From Soldier to Scholar
Question: Could you speak about your time as a section commander in the Zimbabwean army? What made you enlist? Did your feelings or understanding of a nationalist project, like war, change from the time that you enlisted to the time you retired?
Answer: Having joined the Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA) in February 2000 and trained at Llewellyn barracks in Bulawayo, I completed military training in August. I was then posted to my battalion, where I and other soldiers were deployed in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in December. We were flown to Lubumbashi (the second capital city of DRC), and in two days time we were asked to advance to the front to face our enemies, the rebels backed by the Rwandan and Ugandan national armies. I was deployed in DRC for two years and in October 2002 we were asked to withdraw after the Army commander briefed us that our mission was coming to an end. It was a war that I fought not for patriotic reasons, but because I was a soldier.
For me, joining the army and becoming a Zimbabwean soldier was not done for political reasons. I joined as a professional soldier. When I left the army after more than ten years of service, the army had totally changed from being an apolitical professional army to a politicized army, an army which openly supports President Robert Mugabe while denigrating the opposition.
After more than ten years of being a soldier, I now reflect on these efforts to try and leave behind things that belong to the army instead of the civilian world. The civilian world is a world of law, a world of democracy, a world of debate, and a world of human rights.
Question: You have said that your experiences as a section commander in the Zimbabwean army gave you an “inside perspective” on the subjectivities of soldiers. What specifically could we learn from your research that “we” (the academy) don’t already know? What are the social, research, or policy implications of your research?
Answer: I am torn between being an academic studying former soldiers and being a former soldier. In my research I have explored this ambiguity and ambivalence during fieldwork and while collecting data and analyzing it. Being a soldier and living as a soldier is being within the collective; thus a soldier can understand himself through that collective. Doing research among former soldiers makes me feel like I am part of that research.
What is not known by many scholars within and outside military-related research is that there is nothing like Demilitarization, Disarmament, and Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDDR) of soldiers (as it is understood in theory but not experienced in practice). DDDR is a very ambiguous process. What do we mean when we say programs exist to demobilize, disarm, demilitarize, and reintegrate a soldier? Can we demilitarize the mind of a soldier? Taking away their guns does not mean that soldiers have been reintegrated. It is actually the fantasy of the gun that is more dangerous than the gun.
In fact, I argue that military skills, including gun knowledge, are a form of capital in post-military life, and often these are the only resources that former soldiers have. So by trying to demilitarize them their resources are taken away.
Question: What resources do you think need to be maintained?
Answer: One of the skills that former soldiers continue to carry in post-combat life is knowing how to use a gun. This is a skill they use as a "certificate" of entry into the labor market. With a lot of insecurities around African cities, former soldiers may gain employment with this knowledge, a useful skill. Again, with a lot of violence happening in their places of residence, there is an expectation from the community, family, and other neighbors that former soldiers continue to be the "protectors" of those communities. It is interesting how communities and families of former soldiers continue to reinforce existing military identities by expecting former soldiers to be their "protectors" even though they have left the army.
What must be taken into account is while the military trains soldiers to be violent, they also train them to be a very disciplined force. Discipline is drilled into soldiers' bodies and beings. In post-combat life, former soldiers carry with them this kind of discipline, and actors willing to assist them (former soldiers) can tap this discipline and understand what former soldiers need as a way of transitioning into civilian life. But, one must not be misled to think that there can be any transition that transforms former soldiers into civilians. There can, however, be a transition that helps soldiers at least understand civilian life.
Question: What would you like to accomplish once you finish the PhD? Do you envision yourself staying in the academy? What impact would you like to see in correlation with your work?
Answer: I want to continue research on the military, particularly on soldiers who leave the army in post-independence Africa. I have been reading about Eritrean Army deserters living in Ethiopia, and I have been asking myself what kind of armies do we have, or are we going to have, in post-independence Africa? There are DRC army deserters in Johannesburg and Cape Town, so now I am interested in doing a comparative study on DRC former soldiers living in exile in South Africa with Zimbabwean Army deserters. This is a project that I hope to turn into a book Army Desertion and Deserters in Post-Colonial Africa. I am very enthusiastic about the academy. I want to research, explore more, and write more on army deserters in Africa—an area that has been neglected. This is a kind of research that must present empirical data, as well as the voices of the disillusioned soldiers in a post-independent Africa. It will inform the understanding of continuity in conflicts, war, peace, and peacekeeping disturbances in Africa. As long as we continue to be insensitive to soldiers who desert armies or disgruntled soldiers peace will remain a mirage in Africa. This is a category of soldiers whose skills are put to no good use. Their gun skills and knowledge will not remain idle forever.
The United Nations and the Africa Union need to reexamine this crisis in the African armies. Army desertions are high even during peace times, which policymakers are not aware of. I explored some of these issues in my own research. I will stay in the academy. I want to lecture but also to engage through writing and presentations with policymakers in and outside of Africa.
Question: Are there any possible solutions to the question of “military identities” and civil reintegration that you have come upon in your research?
Answer: There is absolutely no need for a solution for the military identities all former soldiers carry into post-combat life. As I said, soldiers are trained to be both disciplined and violent. What many do not understand is that violent identities embedded in the military can become useful in post-combat life. They are resources—this is my argument. Let’s not only view military identities as lethal identities, but instead as resources for former soldiers. If we tried to demilitarize them, who would former soldiers become? It is like removing them of their skills, their life, their capital. This is their world. I am not defensive, but scholars and policymakers have to understand the context in which such identities were forged. Former soldiers cannot become civilians, hence they should be understood as they are: men who have been trained and deployed in war. We should not behave as if nothing happened to these former soldiers; in fact their lives have been profoundly changed by the military. Thus if the military is training or transforming a civilian to become a soldier, they are not training that person to be a civilian again; the aim is to make and instill soldierly being that cannot be removed by mere counseling or disarmament programs.
Question: Are there any policy recommendations that you have?
Answer: My research informs policy in many ways. One has to understand the group of former soldiers I studied; it is a category of soldiers who left the army without honor. They either deserted or in some cases a few resigned from the army. DDDR programs have not yet been extended to army deserters by the United Nations. So what can be done to deal with this category of soldiers? I am not asking this in the abstract. I am suggesting that the UN and other actors approach this group to understand their voices. This group of former soldiers who deserted the army need amnesty, which will allow them to return to Zimbabwe without arrest and prosecution by the army courts.
In Conversation with Natalie Reinhart