The Breaker Morant story is back in the news here in Australia with the investigation of our SAS for the unlawful killing and torturing of Afghanis.
Every once in a while, the matter of the trial and execution by firing squad of Harry “the Breaker” Morant for killing unarmed prisoners of war during the 19th Century fin de siecle Anglo-Boer War surfaces as his partisans push for a pardon. The war was Australian troops’ fourth overseas military adventure in the service of British Empire (the first was New Zealand’s Maori Wars, and later, in Sudan and during The Chinese Boxer Rebellion – with few engagements and no battle casualties (see Postscript below).
The argument goes like this: Lieutenants Harry Morant, an immigrant to Australia from Devon, England, and Peter Handcock, Australian born, were tried by a military court and executed unjustly as scapegoats of the British Empire. Some partisans are more nuanced. Celebrated lawyer and human rights advocate Geoffrey Robertson questions whether there was due legal process and not whether the two were guilty as charged.
The general consensus here in Australia, however, is that the two men received a fair trial (by martial law standards, that is ) and got what they deserved. It’s a similar “hero or villain” debate to that which has persisted for a century about our most famous bad guy, bush ranger Ned Kelly. The consensus here too is that Ned received his just deserts for the shooting of the policemen at Stringybark Creek. As Ned said just before dropped through the trapdoor at Melbourne Gaol, “such is life”.
But back to “the Breaker”, Harry Morant, and the subject of the latest book from Australian author Peter FitzSimons, Breaker Morant. Morant earned his sobriquet for his superb horsemanship. Most folk know him only from Bruce Beresford’s excellent 1981 film, Breaker Morant and particularly, his famous last words: “Shoot straight, you Bastards! And don’t make a mess of it!”
Fitz is a “popular historian” and a fine storyteller – and Bob Dylan tragic (I once asked him to write a book about the Bobster, but he hedged with his answer). He has written prolifically on subjects as diverse as Captain Cook, the gruesome Batavia mutiny, and Ned Kelly, and particularly Australian military history, including books about Gallipoli, Pozières, Tobruk and Kokoda. He is an ardent republican, and that comes through strongly in his writing. He is excellent at drawing characters out of history and describing events in detail. I enjoy his tales very much, but I do not like his style – he writes in the vernacular, which is not a bad thing, but embroiders the story much to much, putting words into his historical characters’ mouths and retelling the event, be it a battle or a horse race, as if they were a contemporary action novel.
His Breaker Morant is true to form. Fitz bulls up his voluminous text with extraneous aphorisms and superfluous intrusions “of shreds and patches, of ballads, songs and snatches” (I can be as guilty as he) as if they were intrinsic to the narrative. And his sub-paragraph headings, employing puns and tabloid catchphrases seems to me as contrived and, well, naff.
He has little affection for his subject. “… that ragged, red faced charmer, the ever garrulous Breaker Morant” is introduced to us in the Australian bush as a Pommie, a compulsive liar and cheat, con-artist and impostor, faker and fantasist, one step ahead of creditors and the law. But man, he ride and shoot! There is no colt he cannot tame nor race or polo game he cannot win. And he can drink any man under the table.
Morant is a story teller non parièl – mostly about himself and his much embroidered exploits. He is able to impress and ingratiate himself upon people of all genders, classes and occupations, not the least, our celebrated poet lorikeet Henry “Banjo” Paterson. They bond over a shared accuity for penning bush ballads – and by the standards of that genre, The Breaker holds his own among Australian poets:
There was buckjumping blood in the brown gelding’s veins, But, lean-headed, with iron-like pins, Of Pyrrhus and Panic he’d plentiful strains, All their virtues, and some of their sins. ‘Twas the pity, some said, that so shapely a colt Fate should with such temper endow; He would kick and would strike, he would buck and would bolt Ah! – who’s riding brown Harlequin now?
From starlight to starlight – all day in between The foam-flakes might fly from his bit, But whatever the pace of the day’s work had been, The brown gelding was eager and fit. On the packhorse’s back they are fixing a load Where the path climbs the hill’s gloomy brow; They are mustering bullocks to send on the road, But – who’s riding old Harlequin now?
Style aside, Fitz’s take on the Boer War is well researched, and his narrative is gripping and colourful in descriptions and language, and also characters. His is a cast of hundreds, including entertaining walk-on roles for the likes of young Winston Churchill, Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle, and The Banjo, all of whom served as newspaper correspondents at one time or another during the conflict, and also, the celebrated Daisy Bates, remembered still for her work in remote indigenous communities, who was married to Harry for a short while up Queensland way until she tired of his drinking and gambling.
A dirty little war
The Anglo Boer War (October 1899 to May 1002), second of its name, was a dirty little war, fought for gold and diamonds and sold to the public throughout the empire as a “just war” to defend the interests of the non-Boer Uitlanders (‘outlanders’, who were predominantly British residents of the legitimate Boer republics) and to uphold Imperial honour (the Boers attacked first – a preemptive strike like Israel in 1967). Some sixty thousand Boers and their African auxiliaries (bribed or conscripted) faced off against six hundred thousand British and colonial soldiers, and again, African auxiliaries.
Most of the Imperial forces were British, including militias from Cape Colony and Natal, but Australians, Kiwis, Canadians, and Rhodesians served as eager volunteers in defense of the “home country”, and Indian soldiers were “volunteered” by the Raj, whilst indigenous people served as auxiliaries, and also as porters and servants who were often in the firing line. Mahatma Gandhi served as a stretcher bearer, again, in the line of fire, and established an “ambulance” service for the British army.
Boer (meaning “farmer”) is the common name for Afrikaans-speaking white South Africans descended from the Dutch East India Company’s’s original settlers at the Cape of Good Hope who adhered to the fundamentalist strictures of the Dutch Reformed Church.The Boer forces were citizen soldiers, but small numbers of Irish, Scots and English also served in the Boer commandos, and even some Americans and Frenchmen. Most were often long time settlers who fought to defend their farms and families and also, their country, and others were soldiers of fortune attracted by the Boers’ defense of their liberty.
The Imperial forces were commanded by the ageing but highly respected Lord Roberts, but operational command lay with General Kitchener, a man who was not averse to stringent measures and also to sacrificing his own men if it served his tactical or strategic purpose. Whilst he decreed that once a combatant had laid down his arms he was to be taken prisoner, his directive was sometimes ignored, as the tale of The Breaker illustrated. In the conquest of the Sudan, Kitchener sanctioned cold-blooded murder of tens of thousands of captured and wounded mahdists in revenge for the death of General Gordon.
In his excellent Empire, economic historian Niall Ferguson’s has no kind words for Cecil Rhodes, who had an influential part to play in the events that led to the war, and he is quite iconoclastic with regard to imperial icons like Gordon, Kitchener and also, Baden Powell, the “hero of Mafeking” and subsequent founder of the Boy Scout Movement, all of whom he characterizes as eccentric and potential nutcases. He likes Lawrence and Churchill, however, for all their faults, foibles and fables.
Once introduced in the opening chapter, the eponymous Breaker does does not figure prominently in the narrative until the second half of the book – the first half is taken up with the “formal” war – the military campaigns that conclude with the capture of the Boer capitals of Bloemfontein and Pretoria after the conquest and annexation of the independent Boer republics of The Orange Free Sate and Transvaal.
Thence follows the guerrilla war waged by the “bittereinders” that compelled Generals Roberts and Kitchener to resort to extreme measures to subdue the hold-out Boers, including a scorched-earth policy of demolition and confiscation, barbed wire and blockhouses, and herding civilians, including women and children into concentration camps – their African servants and workers were confined in separate camps. Thousands perished of starvation and disease.
Compelled by the inability of regular military Kitchener authorized the establishment of irregular formations to counter the Boer guerrillas with like-tactics – which is where colonial volunteers, like Harry Morant and his comrades, used to living in the saddle and off the land, came into their own. The latter part of the Boer war thus became one of the first instances of modern counterinsurgency operations, setting a president for further colonial wars – for example, the French in Indochina and Algeria, the British in Aden and Cyprus, and the Americans in Vietnam.
When Roberts returns home to retirement and his chief of staff assumes total command, Kitchener is implacable, vengeful and ruthless in his determination to bring in the bittereinders dead or alive, and to collectively punish their womenfolk and children and their African servants and field hands with the destruction of their livelihood and transportation to the camps outside the main towns. Captured combatants receive the punishment often meted out to rebels against the crown – they are transported – to India, Ceylon, Bermuda, and even Portugal and Madagascar – and ironically, St. Helena, the last exile of Napoleon Bonaparte. In their own way, the exiled Boers were the heirs of the Fenians and trade unionists who ended up in Australia where so many of Kitchener’s bushmen originated.
As peace talks were initiated and ended in stalemate, Kitchener dialed the brutality knob to full. He and his soldiers would refer to Kitchener’s “bag”, the tally of Boers killed or captured – a grim precursor to General William Westmoreland’s fixation with the “body count” during the Vietnam War.
Boers at rest
Boers in action
Dark deeds in a sunny land
Enter the infamous Bushveldt Carbineers. The recruiters were by now literally scraping the barrel; as FitzSimons puts it, “a motley crew, a mix of the old and the bold, the young and the desperate, and those with no better options than joining an outfit destined to be operating in such dangerous realms. No fewer than a third of the new recruits have no military experience whatsoever, and some have never even ridden a horse”. “Rangers, rogues and renegades” and “the rough and the rowdy, the wild and the woolly, and sometimes the demonic and dangerously”, and whilst in the field, as often as not, drunk – both officers and men. And among them, down on his luck in England and almost destitute and desperate, Harry Morant.
In control though not in command is Captain Alfred Taylor, Intelligence Officer and District and Native Commissioner, known to the natives as “Bulala”, killer. A psychopath is on the loose, appointed and sanctioned by Kitchener himself, and he finds willing henchmen in recently promoted and opportunist Lieutenants Morant and Handcock.
Half way through the 500 page book, FitzSimons changes pace. What had up to now been a largely historical narrative interspersed with colourful and entertaining vignettes, becomes a tale of dark deeds in a sunny land.
As Fitz tells it, encouraged by the sinister Taylor, who believes the only good Boer is a dead one, an increasingly delusional and unhinged Morant and the psychotic Handcock embark on a murder spree. As Moran would admit to the court, “we got them and we shot them under Rule 303”, referencing the Lee Enfield, the standard-issue British Army rifle.
Based on transcripts of their subsequent trial and letters and memoirs of fellow carbineers, Fitz reconstructs the events that conclude with Morant’s downfall and death. Reluctant members of firing squads and outright refuseniks put together a dossier and petition detailing the cold-blooded murder of surrendered Boers, children, an unfortunate priest, and also, a carbineer who’d threatened to blow the whistle.
Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant and third from left with the 2nd South Australian Mounted Rifles during the Boer War, circa 1900. .
The book becomes a page-turner as the petition is dispatched up the chain of command, the prospects of a cover-up being high. But no. There are indeed men of integrity in higher command who will see justice done – not the least because they wish to see the dangerous Taylor removed. The more pragmatic view the alleged crimes as impediments to bringing the Boer leaders to the negotiating table.
But the outcome is far from certain. As court martial proceedings conclude and sentences are handed down, including an acquittal for the nefarious Taylor, and a recommendation for clemency by the court after it sentences Moran and Handcock to death for multiple murders – they were in a war zone and under serve strain and provocation after all – Kitchener refused. How could he enter the peace talks that would soon come if the killers were let off the hook?
He dies almost two years to the date of his landing in South Africa with the second Contingent
The war winds down
By war’s end, Britain’s claims to moral supremacy, already questioned by its waging a war of aggression against two small states, was irreparably damaged. Public opinion which had in the beginning embraced jingoism and righteous anger, once informed of the true nature of the war by returning journalists and also soldiers’ letters, and fired up by clergymen and humanitarians, began to question the purpose and the morality of the war. In Australia, the new narrative was championed by none other than Banjo who had early on developed an admiration for the Boer fighters, likening them to the resilient and resourceful folk of the Australian bush.
Many consider the Boer War as marking the beginning of the questioning of the British Empire’s level of power and prosperity; this is due to the war’s surprisingly long duration and the unforeseen, discouraging losses suffered by the British fighting the Boer citizen soldiers; and repugnance with regard to the ruthless treatment of non-combatants. Many parts of occupied Boer republics with their burned farmsteads and plundered lands resembled more a desert than a once prosperous agrarian economy.
Not that the Boers were exemplars of moral rectitude by our enlightened twenty-first Century standards. Their’s was a conservative and indeed fundamentalist society that regarded the indigenous people as inferior and destined to serve their needs. The British regarded the Boers attitude towards the kaffirs as unacceptable – and yet they too regarded the indigenous Africans as their inferiors – but their’s was a righteous though none the less prejudiced and patronizing “white man’s burden” mentality that characterized Victorian Britons’ view of Empire.
