Saturday 5 January 2019

“They wanted to die like William Holden”: An anecdote about the Nigerian Civil War

The Nigerian Civil War was a particularly violent and brutal conflict fought between the federal side and the secessionist state of Biafra from 1967 to 1970. It was prosecuted under the glare of intense Western media coverage which chronicled war crimes, mass starvation, the use of foreign mercenaries and a propaganda battle for the hearts and minds of the world. A great deal was documented but a few myths and fictions abound. For instance, it was once claimed that more small arms ammunition was expended in the conflict than during the whole of the Second World War. Another one claimed that the celebrity of the Brazilian footballer Pele was potent enough to cause a ceasefire between the warring sides. One story I had never heard of until recently was provided by Sam Peckinpah in a Life Magazine interview published in 1972. Peckinpah claimed that a viewing by Nigerian troops of The Wild Bunch had been enough to stimulate an indolent federal army into a homicidal frenzy. But the veracity of the story is highly questionable.

In an interview piece for Life Magazine which was published on August 11, 1972, the Hollywood film director Sam Peckinpah said the following:

During the civil war in Nigeria, the Nigerian troops had been sitting on their asses for weeks, not advancing against the Biafrans. Then they showed The Wild Bunch to the troops. The Nigerians went out of their minds. They shot their guns in the movie. The soldiers shot their guns at the movie. And the next day they went off to battle, shouting that they wanted to die like William Holden.

Peckinpah wasn’t being boastful. On the contrary, he was expressing doubts about the effect that his movies were having. Entitled “What Price Violence?”, the piece captured Peckinpah on the defensive about the notoriety he had gained from the levels of graphic violence in his films which included scenes depicting mass slaughter, suicide, rape and beatings. He came to be known as the ‘Picasso of Violence’.

His tone changed however when relating the story of the Nigerian Civil War which had been told to him by a foreign correspondent. “It turned my stomach,” Peckinpah claimed. “I vomited to think that I had made that film.”

But there are good reasons to be sceptical of this story. For one, none of the major accounts of the war whether reportages by correspondents who covered it or through the memoirs of its participants appear to have noted such an occurrence. And a search of contemporaneous records of the war provided by noted papers of record such as the New York Times as well as the film archives of Reuters yields nothing. The only source for this appears to have been Peckinpah’s Life interview.

There are problems with tracing the claimed original source. Peckinpah did not name the correspondent who purportedly gave him the information. The Nigerian Army, only a few years previously a small and compact one, had during the civil war grown to be a large one composed of many divisions and brigades. A mass screening of a film -and a notorious one at that- would have been noted by the world media. Alternatively, there is no mention of whether the incident was based on a showing to a smaller unit, such as a specific regiment, battalion or company.

Mapping out the context in which Peckinpah was speaking can provide a semblance of truth to the first portion of the story. The Wild Bunch was released during the summer of 1969 at a time when there were significant lulls in the fighting on the different fronts. Many analysts of the war would agree with Peckinpah’s earthy characterisation of the Nigerian Army as “sitting on their asses for weeks, not advancing against the Biafrans”.

This is of course not a unique phenomenon in the annals of military history. For instance, George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac during the American Civil War remained infamously inert for a lengthy period while camped around the River Potomac despite the impatient requests from President Abraham Lincoln that he attack nearby confederate forces. In the Nigerian Civil War, the northern sector was prone to lengthy pauses. In fact, there was little advancing of forces in this area after the initial successes in the early period of the war. Much of the conquest of Biafran-held territory -around 70 per cent- was accomplished by the Third Infantry Division (renamed the “Third Marine Commando” by its leader Colonel Benjamin Adekunle), which attacked from the southern sector. While McLellan’s army had been paralysed by his personal tendency to indecision, several Nigerian battle commanders did not mind the lulls in action because the enemy had been encircled and had begun to be plagued by starvation and disease. They preferred to sit out a siege rather than to advance.

The long-planned ‘final offensive’ by the Nigerian Army, first announced in September 1968 and intermittently alluded to afterwards, did not get underway until December the following year. There is a great deal of literature available about the reasons for the delay and when it began, but there is not a scintilla of evidence suggestive of Peckinpah’s movie as having served as a motivational tool.

While no report confirming Peckinpah’s story is readily ascertainable from contemporaneous reports of the Nigerian Civil War, it is worth noting that it bore the hallmarks of the sort of invented falsehoods that were interspersed with factual reporting sent back to new agencies by some Western reporters. Lloyd Garrison, a long-time reporter with the New York Times, revealed how the paper promoted the practice among its reporters of framing Africa as a dark and primitive continent. This policy involved editing the dispatches of its correspondents to suit the agenda.

The history of war is of course replete with armies showing soldiers films for the purposes of entertainment and of education. Drugs have also been supplied to soldiers with the intention of lessening combat fatigue and increasing strength and awareness. A decree issued in April 1940 by the German High Command distributed millions of tablets of Pervitin and Isophan to the foot-soldiers serving in the Wehrmacht, while Allied soldiers were supplied with Benzedrine, an amphetamine.

The brief anecdote provided by Peckinpah does not specify whether the effect on the Nigerian Army of viewing of The Wild Bunch was the consequence of a bout of entertainment gone awry, or that it was a deliberately organised psychological exercise aimed at motivating cowardly or disinterested troops.

But given the lack of corroborative sources, it can safely be assumed that the Peckinpah story, like that relating to Pele’s tour, is a myth.

© Adeyinka Makinde (2019)

Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England.

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