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Commando Existential
Commando Existential

Commando Existential


‘You're having more fun than you ever had in your life. You're off on a great adventure; living in the middle of a travel poster. And all because you found in yourself a rare ability...for violence. You are a gifted killer.’ – Gina Lollobrigida vs Frank Sinatra in Never So Few - screenplay by Millard Kaufman

Somewhere in South West Africa, 1981

‘Aren’t you afraid of dying, Sergeant?’

Sergeant Phil Danté looked into the eyes of his platoon commander, Lieutenant Hendrik Van der Merwe, whose name, as in German and Dutch, the ‘V’ was pronounced like an ‘F’ and the ‘W’ like a ‘V’.

‘I’m already dead…I’ve been that way since Vietnam…maybe high school…every day’s a bonus…It’s mind over matter, if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter…But the good news Lef-tenant, is you’re not yet in Hell in the flames forever with insurance salesman, schoolteachers and accordion music!’

His lieutenant was curious, rather than frightened. If he’d been the latter, Sgt. Danté would have given his usual answer he gave others in the same occupation in different lands,

‘Do you wish to chance them killing you, or would you prefer me surely killing you?’

The Sergeant’s brown eyes softened.

‘What is the meaning of F-E-A-R? Forget Everything And Run. You can’t outrun a bullet…you bloody well don’t want them to take you alive…so die in place and take some of them with you…’

His lieutenant’s eyes didn’t exude self-confidence…Sgt. Danté continued,

Never forget what you were trained in, that’s why they trained you until it becomes your instinct. Everyone’s afraid, but you lose the game if you show it…’,

Sgt. Danté sang Conway Twitty’s ‘It’s Only Make Believe’.

The lieutenant laughed…his sergeant’s eyes approved…

His new platoon sergeant was the strangest man he and everyone in the entire basecamp had set eyes upon. He revelled in the madness they called ‘bossies’ for being in the bos, or bush, for too long. The Australian Sergeant had been in Angola with Major ‘Hellfire Hugh’ Williams’ command until Pretoria decided the National Servicemen in South West Africa needed combat-experienced platoon sergeants. Too many Permanent Force Sergeants had found comfortable niches and sinecures in ‘essential’ staff positions far out of harm and discomfort’s way. Sgt. Danté and the others would teach the new dogs of war dirty old tricks.

His battalion Commandant had personally introduced Lt. Van der Merwe to his new sergeant. With his lean build, tanned complexion, dark brown hair and eyes, Sgt. Danté resembled an Indian from Durban. It was those eyes that made everyone wonder about or fear him; they were the eyes of death and the eyes of madness, but he was the funniest sick comedian anyone had ever enjoyed…

His voice wasn’t a broad Australian accent, it was soft, but firm, educated, but down to Earth; he sounded like an officer. He apologised that his Afrikaans was kak, dreadful to non-existent. Other than ‘bloody’ and ‘shit’, he appeared to never swear, and the only time he saw him admonish one of his section leaders in the presence of subordinates was when a Corporal had a private braced at attention and was going on and on in language about sexual intercourse and comparing the private to parts of the female anatomy…in front of the entire section…


The Corporal nervously snapped to attention.

‘Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?’

‘No…Yes…, Sergeant!’

‘Do you listen to your mother, Corporal?’

‘Yes, Sergeant!’

‘Do you respect your mother?’

‘Yes, Sergeant!’

‘Did your mother teach you those words?’

‘No, Sergeant!’

‘If she could see you now…if she could hear you now…Are you proud of yourself, Corporal?’

‘No, Sergeant!’

‘Then why are you teaching us those words? Don’t you believe that you should try gaining the same respect from your men that you give to your mother...’

It wasn’t a question…

‘Yes, Sergeant!’

‘Point two…Do you love your mother?’

‘Yes, Sergeant!’

‘Would you go through Hell and back for your mother?’

‘Yes, Sergeant!’

‘Do you believe your men love you and would go through Hell and back for you?’