By the end of 1901, the British are physically and morally exhausted. Attrition has turned to atrophy. Kitchener craved an end to the conflict. “I wish I could find some way of finishing this war”, he writes to the Secretary of State for War. Especially now that it is is believed that ordered the execution of Boer prisoners “found in khaki” – wearing items of British uniform.
And so it comes to pass that two months after Morant and Handcock are laid in their un-shared un-hallowed grave, the Boer leadership, wanted to end the devastation and human misery, and the British unable to go forward of back, agree to terms, including ceding Boer sovereignty to Britain, an amnesty for all combatants, the return of the far-flung transportees, and the emptying of the camps.
At the end of the day, after twenty months of conflict, some twenty two thousand British forces soldiers perished, whilst five thousand were sick and wounded. Six thousand Boers were killed and twenty four thousand captured whilst twenty one thousand bittereinders surrendered. There were over forty six thousand civilian fatalities, and of 115,000 people incarcerated in concentration camps, twenty seven thousand women and children died, and twenty thousand Africans. Thirty thousand Boer homesteads had been destroyed and tens of thousand of those of Africans, and forty towns had been razed.
By 1910, the Dominion on South Africa had been established with English and Afrikaans as its co-equal languages. The next stage of South Africa’s eventful history had begun.
Butchered To Make A Dutchman’s Holiday
-In prison cell I sadly sit, A d__d crest-fallen chappie! And own to you I feel a bit- A little bit – unhappy! It really ain’t the place nor time To reel off rhyming diction – But yet we’ll write a final rhyme Whilst waiting cru-ci-fixion! No matter what ‘end’ they decide – Quick-lime or ‘b’iling ile,’ sir? We’ll do our best when crucified To finish off in style, sir! But we bequeath a parting tip For sound advice of such men, Who come across in transport ship To polish off the Dutchmen! If you encounter any Boers You really must not loot ’em! And if you wish to leave these shores, For pity’s sake, DON’T SHOOT ‘EM!! And if you’d earn a D.S.O., Why every British sinner Should know the proper way to go Is: ‘ASK THE BOER TO DINNER!’ Let’s toss a bumper down our throat, – Before we pass to Heaven, And toast: ‘The trim-set petticoat We leave behind in Devon.’ At its end the manuscript is described – The Last Rhyme and Testament of Tony Lumpkin
Postscript – Australia’s 19th century wars
Between 1845 and 1872 just over 2,500 Australian volunteers saw service in New Zealand during the wars between the Maori and Pakeha (white colonists) over the ownership of Maori lands. Though Australian born, troops all served in British regiments. The majority of these volunteers came from the colonies of New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania.
In the early 1880s the British-backed Egyptian regime in the Sudan came under threat from local supporters of Muhammed Ahmed, also known as the Mahdi. In 1883 the Egyptian government was sent south to crush the revolt but instead of destroying the Mahdi’s forces, the Egyptians were soundly defeated. On March 29, 1885 a New South Wales contingent, an infantry battalion and an artillery battery, totalling 758 men. arrived in Sudan, It spent three months there with no major engagements or battle casualties. there were three wounded soldiers and seven deaths from fever or dysentery.
In 1900, a contingent of mainly naval reservists was sent to China to restore order after the Boxer Rebellion. It didn’t take part in fighting and there were no battle casualties. The few fatalities were from disease. The first Australian contingents, mostly naval reservists from New South Wales and Victoria, sailed in August 1900. Australian personnel sent to northern China were not engaged in combat. Six Australian’s died of sickness and injury and none were killed as a result of enemy action.
Many Australians past and present view Harry Morant as harshly dealt with, a folkloric antihero sacrificed on the alter of empire, as the following article by Fitz himself explains. But first, a word from an Australian country music icon.
They still sanctify the monster Breaker Morant – and insult the true heroes
Peter FitzSimons, Sydney Morning Herald, September 14, 2021
Edward Woodward as Breaker Morant
For the legend is a beauty: Breaker Morant was a Man From Snowy River in Australian uniform: a brilliant horseman, soldier and bush poet who was cruelly put up against the wall by those Pommy bastards, merely for following their orders.
But, based on the book I wrote on Morant, with the help of strong researchers who were able to dig fine detail, let’s contest the Morant legend and look at just one episode of his war career, this one while commanding the roving unit, the Bushveldt Carbineers, in the latter part of the Boer War. The first thing to note is that rather than being Australian, Morant was English and had joined the war effort from Australia after being here for a couple of decades – while the Bushveldt Carbineers was a wholly British unit.
Morant takes immediate action, using a procedure he has previously developed to get through such matters most efficiently. He tells his men that when they get to the clearing up ahead, they must wait till he says “Lay down your arms”, and as soon as they relax, shoot ’em. Arriving at the clearing, Morant barks: “Dismount.” His men do so, and quickly bring up their rifles. The Boers look at them, horrified. “Lay down your arms!” Morant commands.
As planned, the father and his sons relax just a little . . . only for the Troopers to shoot them dead.
How do we know Morant committed these and other atrocities in which a dozen non-combatants were gunned down? There are many reasons, but they include 14 brave Australian soldiers and a Kiwi soldier risking their lives – for the first two soldiers in the Bushveldt Carbineers to publicly dissent had finished with a bullet in their heads – writing a letter to their commanding colonel, asking for Morant to be court-martialled. He was, during which Morant famously boasted of the atrocity of lining up eight unarmed Boer prisoners and shooting them by the side of a road. “We got them, and we shot them, under Rule .303!”
Of course, Morant was a practised hand at shooting prisoners by this time, having ordered a firing squad to execute a lone, injured prisoner, Floris Visser, to the disgust of men and officers alike. At least Visser was given the farce of a “drum head” court-martial, a kangaroo court improvised by Morant to justify murder as revenge for his friend Captain Percy Hunt.
Quoted in the Advertiser on Saturday, the Melbourne lawyer James Unkles said: “Injustices in times of war are inexcusable and it takes vigilance to right wrongs, to honour those unfairly treated and to demonstrate respect for the rule of law. How we respond to this case remains a test of our values and is vitally important.”
Was he speaking in sympathy with the dead Boers? He was not. He was pushing the case for Morant’s posthumous pardon, and for his name to be added to the Boer War Memorial in Adelaide, just as he was a prime agitator behind the Australian Parliament in 2009 voting in favour of petitions being presented to Queen Elizabeth II to review and posthumously overturn Morant’s convictions. Three years later, on the 110th anniversary of the execution of Morant and co-accused Peter Handcock, the Liberal member for Mitchell, Alex Hawke, rose in the House to make a claim for Morant and company’s pardon.
“It is timely for the Australian government to do everything it can to assist the modern-day descendants of these men to access a judicial review of this case. It is the case that the executions were conducted with extreme haste and without appeal.”
(A point of order, Mr Speaker, if I may. An appeal is something they had in civilian courts, but did not exist with courts-martial.)
”I think it is important,” Alex Hawke continued, “that we seek British government’s assistance in releasing all of the available records in relation to this case so that the modern -day descendants can know what happened and rightly, if necessary, receive a judicial review and pardon. It is an episode that appeals greatly to every Australian because of the doctrine of fairness which says that no-one should be treated differently because of their birth, rank or status. We do know that these men were treated differently because of their birth, rank and status. We certainly need legends in Australian history.”
We do. And we have plenty of bona fide ones, without the need to gloss over the record of a war criminal. But still it goes on!
In February 2018, the Australian Parliament passed a motion expressing “Sincere regret that Lieutenants Morant, [et al] were denied procedural fairness contrary to law and acknowledges that this had cruel and unjust consequences; and . . . sympathy to the descendants of these men as they were not tried and sentenced in accordance with the law of 1902.”
Any mention of sympathy and sincere regrets for the defenceless Boers, including children, that Morant had gunned down? None at all. Justice for them? No mention. Just an obsessive focus on aspects of the court-martial where t’s weren’t crossed and i’s weren’t dotted. And equal insistence, despite a lack of any evidence at all, that Morant did what he did under British orders.
Some historical legends, like that of Morant, are so seductive they live on because people want to believe them. And it’s so powerful you even have serious people pushing the tragic absurdity of an Australian Parliament petitioning the Queen and the British Parliament to posthumously pardon an Englishman fighting for a British unit who committed the worst war atrocities of the Boer War!
But how much more inspirational is the truth? Morant was not the Man From Snowy River put up against the wall by those Pommy bastards. He was a vicious Pommy bastard put up against the wall by the men from Snowy River and others who risked their lives to bring him to justice to stop the atrocities.
There are heroes in this story. They are those troopers who risked their lives to turn Morant in. Imagine their thoughts at his name being next to theirs on the Adelaide Boer War Memorial.
There are victims. They are unarmed Boers ruthlessly gunned down on Morant’s orders.
How monstrously unjust to both heroes and victims to simply go with the legend, unexamined, uncontested.
Of course history must be always examined, contested, reviewed, told from diverse sides. Anything less is indoctrination.
I once wrote that the twenty year war in Afghanistan was like the Hotel California: you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. Recent events have shown otherwise – or have they, really? I am recalling those lines from David Byrne’s dystopian song, Once in a Lifetime: “same as it ever was, same as it ever was”. But perhaps Burning Down the House is more apt.
Desperate people scramble to escape, over the borders and over the airport walls. Afghans from all walks of life, including officials, soldiers, and policemen, former employees of the allies, women, and human rights advocates, fear the worst, as do ethnic and religious minorities who suffered horrific abuses at the hands of Taliban 1.0. Governments, NGOs and concerned folk all over the world wring their hands in vicarious anxiety, and for some, in shame. Europe. meanwhile, braces for another flood of refugees as displaced Afghans seek sanctuary
The US president declares that the America gave most of it’s all to save Afghanistan whilst the blame game as to “who lost Afghanistan?” commences, just as it did decades ago when the US ‘lost China” and then, Vietnam. The Chief Security Adviser says there’s no way of knowing how much American military hardware has been gifted to the Taliban, but it looks like a veritable bonanza.
America’s allies ponder the reliability of its erstwhile protector, fearing that the giant might have feet of clay – in choosing to give up on Afghanistan in order to confront China, Biden might actually have undercut America’s position everywhere. China and Russia, always happy to see America squirm, but always anxious about instability in neighbouring countries, eye up economic and strategic opportunities. And extremists all over the world, of all colours and creeds, are emboldened as yet another apparently rag tag militia humbles the world’s mightiest military power.
As Afghanistan slides into insolvency and famine, necessitating enormous amounts of aid, the question facing foreign governments is whether or not to recognize the new regime and to release the funds so urgently required. The appetite for isolating Afghanistan on human rights ground is diimishing. Pretty much all of Afghanistan’s neighbors are also guilty of the principal human rights violations that the Taliban are accused of. Minority rights have long been violated with impunity Pakistan and much of the Arab world, and most of Central Asia has been a showcase for ethnic nationalist authoritarianism for decades.
On the ground, and away from the besieged air[port, with the Taliban now well equipped and in control of the main towns and cities, many of the old politicians and warlords have chosen to work with them in the hopes of creating an inclusive transitional government. Former presidential aspirant and reconciliation council leader Abdullah Abdullah, disingenuous former president Hamid Karzai, and that vicious and powerful old warlord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, have formed a council that seeks a political settlement with the Taliban, rather than join any nascent budding insurgency.
The old Afghanistan, divided along tribal, ethnic and religious lines, and governed by deals, compromises and the divvying up of the spoils may even reassert itself. All that is old might be new again!
Meanwhile our mainstream and non-mainstream media is awash with coverage and commentary , including contributions from a good number of Afghanistan/Iraq hawks – the ones who brought us those twin disasters in the first place _ who have been called on by major media organizations to offer their sage assessment of the current situation. Whether it’s retired generals who now earn money in the weapons industry, former officials from the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations who in many cases are directly responsible for the mistakes of the past two decades, or war enthusiast pundits with an unblemished record of wrongness, we’re now hearing from the same people who two decades ago told us how great these wars would be, then spent years telling us victory was right around the corner, and are now explaining how somebody else is to blame for Afghanistan.
As a counterbalance to all this, In that Howling Infinite republishes below two excellent pieces by commentators of repute.
Sarah Cheyes, a journalist and political adviser with long experience in Afghanistan, identifies four elements contributing to the failure of America’s Afghan Project: corruption at the highest levels of government which the US chose to ignore – it also ignored the many billions of dollars ended up in the bank accounts of American arms manufacturers and contractors (a recent government report found that between 2011 and 2019, the US spent nearly $100 billion on private contractors); the role played by Pakistan’s intelligence organization, the ISI, in creating and nurturing the Taliban – and the allies refusal to call out Pakistan encouraged its impunity; the dubious maneuverings of former America’s onetime-favourite and former president Hamid Karzai, who appears to have a foot in both camps ; and America’s self-delusions about these and other matters.
