Small Wars Journal

An Interview with Peter Godwin

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An Interview with Peter Godwin

by John Noonan

Full article: An Interview with Peter Godwin

Sometimes the most effective COIN lessons are found in the strangest of places. Some time ago, while researching Zimbabwe's staggering collapse under the Robert Mugabe regime, I stumbled upon When a Crocodile Eats the Sun -- a deeply moving memoir of Zimbabwe's corrosive rot, told by native Zimbabwean reporter, Mr. Peter Godwin. Godwin spun his tale with an enviably smooth narration, blending microcosmic personal tragedies with macrocosmic political and economic failures into a sad, powerful account of a functional nation-state's collapse. When I finished reading, I wanted more. Digging into Godwin's author history, I came across Mukiwa, the fascinating autobiography of a white boy growing up in colonial Africa (and winner of the Orwell Prize for political writing).

Mukiwa spans multiple governments in a single country, as Godwin's wonderfully interesting experiences stretch from Rhodesia as a British Crown Colony, to an international pariah, to an undeclared Republic, an unrecognized hybrid state in Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, and finally to Mugabe's Zimbabwe. While Mukiwa isn't necessarily a war memoir (though Godwin did spend much of his career as a war correspondent), several chapters are dedicated to his time serving with the British South Africa Police during the Rhodesian Bush War. So poignant were the stories from Godwin's tour, I sent a copy to a close friend serving in Afghanistan. He too was taken with how simply and effectively Godwin laid out basic COIN principles, so much so that he had his NCOs read the chapters that I had bookmarked.

I reached out to Mr. Godwin, now a professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, who generously agreed to sit down for an interview.

Full article: An Interview with Peter Godwin

John Noonan is a national security and defense writer with The Weekly Standard and Both Mukiwa and When a Crocodile Eats the Sun are available for purchase at

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you take the words out of my mouth. I too fought for many years in the belief that I was doing the right thing. Years later after losing my farm, many friends mainly white, but including blacks, I still believe that the change over was far too early and as Anton says.. watch out in SA.and may all the arm chair liberals like Andrew who don't have a clue, rot. Shala Gahle.

Anton (not verified)

Tue, 12/07/2010 - 10:26pm

Hi Andrew, its so easy to judge. Must make you feel so superior. "Minority, exploitation of resources, etc., etc." Our biggest fear was that the majority rule government would make it impossible to maintain a civilized, free and open society. We had the whole of "liberated Africa" as an example of what might lie ahead of us. Today we are proven RIGHT. They did not represent liberty or democracy or any of these western values. These are animals running most of sub-saharan Africa today. Watch carefully, and witness the South African destruction over the next 20 years and weep!

What do you have to lose? We lost everything in the end, and many of our friends and family (yes, white and black), their lives.

JMA (not verified)

Fri, 11/05/2010 - 11:43pm

Andrew fails to understand that there are many lessons both political and military that can be learned and gleaned from the "Rhodesian experience".

Thirty years after independence one should be able to disect and learn from that period in an unemotional manner and not use broad judgmental brush strokes that cover the whole matter in a few paragraphs.

andrew (not verified)

Tue, 11/02/2010 - 1:10pm

How does this conversation continue without reference to the origin of the civil war in Zim? It arose from [racist] oppression of an indigenous peoples by a minute minority present in Zim only for the exploitation of resources, both natural and human. Same in South Africa, except less minute. Maybe not the same in Afghanistan. What did they expect: compliant 'slaves' forever? Live by the sword, die by the sword, and don't complain if you do, or the devil you make while trying.

Getting all intricate and sentimental about the nuances of wrong wars, guerilla or otherwise, is like indulging your way through the Karma Sutra with the devil. The Zim war was wrong and futile on the part of the white side. And the devil it seems to have birthed.

Regarding the fact or fiction debate, the book is probably Faction, an increasingly common and credible genre that indistinguishably blends historic facts with a fictional narrative or storyline.

Walt W. (not verified)

Tue, 10/27/2009 - 1:37pm

Splitspin: I'm confused. You're saying that Godwin makes it clear he's fictionalizing then say he's trying to hide it!? Huh!???

Skinner (not verified)

Sun, 10/25/2009 - 7:19pm

Hey Splitspin - famba zvakhanaka, shamwari kumina.

splitpin (not verified)

Sun, 10/25/2009 - 4:40am

It sounds like my comments, which are both truthful and factual, have touched a nerve. I have no intention to be vindictive, only honest. Are you afraid of the truth or criticism ? If so, time you changed professions.
Why not let Godwin confirm or deny what I have said ? There is no libel in what I have said, Godwin makes no effort to disguise that fact that Mukiwa is fictional in any event but his style of narrative misleads the reader into presuming his account is factual - which it is far from. There are far better accounts of a factual and first hand nature ( "The Elite", "The Saints", "Only my friends call me Crouks", "Top Secret War" and others)than Godwins book and those of us who did " the hard mile" take offense that a journo like Godwin should climb on the band wagon. While his books are good, why fictionalise like he has and then sit back and lead the reader into adeception of truth??

