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An Interview with Simon Mann, and Vietnam's Red Napoleon
Simon Mann discusses his experiences as a mercenary intervening in the Angolan civil war, getting involved in a failed coup in Equatorial Guinea, and his time in some of Africa’s worst prisons.
Recently, Palladium interviewed Simon Mann, a former British SAS officer who co-founded the private military companies Executive Outcomes and Sandline International. Mann achieved international notoriety after he attempted a coup in the West African state of Equatorial Guinea in 2004. He was imprisoned for five years before being pardoned the country’s president, Teodoro Obiang.
Mann told us about the leadup to the coup:
Obviously, I couldn’t go to the place myself. So I sent Niek [Servaas Nicolaas “Niek” du Toit, former colonel of South Africa’s 32 Battalion] to Equatorial Guinea on a recce [reconnaissance mission]. An extended recce, as it turned out, because he was there for the best part of a year. And all the information I got back from Niek, which corroborated with other sources, was that we were justified to try and do what we were doing with assisted regime change. And remember, assisted regime changes were very fashionable at the time. The United States had just done one in Iraq.
“Bloodless” is something of a bet on your part. By the nature of these things, there’s always a chance that something gets out of control. In fact, it did get out of control in this case—just earlier than you anticipated.
The real plan was that we would have the new interim president, Severo Moto [Equatorial Guinea’s prominent opposition leader, who now leads a government-in-exile from Spain] land at the same time as us. And by that point, President Obiang would have been under arrest in his palace. There would have been a palace coup. We were to arrive in the early hours of the morning and the president would already have been arrested and would go to prison, and then Severo Moto would go to the broadcasting station and wish everyone good morning.
We only had 70 men. And I mean, we were very good, but we were not going to be able to overthrow a country with police and armed forces numbering in the thousands with 70 men. So I was planning to get off the airplane in a suit and a tie and be shaking hands. Now, that may sound a little bit far-fetched to people. But the point here is, we knew that there was a lot of opposition within the country, and indeed, there was a lot of opposition within the palace.
If you’re going to have a palace coup, it’s going to be done by people very, very close to the president. They’re literally going to walk into his bedroom and say, “Get up, you’re under arrest.” So it’s going to be family members, it’s going to be absolutely close. And Moto, the guy we were bringing in to try and set up democracy, had been the mayor of Malabo, the capital. He had been elected with a big majority, so much so that he’d frightened the president and was shoved into prison. He had then been pardoned at the personal requests of the Pope and King Carlos of Spain. That’s how high they had gone to get him out of that prison.
Mann, Ash, and yours truly discussed his experience organizing the coup, his capture after its failure, and his time in the infamous Chikurubi and Black Beach prisons of Zimbabwe and Equatorial Guinea. Moscow after the collapse of the USSR, his time as a commander during the Angolan civil war, and his involvement with the PMC Executive Outcomes were also topics of discussion.
The interview ended with a few words on the possibility for adventure today. Some believe that we live in a uniquely domesticated time—the world has been mapped, all the frontiers have been closed, and the oceans have been mastered. But Mann warns against this kind of thinking:
If you consider a 25-year-old who went to Eton, and about what they end up doing these days, what comes to mind is a hedge fund manager. The City of London has captured the vitality, or what’s left of it, of the British upper classes. Should we just take the current crop of Etonians, ship them out to Africa, and see what they make of themselves?
[Laughs] No! Well, you’re now asking me questions about the whole of English society. It’s a very, very complicated story. And if you ask 10 people the same questions, you get 10 completely different answers. Because obviously, societies change. I mean, it’s exactly the same in the United States. I’m sure there were preppy kids wandering around when I was at Eton from 1965 to 1970. But you think about 1965 to ’70, the whole Western world was in a social revolution.
You had the student riots in California, you had the hair, you had Woodstock, you had this whole thing going on. So, of course, it’s all changed. I guess you could say that the path I took, in a sense, is arguably a rather old-fashioned one. Because somehow, it’s like The Empire Strikes Back or something. In reality, it absolutely wasn’t like that. It was accidental. We were an oil company and we did what we did. It’s quite easy to become, I don’t know, a sort of lampoon target.
What would you advise someone young and risk-tolerant who doesn’t want to become a banker?
Well, I don’t think they’d ask me! But making something of yourself or not is up to you, isn’t it? Some people are going to make themselves into great artists and other people are going to be great at something else. If you want to be a soldier, then be a soldier. And don’t be hung up by the class aspects of the thing. If you really want to be a soldier, the best thing you could possibly do would be to get yourself into the Special Air Service as quickly as possible.
Now if you want to be a general, that’s something completely different. That’s not what you want to do. Because it’s a complicated business.
And I wouldn’t recommend anybody try to do what we did. I mean, that could be fatal.
It seems like history gives us these periods when a lot of people all seem to do interesting things. Today, it seems like there is a kind of pessimism everywhere, and in the UK especially. It seems to be declining. Is pessimism warranted?
I don’t think it’s true. I think that the real stuff is going on all the time. And it’s just a question of which lens you use. I very, very clearly remember Tony Buckingham—my friend and one of the big players in this whole story—saying to me, “God, Simon, it would be so much better if we could have been Elizabethans. We could have been pirates! We could have sailed the seven seas, we could have been catching Spanish treasure ships!”
And I said, “No, no, no, Tony, don’t think that way.” Because the opportunities are out there. Obviously, it’s not going to be a sailing boat and a Spanish treasure ship. But it’s going to be something. It’s there. We have to be ready to grab it when it comes. I think the opportunities are always there.