Commentator and counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen is always worth reading – and below is his latest piece for The Australian. Whilst Cheyes looks back to determine how it all came to this., Kilcullen ponders where it will it will go. But first, he denounces the blame-shifters and buck-passers: “Those pinning the entire blame for the collapse on the Afghan military should hang their heads in shame. The Afghans have been fighting desperately to survive, losing thousands killed every month, ever since President Joe Biden’s withdrawal announcement in April kicked off the final campaign. They have been carrying the main combat burden of the war since late 2014, losing close to 70,000 casualties in that time against a few dozen on the coalition’s part”.
None of the elements identified by Cheyes and Kilcullen is new news. Old Afghanistan’s hands like Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn, and many others have been saying this for decades. The big question, which I am sure will be answered soon is whether Taliban 2.0 will be an improvement on Taliban 1.0 vis a vis women, human rights and even modernity.
But Kilcullen does not see the war as a misbegotten and forlorn hope. Far from it:
“Some will say the war was unwinnable, that it could never have succeeded. But deep down we all know that is not true. We were sustaining the effort with minimal expenditure and zero casualties, and could have continued it forever had we chosen to do so. We did not. The war was winnable, but we did not win it. Rather, we screwed it up and we have been defeated”.
That much is true. And with an America smarting from humiliation and a China swaggering with hubris. What could possibly go wrong now?
An old friend, Charles Tyler, wrote to me apropos this post:
“The last couple of weeks have certainly seen major shifts of power, but things are so very far from being settled, and probably never will be. Indeed. events as they unfold will defy all predictions, as they always do, and the commentary, informed and shallow, will continue as always. And all will need revision in the light of what actually transpires.
As several commentators have noted the US is now likely to become closer in military and strategic cooperation to India, while China and Russia will become closer to Pakistan and Afghanistan, with all the risks these shifts entail for every country involved. But in this three-dimensional chess game the field of military and strategic action is just one layer. The layers of religion, tribalism, ethnicity, nationalism and plain human emotion – not to speak of even broader considerations like climate and demographic change and economic development – overlay and play into every other field, and can only be controlled or manipulated or predicted so far. So the consequences of moving any particular chess piece are unknowable”.
I’ve been silent for a while. I’ve been silent about Afghanistan for longer. But too many things are going unsaid.
I won’t try to evoke the emotions, somehow both swirling and yet leaden: the grief, the anger, the sense of futility. Instead, as so often before, I will use my mind to shield my heart. And in the process, perhaps help you make some sense of what has happened.
For those of you who don’t know me, here is my background — the perspective from which I write tonight.
I covered the fall of the Taliban for NPR, making my way into their former capital, Kandahar, in December 2001, a few days after the collapse of their regime. Descending the last great hill into the desert city, I saw a dusty ghost town. Pickup trucks with rocket-launchers strapped to the struts patrolled the streets. People pulled on my militia friends’ sleeves, telling them where to find a Taliban weapons cache, or a last hold-out. But most remained indoors.
It was Ramadan. A few days later, at the holiday ending the month-long fast, the pent-up joy erupted. Kites took to the air. Horsemen on gorgeous, caparisoned chargers tore across a dusty common in sprint after sprint, with a festive audience cheering them on. This was Kandahar, the Taliban heartland. There was no panicked rush for the airport.
I reported for a month or so, then passed off to Steve Inskeep, now Morning Edition host. Within another couple of months, I was back, not as a reporter this time, but to try actually to do something. I stayed for a decade. I ran two non-profits in Kandahar, living in an ordinary house and speaking Pashtu, and eventually went to work for two commanders of the international troops, and then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (You can read about that time, and its lessons, in my first two books, The Punishment of Virtue and Thieves of State.)
From that standpoint — speaking as an American, as an adoptive Kandahari, and as a former senior U.S. government official — here are the key factors I see in today’s climax of a two-decade long fiasco:
Afghan government corruption, and the U.S. role enabling and reinforcing it. The last speaker of the Afghan parliament, Rahman Rahmani, I recently learned, is a multimillionaire, thanks to monopoly contracts to provide fuel and security to U.S. forces at their main base, Bagram. Is this the type of government people are likely to risk their lives to defend?
Two decades ago, young people in Kandahar were telling me how the proxy militias American forces had armed and provided with U.S. fatigues were shaking them down at checkpoints. By 2007, delegations of elders would visit me — the only American whose door was open and who spoke Pashtu so there would be no intermediaries to distort or report their words. Over candied almonds and glasses of green tea, they would get to some version of this: “The Taliban hit us on this cheek, and the government hits us on that cheek.” The old man serving as the group’s spokesman would physically smack himself in the face.
I and too many other people to count spent years of our lives trying to convince U.S. decision-makers that Afghans could not be expected to take risks on behalf of a government that was as hostile to their interests as the Taliban were. Note: it took me a while, and plenty of my own mistakes, to come to that realization. But I did.
For two decades, American leadership on the ground and in Washington proved unable to take in this simple message. I finally stopped trying to get it across when, in 2011, an interagency process reached the decision that the U.S. would not address corruption in Afghanistan. It was now explicit policy to ignore one of the two factors that would determine the fate of all our efforts. That’s when I knew today was inevitable.
Americans like to think of ourselves as having valiantly tried to bring democracy to Afghanistan. Afghans, so the narrative goes, just weren’t ready for it, or didn’t care enough about democracy to bother defending it. Or we’ll repeat the cliche that Afghans have always rejected foreign intervention; we’re just the latest in a long line.
I was there. Afghans did not reject us. They looked to us as exemplars of democracy and the rule of law. They thought that’s what we stood for.
And what did we stand for? What flourished on our watch? Cronyism, rampant corruption, a Ponzi scheme disguised as a banking system, designed by U.S. finance specialists during the very years that other U.S. finance specialists were incubating the crash of 2008. A government system where billionaires get to write the rules.
Is that American democracy?
Pakistan. The involvement of that country’s government — in particular its top military brass — in its neighbor’s affairs is the second factor that would determine the fate of the U.S. mission.
You may have heard that the Taliban first emerged in the early 1990s, in Kandahar. That is incorrect. I conducted dozens of conversations and interviews over the course of years, both with actors in the drama and ordinary people who watched events unfold in Kandahar and in Quetta, Pakistan. All of them said the Taliban first emerged in Pakistan.
The Taliban were a strategic project of the Pakistani military intelligence agency, the ISI. It even conducted market surveys in the villages around Kandahar, to test the label and the messaging. “Taliban” worked well. The image evoked was of the young students who apprenticed themselves to village religious leaders. They were known as sober, studious, and gentle. These Taliban, according to the ISI messaging, had no interest in government. They just wanted to get the militiamen who infested the city to stop extorting people at every turn in the road.
Both label and message were lies.
Within a few years, Usama bin Laden found his home with the Taliban, in their de facto capital, Kandahar, hardly an hour’s drive from Quetta. Then he organized the 9/11 attacks. Then he fled to Pakistan, where we finally found him, living in a safe house in Abbottabad, practically on the grounds of the Pakistani military academy. Even knowing what I knew, I was shocked. I never expected the ISI to be that brazen.
Meanwhile, ever since 2002, the ISI had been re-configuring the Taliban: helping it regroup, training and equipping units, developing military strategy, saving key operatives when U.S. personnel identified and targeted them. That’s why the Pakistani government got no advance warning of the Bin Laden raid. U.S. officials feared the ISI would warn him.
By 2011, my boss, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Taliban were a “virtual arm of the ISI.”
And now this.
Do we really suppose the Taliban, a rag-tag, disjointed militia hiding out in the hills, as we’ve so long been told, was able to execute such a sophisticated campaign plan with no international backing? Where do we suppose that campaign plan came from? Who gave the orders? Where did all those men, all that materiel, the endless supply of money to buy off local Afghan army and police commanders, come from? How is it that new officials were appointed in Kandahar within a day of the city’s fall? The new governor, mayor, director of education, and chief of police all speak with a Kandahari accent. But no one I know has ever heard of them. I speak with a Kandahari accent, too. Quetta is full of Pashtuns — the main ethic group in Afghanistan — and people of Afghan descent and their children. Who are these new officials?
Over those same years, by the way, the Pakistani military also provided nuclear technology to Iran and North Korea. But for two decades, while all this was going on, the United States insisted on considering Pakistan an ally. We still do.
Hamid Karzai. During my conversations in the early 2000s about the Pakistani government’s role in the Taliban’s initial rise, I learned this breathtaking fact: Hamid Karzai, the U.S. choice to pilot Afghanistan after we ousted their regime, was in fact the go-between who negotiated those very Taliban’s initial entry into Afghanistan in 1994.
I spent months probing the stories. I spoke to servants in the Karzai household. I spoke to a former Mujahideen commander, Mullah Naqib, who admitted to being persuaded by the label and the message Karzai was peddling. The old commander also admitted he was at his wits’ end at the misbehavior of his own men. I spoke with his chief lieutenant, who disagreed with his tribal elder and commander, and took his own men off to neighboring Helmand Province to keep fighting. I heard that Karzai’s own father broke with him over his support for this ISI project. Members of Karzai’s household and Quetta neighbors told me about Karzai’s frequent meetings with armed Taliban at his house there, in the months leading up to their seizure of power.
And lo. Karzai abruptly emerges from this vortex, at the head of a “coordinating committee” that will negotiate the Taliban’s return to power? Again?
It was like a repeat of that morning of May, 2011, when I first glimpsed the pictures of the safe-house where Usama bin Laden had been sheltered. Once again — even knowing everything I knew — I was shocked. I was shocked for about four seconds. Then everything seemed clear.
It is my belief that Karzai may have been a key go-between negotiating this surrender, just as he did in 1994, this time enlisting other discredited figures from Afghanistan’s past, as they were useful to him. Former co-head of the Afghan government, Abdullah Abdullah, could speak to his old battle-buddies, the Mujahideen commanders of the north and west. You may have heard some of their names as they surrendered their cities in recent days: Ismail Khan, Dostum, Atta Muhammad Noor. The other person mentioned together with Karzai is Gulbuddin Hikmatyar — a bona fide Taliban commander, who could take the lead in some conversations with them and with the ISI.
As Americans have witnessed in our own context — the #MeToo movement, for example, the uprising after the murder of George Floyd, or the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol — surprisingly abrupt events are often months or years in the quiet making. The abrupt collapse of 20 years’ effort in Afghanistan is, in my view, one of those cases.
Thinking this hypothesis through, I find myself wondering: what role did U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad play? And old friend of Karzai’s, he was the one who ran the negotiations with the Taliban for the Trump Administration, in which the Afghan government was forced to make concession after concession. Could President Biden truly have found no one else for that job, to replace an Afghan-American with obvious conflicts of interest, who was close to former Vice President Dick Cheney and who lobbied in favor of an oil pipeline through Afghanistan when the Taliban were last in power?
Self-Delusion. How many times did you read stories about the Afghan security forces’ steady progress? How often, over the past two decades, did you hear some U.S. official proclaim that the Taliban’s eye-catching attacks in urban settings were signs of their “desperation” and their “inability to control territory?” How many heart-warming accounts did you hear about all the good we were doing, especially for women and girls?
Who were we deluding? Ourselves?
What else are we deluding ourselves about?
One final point. I hold U.S. civilian leadership, across four administrations, largely responsible for today’s outcome. Military commanders certainly participated in the self-delusion. I can and did find fault with generals I worked for or observed. But the U.S. military is subject to civilian control. And the two primary problems identified above — corruption and Pakistan — are civilian issues. They are not problems men and women in uniform can solve. But faced with calls to do so, no top civilian decision-maker was willing to take either of these problems on. The political risk, for them, was too high.
Today, as many of those officials enjoy their retirement, who is suffering the cost?
My warm thanks to all of you who have left comments, for taking the time to write, and for the vibrancy of your concern.A number of you have asked some excellent questions. Please have the kindness to stand by. I will try to provide what answers I can when I can.
Taliban fighters sit over a vehicle on a street in Laghman province on August 15. Picture. AFP
Afghanistan is collapsing in real time. Two decades of effort down the gurgler, trillions of dollars and many thousands of lives lost, and a new bloodbath beginning inside Afghanistan. US credibility – like that of every American ally, including Australia – is on the line.
Approaching the 20th anniversary of 9/11, we are back to square one. What happened? Describing the full debacle would take more space than I have, but let me try to answer some obvious questions: Why did we fail to foresee the fall of Kabul? What is happening on the ground and what does it mean? What will others do now, and what should we do next?
I promised a mea culpa, and here it is: I was dead wrong about the fall of Kabul. I am on record just weeks ago saying “it would be a stretch to imagine the Taliban capturing Kabul anytime soon”.
Of course virtually every other analyst got it wrong, too, but I can speak only to my own thought process. Thinking it over, examining my conscience, I realise my lack of imagination rested on a critical but flawed assumption.