The penny dropped…the Corporal’s facial expression changed to one of shock…

The Sergeant sang Try a Little Tenderness; the entire section stared in disbelief…

Sgt. Danté had done something that the lieutenant had never seen in the army…he disciplined through embarrassment…then after the point was made, softened his criticism with an offbeat sense of humour.

In the military, everyone had a reputation; good, bad, or incredible.

An entourage of whispered rumours established his mystique. He not only had been in Vietnam, then with ‘Hellfire Hugh’ in Guatemala, then Rhodesia, but he travelled the world as an international hitman…Sgt. Danté never dissuaded the rumours, as everyone, particularly his superior officers, treated a professional killer with courtesy and respect…especially when he had live ammunition in an operational area…Everyone was very nice and polite to you when you had live ammunition.

In addition to his Australian platoon sergeant, Corporal Hughes, another of Hellfire Hugh’s experienced charmers, joined the platoon.

Every one of the platoon save Sgt. Danté and Hughesy, were National Servicemen; the NCOs and officers arrived straight after their training. As Sgt. Danté was approaching 31, he was regarded as an eccentric grandfather.

When soldiers and policemen look like children to you, you’re an old man.

Hughesy replaced his platoon’s first casualty. The deceased Corporal had not only defied orders by having a full magazine in his R4 rifle, but also a round up the spout and the selector switch set to full-automatic ‘rock and roll’ inside the basecamp, rather than loading and locking once outside the perimeter. He placed his rifle in the Buffel armoured personnel carrier barrel up, and climbing into the vehicle he had straddled the weapon with his foot hitting the trigger…

Anything a private soldier could do, a non-commissioned officer had to do better…

Hughesy had a sicker sense of humour than Sgt. Danté. He’d chat up the teenaged privates of his section, then offer them a piece of biltong…actually a blackened preserved severed ear in a beef jerky packet. He performed several encores of his party trick to various troopies, including the Intelligence Officer who put it in his mouth then vomited…accompanied by roaring laughter. The IO unsuccessfully attempted to bring charges against Hughesy; Sgt. Danté switched the ear with an actual piece of biltong that embarrassed the IO further.

The Sergeant took his platoon out in the bush and in place of rehearsing battle drills, had them comfortably view Hughesy dig a man-size grave with his entrenching tool, then perform a full military funeral for the ear. Hughesy recited a eulogy, simulated a rifle salute by raising his weapon, shouting ‘bang’, bringing it back to the ready, and repeating the process 21 times, played The Last Post on a comb and piece of toilet tissue then buried the ear in the unmarked grave.

* * *

The IO had obtained his position because he was too highly-strung to be a platoon commander. If everything didn’t go his way, he exploded like a landmine to his subordinates, but sucked up like a vacuum cleaner to his superiors.

He was a combat dilettante.

He’d done a Cecil B. DeMille job of preparing the patrol’s briefing, spending a considerable amount of time creating a miniature African kraal with empty cardboard boxes and twigs as vegetation. Apparently, he hadn’t time to add toy animals and Airfix Tarzan figures.

He noticed Hughesy sitting with the attached Pioneers.

‘What are you doing sitting with the Pioneers??? Sit where you are supposed to sit with your own section, Kor-po-ral!!!’

Hughesy walked across the diorama crushing several cardboard model huts like Godzilla. The platoon cackled; the IO appeared as he was about to cry.

A military briefing done by a non-infantry officer resembled Kabuki theatre; more a highly stylised tradition to impress rather than something to understand. During Sgt. Danté’s inspection after his section leader’s inspection, he’d quiz the troopies of their jobs on the patrol to see if they understood, as like The Emperor’s New Clothes, everyone thought it bad form to ask anything. Sgt. Danté revelled in asking questions.

Lt. Van der Merwe gave the typical platoon commander pep talk; Sgt. Danté sent him approving looks that he picked up.

‘Anything to add, Sergeant Danté?’

‘When we go into the bush tonight, we’ll be sure of a big surprise. When we go into the bush tonight, we’re going to go in disguise. For every soldier that ever there was, will gather there for certain because…tonight’s the night, the teddy bears have their pic…nic…! Platoon Sergeant inspection in two hours!’

