked the history geek in me. Hoare noting that the rebels had improved their tactics due to the presence of Cuban advisers, that sparked a memory. I pulled out my copy of 'Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life' and looked up when he was in Africa. I was right. Hoare was up against Guevara in the last days of the insurgency. It was fascinating reading about the same actions (including some of the exact same details) from both leaders simultaneously. Guevara had arrived in the Congo expecting dedicated, enthusiastic guerrillas like he had fought w/ in Cuba. Instead he found untrained, superstitious and completely unmotivated troops w/ a leadership that was never present and spent more time building up their own fortunes than running their territory. Interestingly, Guevara's opinion of the rebels matches closely to Hoare's. There is, however, no mention of Guevara in this book so I have ordered Che's 'Congo Diary' for more details.

While the politics/ethics of the time are definitely arguable, this is an interesting, entertaining and historically relevant read. I would recommend it highly and will be ordering the followup 'Congo Warriors' book.

Next on the list is 'All Roads Lead to Baghdad: Army Special Operations Forces in Iraq'

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