I simply could not credit the possibility that the US government and the entire international community would just abandon Kabul overnight without a fight, leaving their own evacuation plan in disarray and surrendering both the Afghans and many thousands of their own citizens to the mercy of the Taliban. I took it as given that the US, UN and global institutions (all of which repeatedly promised ongoing support to Afghanistan) meant what they said. I mistakenly believed our major ally possessed a modicum of moral fibre and basic competence, and would muster the will to fight rather than see decades of effort down the drain.
I was wrong, and I apologise.
In the end Kabul fell as described in my last piece and the world’s response was to do – nothing. Not one airstrike; not a single attempt to blunt the Taliban offensive (even as guerrillas gathered in the open on Kabul’s approaches, presenting the juiciest target since 2001); not even a harsh tweet. Instead we saw excuse-making, blame-shifting and victim-shaming of the most nauseating kind from many (not all) American military and political leaders, and hand-wringing impotence from the UN.
A baby handed to the US army on the perimeter wall of Kabul airport, Aug 19. Omar Haiudari
Those pinning the entire blame for the collapse on the Afghan military should hang their heads in shame. The Afghans have been fighting desperately to survive, losing thousands killed every month, ever since President Joe Biden’s withdrawal announcement in April kicked off the final campaign. They have been carrying the main combat burden of the war since late 2014, losing close to 70,000 casualties in that time against a few dozen on the coalition’s part.
The Afghan forces – which the coalition built to our own specifications – were like a stack of Jenga blocks in which certain critical pieces, by design, could be provided only by the US. Principal among these were air support, intelligence, logistics and maintenance. Suddenly in early May, with no warning, we whipped away these pieces, having promised Afghans for a decade that this was exactly what we would never do.
Of course the Afghan army collapsed – it was designed by us to function only with the parts we provided. To quote British explorer and author Rory Stewart, blaming Afghans now is like removing the wheels from your car, then complaining that it can’t drive.
Once the air support, intelligence and logistics were gone, the Afghan forces rapidly began to lose ground in an accelerating collapse of control across the countryside. As each successive district garrison fell, the government grew weaker and more isolated while the Taliban gained weapons, vehicles, defectors and ammunition. More than 200 such garrisons were lost in May and June alone. The loss of assets was bad enough but the blow to morale was deadly – no more so than early last month when US forces bailed out of the vast Bagram air base without even bothering to tell their Afghan partners, who woke up to find the Americans gone.
By early this month, the first provincial capitals began to fall. Within a week multiple provinces were falling each day, and by last Friday Kabul was the only major city in government hands.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, meeting politicians in June, scoffed at the need to evacuate at-risk Afghans who had worked with the coalition, saying: “We are not withdrawing. We are staying. The embassy is staying … If there is a significant deterioration in security, I do not think it is going to be something that happens from a Friday to a Monday.”
He was right: it happened from Friday evening to early Sunday afternoon. That is cold comfort for the 86,000 at-risk Afghans now running a gauntlet of Taliban checkpoints to reach the sole remaining runway at Hamid Karzai airport (soon to be renamed, one would think) in downtown Kabul. That multi-runway air base at Bagram we abandoned last month would be nice to have right now.
Taliban enters the presidential palace in Kabul. AP
Like many other veterans, I have received hundreds of messages and dozens of frantic calls for help during the past few days from Afghan friends now stranded – some being hunted house-to-house by the Taliban. There will be time to be angry about this later. For now, it’s most important to share their perspective as objectively as possible. So, what is happening now across the country, and what does it mean?
In Kabul, a Taliban delegation in the presidential palace is negotiating with Hamid Karzai and other leaders, seeking to form a transitional government. On the streets, Taliban forces are securing government buildings and patrolling in green Afghan police trucks or captured armoured vehicles.
While Taliban leaders have announced that they seek no revenge, they have put the security of Kabul under the control of Anas Haqqani, known for his deadly 2018 attack on the Kabul Serena Hotel and other civilian targets.
Civilians are being disarmed, since according to the Taliban the war is over now so nobody needs a weapon. In fact, special Taliban units have been going house-to-house, “disappearing” former military, intelligence and government officials.
Some have been shot in the street, others tortured to death. Taliban checkpoints are stopping all Afghans, and witnesses say they have pulled special-visa holders from the airport queues and beaten them with chains. Remnants of the Afghan army and intelligence service are hiding from death squads or trying to make their way to the Panjshir Valley, 160km north of Kabul. Some stragglers, and a few formed units, are still fighting outside the city.
In the Panjshir, first vice-president Amrullah Saleh, citing the escape of former president Ashraf Ghani, has declared himself acting president and is rallying opponents of the Taliban to join a government in internal exile. (Ghani has appeared in the United Arab Emirates, living in an expensive hotel and claiming he was forced to flee to avoid lynching.) In the Panjshir a coalition of local militias and army remnants is forming to defend the valley. Their size and capability are still vague.
Afghan people line up outside the Iranian embassy to get a visa in Kabul, on Aug 17. AFP
Access to the valley is easy – for now. One Afghan officer, in plainclothes, made it from Kabul to the Panjshir on Monday carrying a message, then turned around and drove back to Kabul, unmolested by the Taliban. As any soldier knows, just because a district is Taliban-controlled does not mean there is a Talib on every square metre of it. In fact, Taliban forces have flooded into the cities, leaving parts of the countryside relatively open. Those cities will be a handful to control.
Already there have been deadly protests – met by brutal beatings and Taliban shooting of protesters – in several towns, and reports of 1000 trusted fighters from Helmand and Kandahar heading to Kabul to help secure it.
What this means is that, much as the Taliban may like to claim the war is over, it is far from finished. Afghanistan is still at war, and revolutionary regimes that are at war and facing potentially disloyal populations are legendarily lethal. It also means the international community has a choice to make.
This choice will strongly influence what others do now. Pakistan – despite a history of some elements in its intelligence service backing the Taliban – is looking warily at the potential for mass refugee flows or spillover of violence. Central Asian states such as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are stepping up border security. Russia is working with these states, activating a military base in the region, but simultaneously attempting to shape Taliban behaviour by dangling the possibility of recognition, aid and trade if the regime shows moderation. China’s leverage is more economic, with discussions on trade and investment starting as early as Monday when the Taliban held a press conference calling for an international donors’ conference and foreign direct investment.
Taliban fighters Herat, Afghanistan’s third biggest city. AFP
America’s European allies have been stunned and alienated by the speed of the collapse, and offended by Washington’s unilateral withdrawal, on which they were not consulted. French, German and British politicians have all criticised the US this week. The UN Security Council has strongly condemned the violence, calling for respect for women and human rights (presumably such harshly worded statements were what the UN meant when it promised “ongoing support”).
What, then, should we do next? Initially, the answer is crystal clear: save as many Afghans as can be saved. The evacuation is the critical activity of the moment and the only way to salvage some self-respect from this debacle. After a horrifically chaotic start, the airport is finally under control, though the Taliban maintains an outer cordon preventing civilians getting through. This is creating a massive logjam, with crowds surging around the airport perimeter and few getting through. Many evacuation aircraft have departed almost empty as a result.
More important, the crowds are a tempting target for terrorists such as Islamic State-Khorasan, the local ISIS group, which hates both the Taliban and Westerners, and deplores Afghans who have worked with foreigners. It is only a matter of time before a suicide bomber or a truck bomb gets in among the crowds and stops the evacuation in its tracks. Clearing the backlog is thus a humanitarian as well as a strategic necessity.
Inside a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III Aug 15, evacuating some 640 Afghans from Kabul. AFP
Allied commanders recognise this, but political constraints – the US government has promised the Taliban its troops will not leave the airport, according to sources in the State Department – have prevented them expanding the perimeter or pushing the Taliban back.
Creating landing sites away from the airport, from which evacuees could be flown by helicopter over the Taliban checkpoints, is another obvious military move that will likely be blocked on political grounds. Beyond the obvious humanitarian imperative, resettling refugees (many of whom initially are being flown to Qatar) will be a huge and protracted task, one for which many countries are stepping up to assist, though few seem prepared to take anywhere near the number of evacuees needed.
Bigger choices loom. Should the International Monetary Fund release Afghanistan’s funds to an interim government that will be dominated by the Taliban? Should the US support Saleh’s government-in-exile in the Panjshir and back his fighters, or accept defeat and deal with the Taliban? Should airstrikes (so conspicuously absent when they could have made a difference) now resume against terrorists and, if so, who on the ground is left to spot and designate targets? Should there be a post-mortem to analyse what went wrong and allocate (or evade) blame, or should we move on?
All this will become increasingly important in coming weeks, but for now the focus needs to be the humanitarian crisis – and potential bloodbath – unfolding on the ground.
Some will say the war was unwinnable, that it could never have succeeded. But deep down we all know that is not true. We were sustaining the effort with minimal expenditure and zero casualties, and could have continued it forever had we chosen to do so. We did not. The war was winnable, but we did not win it. Rather, we screwed it up and we have been defeated.
Last weekend, as the Taliban advanced across Afghanistan, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared Aug. 14, the eve of Indian independence from British rule in 1947, “Partition Horrors Remembrance Day”—a day to remember the violent Partition of British colonial India into the separate countries of India and Pakistan, which produced the largest migration in human history. Millions of people died or lost their homes, livelihoods, and ways of life and suffered rape and other atrocities in harrowing months of sudden displacement as Sir Cyril Radcliffe drew a largely arbitrary border dividing Punjab and Bengal. But Modi’s pronouncement, made with typical blindsiding precipitousness, was also deeply disingenuous.
It is lost on no one that Aug. 14—the day chosen for this gruesome remembrance—is the day Pakistan marks its independence. (Independence came to British India at midnight on Aug. 14, with India marking its independence on the 15th and Pakistan on the 14th.) Modi’s designation of Pakistan’s Independence Day as an anniversary for Indian mourning is calculated to deflect blame and serves to aggravate rather than heal old wounds. It elides the reality that the violence of 1947 was not the work of neighbors in villages and towns turning against one another but of well-armed paramilitary groups bearing the imprint of Western fascism—including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a group that Modi joined as a child and that remains a pillar of support for his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party government.
His call to remember Partition’s horrors appears decidedly cynical against this historical reality. But its coincidence with the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan created an unintended opportunity for more honest reckoning with one often forgotten aspect of this haunting past. 1947 marked not only the creation of a new border between Pakistan and India but also, equally disastrously, the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. As Afghans flee across borders today, remembrance of the dotted line from that past to our present, of the continued reboot of colonial-era partition, is essential for South Asians and for meddlers in Afghanistan, past and present.
Before the Radcliffe Line, there was the Durand Line. The British, having seized territory from Afghanistan during the Second Anglo-Afghan War in 1878-80 and annexed it to British India, dispatched Mortimer Durand to formalize those gains with a treaty in 1893. Afghanistan was not fully sovereign: The British controlled its foreign affairs in a semicolonial arrangement common to British practice in many parts of the world. The treaty was thus coercive (and possibly duplicitous under the cover of faulty translation), as was often the case with colonial-era British treaties. Indeed, the Durand Line was drawn just shortly after European powers had, with similar arbitrariness, etched borders across the map of Africa.
The line divided a large region inhabited by Pashtuns, many of whom Afghanistan had permitted to remain self-governing, with a western half included in an Afghan sphere of influence and an eastern half in the British sphere. The British took direct, formal control of the most eastward districts and informally influenced those abutting the line, like Waziristan, by providing tribes there with subsidies and arms. Since the line was not a physical border but a demarcation of spheres of influence, considerable freedom of movement persisted. But it was disputed by those on whom it was foisted, prompting an uprising in 1897.
After putting down this rebellion (a young Winston Churchill took part), the British reasserted control over disputed parts of the demarcated area and worked to stop the flow of arms into the region. In 1901, they incorporated the directly controlled eastward districts into the North-West Frontier province of British India. That year, a new emir came to power in Afghanistan and again questioned the British partition of the region, prompting the British to attempt to renegotiate arrangements in 1905. Still the line remained disputed. That year, the British also partitioned Bengal on India’s eastern frontier along religious lines with a view to undermining intensifying anti-colonial sentiment there. (By 1911, anti-colonial pushback forced the undoing of that partition—though Radcliffe would partition the region again in 1947.)
During World War I, Indian and Afghan affairs remained entangled, with anti-colonial activists establishing an independent Provisional Government of India in Kabul, plotting with the Turkish and German empires to free not only India but all Islamic countries from British rule. Its members worked with Bolsheviks, Pan-Islamists, Pan-Asianists, and other anti-colonial activists as far away as California, embracing humanistic ethics of internationalism and love. They saw this joint struggle as an end in itself, regardless of its political results.
