Short Story: All the Battles are the Same

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He crouched in the Sub-Saharan bush and took a breath. He felt elated and he didn’t have to be his cover identity here; he could be Alexei Golz, even if the natives called him the Bear or baas.

Natives, he thought. I sound like a damn imperialist. Even though it was a neutral term, really, he imagined British soldiers in pith helmets and khaki talking about machine-gunning tribesmen over afternoon tea. That age was ending, or it would be if the Americans stayed out of this country and the Congo and Mozambique. Golz drew a circle in the rust colored dirt. He did not want to be here.

He heard a truck and peered out from under the shrubs. It was a truckload of Angolans, but he could never tell the difference between the MPLA, the people he was supposed to be helping, and the UNITA insurgents. They did not wear a uniform; you would see a motely of plain clothes, British uniforms, Eastern Bloc camouflage, and a variety of other costumes. Golz squinted out from his hiding place. The men sat in the back of the truck with Russian rifles and he thought he recognized one of the men in the bed of the truck. He wore an East German jacket and Soviet camouflage trousers. It was promising but the South Africans wore all kinds of uniforms. Golz wanted to loathe their deception but he was a deep cover agent himself.

The truck halted and the man Golz recognized jumped out. His men eyed Golz, rifles in hand; he gave them a blank look as he planned for the worst and the best outcomes.

“The Bear,” the Angolan said in rough, university-freshman Russian. “Welcome back to the bush,” he grinned. The man smiled too much. Golz found it off-putting.

“Da,” Golz said. “We have met before, Friday.”

“You remember my war name,” the insurgent continued smiling. “You are a smart man.”

Golz didn’t respond. He glanced at the truck and breathed out between his teeth.

“Do not worry,” Friday said. “You are a friend. They know.”

“Mhm,” Golz said. “Shall we begin the advising?” He tried to recall the exact details of his orders as the Angolans glared at him. He should not have been uneasy; they were in the same struggle as he was. Stalin did murder Trotsky, he thought, even though he supposed it had been a good idea at the time.

“Where are the others?” Friday paced around him, looking over his plain khaki outdoors clothes and simple load bearing gear.

Golz wished he could laugh. These guerillas liked having their advisers fight for them. “There are none. I am your adviser.”

“Oh, is that right?”

Golz nodded. He tightened his grip on his rifle’s sling.

Friday laughed even though Golz could see in his eyes were disappointed. “Get in the truck then, friend.”

Golz rode in the bed with the other men. They talked in their language or pidgin Portuguese. He didn’t understand them, but he did not care to. He looked out at the county. The truck bumped along dirt paths and there was no movement out in the grasslands except for the truck. The war scared off the animal herds. That was fine by Golz; at least he wasn’t in Luanda or one of the towns. He was on the South African border, but Afrikaners were nothing compared to Angolan UNITA fighters in terms of sheer savagery. He looked up from his cracked leather boots, a souvenir from his time in Rhodesia. The MPLA stared at him like wolves.

The truck slowed down and Golz looked up. There was a village about two hundred meters ahead. The little wooden huts and kraal appeared to just poke out of the tall brown grass. The guerillas hopped out. Golz raised an eyebrow at the innocuous village; somehow, they still had fat cattle in some of the enclosures. He did not see any armed men or signs of South Africans but they were still far away. Golz jumped out of the truck and watched the Angolans form a skirmish line, each man a few meters apart from the other. Friday stood next to Golz, behind the men. “What do you think?”

“I do not know. They look disciplined,” Golz said. He wasn’t really a soldier at all, but

Friday didn’t know that. “Why are we here?”

“Resupply,” Friday smiled.

Golz nodded and gave the guerilla a skeptical look. “This is Namibian territory,” Golz said, recalling a map he’d taken from a dead South African.

“Yes it is,” Friday said and then urged his men forward.

“Why are we here?”

“I told you, Bear.”

“Don’t give me that. We need to be scouting Afrikaners and UNITA.”

“You are just an adviser here, Bear. I am in command.”

“What will your superior think?”

“He put me on this mission.”

“And above him?”

Friday laughed. It had a metallic quality that made Golz’s head ache. Some of the men looked over their shoulders at them.

