National Service Was the Best Two Years of My Life, But...

By Reader Sharky66 on at

The topic of conscription repeatedly appears in the UK media as a cure for the ills of the youth of today, with Dame Kelly Holmes recently suggesting that bringing back National Service would benefit young people and provide a great start in life. After the London riots, a national poll to bring back National Service had a massive 72 per cent approval to help save a “lost generation”. But is it really a solution in an age of ASBOs and ineffective jail terms?

As a UK-born male, living in South Africa, I was able to experience two years of National Service and what it meant to be a conscripted soldier. Those of us who experienced conscription would later go on to say that they were the best years of our lives that we would never want to repeat.

As a white male living in South Africa in the 80s, you knew the South African Defence Force (SADF) would get its claws on you either straight out of high school, or after you had completed your university education. It was, at the time, as inevitable as death and taxes, and just something we all faced with increasing trepidation as we approached our 18th birthdays. In the final year of high school we knew our dreaded call-up letters would appear, informing us where we would be spending the next two years of our lives. Infantry for me –- a known tough draw!

I was also the first intake of foreigners who had been born outside of the country. We had been residents for more than five years in South Africa and were now proud recipients of the status “Naturalised Citizen”, making us eligible for National Service whether we liked it or not.

While there were alternatives to National Service, they were hardly viable. Option one was to leave the country permanently or option two, state that you were a conscientious objector and face military prison. So we collectively sucked it up, packed our bags and headed off into the wild unknown.

One of the biggest arguments against National Service is why you would want to burden the army with a bunch of awkward trouble-makers, the feral youth of today -- slackers that would be better off locked up or ignored by society. We had our fair share of young guys fresh out of high school or university who thought they knew it all, had very obstinate attitudes and liked to challenge authority.

That started to change the day we received our uniforms, our standard issue #1 haircuts and were left looking exactly the same: young men in brown uniforms, clueless as to where this two year journey was going to lead them. From that day onwards, individuality disappeared. We were now the same -- indistinguishable from one another, and expected to act as a unit. Woe betide you if you did anything to make yourself a target by being known as someone with an attitude. You stuck out like a sore thumb and the powers-that-be would target you remorselessly, so eventually you would be broken. It happened to everyone, and no-one escaped their scrutiny.

The attitude part took time to deal with but the SADF had various methods of dealing with those who weren’t willing to play ball. I will now introduce you to two Afrikaans terms: "opfok" and "rondfok". An opfok (to fuck someone up) was basically a session of punishment exercises whereas the rondfok (to fuck someone around) was more psychological, although the two could be combined most effectively. Both were part of a strategy to break us down, then toughen us up to produce a cohesive unit of soldiers. And it worked well. Very few of the 1,500 new recruits in the base cracked from the pressures of basic training, and we were all left with the ability to function well regardless of the pressures foisted upon us.

To be fair, the opfok was basically part of our normal fitness training, but it was dished out or disguised as punishment for any wrongdoings we had committed. We received opfoks nearly every single day. We worked together to ensure there were no weaker elements in the platoon so that there would be no opfoks, meaning we applied corrective pressures on guys who were lazy, whose hygiene was lacking, who slacked off during drills and PT, or who liked to challenge authority too much.

You could only take so much physical punishment before we all turned on the root cause and provided some appropriate peer justice. There may well be some detractors who might think this was tantamount to institutionalised bullying, but this was far from it. If there were no single points of failure, the platoon operated like a well-oiled machine. And the clever part was that this wasn’t the army doing it directly; this was our fellow soldiers doing it to one another. One clever (read diabolical) move was that if we received an opfok (e.g. we failed an inspection for whatever reason... and there were many reasons), the cause of said failure would sit out the opfok while the rest of us received the punishment for not “investing time” in our fellow soldier.

I was once the cause of an opfok: my inspection bed wasn’t as flat as expected of all our beds and, according to my corporal, the dip in the middle of my bed meant that I had somehow unwittingly made myself a canoe. Therefore, I was to sit in my newly-constructed canoe, and using my rifle as a paddle, “head off” in it while singing Row, Row, Row Your Boat. After my lusty rendition, we then retreated outdoors where my colleagues were treated to a 20 minute opfok. Words were had with me afterwards and I can honestly say that neither I, nor anyone else in our platoon ever unwittingly built a canoe again.

After a mere 12 weeks of basic training, the 30 guys in our platoon were turned into young men -- responsible, disciplined, with a sense of community and pride in what we had achieved. Those that had started basic training by thinking they were better than others or with big attitudes, were simply knocked into shape and had become better men as a result. We were now a cohesive unit who could go onto phase two of our training with confidence before being shipped off to the front line -- which at the time was the border with Angola. Hard training turned us into soldiers, confident that everyone in the platoon had your back and could be trusted 100 per cent. A contact situation was no place to start doubting your colleagues.

National Service instilled in us a sense of purpose and pride; trained us to look out for one another, and facilitated an accelerated path into adulthood. It also gave us time for reflection during down time. I came out of high school clueless as to my future career direction and remember thinking I wanted to be an accountant. Two years later after army was done, that was the furthest thing from my mind. For those who wanted to stay on, the army provided career paths as chefs, engineers, technicians, medics, and more, with all training paid-for. It also offered an alternative to unemployment. But for those who were done with the military, the impact on our lives was immeasurable.

Very few of us wanted to be in the army but in the end, I can’t think of a single fellow soldier who doesn’t look back on their two years without a massive sense of pride and achievement, nor who wouldn't agree with the following statement – National Service was the best two years of their lives they would never want to repeat.

Sharky66 is a gym junkie and nutrition nut with a commercial pilot's license, and prior to working as a Business Development Director for a US software company, was a banker, croupier, pilot, personal trainer and DJ.

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