Having encouraged these anti-colonial forces, Afghanistan also asserted its own full autonomy after the war and attempted to retake the disputed areas abutting British India, including Mohmand and Waziristan. The resulting Third Anglo-Afghan War of 1919, however, again left the issue unresolved. Anticipating the U.S. drone strategy of today, the British resorted to the new technology of aerial policing in the region, which Chief of the Air Staff Hugh Trenchard deemed suited to “the psychology, social organization and mode of life of the tribesmen and the nature of the country they inhabit.”
Indian anti-colonial activists with wartime ties to Kabul remained influential in the massively popular postwar Indian anti-colonial struggle. But while they dreamt federal dreams, the British practice of drawing hard lines to divide peoples acquired new force and purpose. Partition was asserted as a “solution” to political conflict between different groups across the empire—the division of Ireland in 1921 as the price of independence (Northern Ireland remaining within the United Kingdom) became a template for recommending a similar “solution” for Palestine in the 1930s. By the 1940s, partition was a standard part of Britain’s decolonization toolkit. And the British justification for colonialism in South Asia—that its Hindus and Muslims constituted distinct nations requiring a mediating presence—had been built into the society’s political fabric in the form of separate, religiously based electorates that encouraged separate political movements as Indians incrementally wrested greater autonomy from the British. A push to partition British India into Muslim and Hindu states emerged, predictably, but struggled for support among many Muslims. These included the Pashtun Khudai Khidmatgar movement in the North-West Frontier, a nonviolent anti-colonial organization closely allied with the Gandhian Congress movement and staunchly opposed to partition.
When the plan for partition was announced in June 1947, the Khidmatgars—a word that means servant—feared that geography would automatically dictate their membership in Pakistan, whose creation they had vehemently opposed on principle. They pushed instead for an independent Pashtunistan, as did the Afghan government. After August 1947, as Punjabis and Bengalis fled for their lives across the new Radcliffe Line, the Pakistani government defended the ever contentious Durand Line, too, as Pashtuns and the Afghan government denied its legitimacy and rebuffed Pakistan’s claim to the Pashtun areas abutting it. Despite Pakistan’s strenuous efforts to crush the Pashtunistan movement, it survived, finding loyal support from Afghan President Daoud Khan in the 1970s.
Pakistan’s U.S.-backed support of mujahideen against the Soviet presence in Afghanistan was aimed, in part, at solidifying the border at the Durand Line. (The communist governments during the Soviet occupation refused to recognize the Durand Line as the border.) But even the agents Pakistan cultivated to intervene in Afghanistan refused to serve that end. The border was more or less moot during the conflict itself, but the mujahideen, recruited primarily among Pashtuns, maintained loyalty to the Pashtun position against the Durand Line. So it went with the Taliban: Pakistani backing didn’t trump the Taliban’s Pashtun loyalty to historic opposition to the Durand Line.
Pashtuns on both sides of the border deny the validity of the Durand Line, but the Pakistani government, in the hands of a Punjabi elite perhaps hardened by the violent partitioning of their own community in 1947, has relentlessly repressed the Pashtun desire for unity and autonomy. It has clung with increasing desperation to the principle of territorial integrity, especially after losing the Bengali half of the country, now Bangladesh, in 1971. The colonial U.S. presence in Afghanistan has abetted this effort. Of late, Pakistan is disrupting cross-border life by building up the frontier in a manner that is likely to rival the India-Pakistan border to the east—a border so fortified that it is one of the few man-made structures visible from space. In holding on to Pashtun land claimed by Afghanistan, the Pakistani government, with U.S. support, has extended the outlook of the past British colonial government toward the land and its people, twisting a knife in the wounds of 1893 and 1947. Meanwhile, the Modi government, in stoking the notion of the Muslim “other”—both inside and outside India—also twists a knife in the wounds of 1947.
In a region characterized by syncretic cultures that are the product of long intermingling, both colonial and postcolonial governments have engaged in endlessly destructive efforts to partition people into boxes defined by language, religion, and ethnicity, rather than afford them the freedom of coexistence fostered by the looser, federal structures that many anti-colonialists proposed. But the intermixing persists. Afghan refugees reside in Pakistan by the millions, and the specter of an undetectable Pakistani and Bangladeshi presence fuels the Modi government’s bigoted policies for proving citizenship. Who is Indian and who Bangladeshi? Who is Pakistani and who Afghan? The difficulty of answering such questions stems from the artificiality and violence of the hard lines that have been drawn between people entangled in what the Congress leader Maulana Azad called a “composite culture,” in which nonviolent anti-colonial struggle easily encompassed both Muslim Pashtuns and Gujarati Hindus.
India’s Punjabi farmers have been challenging the Modi government’s assertion of the central government’s authority for a year now in what has been one of the biggest protests in history. All around South Asia’s borderlands—from Kashmir to Kerala, from Bengal to Pashtunistan—we see resistance to the centralizing power that is a legacy of colonial rule and struggles for greater local governance, federalism, and layered forms of sovereignty promoting coexistence with the other, as envisioned by the anti-colonial thinkers and activists of the Provisional Government of India in Kabul, the Khidmatgars, and Mahatma Gandhi.
While the Cold War helped spur the federal unification of a Europe reeling from the horrors of nationalist violence, the neocolonialism it unleashed simultaneously abetted South Asia’s fragmentation into fortresslike nation-states sustained by the continual demonization of enemies within and without. Still, as the masses of farmers encamped at Delhi show us, alternative futures are never foreclosed. South Asians can still dream beyond those fortresses and promote enduringly composite cultures focused on the shared protection of water and land that is critical to survival in our time. As memory of the horrors of colonial partition fuel fascist Hindu nationalism in India and the Taliban’s expansion in Afghanistan, it has never been more important to remember and amplify the khidmatgars of anti-colonial coexistence.
Priya Satia is the Raymond A. Spruance professor of international history at Stanford University and the award-winning author of Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain’s Covert Empire in the Middle East and Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution. Her most recent book is Time’s Monster: How History Makes History.
May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face, The rains fall soft upon your fields And until we meet again, May God hold you in the palm of His hand.
An old Irish blessing
You just picked up a hitcher A prisoner of the white lines on the freeway
Joni Mitchell, Coyote
Whilst hitching has lost much of its allure in the west, it remains very popular in Israel. From my very first visit, There are always young people waiting by the roadside – it has always been so for young conscripts travelling home on leave, and motorists have traditionally been comfortable with picking up soldiers waiting with their rifles and kit bags (all non-Haredi or ultra orthodox Israelis must complete national service when they reach 18, and are required to carry their weapons with them at all times if these can’t be securely stored). It is also a popular mode of travel in the occupied West Bank where settlers regard hitching a ride as a political statement of sovereignty and freedom to travel through all of HaAretz, “the land”, and as an economical means of reaching scattered and often isolated (not to mention illegal under international law) settlements. Many drivers regard picking up fellow-settlers as a political and religious duty.
This attachment to hitchhiking harbours a strong sense of community, but also, a delusion of safety – it can and does have deadly consequences.For example, in June 2014, three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped by Hamas operatives at the bus/hitching stop at the Alon Shvut settlements in Gush Etzion and subsequently murdered. The atrocity precipitated Operation Protective Edge, an Israeli bombardment of Gaza which resulted in thousands of civilian deaths, and the kidnap and murder of a Palestinian boy by Jewish extremists. But that is not what this story is about …
In the second decade of the 21st century, hitchhiking is widely viewed as an edgy, even dangerous, activity to be avoided by both a potential hitcher and a prospective motorist contemplating whether to pull over or to drive on. For some, it also carries undertones of bludging and of indigence, although in rural areas like where I live, during these straightened times with high youth unemployment and poor public transport, many young people hitch out of necessity.
But the practice flourished for several decades, particularly during the fifties and sixties when few people owned vehicles and catching a ride with a friendly stranger was means of adventure as well as a mode of travel. Hitchhikers did so for a variety of reasons – a combination of thrift, expedience, and necessity, but also, a sense of romantic adventure – buoyed by what seems in retrospect, a naive sense of invulnerability.
More than just a means of transportation, it was also about social interaction and the opportunity for conversations with strangers. Jack Kerouac, American beat poet and secular patron saint of hitchers. begged to differ. In his seminal On the Road, a book revered more than read, he whinged: “One of the biggest troubles hitchhiking is having to talk to innumerable people, make them feel that they didn’t make a mistake picking you up, even entertain them almost, all of which is a great strain when you are going all the way and don’t plan to stay in hotels”.
In his recent Roadside Americans – the rise and fall of hitchhiking in a changing nation, North Carolina historian Jack Reid writes: “The waning of hitchhiking in the 1980s was a result of social change, but the main reason was related to the economy and to engineering. The highways changed. At the exits from cities, there are now huge interchanges rather than simple junctions, where it was easy to stop a car. Added to that was a sense of alienation, a growing fear of strangers and a loss of intimacy. Another reason was that years of economic prosperity and a significant reduction in car prices enabled many young people to buy their own cars”.
Allons! the road is before us!
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road, Healthy, free, the world before me, The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose. Strong and content I travel the open road.
Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road
I was thumbing lifts before I’d even heard of Jack Kerouac, It seemed like the easiest and cheapest thing to do when cash was scarce and modes of carriage were few, and the open road and the horizon beckoned.
.In the days gone by, when money was tight and adventure beckoned, I hitched all-over England – visiting friends in far-flung towns and villages, attending music festivals and anti-war and anti-nuclear demonstrations, and often, simply for the joy of travelling and exploration.
Looking back, my hitching was destination focused, getting to where I wanted to go and the route that would take me there rather than exploring the highways and byways, the towns and village in between and the folk therein – although I would take in appreciatively the landscapes and cityscapes I would pass through. The roadside and the adjoining nature strip, were, on the other hand, a world of their own. Between rides, standing at a place I’d never been and to which I would not return, I’d note the micro-milieu – the grass and the wildflowers, the flotsam and jetsam, the discarded bottles and butt ends, the empty cigarette packets and the candy bar wrappers. Vehicles whizzed by and I’d observe their type and frequency to calculate when I’d likely be picked up. And then, destination in mind’s eye, like stepping into a cold pool,or breaking into a run, I’d extend my arm and raise a thumb, gingerly at first and then with bravado.
Living on the northeastern edge of Birmingham, close to the motorways heading north and south, I’d simply pack a bag, walk to the nearby roundabout, and put out my thumb. It was, after it own fashion, a kind of commuting between hometown domesticity and the great beyond.
When first I roved out, the M1 started on the outskirts of London at Watford, and ended between Coventry and Rugby. The Coventry Road in south west Birmingham was my launching pad. Watford Gap services was like a transit lounge, as was Newport Pagnell. The large road sign Hatfield and the North was a landmark on the road to home. Daytime, nighttime, the wee small hours, in spring and summer sunshine or winter rain, it didn’t really matter – the M1 never slept.
In time, the road system extended and the M1-M6 link lay just a hundred metres in front my family home. One summer, I worked on that section of the motorway as an “on the lump” casual navvy. No workers comp,or occupational health and safety in those days. Helmets and gloves were optional. My blood, and that of many others, including some who clocked one fine summer morning and never clocked off, is in that concrete.
As a sixth former, I’d often hitch to “swinging” London for the weekend, to explore the capital and visit folk and jazz clubs, kipping in shop door-ways and underground car parks under cardboard and napping wrapped in newspapers, and eating at Wimpy bars and Lyons teas houses.
A few years later, whilst at Reading University, the M4 began near Maidenhead and finished at Chiswick, and every few weekends, I’d stand opposite the cemetery in eastern Reading and hitch a ride to London and back – for sit-ins, marches, happenings at The Roundhouse, free open-air concerts (including the famous Rolling Stones concert in Hyde Park), and to hang with my London girlfriend.
When first I roved abroad, I thumbed my way from Budapest to Athens via Yugoslavia and thence back to Blighty, and the following year, on a side-step from the famous hippie trail, from Beirut to Aqaba and back via Petra and Wadi Rum. I slept a night in Petra itself – in those days, a deserted and un-restored hideaway for fugitive Palestinian fedayeen after the Black September intifada. For reasons that I can not fully explain, I took my future first wife down the same road two years later, including sleeping out among Petra’s Nabatean tombs. And this was to be the end of my gypsy ways and hitching days. They lasted eight years. Thereafter, the famous “open road” was replaced by planes and trains, buses and cars – and one agonizingly crippled Ford transit van (to … an old saying, when life gives you a lemon, you’d wish you’d’ve been willing to spend more on a reliable motor).
If you’ve taken all you need from this post already, off you go … What follows now are an assortment of self-indulgent reminiscences of my hitchhiking days.
From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines, Going where I list, my own master total and absolute, Listening to others, considering well what they say, Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating, Gently,but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me. I inhale great draughts of space, The east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine.
Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road
Well I left my happy home To see what I could find out I left my folk and friends With the aim to clear my mind out Well I hit the rowdy road And many kinds I met there And many stories told me on the way to get there So on and on I go, the seconds tick the time out So much left to know, and I’m on the road to find out
Cat Stevens, Tea for the Tillerman
The toad road licked my wheels like a sabre. Marc Bolan
And what should they know of England …
There’s always a first time. We’d all like to daydream that we’d be picked up by Joni Mitchell, like she picked up that scallywag Coyote on her sublime Hejiraalbum. Mine, alas, was as as stocky sixth former with long hair (long for those days) and horn-rims, heading down to London to meet meet up with school chums for the CND Easter March (that was a first too). Standing at the roundabout where the M1 and the world began, having already thumbed from the Coventry Road roundabout opposite the old Swan public house at Yardley, It wasn’t long before a Rolls Royce pulled up. “WTFl!” is what I’d say today A handsome bloke with shades and sideburns who looked like Englebert Humperdinck asked me where I was heading. “London”, I replied. “Of course – where else? Get in”, he said. It was all the way to Marble Arch with pop star Don Fardon – whom I’d never heard of at the time – he later entered the hit parade with a cover of John Loudermilk’s song Indian Reservation. Not a good song, I would say – with many similarly empathetic ballads, it is long on heartstring-pulling and fucked on imagery and lyrics. If you want to listen to a good song, check out Bruce Cockburn’s evocative Indian Wars and the Australian Goanna Band’s anthemic Solid Rock.
Henceforward, that motorway from Brum to London was a road well-traveled. In my final year at Moseley Grammar, I’d often hitch down to London for a weekend with pals who’d gone there before. We’d hang out at cheap and cheerful Pollo’s Italian restaurant in Old Compton Street in Soho and the Coach and Horses right across the road, and go to Cousins folk and blues joint in a cellar in nearby Greek Street and the 101 Jazz Club off Oxford Street. Bunjies folk club and Ronnie Scott’s jazz Club were just around the corner. After a meal or a pint, I’d often catch the last tube to the end of the line closest to the M1. I can’t recall how many times I headed off into the night; and and there were always drivers on the road at the witching hour. I guess many folks “get the urge for going”, as Joni sang back then, “and they had to go …” And in those generous times, folks were willing to offer a lift to a wayfaring stranger – gentle souls who would not leave strays stranded by the dark wayside; lonesome folks seeking company and conversation in the dark night of the soul; curios people wondering why a young man would hitch the highways in the middle of the night.
It is now early spring of 1968. I’d repeated my last year at Grammar School, and with assignments completed, an amenable headmaster let me take a week off to travel. This time, I headed northwest across Brum to Darkaston, near Walsall, and what was then the beginning of the M6 – it ended at Lancaster. Travelling through Lancashire, Cumbria and the Lowlands, I reached the outskirts of Glasgow by nighttime. Hitching across the city, I was picked up by a young couple who insisted that I spend the night at their place – they reckoned the green scarf I’d worn around my hat was a risky proposition in that part of sectarianist Glasgow. I loved that old brown fedora; it traveled with me all over England, to Greece and Yugoslavia, and the Middle East until it was stolen along with my harmonica at Wadi Musa, near Petra. Next morning, I was on the road to Edinburgh, crossed the silvery Tay of bad poet William McGonagall fame, transited the granite city of Aberdeen, and by nightfall, I was on the road into Inverness, where I slept by the roadside and woke up covered in snow. Next morning, I was on Culloden field, and thence, continued on my journey. It took me through the Great Glen where I’d caught a local bus that delivered the mail to isolated homesteads, a journey so slow that I was hallucinating mountains and braes for days, and thence to to Loch Lomond and beyond, southering homewards.
During my first year at the University of Reading, I kept on hitching – many more journeys to London and back and day trips to nearby Oxford and Windsor. In a cold and rainy April, with first year exams done, I headed east to London and north to the Humber and the port of Hull, to drop on a good friend who had dropped out of uni and to visit an former school chum. In a student share-house near the university, I took my first mescaline trip to the soundtrack of Roy Harper’s sang McGoohan’s Blues’, a twenty minute digression from the concept if not the plot of an iconic if indecipherable television series. “The Prisoner is taking his shoes off to walk in the rain”. For 1,200 blissful seconds of cosmic consciousness, I found the meaning of life down that wonderful rabbit hole – and had forgotten what I’d found when I’d resurfaced the next morning. Peyote is a very colourful hallucinogenic. I still recall the Fantasia images that passed before my eyes as Roy sang:
Daffodil April petal hiding the game Forests of restless chessmen life is the same Tides in the sand sun lover watching us dream Covered in stars and clover rainbows downstream … Under the toadstool lover down by the dream Everything flowing over rainbows downstream Silver the turning water flying away I’ll come to see you sooner I’m on my way
As I headed back down south, the wet and windy old weather changed and as I rode through rural Oxfordshire, all a sudden, the sun came out for behind dull English clouds and and Springtime came in verdant glory – as doomed young Robert Browning once declaimed
Oh to be in England now that April ’s there And whoever wakes in England sees, some morning, unaware, That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf, While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough In England—now!
On arrival at my digs in Reading, there was a note from friends telling me that they’d headed off to Devon to spend a weekend with a fellow student’s farming family, and that me and my friend Jean should join them. So within minutes of arriving home, we were off into the west. Navigating Bristol where, I recall for no apparent reason, that on impulse. I’d bought a copy of The Beano comic) and Somerset. Late that night, we arrived in the tiny town Cullompton in the heart of rustic Devon. After some now forgotten but fun times, including a trip to the seaside and getting blotto on local cider, we hitched home. I don’t recall too much of the journey except that it took us through Basingstoke.
One glorious English summer I arranged to meet up with my late pal Dave Shaw in Cambridge, where he was attending a summer school at the University, and go to the celebrated Cambridge Folk Festival. I clocked off from my work on the motorway, got home, just ten minutes away – I said we were close! – showered and packed, and headed to the Clock Garage roundabout and put out my thumb. I took the M1 to London’s North Circular, and cut across to the A10 (there was no M11 in those days) and, And, my stars were alignment on this night ride, arrived at Dave’s digs in time for breakfast.I don’t remember much of the festival bill, but American folk diva Odetta was singing, and also, our idol, Roy Harper, England’s high priest of angst.
I had to leave Cambridge around Sunday lunchtime, after Roy’s last set, to return to Brum for work on Monday. Rather than head back down to London, to save time – a quixotic idea when you are hitching – I decided to cut cross-country to connect with the M1 at Newport Pagnell – in those days before GPS and route planners, a cheap, creased road map from WH Smith was the best we had, plus a good sense of direction, fair weather and loads of luck. And such are the movements of the cosmos, that my one and only only ride took me to, yes, what was then the bucolic village of Newport Pagnell. It was one of those summer evenings in England, when the days are long, the air warm and languorous, and the light, luminous. Birds were singing and church bells were ringing for evensong, and in my mind’s ear, I’d like to imagine that cows were lowing and sheep were bleating. One could almost feel an ode coming on. So there I was, once more, at the services on-ramp, hitching a ride to Birmingham , and hopping aboard an old Land Rover for what was the slowest and noisiest ride ever – which took me almost to my door.
… who only England know
The above header is the second half of Rudyard Kipling’s well known if oft misunderstood poem The English Flag, in which the old Imperialist exhorts his insular countrymen to go forth and conquer … In later and less jingoism times, it has been given a more benign slant, along the lines of the adages like “travel broadens the mind” to which I readily subscribe, or as Cat Stevens was to sing at the time “the road to find out”.
And so it was during the holidays before my final year at Grammar School that I tried my thumb on the Continent. With another school pal, I hopped across La Manche to Belgium with the idea of hitching to Amsterdam. Why we chose Belgium, I can’t recall, but my brother had been there shortly before and he reckoned it was a great place for art and architecture (that was his thing – he scored a rare First in architecture at Uni and went to become the chief architect for Nottingham City Council, designing the international ice rink in partnership with Jane Torvill of of skating icons Torvill and Dean fame). We did a lot of beer and chips and saw a lot of great art and architecture in Bruges, Ghent and Brussels – and we visited the Waterloo battlefield, as one would. As for the Netherlands, we got as far as Antwerp but gave up on Amsterdam after a long day of futile thumbing. We were, however, adopted by a young Belgian lass who took us home to meet her ma and pa. We enjoyed a bucolic Sunday picnic on the banks of a tributary of the Scheldt before heading back to Oostende and England. In retrospect, I regretted that hadn’t turned south south and set a course for Paris, a pleasure which would have to wait several more years.
My next “big hitch” was by happenstance in Eastern Europe. I’ve written of this before in In That Howling Infinite in Tanks for the Memory – how Brezhnev changed my life. Therein, I recalled how I’d flown to Prague on the first anniversary of the Soviet Invasion for Czechoslovakia, only to have the flight diverted to Budapest in Hungary.
“Given the circumstances of our arrival, and the atmosphere prevailing in the Bloc on the anniversary of Prague invasion, the authorities had given me a visa for four days only. I had therefore to depart the country quick-smart. I had effectively two choices of non-Soviet countries – westwards to Austria, or south to what was then Yugoslavia. In a split second decision, I took the road less traveled – south to Szeged and the Serbian border. Wondering through the rural outskirts of Novi Sad, I was taken home by a pair of Serbian boys. I spent my first evening with their most hospitable family and slept that night on a bed of furs. “Novi Sad, Beograd” the lads had chanted, and so, instead of setting my direction home, I hitch-hiked south to the ancient Danube city of Belgrade. In the Yugoslav capital, I resolved to keep going southwards. Over the next two weeks, I transited Yugoslavia to Thessaloniki, where decided to continue with my southern odyssey – to Athens and the Greek Islands. At journeys end, I hitchhiked back the way I’d come, only this time, reaching Austria via the Croatian capital of Zagreb”.
My Balkan and Aegean adventures included that aforesaid sleepover in Novi Sad; sleeping by the highway south of Niš where I was awoken in the middle of the night by military police who reckoned I was a security risk; being propositioned – solicited more like – by a gypsy girl whose favours I forsook as she mustn’t have showered for a week; picked up by a Greek lorry-driver near the famous pass of Thermopylae who insisted we skinny-dip in the aquamarine Adriatic; and heading out of Thessaloniki on the road to Macedonia (the Slav one), I was picked by a bus load of frisky young Greek conscripts – I jumped out quicksmart into the night.
By the time I reached Zagreb, I’d had enough of the road and took the train to Vienna and thence to Calais and Albion. But, as I wrote in Tanks for the Memory, my southwards diversion to the Mediterranean fixed my gaze on other pastures and inspired a lifetime interest in the Middle East. For that is where I roved next: “… the clear Hellenic sky and the cobalt blue of the Mediterranean, the parched hills and pine woods of the Peloponnese, the dazzling light and the warm sun on my body, and the ruins and bones of antiquity sang a siren’s song. As Jack Bruce warbled: You thought the leaden winter would bring you down forever, but you rode upon a steamer to the violence of the sun. And the colours of the sea bind your eyes with trembling mermaids, and you touch the distant beaches with tales of brave Ulysses. My thoughts and dreams no longer ranged eastwards. My next journey took me back to the Mediterranean, and thence, following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great – the golden hero of legend, not the “mad, bad and dangerous to know” destroyer – through the Middle East and on to the famous well-trodden Hippy Trail to India”.
My final hitching hejiras were played out in the Levant – an Indian traveller I’d met in a Cairo youth hostel had told me that if I thought the slums of Cairo were bad – and to a naive Brummie, they were – I should see those in Kolkata. So that is what I resolved to do. Leaving Egypt, I found my way to Damascus by way of Beirut, with a side-trip to Israel via Cyprus, and on a quixotic notion, I resolved to visit Aqaba, and also Petra, the ancient “rose” city. Back then, I knew next to nothing about the Middle East. I’d recalled Aqaba from the film Lawrence of Arabia; and I’d been told that Petra was a “must see” by a fellow traveller in my Damascus hostel. So, I set off south, to Dara’a, a border town where Lawrence was allegedly captured and buggered by the Turks, and which was, in recent times, the spark that ignited the Syrian civil war.
The Jordanian border lay just beyond Dera’a, but all traffic thereto was forbidden – the Syrian and Jordanian army had just fought a desultory tank battle in one of the many ricochets of the latter’s suppression of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation after the failed Black September intifada the year before. The border checkpoints were still open, however, to traffic from Jordan only. So I walked across a kind of no man’s land, past tank tracks and the occasional military wreck. There was a large concrete marker at the actual borderline, with “welcome to jordan” on one side and “welcome to Syria” on the other. It was a surreal space. It’s was twilight and high summer. The air was hot and still and there was almost total silence. No birdsong, an imperceptible warm wind. And of a sudden, there was a buzzing of flies which which swarmed all about me and the marker. I walked on and before too long, passed through passport control with a tourist visa, and thumbed a ride to Amman, the capital.