Everyone laughed except the screeching IO who paraphrased Get Smart’s Siegfried, Zis ist KAOS! Vee do not recite zee Teddy Bear’s Picnic here!!!

‘A picnic is a state of mind, Lef-tenant. It’s how you look at it.’

‘This war is not for your personal enjoyment, Sersant!’

‘It isn’t? Then what are we doing here???’

The IO called Sgt. Danté a hireling and a Philistine. Afrikaners called Uitlanders Philistines, for they were the Pharisees.

‘I put the Phil in Philistine, Lef-tenant.’

‘I do not need you to make me look like an idiot, Sersant!’

‘Quite right, Lef-tenant.’

They parted at cross-purposes.

* * *

Sgt. Danté and his ‘eltee’ relaxed in the watering hole, the Troopie’s Canteen with tea for the former and coffee for the latter with rusks, the popular local accompaniment. The canteen was shaded with a green parachute beneath camouflage netting; the tables were made from wooden cable spools. No alcohol would be served to anyone going on patrol, otherwise there was a two-beer limit.

Though they were the only ones there as everyone else was preparing for inspection and patrol, both removed their officer’s rank epaulettes and armbands with three stripes.

Sgt. Danté hoped nothing would happen to the young Meneer Van der Merwe from Potchefstroom. He was unlike the lieutenants he had in Australia from well-to-do families who gave the appearance that they truly believed that they were some higher order of being. He recalled his first platoon commander in Vietnam, ‘the Goon from Duntroon’ who behaved as if their Royal Australian Regiment rifle platoon was his own personal entourage of serfs. To be fair, they did have more than a fair share of lowlifes and bottom feeders. In South Africa officers were mostly addressed by their rank rather than ‘sir’.

His lieutenant confided his lifelong hatred of his surname, as in South Africa everyone told jokes about a stupid man named Van der Merwe, in the same way Rhodesians told jokes about Suzie Matweetwee. South Africa was rather like Mexico in only having two dozen Dutch or French Huguenot surnames.

Sgt. Danté bolstered his lieutenant’s confidence by reminding him how everyone always had respect for old reliable ‘Van’. It was up to him to make sure he did things that would win his men’s loyalty for them to call him ‘Luitenant Van’, and not act like the IO who even the Van der Merwes would tell jokes about. He was well on his way to the former and nowhere near the latter.

He asked his Sergeant about his life. He replied he came from a family of French descent in Sydney. His language fluency led him to act as a translator in Vietnam. After becoming a section leader, he was later sent to train Vietnamese that he found more interesting.

‘There’s only so many times you could hear the word “mate”…’

His Sergeant found people as interesting in their differences as well as their similarities and that’s why he loved working his way around the world.

‘Life’s a carnival; lucky ducks and laughing clowns…’

‘You have learned a lot.’

‘No, Leslie Caron summed it up in Lili. “You don’t learn anything; you grow old and then you know.”’

‘When do you think you’ll go home?’

‘This is my home…’

After tea, Sgt. Danté had time for a short nap. The only thing he didn’t like about his lifestyle was that he frequently had an unhealthy lack of sleep, that no doubt added to his wild appearance.

* * *

Sgt. Danté made his presence known to his platoon by singing Colonel Hathi’s March, sung by the cartoon elephants in Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book. He wore his ‘lucky’ Australian army slouch hat that matched his brown uniform set off by a green mesh scarf/face veil and webbing.

His corporals had done a fine job doing their inspection. He publicly praised them, particularly Corporal Pottymouth, as he nicknamed the foul mouthed Korporal Potgeiter. If you received criticism, but you acted on it, you’d receive praise.

The next theatre performance was the stand-to at day’s end where everyone took their positions on the plowed-up berm to defend the base from any SWAPO banzai charge.

An hour after stand-to, the platoon formed up. Mad Dogs and Englishmen went out in the Noonday Sun, but Cool Cats and South Africans

‘Prayer time…’, Sgt. Dante softly announced.

