The Military Mind
by Gabriel Timar
a true memoir
Hailing from a long line of decorated soldiers I broke with the centuries-old traditions of my family, and choose a civilian occupation. According to the custom of Hungarian families with martial traditions like ours, in September 1942 after I had passed my tenth birthday, my parents enrolled me in a brand new, elite Cadet School in Nagykaroly. The training of the recruits was brutal, just as tough as the regular soldiers received, but we passed with flying colors.
Coming home for Christmas vacation, I entered our living room and espied a major. I dropped my suitcase, stood at stiff attention, and sounded off. “Major, sir, Gabor Bendeguz cadet first grade reporting.”
The Major stepped forward, picked me up, and hugged me tight. He was my father. Military training thoroughly conditioned me to look at the uniform, the rank, and not the man. I had not recognized my own father immediately!
I made up my ten-year-old mind that I was not going to be a professional soldier. It took many years to understand the Armed Forces game: in every Army the training starts the same way with the dehumanization and the crushing of the recruits’ individuality, may the force be the Nagykaroly Military School, French Foreign Legion, U.S. Marine Corps, the Bengal Lancers, or the Royal Hungarian Army.
I became an engineer, fought in our unsuccessful revolution of 1956, and defected from Hungary. I ended up in Canada, but in the mid-60’s I found myself working for the U.N. as an engineering advisor in Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific. As most governments in the developing world are military dictatorships, I had ample opportunity to observe the thinking and reaction of military men. Needless to say, I am still fascinated by soldiers.
* * *
The Commander of a fort guarding an important pass in the mountains of Waziristan mustered his troops for a gala occasion. Near the end of the nineteenth century, following one of the innumerable Afghan wars, the medals to decorate some of the gallant soldiers arrived from London.
Before the beginning of the ceremonies, a small group of Afghan warriors appeared at the gate. Although they were unarmed, and marched like soldiers, the officer of the day tensed. He remembered the Afghans, the Waziris. and the Pathans never fighting fair, always having something up their sleeves. Thus, he did not open the gate and from the ramparts shouted at the small group: “What do you want?”
The leader of the Afghans stepped forward and in passable English declared: “We heard about the decoration ceremonies, and these are my best men. I brought them to pick up their medals.”
“The decorations are for British soldiers only,” said the duty officer.
“It is unfair,” replied the Afghan. “If we did not attack you and did not fight so well, your men would not have distinguished themselves to earn their medals. Without us, nobody would get any decoration. My men deserve the medals as much as yours.”
“Well, we never thought of it that way and did not get enough medals,” replied the duty officer diplomatically.
“Never mind,” said the Afghan. “We are already hoarding weapons and ammunition to attack you. Next time, you’d better make sure to order enough medals for our guys as well. Fighting is fun, but to have a medal afterwards would be something to pass onto our sons.”
He turned to his men and shouted: “About face! Forward march!” and the Afghans like a proper military unit marched off to the wild blue yonder.
It proved the iron logic of the Afghans and the efficiency of their intelligence service.
* * *
During the late nineteen seventies in the intermission of the civil war raging in the South Sudan, the U.N. moved in, offering plenty of assistance. My assignment was the preparation of a Regional Rural Water Supply Master Plan. With the help of Robin, a great hydrogeologist, I prepared an elegant document, but before we could present it to the World Bank for financing, the Military Governor of the region, a Colonel had to endorse my masterpiece.
Apparently, His Excellency did not read very well, but he could follow the multi-colored maps.
“What do these colors signify?” he asked.
“In the blue areas surface sources, like rivers, brooks, and springs would supply water to the villages. In the brown areas, they could dig shallow wells, while in the yellow areas the water table is far down, and mechanized drilling equipment is required to provide water.”
“How about the red area?”
“Those are the most difficult places, Your Excellency,” I said. “There we must develop rainwater catchment schemes.”
“It is all wrong,” roared the Colonel.