I slept that night on the outskirts of Amman and continued on to Ma’an, the jump-off point for the village of Wadi Musa and Petra. Onwards then to Aqaba where, having paddled in the sea and walked about the town, I headed back straightaway the way I’d come, to Ma’an, Amman, Dera’a and Damascus – from whence I took the fabled Nairn Bus across the desert to Baghdad. From there, I traveled by bus through Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and finally, by train, to Delhi and journey’s end, Kolkata, in the midst of a cholera epidemic and a refugee crisis that was a prelude to the Indo-Pakistan war that led to the birth of Bangladesh.
If you never go, you’ll never grow
With that, I’ll conclude these travellers’ tales, observing in the present how in all my journeying, I never came to harm, whether by accident, misadventure or malignancy.
As noted in opening paragraphs, there was the “combination of thrift, expedience, and necessity, but also, a sense of romantic adventure – buoyed by what seems in retrospect, a naive sense of invulnerability” .
Back in the day, hitchhiking in Britain and on the continent was taken for granted and hitchers were commonplace, even if the practice was frowned upon by the straighteners and the fearful. In the Levant, it was a rare thing. Passers-by would often ask what I was doing, and why I traveled thus. Saving money, I’d reply, I was on a budget and had a long way to go – which was indeed the case in the days when credit cards had yet to be invented and the cash and travellers’ cheques in your body belt were all you had to get your thousands of miles. But you come from a rich country, they’d say, adding that there were cheap service-taxis and buses, and that it was dangerous and there were men out there who would rob you or do you harm. Yes, but I have a long way to go. A policeman in Jerash in northern Jordan served me Arab tea and cakes and sat me down on a bench outside the police station whilst he flagged down a driver he considered to be a decent man.
Like those Israelis hitching between towns and villages in Israel and between settlements in the Occupied Territories, we who traveled the world before jumbo jets and cruise ships understood that bad things could happen and that they sometimes did whether you journeyed by thumb, van, bus or train. In hotels and hostels from Beirut to Baghdad, Kabul to Kolkata, you’d pick up word-of-mouth “travel advisories”, warnings and “war stories”. In India, I’d been told of a chap who’d been robbed and stranded in Afghanistan, and I actually met him when I bunked down in Sultanahmet, Istanbul, on my way back to Britain.
So yes, there always was a risk; but if you think too much about it, you’d never go, and if you never go, you’ll never grow.
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,
Strong and content I travel the open road.
The earth, that is sufficient,
I do not want the constellations any nearer,
I know they are very well where they are,
I know they suffice for those who belong to them.
(Still here I carry my old delicious burdens,
I carry them, men and women, I carry them with me wherever I go,
I swear it is impossible for me to get rid of them,
I am fill’d with them, and I will fill them in return.)
You road I enter upon and look around, I believe you are not all that is here,
I believe that much unseen is also here.
Here the profound lesson of reception, nor preference nor denial,
The black with his woolly head, the felon, the diseas’d, the illiterate person, are not denied;
The birth, the hasting after the physician, the beggar’s tramp, the drunkard’s stagger, the laughing party of mechanics,
The escaped youth, the rich person’s carriage, the fop, the eloping couple,
The early market-man, the hearse, the moving of furniture into the town, the return back from the town,
They pass, I also pass, any thing passes, none can be interdicted,
None but are accepted, none but shall be dear to me.
You air that serves me with breath to speak!
You objects that call from diffusion my meanings and give them shape!
You light that wraps me and all things in delicate equable showers!
You paths worn in the irregular hollows by the roadsides!
I believe you are latent with unseen existences, you are so dear to me.
You flagg’d walks of the cities! you strong curbs at the edges!
You ferries! you planks and posts of wharves! you timber-lined sides! you distant ships!
You rows of houses! you window-pierc’d façades! you roofs!
You porches and entrances! you copings and iron guards!
You windows whose transparent shells might expose so much!
You doors and ascending steps! you arches!
You gray stones of interminable pavements! you trodden crossings!
From all that has touch’d you I believe you have imparted to yourselves, and now would impart the same secretly to me,
From the living and the dead you have peopled your impassive surfaces, and the spirits thereof would be evident and amicable with me.
The earth expanding right hand and left hand,
The picture alive, every part in its best light,
The music falling in where it is wanted, and stopping where it is not wanted,
The cheerful voice of the public road, the gay fresh sentiment of the road.
O highway I travel, do you say to me Do not leave me?
Do you say Venture not—if you leave me you are lost?
Do you say I am already prepared, I am well-beaten and undenied, adhere to me?
O public road, I say back I am not afraid to leave you, yet I love you,
You express me better than I can express myself,
You shall be more to me than my poem.
I think heroic deeds were all conceiv’d in the open air, and all free poems also,
I think I could stop here myself and do miracles,
I think whatever I shall meet on the road I shall like, and whoever beholds me shall like me,
I think whoever I see must be happy.
From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,
Going where I list, my own master total and absolute,
Listening to others, considering well what they say,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently,but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.
I inhale great draughts of space,
The east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine.
I am larger, better than I thought,
I did not know I held so much goodness.
All seems beautiful to me,
I can repeat over to men and women You have done such good to me I would do the same to you,
I will recruit for myself and you as I go,
I will scatter myself among men and women as I go,
I will toss a new gladness and roughness among them,
Whoever denies me it shall not trouble me,
Whoever accepts me he or she shall be blessed and shall bless me.
Now if a thousand perfect men were to appear it would not amaze me,
Now if a thousand beautiful forms of women appear’d it would not astonish me.
Now I see the secret of the making of the best persons,
It is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.
Here a great personal deed has room,
(Such a deed seizes upon the hearts of the whole race of men,
Its effusion of strength and will overwhelms law and mocks all authority and all argument against it.)
Here is the test of wisdom,
Wisdom is not finally tested in schools,
Wisdom cannot be pass’d from one having it to another not having it,
Wisdom is of the soul, is not susceptible of proof, is its own proof,
Applies to all stages and objects and qualities and is content,
Is the certainty of the reality and immortality of things, and the excellence of things;
Something there is in the float of the sight of things that provokes it out of the soul.
Now I re-examine philosophies and religions,
They may prove well in lecture-rooms, yet not prove at all under the spacious clouds and along the landscape and flowing currents.
Here is realization,
Here is a man tallied—he realizes here what he has in him,
The past, the future, majesty, love—if they are vacant of you, you are vacant of them.
Only the kernel of every object nourishes;
Where is he who tears off the husks for you and me?
Where is he that undoes stratagems and envelopes for you and me?
Here is adhesiveness, it is not previously fashion’d, it is apropos;
Do you know what it is as you pass to be loved by strangers?
Do you know the talk of those turning eye-balls?
Here is the efflux of the soul,
The efflux of the soul comes from within through embower’d gates, ever provoking questions,
These yearnings why are they? these thoughts in the darkness why are they?
Why are there men and women that while they are nigh me the sunlight expands my blood?
Why when they leave me do my pennants of joy sink flat and lank?
Why are there trees I never walk under but large and melodious thoughts descend upon me?
(I think they hang there winter and summer on those trees and always drop fruit as I pass;)
What is it I interchange so suddenly with strangers?
What with some driver as I ride on the seat by his side?
What with some fisherman drawing his seine by the shore as I walk by and pause?
What gives me to be free to a woman’s and man’s good-will? what gives them to be free to mine?
The efflux of the soul is happiness, here is happiness,
I think it pervades the open air, waiting at all times,
Now it flows unto us, we are rightly charged.
Here rises the fluid and attaching character,
The fluid and attaching character is the freshness and sweetness of man and woman,
(The herbs of the morning sprout no fresher and sweeter every day out of the roots of themselves, than it sprouts fresh and sweet continually out of itself.)
Toward the fluid and attaching character exudes the sweat of the love of young and old,
From it falls distill’d the charm that mocks beauty and attainments,
Toward it heaves the shuddering longing ache of contact.
Allons! whoever you are come travel with me!
Traveling with me you find what never tires.
The earth never tires,
The earth is rude, silent, incomprehensible at first, Nature is rude and incomprehensible at first,
Be not discouraged, keep on, there are divine things well envelop’d,
I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell.
Allons! we must not stop here,
However sweet these laid-up stores, however convenient this dwelling we cannot remain here,
However shelter’d this port and however calm these waters we must not anchor here,
However welcome the hospitality that surrounds us we are permitted to receive it but a little while.
Allons! the inducements shall be greater,
We will sail pathless and wild seas,
We will go where winds blow, waves dash, and the Yankee clipper speeds by under full sail.
Allons! with power, liberty, the earth, the elements,
Health, defiance, gayety, self-esteem, curiosity;
Allons! from all formules!
From your formules, O bat-eyed and materialistic priests.
The stale cadaver blocks up the passage—the burial waits no longer.
Allons! yet take warning!
He traveling with me needs the best blood, thews, endurance,
None may come to the trial till he or she bring courage and health,
Come not here if you have already spent the best of yourself,
Only those may come who come in sweet and determin’d bodies,
No diseas’d person, no rum-drinker or venereal taint is permitted here.
(I and mine do not convince by arguments, similes, rhymes,
We convince by our presence.)
Listen! I will be honest with you,
I do not offer the old smooth prizes, but offer rough new prizes,
These are the days that must happen to you:
You shall not heap up what is call’d riches,
You shall scatter with lavish hand all that you earn or achieve,
You but arrive at the city to which you were destin’d, you hardly settle yourself to satisfaction before you are call’d by an irresistible call to depart,
You shall be treated to the ironical smiles and mockings of those who remain behind you,
What beckonings of love you receive you shall only answer with passionate kisses of parting,
You shall not allow the hold of those who spread their reach’d hands toward you.
Allons! after the great Companions, and to belong to them!
They too are on the road—they are the swift and majestic men—they are the greatest women,
Enjoyers of calms of seas and storms of seas,
Sailors of many a ship, walkers of many a mile of land,
Habituès of many distant countries, habituès of far-distant dwellings,
Trusters of men and women, observers of cities, solitary toilers,
Pausers and contemplators of tufts, blossoms, shells of the shore,
Dancers at wedding-dances, kissers of brides, tender helpers of children, bearers of children,
Soldiers of revolts, standers by gaping graves, lowerers-down of coffins,
Journeyers over consecutive seasons, over the years, the curious years each emerging from that which preceded it,
Journeyers as with companions, namely their own diverse phases,
Forth-steppers from the latent unrealized baby-days,
Journeyers gayly with their own youth, journeyers with their bearded and well-grain’d manhood,
Journeyers with their womanhood, ample, unsurpass’d, content,
Journeyers with their own sublime old age of manhood or womanhood,
Old age, calm, expanded, broad with the haughty breadth of the universe,
Old age, flowing free with the delicious near-by freedom of death.
Allons! to that which is endless as it was beginningless,
To undergo much, tramps of days, rests of nights,
To merge all in the travel they tend to, and the days and nights they tend to,
Again to merge them in the start of superior journeys,
To see nothing anywhere but what you may reach it and pass it,
To conceive no time, however distant, but what you may reach it and pass it,
To look up or down no road but it stretches and waits for you, however long but it stretches and waits for you,
To see no being, not God’s or any, but you also go thither,
To see no possession but you may possess it, enjoying all without labor or purchase, abstracting the feast yet not abstracting one particle of it,
To take the best of the farmer’s farm and the rich man’s elegant villa, and the chaste blessings of the well-married couple, and the fruits of orchards and flowers of gardens,
To take to your use out of the compact cities as you pass through,
To carry buildings and streets with you afterward wherever you go,
To gather the minds of men out of their brains as you encounter them, to gather the love out of their hearts,
To take your lovers on the road with you, for all that you leave them behind you,
To know the universe itself as a road, as many roads, as roads for traveling souls.
All parts away for the progress of souls,
All religion, all solid things, arts, governments—all that was or is apparent upon this globe or any globe, falls into niches and corners before the procession of souls along the grand roads of the universe.
Of the progress of the souls of men and women along the grand roads of the universe, all other progress is the needed emblem and sustenance.
Forever alive, forever forward,
Stately, solemn, sad, withdrawn, baffled, mad, turbulent, feeble, dissatisfied,
Desperate, proud, fond, sick, accepted by men, rejected by men,
They go! they go! I know that they go, but I know not where they go,
But I know that they go toward the best—toward something great.
Whoever you are, come forth! or man or woman come forth!
You must not stay sleeping and dallying there in the house, though you built it, or though it has been built for you.
Out of the dark confinement! out from behind the screen!
It is useless to protest, I know all and expose it.
Behold through you as bad as the rest,
Through the laughter, dancing, dining, supping, of people,
Inside of dresses and ornaments, inside of those wash’d and trimm’d faces,
Behold a secret silent loathing and despair.
