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A review of the Echoes of an African War manuscript

by M.E. Hagemann  B.A. (Hons), M.A.


In September 1999, Chas Lotter will publish his seminal work: Echoes of an African War. Echoes is an impressive project that brings together poetry and relevant images from the Rhodesian bush war. The formula is not new; Lotter used it previously to very good effect in his previous work: Rhodesian Soldier and something similar was done in collaboration with Peter Badcock in the late 1970’s. Images of War (1979) and Faces of War (1980) were the fruits of that union of creative minds. Much writing has come out of the Rhodesian war. There have been many books detailing the military side of the conflict; a few novels and quite a surprising amount of poetry. A substantial portion of this body of poetry falls into the camp of the Chimurenga voices. Chas Lotter is no Chimurenga voice. He belongs in a second loose category - a division we might loosely term the "Rhodesian voice".

The term "Rhodesian" has taken on a pejorative secondary meaning in Southern African left-wing and revolutionary circles. It is popularly ascribed to people of narrow, racist, right-wing or even fascist outlook. "Rhodesian", for our purposes, identifies the country and people of that name in the historical context: 1965 - 1980. It stands apart from the Zimbabwean or Chimurenga voice because it represents the "other side" in the Rhodesian bush war. It certainly does not mean that the Rhodesian voice is jingoistic, shallow or rooted in conservative thinking. Chas Lotter is the soldier poet to have emerged out of the Rhodesian bush war and his work speaks with a Rhodesian voice. What his artistic goals are, and how well he achieves them in Echoes of an African War, is the purpose of this review.

Lotter says in his introduction to Echoes of an African War that:

If read in sequence, they [the poems] tell the story of a young man caught up in the turmoil of an ever escalating, unrelenting conflict [the poems] record the full spectrum of a young soldier’s experiences in an African war.

This is indeed how the material is arranged. The poems are grouped into sequential sections. The preface apart, the first section is titled "Recruits in Training". Thereafter comes the interlude of the eleven poems of "Quiet Campaigns". A goodly bulk of the poems fit into the substantial sections: "War" and "Grim Years". The section, "Uneasy Change", spans 1979-1980. Thereafter, come the concluding parts: "Exile and Anger" and "Epilogue". Thus a sequential reading of the poems does give one a sense of movement through time; a definite direction through the chronology of a particularly bitter period in recent Southern African history. What, though, of the substance in this collection and the themes that emerge in the poems ?

Jon Stallworthy, in his introduction to the Oxford Book of War Poetry, writes:

there can be no area of human experience that has generated a wider range of powerful feelings than war: hope and fear; exhilaration and humiliation; hatred - not only for the enemy, but also for generals, politicians, and war profiteers; love for fellow soldiers, for women and children left behind, for country (often) and cause (occasionally)

and a more comprehensive set of measuring tools we could not hope to assimilate. As we move through Echoes of an African War, we need to see the individual poems in the chronological context that Lotter has described for us and plumb the works for the kinds of ideas and themes that Stallworthy has identified as typical of war poetry.

The poems that make up the first major section of Echoes fall into Lotter’s sub-category "Recruits in Training". Here Lotter attempts to present the confusing mixes of emotions and strange new experiences that assault the world of the teen-aged army recruit. "Farewell Party" - the first poem; sees our young recruit leave home en route to the barracks The verse hiccups and lurches through three stanzas in splendid imitation of alcoholic excess. We feel, too, the sober reality of the day after in this final verse:

 

I awoke the next day

With the train’s jolting motion banging against my hangover

And hoping

Those I had left in Gatooma

Felt as bad as I did today.

 

This is a reality doubly underscored by the looming nearness of the military life that lies ahead.

The absurd realities of military basic training; the intensive physical training, the drill, the quirky nature of military traditions and discipline form a mix of experiences that sometimes defies description. In "What a Life", Lotter casts an expert eye over barrack-life:

 

Break for breakfast

For what that’s worth

Then off at the trot

(Double you mangy mob!)

