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Major Katz examines Jan Smuts and military ways

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Johannesburg military historian Mayor David Brock Katz recently penned a book on General Jan Smuts. The SA Jewish Report spoke to him about this mammoth task.

Tell us a bit the background to writing and publishing the book, General Jan Smuts and his First World War in Africa 1914-1917

I’m privileged to be a team member via a research fellowship with the department of military science, a faculty at Stellenbosch University. General Jan Smuts and his First World War in Africa 1914-1917 is just one of many publications that have emerged from the department in the past decade. Writing about South African military history is also a personal journey.

What is it about war, history, and the military that fascinates you?

War is a fascinating combination of art and science, and I’m equally intrigued with both aspects. Certain individuals have the ability to overcome great odds, and have the ability to motivate those who follow them to achieve great deeds. In the absence of real war, the reading of history is the next best way for a soldier to learn his craft. It’s my hope that my efforts to revitalise important aspects of South African history will be of utility to the young leaders of our South African National Defence Force (SANDF), as well as stimulating the interest of ordinary South Africans.

You have written a book on South Africans versus Rommel and now Jan Smuts and his First World War in Africa. What drew you to these topics and characters?

Not many South Africans, whether professional historians, history buffs, or even the military have an idea that South Africans have a particular way of war that has emerged from centuries of internecine conflict as well as battling it out with major European powers. Our way of war has also been shaped by our conflict with Eastern bloc doctrine as well as the merging of former enemies from the TBVC (Transkei, Bophuthatswana, Venda, and Ciskei) armies, the SANDF, uMkhonto we Sizwe, and APLA (the Azanian People’s Liberation Army).

My books and academic publications are intended to identify our unique command style. I have used our campaigns in Africa in World War I and II as a lens with which to examine the manoeuvre doctrine emerging from various battles. The colourful characters of Rommel in World War II and Lettow-Vorbeck in World War I are particularly fascinating, especially regarding how the South Africans coped militarily against a first-class military power. My books identify a serious clash of military doctrine between the British and the South Africans who fought under them.

What kind of research did you need to do to write such an information heavy book?

Writing about Smuts presents its own unique set of challenges. Rather than too little information, there’s a plethora of primary documents available for the researcher. Careful selection of relevant items requires long hours in dusty dark archives both here and in the United Kingdom. My first step was to acquire and read every secondary source on the military Smuts that has been published. I then identified the gaps that existed in the knowledge about Smuts and his military exploits. My research thereafter was directed to filling in the gaps with primary evidence found in the archives and re-examining the secondary sources based on my findings. It’s a slow, laborious but rewarding process that consumed six years of my life.

Tell us a few fascinating things about Smuts that we may not know.

In spite of much adverse criticism from certain sectors of the Afrikaans community and modern-day British historians, Smuts was an able general. He learned his soldiers craft under the tutelage of Koos de la Rey and Louis Botha in the Boer War and applied the South African doctrine of manoeuvre warfare to the campaigns he conducted in World War I in Africa.

As such, he represents the continuity of a South African way of war as well as being the founding father of a united South African military in the newly formed Union Defence Force. Paying homage to his deep Boer roots, he was a general who led from the front, placing his life in danger on many occasions. He shared the privations of his men, much to the chagrin of the British officers he commanded in East Africa.

After all is said and done, what’s your opinion of Smuts?

Smuts was an incredibly gifted individual of exceptional intelligence. He was also a deeply flawed character who could be ruthless and dismissive of those he felt were fools. His major failing was an inability or unwillingness to provide for the political aspirations of the majority black South Africans. He was at best paternalistic toward black South Africans while being at the forefront of initiatives on the world-stage for political freedoms that he neglected at home. However, there’s no denying his incredible intellect and his abilities as a general.

What audience do you believe would be interested in this book and why?

The book will be interesting to those who wish to know where our military roots came from and where we’re most probably heading.

How does being Jewish factor in your research and this interest?

It’s a bit of a standing joke in family and military circles that in all likelihood I’m the last remaining serving Jew in the SANDF. To paraphrase a famous Jewish French historian, Marc Bloch, I’m vehemently Jewish in the presence of antisemites. On all other occasions, I’m a patriot, and a proud South African. My studies and research have been conducted under the auspices of the SANDF, and therefore my life as an academic is inexorably intertwined with my military service.

My encounters with naked antisemitism in the military and in academia have thankfully been few, and I’m often surprised at the fundamental role Jewish soldiers, senior officers, and generals have played on both sides of a given conflict.

How do you understand the crisis in Ukraine and in the Israeli Palestinian situation?

It seems that the Russians have ignored or have been unable to apply some of the immutable concepts of warfare such as maintaining essential logistical lines and applying combined arms warfare. They are also woefully short of manpower, invading a country many times the size of Israel with an army only half the Israel Defense Forces.

The Russians have also underestimated the resolve of the Ukrainian army, Ukrainian citizens, and the support for Ukraine from North Atlantic Treaty Organisation countries.

Regarding Israel, the only long-term solution to the Palestinian problem is negotiated settlement. There’s no military solution, and the role of the IDF, a task that it has performed admirably well, is to provide the time and space for politicians to sit around the negotiating table.

How does what has happened in our military past help us to navigate our way forward?

The Union Defence Force under Smuts played an important part in mending the relations between Afrikaner and Englishmen. The SANDF has successfully combined former enemies into a truly unified defence force. The SANDF will continue to be an important vehicle in our own reconciliation and throughout the African continent through peace-enforcement.

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