Suva, Fiji — Within the pale green walls of the officers' mess, heavy overhead fans beat the thick tropical air for a semblance of life. Beyond the parade ground a brass band cleared its lungs for the afternoon review, and armed troops in lightweight jungle greens dragged their bellies through the slop of an afternoon downpour.
But across the stiff white tablecloths in the Central Command dining room, the thoughts of the officers of the Royal Fiji military forces were elsewhere.
Most had served in the Middle East, and their minds were tuned to days and nights maintaining the harsh winter watch in Lebanon, bundled up in goose-down parkas from New Zealand and coarse woolen battle dress from India -- and to the question of where on earth their next posting might be.
The Fijian Army has a long history of involvement in other people's wars. The country offered its men to the British in both world wars. fijians served with the American ground forces in the Solomon Islands during the Pacific war and by 1952 were back in service with the British struggle against insurgents in Malaya. In that conflict, from 1952 to '56, Fijian troops amassed an unchallenged combat record to which even the Gurkhas run second.
Their objective since then has been peacekeeping and nation-building. Apart from a brief, tense role as policemen during Indian-Fijian racial strife in the early 1970s, the government has used the Army to train thousands of young men in combat, engineering, and building trades.
Through the long and often treacherous cyclone season the Army acts as a disaster relief force, ferrying supplies to the outer islands and rebuilding community facilities. Army platoons are lent out, for the cost of materials only, to village administrations for school and hospital construction.
Beyond these national preoccupations, however, the prime minister, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, has held to a strong sense of internationalism, traveling extensively through the Pacific, the Commonwealth, Europe, and the United States. In 1978, when the United Nations decided to put a peacekeeping force in Lebanon, he immediately offered a battalion and airlifted 659 men to the Middle East by May of the same year.
Trained to kill and retrained for peace service, the Fijian battalion has taken the brunt of Palestine Liberation Organization activity on the north and western fronts. It has rejected offers to transfer to safer sectors and in the past 18 months lost 7 men killed and more than 20 wounded.
"They have had to contend with periods of intense animosity and coexistence, and they have won the psychological battle," says their commander, Col. Robert Ian Thorpe, a lean New Zealander who fought with the Fijian forces in Malaya 25 years ago.
"Our men have maintained the essential role of peacekeeping and gained a reputation for being precise and methodical. The casualties testify to the fact that they hold their ground."
That ground is costing them dearly. When the United Nations entered Lebanon in 1978, it contracted to pay for the peacekeeping according to a formula of $ 650 per man per month, with increments to cover specialties, daily operating costs, and weapons. But it didn't allow for a budget shortfall of about 40 percent when the Soviet Union, China, and other member states refused to meet their share.
Fiji was entitled to reimbursement of $5.8 million in the first year but was shortchanged by $4 million as it entered the second. And for a third-world country with a total annual military budget of $7.7 million and an overseas deficit of $12 million, the UN's failure to pay hurt.
"The world is saying through the United Nations that it likes peacekeeping and that if the big countries can do it, the little countries can do it also," says Colonel Thorpe.
"The problem is that the little people are carrying the casualties and are the ones who can least afford it."
The Fijian treasury has estimated that with its $4 million deficit doubling to about $8 million by mid-1980, the annual 12 percent interest rate on borrowings to meet these UN obligations will prevent the country from ever recouping its losses, if and when the United Nations does find the money.
Colonel Thorpe says that despite the casualties so far, the Fijian public has remained firmly behind the principle of peacekeeping, but he adds a warning note: "If Fiji has to leave the peacekeeping business to others, it won't be for lack of national will or enthusiasm. It will simply be that the financial load has become too great."