For sweat and strain in the gym.

Lectures, lunch (?)

 

These few lines from the second stanza show Lotter at work. He re-creates the frenetic experience of basic training with verse that is hammered into short lines and infused with the Rhodesian idiom of the time. The droll humour of the drill instructor rises to the fore and the wry bemusement of our recruit is clearly noticeable. An alternative insight is provided by "Letters Home." Very simply crafted, "Letters Home" bubbles with youthful enthusiasm and naivetÚ:

 

Dear Mom and Dad,

How are you ? I am fine.

We don’t get too much sleep

But we do get lots to eat

 

But there is a poignancy that underlines the poem. Our recruit is learning the cruel arts of war. His innocence is not yet lost, but we are aware of a looming, threatening presence. This presence forms the depersonalized metaphor that frames the next section: "Quiet Campaigns".

"Quiet Campaigns" begins with "Winter Night In The Bush". The serene imagery apparent in the opening lines:

 

The night was cool.

Hordes of stars stared down from a cloudless sky

As the mountain wind caressed the grass

And the moon lit up the ridge

 

is not there by accident. Line by line, Lotter builds a picture as near to a pastoral idyll as one could imagine in a war poem. But his purpose is not to charm or entertain. Juxtaposed to this first stanza is an explanation of why our man is in the bush in the first place. He is a soldier. He is lying in ambush. The poems "Morning" and "Dusk" have similar occupations. Richly descriptive language like: "fresh taste of a new day" and the lovely second stanza of "Dusk":

 

Twilight steals in

On the cool night breeze

And sits on my bones

 

works together to create the ironic juxtaposition of the rural idyll under siege. It is war, not close enough to take on a personal face, but a real threat nevertheless, that is threatening to break into our soldier’s "quiet campaign".

The brooding background figure of war comes more and more to the fore as we read on into Echoes. In "Boredom", Lotter explores the truism that war is by far and away a largely uneventful experience, punctuated by moments of high drama and action. The poem ambles along with language and images that are deliberately ponderous:

 

Days plod on in a slow routine

And conversation drags its feet

From group to group

For want

Of something better to do.

 

Yet the dull experience being described here has another purpose. It marks off the moments in time until that point when the war breaks into our soldier’s reality.

The third section of Echoes of an African War is given over to poems that deal directly with the experience of war. Prior to this section, our soldier has been through the preparations and military routines; but he has had no direct experience of war. The first brief rush of combat adrenaline is felt in the aptly titled ‘False Alarm". Here Lotter makes skillful use of jarred rhythm and abrupt cadences to convey the confused transition from rest to a state of combat readiness:

 

Silence ruled the keep

Broken only by snorts and snores

When the trip-flare’s crack burst through the midnight quiet

As its flame lit up the night.

Half awake troopies scrambled for weapons

In a tangle of blankets,

Raced about in the crouched-over way

Of men avoiding enemy fire.

 

It is in "Battlefield" that combat touches our soldier for the first time. It is a horrible and utterly de-humanizing experience. The poem opens with the stark and malevolent image: "Above me shines a Judas moon". The tension builds rapidly in the opening stanza. Even so, we are not prepared for the moment of combat when it breaks into our soldier’s reality. Lotter tells it in a detached manner:

 

No innocent walks here. Innocence died

In a place like this.

Instead, shadowed figures glide,

Clash in a burst of noise

Litter the ground with their human debris

And leave.

 

The combat experience is stripped of every superfluous detail. The moment of the fire fight is a single line. The casualties of the clash are anonymous "human debris". There is nothing more to it. We are left with the niggling feeling that the entire action was wanton and pointless.