He and Cpl. Hughes softly sang Stand by Me, as he had said his own prayers earlier. Many of his men prayed openly, as South Africans did, including Cpl. Pottymouth; others just reflected. Some joined the chorus.

Once their song ended, Sgt. Danté announced,

‘I believe in God and this platoon; we own the night, they don’t!

It was a fun overnight patrol at a leisurely pace, unlike the ones that lasted days in Guatemala and Rhodesia and weeks in Vietnam. Sgt. Danté called it a soirée.

Pharoah’s Army ventured into the night; led by pioneers with mine detectors, a patrol navigator and his covering team. Their faces and exposed flesh were totally blacked up like a minstrel show.

* * *

When things went wrong, they really did…for war was a comedy of errors as well as of terrors…

The sound of whistling doom, incoming 81mm mortar rounds, led to everyone hitting the ground. Thankfully no one was stupidly curious to remain standing to see if it was the sound of the tooth fairy.

The great thing about being in South West Africa is that the sand reduces the effect of shells. The worst thing about it was that they were being shelled by their own basecamp.

Mortar crews would randomly fire what was called harassment and interdiction fire at supposed targets at night to keep everyone guessing…It worked…Once they brought in bleeding and moaning villagers of a nearby kraal when the sharp as a bowling ball mortarmen’s H&I mortar bombs fell short on their village setting public relations back a decade.

When the mortaring ceased, Sgt. Danté broke the silence by imitating Curly of the Three Stooges,

‘Yuh missed me, nyahhh!’

None were injured from the shelling; everyone must have been raised by parents as strict as his own and followed their training instinctually. Sgt. Danté thought that the only thing better was that if anyone was going to pay for firing on their own men, it would be the IO for not informing the mortar crews of the patrol’s route. All patrols had to record their route so they could be searched for if they disappeared.

And disappear they did…a sudden monsoon-type cloudburst hit, with everyone unable to see their own hands in front of their faces.

Sgt. Danté placed the platoon into close-order single file and whispered,

‘It’s The Muppet Show singing Ahi Veine La Conga, Lef-tenant!’

The patrol navigator was covered by his rubber groundsheet so he could see his lensatic compass with his torch. His escort held and guided the Halloween ghost leading the conga line of zombie slaves who trudged onwards. Another troopie carried the navigator’s rifle and ammunition belt webbing, lest the metal affect his compass.

Sgt. Danté’s distrust of local guides was vindicated when one of them led another patrol to national shame and international embarrassment.

Realising they were lost, their platoon sergeant shouted,

‘They told us you were the best guide in South West Africa!’

His guide replied,

‘I think we in Angola now, boss.’

The rain had stopped as suddenly as it started. The stars returned as did the patrol’s visibility; they reverted to their normal platoon formation.

They hadn’t had the embarrassment of coming upon their own tracks like Piglet and the Woozle and some other platoons.

* * *

A contact erupted in the rear of the platoon. Sgt. Danté took Potty’s section, the lieutenant Cpl. LeRoux’s in a twin flanking movement as Hughesy’s rear section returned fire.

Their enemy vanished in the bush; the platoon marked the site of the contact on the navigator’s map.

Sgt. Danté spoke in a deep voice,

‘This looks like a job for…Radio Man!’

They transmitted a report for a hunter-killer team to go out by helicopter at first light.

A SWAPO patrol of unknown size had blundered to the rear of the army patrol in an upside-down ‘T’...Both sides fired; SWAPO performed a strategic withdrawal/retrograde operation/run for your bloody lives.

There was no sense stumbling about in the dark when you couldn’t find spoor; as Judy Holliday sang, The Party’s Over.

With no casualties on either side, everyone returned home happy. Mission accomplished, both sides had a successful advance-to-contact mission under their belts.

Sgt. Danté praised his lieutenant and corporals who praised their men. Undoubtedly the SWAPO party would be doing the same once they stopped moving.

Life was all about creative report writing…it made the world go around…

Returning to their basecamp at first light, they sang Colonel Hathi’s March together as the helicopters flew over them seeking the platoon’s contact.


Author Notes: Happy Year of the Dragon!

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21 Feb, 2024
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