One of the most difficults parts of writing BOS was to truly immerse myself in the world of the pseudo operator, and to write as convincingly about it as possible.
This is especially so if you’d never been in the special forces. I have never been, and I have no illusions about my physical and psychological abilities. I have no doubt I would have walked off the course if I had ever had to undergo this kind of intense training.
So what do you do if you absolutely have or want to write about their experiences?
You don’t have many options. You read as much you can, dig around until you find someone who could fill in the missing parts. In my case, the real sensations of crawling through hostile bush, the feelings of isolation, at night, in the midst of a multitude of dangers. What do you feel, hear and smell?
I am fortunate to know a few men prepared to talk about their experiences. They prefer remaining anonymous, even to this day. One of them, and let’s call him Bossie, was particularly helpful. The story about the cobra at the start of the book, for instance, was from him. It was not made up. Cobras also hunt at night, I discovered to my surprise. That’s why the opening scene was a very likely scenario. And a nightmare for every operator that needed to remain undetected in enemy territory, at all costs.
Bossie’s clearest memory of night operations and the layup until last light was that of the dogs. Everywhere, dogs that could hear or smell you at a mile. And then start barking, prompting investigation. Many operations were compromised this way. The guys often had no choice but lug their kit onto their backs and hightail it out of there, as a firefight was just out of the question.
Koos Stadler writes about this in his book RECCE – the frustration of blown operations, and how they so often had to sprint out with the Angolans hot on their heels. Not fun with a 30-40kg backpack.
I tracked down Koos in Saudi, and asked him about his experiences via email. I was hoping to gain insight into his real experiences, to be able to read between the lines of his book, gather intel that I could use to add colour and sound to my story.
As expected, he was not very talkative. Answered in short sentences. But even that sparse communication spoke volumes, more than what he probably intended. My lasting impression of him, because of that, was that of an incredibly capable person, someone who could make a plan, quietly and efficiently. Not a talker.
The reader will experience many of these characteristics in both Tex and Carlos. Although the two were not solely based on this, I widely drew on Koos’ descriptions of the operators serving with him at the time. Somewhere, among all of the men he described, there is a Tex and a Carlos.
Koos was kind enough so send me a few pictures of him and buddies. I stared at the images for a very long time, trying to fathom the look, the emotions on their faces. Tired? Had enough? Or just revving up to go rev some gooks? I couldn’t decide.
Armed with his cryptic remarks and album shots, I went back to his book, read sections again, this time looking for those clues that could lend dimension to the real bush experience, to try put that into words – the deafening quiet when nature holds its breath to warn you, the knowledge that you’re being watched by invisible eyes, the fear, the careful tread around noisy sticks and leaves.
I even tried recalling my own basic tactical training from my uniform days, trying to move through the bush quietly where we were working on a photo job in the Zimbabwean bush. Drunk cattle would do better. Go try it yourself, see how far you get without blowing your own presence to man, buck or cat. Now try imagine doing all that with real consequences for getting it wrong, hundred kilometers the wrong side of the Angolan border, your feet the only way out when the paw-paw starts flying.
It brought home again how immensely good these operators must have been to get in, get out with no one the wiser. That, under pressure, the enemy literally within touching distance sometimes, and everyone on a knife’s edge.
That’s what I attempted to describe accurately in BOS. That surpressed fear, the unbelievable tension, the total lack of backup. You and your buddy, on your own, the total trust required, and the interdependence on each other. Hence the shock of buddy treason in the story. Oops. Spoil alert!
I hope I did justice, even vaguely, to the world these operators inhabited. Hope I’d given the reader at least a superficial impression of life in their flatsole boots. Obviously I had to adjust tactical procedure here and there to help along the story. A bit of Hollywoodizing, as my wife would say. You always doubt yourself. That’s why I cautiously asked Bossie for feedback on the tactics. He’d finished the book in a weekend.
“How bad was my description?”
“Not bad at all. It’s a story, and your colouring-in was really good! Remember, it’s a book written for everyone.” Meaning for the public and not (only) for the recces, I assumed.
Relief. Still, if I had grossly transgressed some accepted operational or small tactics procedures, I humbly apologise. Like these operators, I had to make a plan.