“Why,” I asked meekly.
“My tribe lives in the red area. I order you to send the largest most sophisticated drilling machine there.”
“But, Your Excellency, there is no ground water there...”
“I don’t give a damn! You send the drill there. It is my country and I know what is best for it.”
According to the grapevine, the Governor always did away with people upsetting him. As I thought it was curtains anyway, I decided to give him a piece of my mind.
“You sound like a patient with a broken leg insisting that the doctor cure it with Castor oil instead of a plaster cast, sir. You can send as many drills into the red area, as many as you want; there is no ground water there.”
The Colonel looked at me like the cat eyes the canary and broke into a smile.
“You are right of course,” he said.
Nevertheless, I realized His Excellency thought his promotion to Colonel turned him into an instant expert on everything from astrophysics to zymurgy.
* * *
Just before my contract in the south of Sudan expired, I got a message from the U.N. resident representative in Khartoum to report to him forthwith, and solve an urgent, extremely important civil engineering problem.
I took the Boeing to the capital city and after a harrowing flight at treetop level arrived. Later, I found out about the Commander of the Air Force removing the airline pilots from the Air Sudan aircraft and replacing them with military guys, as he wanted to make a low-level reconnaissance flight over the Southern Region.
My knees still trembled from the scary flight when the resident representative whisked me from the Airport directly to the Presidential Palace. My stomach knotted when he led me up on the stairway where the Mahdists killed General Gordon and straight into the study of the President. His Excellency sat behind an ornate desk wearing his general’s uniform.
“Welcome, Mr. Engineer,” he said and immediately acquainted me with the problem: “Can you order an automatic instrument from America to check the palace water supply for toxins? You see my enemies are planning to do away with me by poisoning my water.”
The request seemed ridiculous, but to say that to a dictator might be hazardous to one’s health, so I had to come up with something else fast.
“It is very difficult Your Excellency,” I said slowly, while my mind ran in overdrive. “I should know what kind of poison your enemies intend to use to specify the right equipment. I have a simpler and perhaps better solution.”
“What are you proposing?”
“Just buy two fish tanks, Your Excellency. For tank number one get the recirculation pump, but let the water flow through tank number two. Put equal number of goldfish in both tanks. If the fish in tank number two die, the water is poisoned...”
“Brilliant idea, Mr. Engineer. Please implement the scheme,” His Excellency interrupted.
I bought the tanks with the assistance of U.N. expert of fish farming, and set them up. As they complemented the décor, the President was impressed.
Evidently, generals reaching the highest position they can are struck by paranoia, thinking everybody is after their job. His Excellency was right. A few years later, his officers evicted him from the Palace. However, according to the grapevine, my fish tanks survived the coups d’etat that followed, and they still adorn the presidential study.
* * *
In Somalia I had a very nice assignment. During the first week of my stay in Mogadishu, I visited the tennis courts of the Italian club, and the organizers paired me with a Somali player. After beating last year’s club champions with ease, we had a beer on the patio.
“I am Colonel Zakir Hussein,” he said. “We should play more often.”
We did just that. Zak, a graduate of an American University turned out to be a pleasant gentleman, and we often socialized. Later, I heard that my buddy, the commander of the President’s much feared secret police, had a reputation for cruelty and ruthlessness surpassing that of Nero. Nevertheless, we got along famously.
One day Zak asked me to accompany him to Kismayo.
“Why?” I asked.
“Eight people died of cholera. I understand it is a waterborne disease, and you are the top expert of water supply in the country. Please come with me and have a look at their water treatment plant.”
We flew to Kismayo; accompanied by a few of Zak’s elite commandoes we visited the water treatment plant, just walked in, and I started looking around.
