Kipling - and a Chinook Down
In the wake of the terrible news Saturday that 30 American and eight Afghan troops were killed by hostile action in Afghanistan, one could have done worse than turn last weekend to the war poetry of Rudyard Kipling.
Kipling (the poet laureate of the British Empire) knew all about violent death in Afghanistan. The Indian-born, English-educated, Darsi-speaking Anglo-Indian began his career as a newspaper editor and reporter in Lahore (now Pakistan). He ended it as the recipient of the 1907 Nobel Prize for Literature.
Nothing (except, perhaps, his American in-laws) daunted him: Kipling even served as a war correspondent, knowing all the great men of his time. He is also one of the few men to have refused a knighthood.
Kipling was, in the view of his contemporaries, the greatest artist of Victorian England.
By our lights, Rudyard Kipling (1865-1938) was an imperialist, a racialist ("The White Man's Burden"), and a warmonger -- until his own son died in the First World War. Thereafter, as head of the Imperial War Graves Commission, Kipling transmuted private grief into public art -- see his "Epitaphs" and the inscription on Great Britain's Tomb of the Unknown.
Kipling is relevant today because he was a clear-eyed chronicler (and sometime critic; see his poem "Recessional") of Britain's imperial wars of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
He lived to see Hitler in power.
The sheer scope of Rudyard Kipling's oeuvre is difficult to contemplate in today's age of literary specialization. Journalism, contemporary fiction, nonfiction, history, poetry, science-fiction, historical fiction, stories for children, novels, music hall songs and ballads, short stories, epitaphs -- the only genres Kipling didn't attempt were theatre and opera.
Today, Kipling is probably best-known to American readers (and American children) for his Jungle Books, and other animal tales. But his best-known novel, Kim, is still read in some schools and Kipling's short story, "The Man Who Would Be King," was made in 1975 into a popular movie starring Michael Caine and Sean Connery. They, and the short stories, "Drums of the Fore and Aft" and "The Lost Legion," deserve to be read widely.
But it's Kipling's war poetry about Great Britain's fighting in Afghanistan and in the Northwest Frontier Province of what's now Pakistan which speaks to our grief over the American casualties in Afghanistan. Will the downing of that Chinook spell, like the famous shoot-down of a Black Hawk in Somalia in 1993, the end of America's presence in Afghanistan? Or will we salvage something out of it and go on?
Kipling and the Brits were there before. Indeed, Great Britain fought a series of Anglo-Afghan wars, beginning in 1839 and ending in 1919, to resist Russian, Persian and German influence (the famous Great Game) and to protect British India from raids by Pathan tribesmen.
Britain's Afghan wars were no more splendid than our war, either. Over those eighty years -- and based on bitter experience -- British strategy changed from one of occupation of Afghan territory (embodying the so-called "Forward Policy") to that of punitive expeditions. The former, be it noted, ended in disaster and defeats, while the latter met with success.
Indeed, a young British subaltern named Winston Churchill participated in and wrote his first book about just such a punitive expedition. It was called The Story of the Malakand Field Force: an Episode of Frontier War (1898). His book was originally serialized in the Daily Telegraph.
Kipling's writings chronicle the evolution in that strategy. In the 1886 poem, "Arithmetic on the Frontier," he notes the deadly cost of hostile terrain and hostile tribesmen using modern weapons against an elite British force:
Two thousand pounds of education
Drops to a ten-rupee jezail -
Strike hard who cares - shoot straight who can -
The odds are on the cheaper man.
In "That Day," Kipling recalled the bloody disaster sustained by British forces in 1880 in the Battle of Maiwand. Another Kipling poem, "Fuzzy Wuzzy," records another British defeat by Islamists, this time at the Battle of Abu Klea in the Sudan in 1885. "Gunga Din," of course, is the story of a third such battle, this one in British India.
The Battle of Maiwand, in fact, spawned a lot of art. Besides paintings, the heroic (and fatal) stand of the Berkshire Regiment around its colors is commemorated in the Maiwand Lion monument in Reading, England. Maiwand also lives on in literature in the character of Sherlock Holmes' Doctor Watson, modeled on the Berkshires' medical officer.
As Sir Arthur Conan Doyle tells it in A Study in Scarlet (1887), the first Sherlock Holmes novel, it's while recuperating in London from a wound sustained in that battle that Dr. Watson first meets Holmes.
Despite these defeats in Afghanistan, Britain fought on. Yet, it took the Third Anglo-Afghan War of 1919 finally to secure British India's northern border.
The closest British tragedy to the casualties sustained by SEAL Team Six on Saturday was the loss of 46 men and officers of the 10th Hussars on March 31, 1878. It occurred around midnight while that regiment and the Bengal Lancers were fording the Kabul River near Jalalabad, on the way to a proposed night action. That disaster, recalled in Kipling's "Ford o' Kabul River," was an accident (or a blunder) in the midst of a war. The downing of the Chinook and its passengers Saturday night by a Taliban RPG was war itself.
Here's the poem.
Does it speak to us?
The British of Kipling's time could sustain the shocks chronicled by Kipling, read his poems and ballads, and go on -- in Churchill's felicitous phrase, uttered at the Lord Mayor's Banquet in London on November 10, 1942 -- "to hold our own." Britain's greatest prime minister -- he who had fought with the Malakand Field Force and who'd participated in the last British cavalry charge in history at the Battle of Omdurman in the Sudan against the forces of the Mahdi -- was not paralyzed by a heart filled with liberal guilt. Far from it.
One of Churchill's maxims was: in defeat, defiance. After Pearl Harbor, Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union, and the fall of Singapore, Churchill told a joint session of the U.S. Congress on December 26, 1941: "what kind of people do they think we are?" Four days later, this time before the Canadian Parliament, he answered his own question: "[w]e have not journeyed across the centuries, across the oceans, across the mountains, across the prairies, because we are made of sugar candy."
That, of course, was Great Britain in 1941. Churchill, ever the romantic, quoted Byron. What of the United States in 2011?
For us today, perhaps Kipling, Churchill, and Lincoln at Gettysburg give the answer.