When news broke that our soldiers in Somalia had been ambushed and massacred, my mind immediately rushed to a Facebook post I had put on my wall a week before.
I also reflected widely on the way African politicians handle and value the military. On Saturday, July 22, 2017, I was going home and found a contingent of Ugandan forces headed for African Mission in Somalia (Amisom) duty.
Below is what I wrote on my Facebook page the next day: “...My workplace being Mengo, I have always had the chance to bump into the various Battle Groups as they head out or come back into the country. I just love seeing the combatants in the trucks and the military police giving them escort and opening up the route for them.
My fear, however, is that their routine route is so monotonous and so are the times of day. To make matters worse, the press is even invited to the send-off events...that is a very big blunder. The force is directly playing into al-Shabaab hands.
Actually, the route they take as they head to Entebbe takes them through Bukesa and Mengo, which have a very heavy presence of Somalis... it’s the same route always and at the very same times of day. Someone pass that on to army intelligence.”
So, when news of the ambush came out, I realized they must have been doing the very same blunders while in Somalia by not taking caution and being unpredictable. The problem might even be beyond the lack of armored vehicles as Brigadier Richard Karemire, the UPDF spokesperson, pointed out while providing reasons why our soldiers suffered a heavy blow.
Of course Brig Karemire’s statements also raise other questions, but those can be left for another day. It baffles me that a reputable force like the UPDF has no cemetery for its officers who fall in combat.
If we really are proud of the causes and wars we have been to such as in Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Liberia, etc, we should have a common military cemetery where anyone who falls in battle should be buried with full military honours.
The United States of America has over 100 national military cemeteries for soldiers and their spouses. They also have national monuments such as the Vietnam War Memorial Wall which is inscribed with names of over 58,000 soldiers who lost their lives in the Vietnam War.
They even go further and have a tomb that stands for all the dead in every war they go to that they call the tomb of the unknown soldier. Such tributes serve to remind them of their war history and the human cost from such adventures.
It’s also a tradition in the USA that the commander in chief, the president, personally calls and even writes to the next of kin of the deceased to show the importance of their lives to the nation.
So, I think burying our deceased combatants in some obscure graves in the country-side is unfair, especially in a country where land grabbers can soon disturb the peace of such fallen patriots by grading their graves.
There was an attempt to start a military cemetery starting with the late Col Jet Mwebaze but this seems to have stopped at mere talking.
Lastly, such deaths should help us reconsider how we go about distributing national medals. It still beats my understanding that in an army where some of the top brass have been to Fort Leavenworth, Fort Bragg and even Sandhurst, there is no attempt to streamline how military medals should be earned on merit.
The United States is still the best go-to place in terms of military custom.
The US military has a number of military medals but some of the outstanding ones are the Purple Heart, which is awarded to anyone wounded or killed in battle; the Silver Star awarded for gallantry in action; the Medal of Honor warded for extraordinary heroism involving putting oneself at risk beyond the call of duty; while families that have lost such soldiers are called Golden Star families and are to be accorded all maximum respect.
I don’t think it is too late for the UPDF to begin such a tradition. Let’s reserve the highest respect for those who dare to serve and die in action.
May our brothers’ souls rest in peace!
The author works with Muteesa I Royal University and reads widely on military history and customs.