In another context, the combat experience is something our soldier looks to with grim determination. In his superb work, "Landmine", Lotter spends the better part of four stanzas painting a detailed picture for us of what it is like to experience a landmine blast. The moment of detonation is caught like this:

 

A massive wheel seeks, depresses

A switch

Then a deafening roar as the debris-cloud rises

Our metallic protector lurches and skids

As the driver becomes

Another passenger

 

Our soldier’s rote-learned reaction drills take over in a mechanical process of counter measures and maneuvers which occupy the next very detailed stanza. But, it is the simple, single line: "Two men remain lying on the truck" that swings the whole poem around. Our troops have suffered casualties and they seek vengeance. The conflict has, in an instant, become a deeply personal issue. Our soldier notes:

 

We look at each other.

A hard knot of resolution takes form

To catch and to kill

Those who did this to us.

 

A completely different experience is offered in "Russian Aid". The focus is turned outwards, away from the intensely personal moments, to look, for a time, at experiences or emotions common to larger groups of people. "Russian Aid" succeeds only if we understand the historical context in which it is set. Rhodesia was the subject of crippling and comprehensive mandatory United Nations sanctions. These included an absolute arms boycott. Perhaps as a propaganda ploy, much was made of the Rhodesians’ use of captured weaponry. "Russian Aid", with its quaint humour, fingers exactly the home - spun pride many Rhodesians felt at their army’s ability to utilise captured equipment:

This war

Eats millions of dollars a year,

Make the enemy pay !

Borrow his rifles, his cannon, his

Tanks ?

Where did they spring from !

Which unit swiped those ?

The Vikings had nothing on us.

 

But humour in a collection of war poems is necessarily short lived. Again we return to our soldier to explore further the complex range of emotions that this war engendered.

In "War Stories" we see anger and loathing rise up. The target of our soldier’s wrath is not the foe he faces on the battle field, but rather the noisy braggart at home. The title is a clever pun but there is nothing sophisticated about the construction and intent of these lines:

 

Beware the loud ones

Who refight their escapades

In voices which leak cigars and beer.

Who take a high-decibel umbrage

At the slightest race of disbelief

 

If the tenor of "War Stories" is noisy, then quietness is a characteristic of the telling verse in "Loneliness War". Here Lotter makes the salient point that the war was fought in the battleground of the minds of the women at home too. He uses the quietness of his uncomplaining subject to point to obvious, but neglected truths:

 

At least a man

Has the satisfaction of doing, of comradeship.

His woman must stand alone

Dreading the unexpected knock which brings

A uniform who gently asks her name

Before breaking the news of his death

Or worse.

And even if

He has not been hit

She still must answer the children’s fears

Calm their nighttime screams

While fighting to control her own.

 

The flip side of the coin was that life did not return to peaceful normality when the soldiers came home after the period of service. In "Homecoming" Lotter explores a consciousness that contemporary psychologists might be tempted to call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The tension in our soldier’s life is palpably obvious from the questions that pepper these lines:

 

Do you know

What a soldier feels like

When he comes home ?

What its like to take cover

When a car backfires ?

To suddenly wake next to your wife to check

If the guard’s awake ?

To be startled

Convulsively reach for your rifle; which isn’t there ?

 

The Rhodesian army relied heavily on the services of territorial soldiers - men who had a compulsory military commitment for part of the year. For the remainder of that time, they were civilians. As the war intensified, so too did the frequency and duration and of military commitments. For many young men, it reached a stage where they were serving virtually permanently in the army, with only a few days "leave" after each six week period of service. In the final stanza of "Homecoming", Lotter describes for us the turmoil caused by continuous military commitment. He concentrates his stanza around apparently superfluous detail, but we recognize that his purpose is to show the impact that military commitment had upon apparently normal, everyday life:

 

We are the part-time soldiers

Who lead a double life.

Out there who mentions, who cares

About taxes, parking tickets or what

Mrs Jones said the other day.

Back here what use is it

To be able to live on a tin

Of food

And a sip of water a day ?

We go in, we come out with bewildering speed

Until it is hard to tell

Whether you are here

Or there

 

The combat soldier’s preparation for action is something Lotter devotes his full attention to. He is determined to probe the mind of the man whose life hinges on the outcome of the next contact with the enemy. The tension of impending action and the specter of looming death are grippingly apparent in the brittle and fragmented lines of: "Waiting To Go Out":

 

We had packed. We waited.