My reasons for remaining anonyomous are that I am a serving member elsewhere in the world now.
Hamba gahle - go well.

Skinner (not verified)

Thu, 10/22/2009 - 9:08pm

Glad to hear a W2 is clued up on Rhodesia - I do hope you get further information to your buddies.

By the way, the Selous Scouts had their begining in the jungles of Malaya in the early 50's.

A large group of Rhodesian volunteers, the Malay Scouts, served alongside Brit forces. The CO of the Malay Scouts (which would become C Sqn. Special Air Service Rhodesia Regiment) was a young Captain called Ron Reid-Daley who went on to form the Selous Scouts in 1973 as a pseudo-terrorist force.

It was formed specifically to take part in tracking and infiltration operations in which soldiers would pretend to be guerrillas -- so-called pseudo-operators. These tactics were used very successfully in the Mau Mau Uprising. In addition, it often recruited from enemy forces; captured guerrillas were offered a choice between prison, a trial and possible execution or joining the Selous Scouts.

Reid-Daley wrote and excellent book "Selous Scouts: Top Secret War", a worthwhile read if you can find it. Another one, "The War of the Running Dogs" covers the success of the Malaysia Campaign.

Just a slight nit-picking point: an Afghani is a unit of currency, an Afghan is the person or persons.



Walt W. (not verified)

Mon, 10/19/2009 - 1:47am

Hey great interview, from start to finish. Rhodesia, Rhodesia, Rhodesia -- why do US forces not examine this perfect case study further? I've read maybe 3 good papers on the subject from NWC, ACSC, and AWC... combined!

2 key lessons need to be drawn here and adopted in Afghanistan. Godwin makes the first one clear -- Afghani version of the Selous Scouts! Geez don't waste time, manpower, and resources keeping these captured Talis under lock and key -- flush them back down the pipes and see what they unclog! Second, why are we forcing this inept Western style national government down their throats? Tribal leaders should be defacto "elected" representatives to a federal congress (kills electoral corruption and preserves their traditional leadership), make the place look like a Confederacy with a national army and police. Their traditional rule of law should come first -- it'll be ugly as a inbred dog with a shaved ass, but at least it'd work.

Really sharp interview guys, handing it off to a couple of buddies who are still active duty.


John Noonan (not verified)

Sun, 10/18/2009 - 12:38pm

Splitspin: should you choose to libel someone so viciously, it would be best if you substantiated your claims and did so without the protective cover of anonymity.

Attacking someone's character and honor based on what appears to be a hunch is beyond contempt. Mr. Godwin took the time to sit down and offer his wealth of expertise to the SWJ community. I'm deeply embarrassed that I put him in a position where he was exposed to your vindictiveness.

Splitpin (not verified)

Sat, 10/17/2009 - 11:33am

Godwins memoirs or stories in Mukiwa relating to his experiences in the bush war are heavily embellished and very fictional. As a National Service Patrol Officer in duty branch, he would not have undertaken or even been tasked with some of the duties and operations he refered to.It would have been a better book without having to do this. In any event, those who know him or knew him in those days will confirm he was hardly the " bush going warrior" he makes himself out to be. A great shame.

Skinner (not verified)

Thu, 10/15/2009 - 6:16pm

Dennis D:

You are correct, of course.

But why not focus on killing the Taliban money supply in Pakistan, and the AQ money supply in Saudi?

Why send thousands of troops into Afghanistan?

What exactly are they fighting for there? I am no dove, I am a US veteran, but if I was there right now I'd be asking the same questions.

Our troops there need a reason to fight - I have not heard a clear answer. If you can provide one, please do - and I am sincere in this request, no snarkiness at all.



Dennis D (not verified)

Thu, 10/15/2009 - 5:26pm

The Taliban were host to Al Qaida and allowed them to operate camps there.Currrent evidence proves a very close knit relationship between Al Qaida and Taliban in Pakistan. OF COURSE the Taliban are our enemy.

Skinner (not verified)

Thu, 10/15/2009 - 4:04pm

Like Godwin, I am a Rhodesian (now a happy American citizen) and he is spot on in his observations.

There is one glaring difference in these wars - in Rhodesia we were native Rhodesians fighting other Rhodesians. Meaning we spoke the language, grew up in the terrain and knew the culture. The Selous Scouts were overwhelmingly black Rhodesians, and the white Scouts all spoke the local language and for the most part were farmers or famers kids.

Godwin correctly states how the UAV can be a game changer by striking support bases in Pakistan.

I am afraid even Gen. McChrystal will fail over there, and more of our men will die needlessly.

Our enemies are Pakistans and Saudi Arabia and Al Queda - not the Taliban.

But thank you for interviewing Godwin anyway.