You can read the rest of this fascinating interview here.
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In our secular age, revolutionaries often appear to be modern prophets. They are zealous in their belief and ascetic in their lifestyle, preaching to the common people of the things hidden from the foundation of their world. At the same time, they are intensely active figures. They traverse the country to reach as many as they can, and often take up armed struggle against the ruling authorities.
In his latest article for Palladium, correspondent Avetis Muradyan writes about one such example from East Asia. Nguyễn Ai Quoc, better known by his nom de guerre Hồ Chí Minh, led the Democratic Republic of Vietnam during its independence war against the French and was a key figure in the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War.
But every successful leader is enabled by an equally deft lieutenant, and one of Hồ Chí Minh’s most important commanders was Võ Nguyễn Giáp. He was in charge during the the final battle of the 1954 independence war, Điện Biên Phủ, and the Tet Offensive of 1968, and was trusted to such an extent that he would be made head of state when Nguyễn was abroad. They had originally met as comrades during the Chinese Civil War, where they trained skills that would later be deployed back at home. The political lens they both brought to military affairs was key to their success.
Military and political work were inextricably linked for the fledgling Vietminh. The political dimension of the military struggle was the most important component of how Nguyễn and Giáp understood armed revolution overall. The regular army units of the French and Japanese forces had the goal of achieving militarily relevant strategic and tactical objectives. In contrast, the purpose of the VLPU was to score political victories and expand the base of support of the Vietminh.
Nguyễn and Giáp’s agreement on this question was foundational to their political alliance. Nguyễn had constructed a potent ideology for the Vietnamese war. But it was only the political discipline that Giáp ultimately built into this fighting force that ensured the Vietminh did not simply get absorbed by more powerful actors, be they Chinese, European, or rival nationalists. That decreased risk of absorption made possible a strategy that would serve the Vietminh well: strategic alliances with more powerful actors.
New technologies and propaganda efforts were instrumental to their strategy—not just feats of arms.
If the logic of the mass movement was radical then, it is almost entirely extinguished in the current era. The printing press and the radio were the means by which the working, toiling masses could be assembled into politically useful structures. They allowed mass communication between organized groups with access to the infrastructure, but were closed off to individuals. This allowed for the enforcement of party lines. The system’s logic extended beyond communism: both fascism and wartime liberalism—a tradition embodied by men like FDR—were mass party movements.
Nguyễn’s training within the Comintern was in building exactly this kind of mass organization. All communist parties took for granted that the “consciousness of the masses” needed to be raised by the revolutionary vanguard. This meant that the revolutionaries living in the villages, among the people, had to prepare the peasants of Vietnam to be marshaled into a popular force. Before the revolutionaries could teach socialism at all, they had to teach the peasants to read.
This also entailed plenty of self-education:
Nguyễn, Giáp, and the other lieutenants were doubly concerned with their own education and that of the inner party. They spent a significant amount of time reading, writing, and discussing not just revolutionary texts but also history, geopolitics, and poetry. The historical tropes about internal party methods have mostly focused on the extreme excesses: self-criticism and struggle sessions used to enforce outlandish ideological positions. However, these were only some of the more chaotic manifestations of discipline in a highly potent Leninist structure.
The organizational discipline employed by the Vietnamese communists was based on keeping the party core informed, correcting the strategic course, and building a unified revolutionary inner culture in which to inculcate new cadres. The mass popular fronts could not survive without this hard core of revolutionaries. Nguyễn taught his lieutenants the intricacies of revolutionary theory even as they subsisted on what little husk rice they could get their hands on.
It might have seemed like a counter-intuitive use of time and effort by a group at risk of being wiped out by hunger. But the lifestyle allowed them to take full advantage of their close ties to the peasants. The Vietminh were obsessed with absorbing knowledge that would prove useful in accomplishing their goals and they dedicated an enormous amount of effort to that endeavor. Without this foundation in organizational culture and discipline, astonishing feats like the construction of the Hồ Chí Minh trail—which relied on detailed knowledge of jungle footpaths and village networks—would never have been possible.
As Muraydan emphasizes in a follow-up Twitter thread for his article, much of the key to Giáp’s success as an amateur leader was his voracious appetite for reading. Military history, geography, and technical manuals on communications technology were all crucial for his performance as a professional revolutionary. You can read that follow-up thread here, and can read the rest of Muradyan’s article here.
Here’s what’s been on the front page lately:
Vietnam’s Red Napoleon by Avetis Muradyan. The early years of Vietnam’s legendary general Võ Nguyên Giáp show the power of a competent lieutenant working in close trust with a sovereign leader.
“Opportunity Is Always Out There” With Simon Mann. Simon Mann discusses his experiences as a mercenary intervening in the Angolan civil war, getting involved in a failed coup in Equatorial Guinea, and his time in some of Africa’s worst prisons.
Ilham Aliyev and the Making of Azerbaijan by Fin Depencier. Ilham Aliyev turned Azerbaijan from a Russian vassal into a pro-Western petrostate. Now, a new Turkish alliance and military victories against Armenia are revealing his ambitions for regional power.
PALLADIUM 08: Scientific Authority. As science has become more powerful, political forces have fed back to distort the scientific process itself. PALLADIUM 08: Scientific Authority is now available, featuring exclusive interviews and custom artwork.
The Institutions of Science With Lord Martin Rees. Lord Martin Rees is an astrophysicist and the current Astronomer Royal. He reflects on how science can serve society and the obstacles for those who want to follow in his footsteps.
That’s all for now.