Richard Dale. The Namibian War of Independence, 1966-1989: Diplomatic, Economic and Military Campaigns. Jefferson: McFarland, 2014. 216 pp. $45.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7864-9659-4.
Reviewed by Charlie Thomas (Air University ESchool)
Published on H-War (December, 2015)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
Despite lasting more than two decades, the Namibian war of independence is often the forgotten front in narratives about the larger decolonization of southern Africa. Sandwiched between the titanic Cold War showdown in Angola and the now almost mythic struggle against apartheid in South Africa by the ANC, Namibia is often ignored or at best treated as an ancillary struggle to these more visible conflicts. However, the long struggle and effective organization of the Namibians belie the perception of the Namibian War as a secondary conflict. Despite its relative poverty and long occupation, the Southwest Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) and its armed wing, the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN), managed to endure the long struggles with South Africa in the diplomatic and military arenas and eventually emerge as an independent state. Richard Dale’s volume on the Namibian war of independence is an exceptionally informative work that analyzes the many threads of the conflict, but it is ultimately of extremely limited utility due to the structural choices made by the author.
The preface and introduction of the work effectively lay out the intellectual underpinnings of the work, noting that the volume concentrates the majority of its effort on the three named threads of the conflict while also effectively placing his approach to analyzing the Namibian War within the larger bibliography of the struggle. Just as importantly, Dale informs the reader of what is not within the volume--defining his approach as much from a rejection of methodologies as from what he has chosen to include. Critically, Dale makes an explicit rejection of “the ‘drum and trumpet’ school of military history” (p. 4), noting that such approaches tend to provide more narrative and detail than context for the struggle. Instead, Dale wishes to answer what he views as six central analytical questions regarding the long war for Namibian independence: Why was the war so prolonged? How was the conflict internationalized? What parallels exist between the Namibian War and other decolonization struggles? What unique aspects exist within the Namibian War? What repertoires did the Namibians use to secure their goals? And finally, what competing visions for Namibia did South Africa present during the long struggle (p. 5)? Following on this foundation provided by the preface, the introduction then engages the three main thematic threads with broad strokes, providing specific engagements with the literature for the diplomatic, economic, and military aspects of the work.
The meat of the volume is the three thematic sections, represented here as chapters 1 through 6. Each section is aligned with one of the three analytical threads and contains two chapters—one discussing the Namibian efforts within that thread of the struggle and the following delineating the South African actions within that same realm. In turn, these chapters are broken down into multiple subsections, referencing specific aspects of the references campaign, such as Namibia’s specific attempts to challenge South Africa’s trusteeship at the United Nations or South Africa’s challenges in mustering up military manpower. Each subsection is meticulously detailed and attempts to be comprehensive within its purview
The final of the four sections is what Dale himself refers to as the “Residue of the Campaigns” (p. 111). The two chapters present what is obviously a denouement for the Namibian conflict, with the first, “The Art of Bending,” being a wrap-up of the thematic sections. The first of its subsections, “Relics of the Namibian War,” is an interesting side discussion of the narratives and memory of the conflict and how that defines who belongs within a Namibian state and nation. The remaining three explore the enduring legacies of the diplomatic, economic, and military campaigns in Namibia. While brief, these sections contain interesting details on subjects such as the demobilization of South Africa’s Namibian auxiliaries and the cancellation of Namibian debts that were a holdover from the colonial era. The final chapter, “Conclusions,” predictably returns to Dale’s original six questions from the preface. These are handled in order and Dale treats them in a relatively straightforward manner, with each of the complex questions dealt with in roughly two pages or less.
However, despite the detailed information provided within each subsection, this volume is ultimately of extremely limited utility due to Dale’s choice of structure. While the lack of a narrative throughout the volume does not necessarily undermine it, it does exacerbate several other shortcomings of the work. While each thematic section and subsection is impressively researched and detailed, Dale presents them each essentially in a vacuum. There is little discussion of the interplay of the larger thematic pieces until one reaches the conclusions of the book, leaving the reader in the dark as to their import. Perhaps even more problematic, no effort is made to connect the subsections within the chapters themselves. Each presents their own separate chronology, with little to no discussion of how one of the presented threads might relate to another. This issue turns the virtue of Dale’s painstaking research into a vice. Without connecting the subsections together into a larger coherent whole, the massive amount of information tends to bury rather than enlighten the reader. Simply put, Dale explores the conflict deeply but provides no context for his explorations, leaving the book of use only to readers already intimately familiar with the Namibian struggle.
Overall, The Namibian War of Independence, 1966-1989 covers an extraordinary amount of ground in its slender 131 pages of text (the remainder are appendices and notes). Each of his sections is painstakingly detailed and offers an in-depth look at a variety of facets of a long and often forgotten struggle in southern Africa. However, without either a brief introduction to the overall progression of the conflict or even a simplified timeline to offer context, the non-expert reader will quickly be overwhelmed by the information provided. A newer reader interested in the conflict might be better served by reading Dale’s earlier “A Comparative Reconsideration of the Namibian Bush War, 1966-1989” in the journal Small Wars and Insurgencies. The article covers much of the same ground but in a much more circumscribed format, leaving the Namibian Bush War as a further resource if a more detailed and expansive study is necessary.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Charlie Thomas. Review of Dale, Richard, The Namibian War of Independence, 1966-1989: Diplomatic, Economic and Military Campaigns.
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