Anthony Feinstein's Battle Scarred. The Hidden Costs of the Border War is not exactly a classic in military history. For one thing, its been published far too recently. For another, Feinstein does not even attempt to write a historic account. The war, which in various forms lasted from 1966 to 1989, remains one of the least studied episodes of the Cold War, though it has everything in it to make it an attractive research topic (Chris Saunders gives a good introduction here). A hot and devastating proxy war in the midst of the Cold War, in which even the Cubans thought it wise to intervene (and in doing so forced a reluctant Soviet Union to get involved as well, straining the Soviet Union's patience with its Cuban ally). Feinstein, a former conscript and doctor in the South African army, is a veteran of the war himself and has now turned his first-hand experience into a well-written and fascinating page-turner, easily read in the course of an afternoon or a long flight over the African continent. His book is one of the few really good personal accounts of the war. Joining the army for his tour of duty, he is asked to give a specific field of medical expertise. He sits down and scribbles plastic surgery on the note and is later surprised to find that the army has given him psychiatry instead. Asking his superiors what on earth had happened, he gets an answer that will somehow sound familiar to anyone having the slightest bit of military experience. In the alphabet PS follows PL.
But Feinstein quickly adapts to military life and finds himself on the front lines, dealing with patients who are unprepared for or devastated by military action and civilians, who can no longer carry the burden of constant conflict. The military historian, however, will find the last 50 pages the most interesting. Here, the author takes the reader on a tour through his small unit, which is deployed on the front lines and has more than one enemy encounter during the war. But an ambush leaves the unit in disarray. Following the attack more than one soldier is haunted by what he has experienced and even the unit's captain is having nightmares. The unit, having lost confidence in its leader, is beginning to fall apart. The book is a powerful reminder not so much of what the hidden costs of the border war are—they are easy to notice—but that unit cohesion is among the things in war that cannot be ordered and even less easily be explained. Feinstein could have put a little more effort in contextualising the whereabouts of his deployment and given more details when it comes to the role his unit had in the overall South African war effort. But having said that, the book should certainly be on everybody's military reading list.