Swimming with Crocodiles

By Dr. Johan Tredoux

In 1977-1978 I found myself on the Angola/Namibia border in a gorilla war for eight months. The South African army in which I served provided aid to the UNITA forces in a civil war in Angola against the MPLA. The MPLA received massive support from Russia and Cuba. In the height of the Cold War era, this was a prominent “proxy war.” I was an Afrikaans speaking 18-year-old trained in marksmanship, one-on-one combat, patrolling, grenade usage, and land navigation.

     I was in my ideological bubble, with an R-4 machine gun and bayonet, with no idea of the bigger humanitarian crisis unfolding in Angola. The black and white world of war – us vs. them, the good guys vs. the bad guys – into which I’d been indoctrinated blinded me to the civilian disaster within Angola. By the time the MPLA achieved victory in 2002, more than 800,000 people had died and over one million had been internally displaced. The war devastated Angola’s infrastructure and severely damaged public administration, the economy, and religious institutions.

    In my eight months on the frontline, I was stationed at the military base close to the Namibia border town called Rundu. Rundu was a small rural town on the banks of the Okavango River (known in Angola as the Cubango River). This river is beautiful and dangerous at the same time. While many enjoy canoeing, fishing, and swimming in this magnificent river, many of the natives have tragically disappeared, suddenly taken by crocodiles, or mauled by hippos while going about their ordinary business of washing clothes or collecting water. For me, an experience at the Okavango River will forever be imprinted in my psyche.

     It all began when I accepted a dare by my soldier buddies to swim across the Okavango River to pee in enemy territory as a way of showing them what we thought of them and then to swim back. This reckless action on my part was partly influenced by three “Black Label” beers I already had, but also the mindless assurance from my friends they would cover me with machine guns, just in case crocodiles showed up.

    Well, I am here to tell the story. I swam to the “other side” and back without any incident. The reality of what I did, however, became clear only a few weeks later when I flew home for two weeks’ border leave in one of those tank-carrier planes. On the plane with us was a soldier in a casket, who did not die in combat, but because of a crocodile attack at the Okavango River. I distinctly remember the shock of this news sending shivers down my spine. I knew then – it could just as well have been me.

     For many, accepting this dare can be explained away as the rash actions of a young man under peer pressure; yet my somber reflection on that plane helped me to circle back to the mindset that conditioned me to have these strong views of my enemy.  As I think back about the ideological propaganda framework used to brainwash me, I would say the South African Defense Force was very effective in helping me drink their Kool- Aid. One of the main propaganda tools used by the SADF was their monthly magazine called Paratus. Through this magazine, they were able to sway public opinion in support of the war in a very deliberate and intentional way.

    The Institute for Propaganda Analysis (IPA) helped me to make sense of my experience on the border. Founded by Columbia University professors Clyde Miller, Kirtley Mather, and Edward Filene in 1937, it served the purpose of informing the American society of the risks of propaganda. Publications encouraged recognizing, analyzing, and assessing propaganda materials and messages. I couldn’t help but think how the very same devices were used by the SADF to frame my views of my enemy during the Border War: name calling, glittering generalities, and transfer, evoking the emotion of religious or national symbols to embue authority, sanction, and prestige.

It was only recently that I realized how much Christianity was used as a vehicle for the propaganda machine of the SADF. The Paratus magazine used Afrikaner religious symbols to further Afrikaner Calvinism as a religious motivation for the Border War, which in turn served to sway the public to support the national servicemen.
By tapping into the general public’s core belief system, the SADF was able to use a distorted narrative (Calvinistic predestination theology) to assure the white Afrikaner nationalists of a secure future. It was the idea of God’s foreknowledge decreeing outcomes from a distance with a guaranteed favorable outcome for the Afrikaner “chosen race.” The apartheid policies of South Africa used as a transfer device, could even be felt on the Angola border. I observed Dutch Reformed military chaplains not servin g the black platoons communion for the very simple reason that they were black, and yet I didn’t think anything of it.
It should come as no surprise that throughout history Christians have been susceptible to both embracing and spewing political propaganda. Through a flat reading of scripture, many atrocities have been committed by cherry picking Old Testament passages to do violence in “God’s name.” The arc of development from “7 X 70 revenge” in Genesis to an “eye for an eye” in Exodus to Jesus saying, “love your enemy” and “forgiving 70 x 7” was completely ignored or never understood. The words “In Gottes Namen” (In God’s Name) edged into the belt buckles of the Nazis says it all. The history of Christianity is littered with the fallout of propagandizing: violent colonialism of entire populations, the genocide of indigenous peoples, slavery, and racism, to name a few.
I came to realize that I fell prey to political propaganda causing me to value the National Party of South Africa more than my allegiance to the kingdom of God. How could I have such strong feelings towards a group of people I didn’t even know, armed with my weapons to wreak havoc on their lives? How could I have let these feelings lead me to an act endangering my very own life? Propaganda whispers the lie that our spiritual power can come from sources other than God.

In a non-prophetic apocalyptic reading of Revelation 16:16, John envisions demonic spirits gathering the armies of the world to a place called Armageddon. (Literally, it means the Mount of Megiddo). When you read up on the history of the site, you realize that Megiddo was in the middle of a valley that became a raging battlefield and was destroyed and rebuilt twenty-six times. Before we get to the reference to Armageddon in verse 16, John reveals in verse 13 the phenomenon of three evil spirits like frogs coming out of the mouths of the dragon, the beast, and the false prophet. It appears from verse 14 that these demonic frogs have such power that they can influence world leaders to come and gather at Armageddon. Scholars believe these three frogs coming out of the mouths are the demons of accusation, empire, and propaganda.
N. T. Wright says: “Anyone who has lived through the build-up to a war, where suddenly all the newspapers and television stations seem to be pushing one way, and the frog-like, hopping-to-and-fro thing called ‘public opinion’ happens to go along with the prevailing mood, will know what John is talking about, and why he issues this warning.” (Revelation For Everyone, 147). It takes me back to my world history class where I learned about Goebbels who became the propaganda minister for Hitler.
In our present political landscape in the USA, I see all the war propaganda devices at work almost daily. Politicians use “virtue words” to influence Christians to surrender their foundational Christian values to the self-serving values of the political party. The Paratus has given way to very sophisticated television echo chambers and Facebook algorithms beckoning us to follow the pied piper. Today we are trying to cross the river unaware of the camouflaged crocodiles lying just beneath the surface ready to pull us under.
It is in times like these that I take on the role of a “watchman on the wall” – someone who can alert us to the dangerous times in which we find ourselves. The Christian voice has lost credibility because she has forgotten her primary voice of love. She has forgotten that she is to be a bridge to a broken world and pray for her enemy. She has sold her birthright for a pot of lentil soup, surrendering her sacred heritage for secular political power and control. She is marching forward as if the general has commanded her to take up the sword instead of a cross.
As I ponder our propensity for groupthink, maybe this poem can inspire us to change our trajectory for self-destruction. I wrote it as a clinical chaplain after witnessing 168 Covid-19 deaths in the span of just eight months at a Level 1 Trauma center in Kansas City.

My self-awareness curiosity
in countertransference forming
Johari perspicacity
in silent anger storming
Our cooperative reciprocity
in uncertainty norming
Absorbing non-being anxiety
in mysterious love performing.