“Don’t worry yourself, Bear.” Friday barked some orders in his language and then the men charged forward, weapons blazing. Golz dropped down. He imagined an ambush laid by South African forces in the village. He crouched in the tall grass, rifle in the crook of his shoulder. Friday gave his men a wide berth and they set about destroying the village. Golz’s heart sank as he heard screams of women; Golz was glad he could only see so much. He could not stop it. He was only an adviser.
*
The village burned while the men drank in the shell of a hut. Golz watched from his hiding place. He’d moved under a spindly tree while the guerrillas had ransacked the place.

Friday waved to him. “Come and have a drink, Mr. Bear,” he said, holding up a milk bottle with some kind of clear alcohol in it. Golz was supposed to befriend these men, but he did not make friends easily, even among his own people. He looked around the grassland, waiting for South African choppers or armored cars. He made a noise and got up, padding through the tall grass.

“No need to pad through like a jackal, Bear,” Friday called over to him. Golz was surprised he could speak clear Russian in his drunkenness.

Golz stared at him, but Friday only smiled at him. He reached the village outskirts, the fence of the kraal. He’d heard the screams minutes earlier. He stared at the guerillas as they drank from the same milk bottles as Friday, the same clear liquor. He peered over the men and looked away. Golz cut his eyes away and sat down in the dirt of the kraal.

Friday came over and sat next to him. “What’s the matter, baas?”

“I’m not your baas.” The Afrikaner term implied servitude. He wondered if Friday had political training.

“Oh, but you are the baas. You bring my generals guns.” He thrust the bottle to Golz. He took a whiff of the fluid and held up a hand. “What, you don’t want to relax, baas?”

Golz stared at him. Friday laughed. Golz knew the Angolan was teasing him, the white man in Africa.

“You know what your problem is?” Friday said.

“What’s that?” Golz said. He thought he started to smell the death of the village. He peered over his shoulder and one of the guerillas lit a pile of corpses on fire. His hands shook and he balled them into fists. He would have asked Friday for some of his liquor if he did not think he would slip into a rage.

“You’re too European. Everything with you white men must be just so.” Friday said, patting Golz’s shoulder.

Golz sat and cut his eyes at the smiling insurgent. He was an atheist as any good Marxist was, but he saw the Devil in Friday.

“Your eyes talk too much, Bear.”

Golz stared at the grassland. “We should be going.”

“Come on, baas—”

“Stop calling me that.”

“Oh baas, calm yourself.” Friday looked around the dead village for his men. He said something to them in his language; that made Golz uneasy. “We’ll go now baas.”
Golz nodded and took out the crumpled package of Russian cigarettes in his pocket. He smoked the last one as they went back to the truck.

“Where to next, baas?” Friday asked him. “Sit in the cab with me.” Golz sat in the tattered canvas seat; no matter how much he shifted, there was no comfortable position on the chair. Friday drove the truck. “So where to?”

“I’m just an adviser.”

He smiled and laughed.

“Stop that,” Golz said harshly. He tried to console himself with the idea that these men were in the struggle against international capitalism, just as he was, but he was not a fool.

“Oh, I guess we’ll head to camp.” Friday drove through the dead village. The men took pot-shots from bed; Golz wanted to curse at them. He sucked down his last Russian cigarette and flicked it out the window. He watched the little stub tumble in the grass. He saw the landscape go by. If Golz had been on safari, he would have liked it. He glanced at the confident Friday and then looked away. They drove into a bivouac in a grove of spindly trees. Golz thought everything here looked brown and rotting. The tall grass was dry and brown and the trees were gnarled. The branches only hinted at life; small green buds poked out. The bivouac was just crates of Eastern Bloc equipment that Golz had brought them, and a single tent. Angolan fighters crouched around fire pits and talked.

Golz went over to the lone tent, a big ten-man one, but there was only one man in it. Friday’s captain who went by the name James Bond. It was a ridiculous nom de guerre, but Golz didn’t mind it so much.

He opened the tent flap. Bond had a pile of diamonds on a card table. “Mister Bear,” he said. “So good to see you.” His Russian was not too bad. Bond did not smile as often as Friday did, but he had the same glint in his eye. “What can I do for you, baas?”

“Do no call me that,” Golz said. “I’m not your baas.”

Bond stared at him and then said, “What do you advise then?”