The installation would have been most appropriate in the U.S. or Canada where the operators would follow the prescribed procedure. Even though the facility was built by USAID and they trained a number of operators, it was in a sorry state of disrepair. By-passing the plant, they pumped raw river water directly into the city’s distribution system. Bags of chlorine powder sat in the storage, the filters dried up, and the chlorinators stood idle. Obviously, the plant personnel did not wish to exert themselves. My blood boiled at their ignorance.
“Well, do you see anything irregular?” Zak asked.
“They are by-passing the plant, pumping raw water into the city’s system. This beautiful little plant is out of operation. The cholera outbreak does not surprise me at all,” I replied.
“Who is responsible?”
“I don’t really know. Perhaps the chief operator...”
“Get him,” Zak roared.
In a few minutes, two of his commandoes dragged the hapless plant manager from his comfortable air-conditioned office to the filter building where we were.
“Are you responsible for the management of this plant?” Zak asked.
“Yes, Colonel,” the man replied.
“Sergeant,” roared Zak, “take two men, lead this animal to the back of the lot, let him dig his grave, and shoot him.”
“Yes, sir,” replied the Sergeant and two of his men grabbed the plant manager by the arms.
The blood froze in my veins. As I am opposed to the death penalty, I felt I had to do something, even though I felt like whipping the bastard.
“Just a minute, Zak,” I asked my friend. “Can I ask you a favor?”
“Please don’t have this guy shot.”
“Why not? Eight people died because he did not discharge his responsibilities properly. The Koran and your Bible both say an eye for an eye...”
“I know, I know,” I interrupted nervously, “but tell me where I am going to find another qualified technician to run this plant.”
He thought for a moment and turned to the Sergeant: “Let him go.”
The man stood in front of us and I saw his trousers trembling.
“Listen, you vermin,” Zak started, “if you do not run this plant properly, I am coming back here, personally shoot you in the gut, and bury you alive. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Colonel,” he replied his voice trembling.
Obviously, a professional soldier like Zak used every ounce of power given to him by the President.
I don’t know if Zak had the right idea or not. I was not paid to moralize, but really I would have had a rough time training another fellow to manage the facility.
* * *
While serving in the Solomon Islands, in the club I met Tim, a very pleasant gentleman. We talked about the islands, their history, and the war, which actually put Guadalcanal on the map.
“What do you do here?” I asked.
“I am with the U.S. Army, doing the roughest job in the South Pacific,” replied Tim.
“To be a soldier in peacetime in such idyllic surroundings cannot be that rough.”
“In the Solomon’s it is. You see I am in charge of graves registration.”
“Why is that so difficult?”
“I have to locate the graves of our soldiers, identify them, and fix the location of the remains. There were so many of our boys killed on Guadalcanal that we are not even half way through with cataloging the World War Two graves.”
“This reminds me,” I said. “A few days ago I met one of your subordinates, a young Lieutenant. I offered him a ride, but he said no, he was waiting for his men by the roadside.”
“Was he a tall fellow with blond hair and a scar on his cheek?”
“Yes, he was very pleasant.”
“Apparently, you met one of the ghosts of Hill 32. I have only a couple of sergeants with me, no officers. He was a ghost!”
“It can’t be!”
“He was,” said Tim. “Do you know why is your house the only one on the top of that hill?”
“I’ve no idea.”
“The area where your house stands has been subdivided, there are twenty lots there with superb view of the ocean, but nobody wants to build there. The locals claim the hills are haunted. The clergy visits the area at least once a month trying to exorcise the hills, but without any success.”
“Exorcism is nonsense...”
“Unfortunately, you are right. I am lucky never to have met a ghost. You see I don’t believe in them, therefore they terrify me,” said Tim.
“I believe in ghosts,” I said, “but unlike you, I am not scared of them.”
From this day onward, I was on the lookout for the apparitions, but never met any. However, there were times when I felt cold in the thirty-degree heat, and at other occasions, I sensed someone watching me.
I wanted to meet the lieutenant again to tell him how much I admired his professionalism: wanting to look after his men even after death.
Copyright © 2007 by Gabriel Timar