In the cathedral hush.

Eight men sat. Some read

Some drank. All

Unconsciously part

Of a ritual for the dead,

For those about to join them.

 

Similarly, in "Ambush Party", a slow deliberate, brooding rhythm percolates down the lines, drawing us into the world of the ambushers:

 

We settle quietly into cover.

First watch begins

On the flank away from me.

We wait.

 

As move into the next section of Echoes - "Grim Years", so the focus of the poems shifts slightly. Action and death become the constant companions of our soldier. Lotter sifts carefully through these experiences, seeking, always, to draw into his verse something of the experiences and emotions of these awful moments. A remarkably candid and introspective piece is "This War". The run-on lines, stripped of superfluous meaning and non-essential images, become part of a graphically honest and thorough self-examination. The poem needs to be quoted in full:

 

This war that strips away

What you think you are.

And leaves

What you really are

For your friends to see.

That tears you apart,

Then puts you together again - all different,

Efficient

And bitter.

Writes its story

In your eyes

And leaves the blood showing,

Tests, shuffles, rejects

And leaves a strange selection

Of (winners ?)

 

On other occasions, our soldier seems detached and business - like in the execution of his duties. In "Retribution", we read these matter-of-fact lines:

 

We came

From the hills at dawn

Marking our trail

In fiery progress. Grim shapes

Moving from kraal to kraal

With chaos in our hands

 

Is this callousness or the psychological defense mechanisms of a man tired of war ? Both probably. Certainly the mental effects of living with and dealing in sudden, violent death begin to play heavily on the psyche of our soldier and Lotter makes every effort to probe and ponder these silent moments.

In "Fleeting Visit", our reality is momentarily touched by the cold finger of a figure from the underworld:

 

Have you ever heard

A dead man talk ?

Have you ever walked

With ghosts ?

Have you ever sat alone

And felt a spirit run his fingers up your spine ?

 

Together, we walk with Lotter through this highly personal moment. He has perfected the magic art of combining pathos and eeriness. His observations are canny and surgically precise. The path we have taken through Echoes has not been an aimless one. Lotter is gradually unfolding to us the multitudinous effects that this war has had on people.

If we can recall the youthful naivetÚ of our peachy-faced teenage recruit in "Letters Home"; let us now examine the tragic and desperately sad "Appeal". The first three stanzas of this piece casually list the effects that constant combat tension is having on our young soldier:

 

Don’t mind my hands

Padre.

They shake like this

When I’m in base.

I dream of death

Padre.

Scream in the dark

To chase the nightmares away.

I drink

Padre.

To keep my memories

At bay.

 

But look at Lotter’s purpose here. The effects of being in this war reach far beyond the tremors and dreams. War has wrung the stuff of life out of this young man. The fourth stanza is heart breaking:

 

I am nineteen

Padre.

Why then do I feel

So old and worn.

 

Like the Padre, we are silent. There are no answers worthy of the tragic questions our soldier is asking. This is a theme Lotter dwells on. A quick turn of the poet’s screw and we focus on the absolutely chilling "Grim Reapers":

 

These stark men

Who have not yet celebrated

Their coming of age.

Whose carefree years have been pickpocketed

Out of their lives.

Who have lost the carelessness of youth.

Gained the callousness of Death’s companions

 

Lotter has placed his finger very firmly on the central issue here. He is aghast at what the business of waging war has done to the soldiers. These "stark men" did not choose the gladiator’s life. No. Their "carefree years" have indeed been "pickpocketed out of their lives." By whom and for what, we shall see shortly. A tension has been rising in this collection. As we read, we become aware that the war is out of control. The dogs of war have become marauding packs. The deliberately macabre "Dirge of the Lost Souls" uses the traditional metaphor of wandering souls for a much keener purpose:

 

Listen

At night in the bush

To the thin shrill pleas of those

Caught in the crossfires of war

 

In these last lines, the sense of war - weariness is unmistakable. This is the ideal vehicle for the new ideas and themes of the next section "Uneasy Change."