“Your men ought to leave SWAPO’s territory and rejoin the Main Force fighting UNITA.”

Bond gave him a quizzical look and then studied a diamond. “We still must take what is rightfully ours.”

“Not from your people,” Golz said, standing over the insurgent.

“The Ovambo are not my people.” Bond said.

Golz paced around the tent. Bond had ivory stacked up in a corner. Next to that was a pile of money, a motely of American dollars and South African rand. “Do you plan on sharing the money or using it to buy food for your men?”

Bond ignored him, putting his diamonds in a rust-spotted lockbox.

Golz stared at him. He patted his shirt pocket for a smoke; he wanted to flick it on the pile of money. “What is this war about to you?”

“What…” Bond said, starting to laugh. He set his diamonds under a cot. “I told you, baas, this is about taking what’s ours.”

They were no better than their former imperialist masters then. They did not care for liberation. Golz wanted to seize him and tell him but he had to be diplomatic. He paced around the tent for a few more seconds but grew tired of watching the warlord play with his spoils.

He stepped outside the tent. The sun sank below the horizon. A small golden slice lit the savanna. The guerrillas crouched around their fires. Many of them played with dice or cards. Golz had no interest in playing, even if it would pass the time. He leaned on a stack of ammunition crates and watched the sea of grass. He heard helicopters in the distance and squinted, but he did have to see to know they were South African.

He unslung his rifle and tried to rouse the guerillas but heavy machine gun fire from the aircraft racked the camp and sent dirt and men flying.
***
The battles were always the same, Golz thought. He sat bloody and exhausted in the cab of a farmer’s truck. He hoped he could make it to Luanda and try to get into the Soviet legation.

“Alright, baas?” the farmer said in English.

Golz nodded. The farmer thought he was an Afrikaner. All white men were baas in Africa, or maybe Golz just commanded some authority. He was too tired to think about it or argue with the Angolan. His bones ached and he could barely move.

“What are you doing here?” the farmer asked.

Golz’s English was poor. “I am helper to MPLA.”

“Ah,” the Angolan said. “You are a long way from home, my friend.”

Golz said nothing.

“I won’t say anything. I am just a farmer.”

The truck bounced along the country roads. Golz could just see the silhouette of Luanda ahead. The battles always turned out the same, he thought as he gripped his leg and chest.

“Don’t talk in your language, baas. It scares me.”

Golz realized he was talking to himself. “Do you have children?” he asked farmer, studying his creased face.

“Yes,”

“I can’t.” The words tumbled out of Golz.

His expression hardened. “I am sorry,” he said. “We’re almost in town. Where do you want me to leave you?”

Golz wanted to go to sleep. “Any…anyplace, really,”

The farmer said nothing. They drove on for a while longer and the farmer left him in the middle of the street with all the legations.

Golz left the truck and it drove off into the night. He stumbled around the streets, a Soviet plainclothes agent. Golz hacked some blood up and felt the bandage on his chest made from his spare t-shirt. He couldn’t go to the Residency, even though it was right in front of him. He should have remembered that. He stared up at the flag. Bars covered the windows. He could see a lone lamp in one of the windows and a ghost of a man at a desk.

He wandered around the capital streets, wondering if a band of Africans might mug him or an American operative would snatch him off the street. He did not know where he was, exactly. He needed a place to rest.

He saw the farmer’s old blue truck idle in front of a bar. He groaned and looked around. The Angolans on the street either avoided him or stared at him. He gripped the door handle and it was unlocked and he almost fell into the truck. He caught himself on the doorframe and sat down in the passenger seat. He drew his pistol from under his jacket. He did not think he would be able to use it if he were ambushed or assassinated but he had to try. He dozed off. When he woke up the farmer stared at him with a knife held close to Golz’s neck.

The farmer looked him over. “Are you alright?”

“Nyet,” Golz said. “My leg, and…” he tapped his chest.

“I am not a doctor. Can you put that gun away?”

Golz processed the words. “We…Luanda?”

“Yes,”

Golz sat up and looked around. “UNITA or MPLA?”

“Excuse me, baas?”

“UNITA…or MPLA?”

“I am just an Angolan.”

“Can you get me doctor?”

The farmer looked around and stared at Golz. He frowned and then looked around.

“I can try.”

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