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GI Julius: an idea whose time has come

GI Julius: an idea whose time has come

Defence minister Lindiwe Sisulu’s announcement that she would allow Julius Malema and his whole crew to undergo military training in the SANDF has generally been met with howls of anguish, derision or worse. We beg to differ.

Her ex post facto explanation that she would make the same offer to all political party youth formations garnered even greater eye-rolling condescension from many of the political critics and commentators with whom I usually agree when I read or hear their opinions. But, not this time. Maybe Sisulu reached her decision for the wrong reasons, or via the wrong chain of logic, but she’s 100%, absolutely, spot-on – correct on this one.

It’s been 40 years, but this reporter still has vivid memories of his training sergeants Ray Hebert and Billy Short. Hebert was a wiry little man who probably got into the army by being just a millimetre taller than the bottom limit on the military’s height restriction. But he undoubtedly could have been a world champion bantamweight boxer. A small package, but lots of attitude. With an indescribably deep, rural Louisiana, Cajun accent, no-one ever actually understood a word he said. But, after a day or two, we all instinctively understood his commands in our bones and all 60 of us in the training unit did exactly what he wanted us to do – whatever it was. His “colleague” was Sergeant Billy Short. Tall, blond, laconic like a poster from “The Boys from Brazil”, Short generally spoke in monosyllables. Longer ones were, “Git”, “Move”, “Climb”, “March”, “Run”, “Scrub”, “Load, Aim, Fire!” He also commanded a long list of unprintable descriptions of social behaviours.

It’s been 40 years, but this reporter still breaks out into a cold sweat whenever he thinks of them. No matter how smart and savvy we were with the way things were organised in the world, these men were something none of us had ever actually met before. It was their job to take a bunch of unwilling, unhappy men who wanted to be anywhere else but in Fort Dix, and turn them into soldiers suitable for an extremely unpopular war across the ocean. And to knock some of the attitude off our collective shoulders.

It was their job to weld together a training cadre that had brought together a couple of Brooklyn’s junior mobsters, a modern scion of New York City’s propertied “aristocracy”, a short-order cook in a seafood restaurant, two guys who had taken up the option of an army enlistment over six months as mandatory guests in another less friendly government institution, the assistant manager of a Piggly Wiggly Market (the American equivalent of a small town Spar) – and a handful of people such as this reporter, halfway through university, but already steeped in Kafka, Mailer, Marx and Fanon.

By the time army basic training was over, we were in the best physical shape of our lives (as long as you don’t count a collection of blisters the size of a R5 coin that never seemed to heal and a head cold that didn’t respond well to getting up at 5am every day to stand in line outside the barracks for breakfast in the still-star-lit, icy crispness of winter mornings). Nonetheless, we learned some sharp lessons about cooperating with people so we could finish some thoroughly unpleasant tasks and get in out of the rain, the cold, the snow and the night. No cheerleader for the military, still, the things we learned about ourselves and each other were well worth knowing.

These are precisely the kinds of knowledge and understanding – without the unpleasant imperatives of the Vietnam War or Angola – that our friend Julius desperately needs. This country would be better for it. Military training would get him away from all that rich food, the Johnny Walker Blue and the fancy transport. No doubt he’ll have to leave the Breitling behind and he’ll have little use for the money from his tenderpreneur lifestyle, but he’ll find he now has a life with structure and order in it. He’ll get three straightforward square meals a day, lots of exercise, some fresh air and outdoor living, and a healthy “early to bed, early to rise” lifestyle.

Watch: This is the army, Mr Jones

Once he finishes, he’ll undoubtedly need a visit to his tailor to do some alterations to all those smart suits he’s purchased to make them a little smaller, but he’ll have learned a bit about getting along with other kinds of people. And for sure, his army training will be the best way possible for him to get some real anger management. There is no gain, none whatsoever, in getting angry with one’s drill sergeant, one’s fellow troops or the officers.

In fact, rather than just a couple of weeks of training, perhaps we should petition the minister to let young Julius take the full-length training course; heck, come to think of it, every one of those so-called youth leaders could do with training too. Okay, so maybe some of those military lessons aren’t all that much help – how much of your adult life do you spend applying the specifics of a night-time infantry manoeuvre to capture “Hill 441”? But the discipline and purposefulness of a daily life that is filled with working cooperatively with lots of people from very different backgrounds, towards tangible meaningful goals and objectives, and with commensurate rewards and punishments – would be good for our Julius.

What punishments are we talking about here, you might ask? Well, for starters, recall all those scenes from all those “coming of age in the military” films – the ones where the hero learns humility from cleaning and polishing floors and toilets with a used toothbrush. Those stories are true. One really does learn how to polish up a storm, iron a shirt, buff up a shoe and tightly pack a footlocker like nobody’s business. Now there is a picture to cherish. Our youth leader polishing the pipes with a toothbrush and some Brasso. And that doesn’t even cover the “Drop down and give me 50 push-ups, soldier!”.

And so, on this one, the honourable minister of defence gets our enthusiastic vote to send Julius and his whole gang to national service training – but only so long as she can promise that the army itself is disciplined and organised enough to carry out the task effectively.

By Brooks Spector

And if your connection, courtesy of the Department of Communications, is not good enough to watch the video clip, here’s the lyrics, by Irving Berlin:

This is the Army Mister Jones,
No private rooms or telephones,
You had your breakfast in bed before,
But you won’t have it there any more.

This is the Army Mister Green,
We like the barracks nice and clean,
you had a housemaid to clean your floor,
but she won’t help you out any more.

Do what the buglers command,
They’re in the army and not in a band.

This is the Army Mr. Brown,
You and your baby went to town.
She had you worried but this is war,
and she won’t worry you any more.


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