The 16 months between January 1979 and Zimbabwe’s independence in April 1980 were indeed times of uneasy change. Militarily, the conflict show no signs of scaling down. What had begun as a low key guerrilla insurgency, escalated into a regional conflict that spilled over five countries. On the battlefield, no quarter was asked or given by either side. In these opening lines of the aptly titled "Call For Peace", Lotter well captures the sense of futility that began to invade Rhodesian sentiment:

 

My war

And your war too

Has twisted our lives for how many years now ?

I have hated,

As have you.

And I have mourned

As have you.

Yet, we have never met

Except with death between us.

 

This is a landmark poem in the collection. Our soldier has had enough of war. He says so without reserve:

 

The time is here, now

When cooking fires, not flaming houses,

Should stain the sky.

When fences should go down

And men not have to watch the shadows as they walk.

 

Behind the scenes, the political leaders of the various factions were making efforts to reach a settlement whilst juggling apparently contradictory political paradigms and principles. Lotter reflects his disgust with the process that seemed to lurch and falter without end. The caustic and frustrated lines of "Lancaster House" stand as something of a symbol of a growing tide of public resentment towards the politicians who appear unwilling to bring the chaos to an end:

 

The politicians strut pompously

To yet another conference table

For the umpteenth time bellow and strike a pose.

What care I for all this ?

Their babble rolls on.

We continue to die.

 

And in "Think Well Before You Speak" there is thinly-veiled menace directed at the politicians (on both sides):

 

Speak softly, politician.

For the war wounded moan in the rooms next door

And the graveyard down the road is full to overflowing

 

Our soldier has shed all innocence. That is the dross of war. He is well-schooled in war and utterly sick of it. He can see beyond the immediate into the fearful times of the near future. Our soldier longs for an end to his land’s war; but he knows that peoples’ private wars are only about to begin. This intuitive knowledge is the disquieting thread that runs through the last stanza of "Legacy of war":

 

Now that War’s End approaches

How many

Will be unable, or unwilling

To be shackled again to cutting the lawn

And visiting Auntie on Sunday

 

The territory Lotter wanders through in bringing this collection to a close is rooted in the Rhodesian Diaspora that occurred after Zimbabwean independence in 1980. "Exile and Anger" gives way to "Epilogue". Here we see the poet’s craft come to the fore. The passage of time has done nothing to quench the feeling; but oh how the verse has benefitted from years of polish! In "Requiem" we have a moment of sheer magic. Recriminations and regrets are laid aside as our soldier-poet sets out to remember and honour his fallen comrades. Read these lines with the slow intonation they deserve:

 

Tonight we mourn our dead. Those brothers

Who still lie; wrapped in camo shrouds

Beneath Rhodesian soil.

Chase those strangers out; bar the door

Charge your glasses, wait while those murmurs die away

Listen.

Argent; Arvic; Homan; Brading.

These are my dead.

Lost in ambush, mine, attack

In a time when a flag

Flew green and white

In a land which is no more.

 

It was Wilfred Owen, the tragic soldier-poet of the First World War, who wrote : "All the poet can do today is to warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful." Chas Lotter has shown through his poetry that he has earned the right to speak for those times. His verse is authentic, honest and true. He strives, at all times, to catch the fleeting spirit of the moment, but his poems are not overtly didactic and he deliberately shies away from any ideological association. Perhaps the closing words, the few that sum up the larger purpose of his work, should be those of Lotter himself:

 

These are the words that were torn from that time.

Taken for poems, by a young man,

Lost, afraid; caught up

In the dust and the noise of an African war.

These words

My children, Melissa and Carl,

Were forced into print for you.

 

Twenty years on, these carefully accumulated thoughts, words and images are the Echoes of an African War. Do we who live on, hear them ? That is Chas Lotter’s challenge to us.


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