No husband, no wife, no friend, trusted to hear the confession,
Another self, a duplicate of every one, skulking and hiding it goes,
Formless and wordless through the streets of the cities, polite and bland in the parlors,
In the cars of railroads, in steamboats, in the public assembly,
Home to the houses of men and women, at the table, in the bedroom, everywhere,
Smartly attired, countenance smiling, form upright, death under the breast-bones, hell under the skull-bones,
Under the broadcloth and gloves, under the ribbons and artificial flowers,
Keeping fair with the customs, speaking not a syllable of itself,
Speaking of any thing else but never of itself.
Allons! through struggles and wars!
The goal that was named cannot be countermanded.
Have the past struggles succeeded?
What has succeeded? yourself? your nation? Nature?
Now understand me well—it is provided in the essence of things that from any fruition of success, no matter what, shall come forth something to make a greater struggle necessary.
My call is the call of battle, I nourish active rebellion,
He going with me must go well arm’d,
He going with me goes often with spare diet, poverty, angry enemies, desertions.
Allons! the road is before us!
It is safe—I have tried it—my own feet have tried it well—be not detain’d!
Let the paper remain on the desk unwritten, and the book on the shelf unopen’d!
Let the tools remain in the workshop! let the money remain unearn’d!
Let the school stand! mind not the cry of the teacher!
Let the preacher preach in his pulpit! let the lawyer plead in the court, and the judge expound the law.
Camerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?
Between the idea And the reality Between the motion And the act Falls the Shadow
TS Elliot, The Hollow Men
It’s like the Hotel California. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.
When in the wake of 9/11 the US and it’s allies invaded Afghanistan, critics and cynics invoked the long arm of history to declare that the venture was a forlorn hope. Many questioned latter day imperial hubris. Others asked what were the long term goals, and what was the exit strategy. Reference was made to the Soviet Union’s destructive, demoralizing and ultimately debilitating invasion and nine year occupation (some 15,000 Soviet soldiers died, and 35,000 were wounded whilst about two million Afghan civilians were killed) which left the land in the tyrannical thrall of competing warlords; and to America’s own Vietnam quagmire. And then there were the British history buffs who reminded the world that Afghanistan was indeed the graveyard of empires, so well illustrated in the famous painting of the last stand of the 44th Foot on the bleak hillside of Gandamak during the disastrous retreat from Kabul in 1842. Inevitably, we dust down Rudyard Kipling’s well worn rhyme:
When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains, And the women come out to cut up what remains, Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.
After more than 17 years, Afghanistan is the longest war in American history, with over two thousand soldiers dead and some twenty three thousand wounded. And yet, USforces are no closer to defeating the Taliban, who ruled most of Afghanistan before 2001 – than they were a decade ago. Indeed, In fact, the proportion of the country under the full control of the elected, American-backed government is humiliatingly small. A war which has caused over 31,000 civilian deaths due to war-related violence and 29,900 wounded (over 111,000 Afghans, including civilians, soldiers and militants, are estimated to have been killed) has staggered to a bloody stalemate.
Whilst a American force that once reached 140,000 soldiers America could not wipe out the Taliban, a mere 13,000 troops bolstering the Afghan army today, seems capable keeping the Taliban more or less in check. Whilst the Taliban appear to control the arid, countryside But 10,000 Afghan police and soldiers, 3,400 civilians and an unknown number of insurgents died in 2017 alone.
The US is now endeavouring to come to a peace deal with the Taliban, and its efforts are all the more urgent in the wake of President Trumps decision to extricate American troops from this expensive and dangerous entanglement. The Taliban appears happy to deal – and may be willing to accede to the US’ conditionsto rid themselves of the Americans knowing that if they renege on their word, the GIs are unlikely to return.
Before America toppled the Taliban regime, Afghanistan was a violent theocratic despotism. Women were not allowed out of their homes unless covered head to toe and accompanied by a male relative. Any departure from the Taliban’s barbaric version of Islam, such as dancing or shaving or educating girls, could earn floggings, imprisonment or even death. Ancient statues were dynamited as pagan idols. Keeping such zealots at bay, for as long as they try to impose their beliefs by force, is an incalculable benefit to the two-thirds of Afghans (about 24 million people) who live in government-controlled areas.
Hearts and Minds
A US withdrawal could jeopardize all this If the Taliban were to overthrow the Afghan government after an American withdrawal, it would be a humiliation on a par with Vietnam when Nixon’s administration hung its South Vietnamese allies out to dry (read Max Hastings recently published Vietnam – an American Tragedy for a chilling account of the US’ cynical, cold-blooded duplicity).
Even if the Afghan government staggered on, a US withdrawal without a solid peace agreement would cause chaos. In a 21st century replay of The Great Game, neighbours India, Iran, and Pakistan, and regional powers China and Russia would be tempted take advantage of the vacuum for their own strategic and economic ends, but to would all struggle to fill it. There could be a surge in fighting, as warlords once again reassert their influence and as ISIS and al Qaeda take advantage of the situation. The whole region could be further destabilized, and America and its allies could be sucked back in – on other’s terms.
And Afghanistan, at war with itself for 40 years, would be condemned to continuing conflict and carnage.
Click on the picture below to read the New York Times’ commentary on the negotiations. And below that is a recent piece by David Kilcullen, Australian author, strategist and counterinsurgency expert. He argues that talks between the US and the Taliban are not new. He asks: “What’s different now? A cynic might say that one reason the war has dragged on so long is that most sides have been achieving their objectives by letting it continue”. In essence, he argues, three new factors are driving the latest set of developments. Donald Trump and the shifting, unpredictable nature of US foreign policy; the growth of Chinese influence and engagement in Afghanistan’s political and economic development; and the rise of Islamic State-Khorasan, the Afghan branch of Abubakar al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State terrorist group, and now the Taliban’s is an arch-enemy. Kilcullen is, as ever, well worth reading.
David Kilcullen, The Australian, 16th February 2019
The recent announcement that US and Taliban negotiators had agreed a framework for peace talks was greeted as a breakthrough in the 18-year war. But the twin issues around which those talks will be framed — a withdrawal pledge by Washington in return for a Taliban promise to never again let Afghanistan become a threat to any other country — are far from new.
These have been consistent Taliban demands since December 2009, when (as part of the headquarters team in Kabul) I met insurgent leaders who asked for the same deal in almost the same words. Likewise, I have heard these demands from many Taliban-aligned elders in Afghanistan over the years, and Taliban representatives proposed the identical quid pro quo during talks with the Obama administration in 2011-14.
What’s different now? A cynic might say that one reason the war has dragged on so long is that most sides have been achieving their objectives by letting it continue.
Washington’s original war aims — destroy al-Qa’ida’s Afghan base in retaliation for 9/11 and overthrow the Taliban as punishment for protecting Osama bin Laden’s outfit — had already been achieved by mid-December 2001, less than eight weeks after the war began. All the effort since then has been about rebuilding Afghanistan, and that effort is founded on two assumptions: that leaving without first standing up a stable pro-Western government would trigger a Taliban return, and that a Taliban return would mean terrorist attacks emanating from Afghanistan.
Since rebuilding Afghanistan was always recognized as a multi-decade project (akin to the US presence in South Korea, Japan and Germany), Washington was effectively telegraphing an intent to never leave — US forces are still present, after all, in all three of those countries more than 75 years after occupying them.
For coalition partners, and allies including Australia, the aim has been to demonstrate commitment, strengthen ties to Washington and thereby increase access to the political, economic and security benefits these ties offer. This goal, too, was achieved as soon as coalition forces entered Afghanistan: our hypothetical cynic might observe that we gain “alliance points” simply by being there and doing a decent job.
No coalition partner would be fighting in Afghanistan without Washington, and none can win or lose the war on its own. Thus, for the allies, whether the war is won or lost is, strictly speaking, irrelevant: having succeeded in being seen as a valuable ally, the only thing that could now undo that success would be to leave before the US does. Winning the war is, of course, a real objective for coalition capitals as it is for Washington — but it’s a secondary one.
Thus, for the coalition, given the open-ended nature of the Afghan commitment, the focus has been on calibrating troop levels, expenditure and other inputs to make the effort sustainable for the long haul. There are about 14,000 American troops in country (less than half the number stationed in Korea for the past several decades) and US spending on Afghan security forces is tracking at about $US3.7 billion ($5.2bn) a year — a tiny fraction of the overall US budget).
On Australia’s part, after peaking during 2010-11 with reconstruction and stabilization forces in Oruzgan province and a special operations task group that achieved widespread respect for its professionalism, our commitment now stands at about 300 personnel.
Most Australians are in headquarters roles in Kabul, at Camp Qargha (the officer academy near Kabul), as advisers to the Afghan Air Force, and at the training, advisory and assistance command for Afghanistan’s southern region in Kandahar. There is no doubt the Australians are performing a valuable role and enhancing our reputation with Afghans and allies — but again, we would achieve this effect whether the war is won or simply drags on; the only thing we could do to undermine ourselves at this point would be to withdraw ahead of the allies.
Coalition casualties are also relatively low — the coalition lost 18 personnel last year, dramatically down from 2010, the worst year of the war, when 711 US and allied troops were killed. Australia has suffered 41 fatalities, with more than half killed in 2010 and 2011 at the peak of our commitment. Our last fatality occurred in July 2014, while our last combat casualty was in June 2013.
While any loss of life is a horrendous tragedy, in the harsh logic of defense planners the US casualty rate is sustainable. In short, at the current level of financial and human cost, there is no strictly military (as distinct from political or humanitarian) reason why the US could not simply continue the war indefinitely. Of course, for the Afghan military and police — which have lost 45,000 killed since September 2014, compared with the coalition’s 72 — the war is far from sustainable, and its impact on civilians is both horrific and increasing. So while the coalition can essentially keep this up forever, the Afghan military and ordinary Afghans can’t.
For the Afghan government, another key stakeholder, our imaginary cynic might say that the main goal is to maintain the benefits of international presence including military aid, funding, donor engagement and reconstruction effort. Again, although winning is a real objective for Kabul, until its capture of Kunduz in October 2015 the Taliban showed no ability to seize provincial cities or do deep damage to the capital, so losing to the Taliban seemed an impossibility. And under those circumstances, winning the war was desirable but continuing it was mandatory, since it was the war that guaranteed international engagement.
This is no longer the case: given rising civilian casualties, the high loss rate of Afghan forces, the deadly string of Taliban bombings now afflicting Afghan cities and the fact that the Taliban are now capturing and briefly holding provincial capitals every few months, the Kabul government wants to reduce the war to a far lower level of intensity.
Containing the Taliban as a remote, rural threat, grave enough to stop the international community abandoning Afghanistan yet able to be gradually overcome as a long-term national project (with international money and help) would be ideal.
On the Taliban side, winning has always been the ultimate goal but, like other stakeholders, the insurgents have been willing to let the war drag on without a resolution. In the first few years after 9/11 the Taliban was in disarray — its senior leadership group, the Quitta Shura, wasn’t even founded until October 2003, two years after the US-led invasion.
Then after a resurgence in 2005-06, it suffered severe setbacks in the south and east of the country and its fighters were forced to bide their time as they rebuilt, recruited and rearmed in Pakistan, and stealthily recaptured territory in remote parts of Afghanistan. Then Barack Obama, in announcing his surge in December 2009, also (very helpfully for the Taliban) announced its end date, later extended by NATO but still resulting in a rigid timetable for withdrawal.
As a result, Taliban leaders wisely decided their best course was to withhold most of their combat troops in Pakistan, do enough to stay in the public eye in Afghanistan, and wait for withdrawal, which duly took place right on schedule. After the International Security Assistance Force departed at the end of 2014, the Taliban immediately began ramping up its activity, and within a year it was gaining ground, taking the fight to Afghan cities, and projecting force into Afghanistan from its haven in Pakistan.
For Pakistan, which has historically seen India as its principal threat and feared encirclement by an India-Afghanistan alliance, keeping Afghanistan unstable is an important means of preventing that encirclement and achieving strategic depth. Pakistani decision-makers have long been extraordinarily open about this.
From their standpoint, the Afghan Taliban (as distinct from the Pakistani Taliban, which Islamabad sees as a real threat and has fought hard to contain) is an insurance policy, to be preserved in case of a need to crank up the pressure on Kabul and New Delhi. A Taliban victory would be problematic for Pakistan, as would an outright Taliban defeat, so keeping the war on a low boil and letting parts of Pakistan become a haven for the Taliban has made sense through much of the war since 2001.
This might be why, during the tentative talks in 2009-10 that I mentioned earlier, Pakistani intelligence officers arrested a key Taliban figure — Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, brother-in-law to Taliban founder Mullah Omar, a former deputy defense minister and a highly respected combat leader who had expressed willingness to talk with the coalition.
With Baradar out of the picture, the talks collapsed, but Pakistan now had a controlling hand in the resumption of talks, at a time and in a manner of its choosing. That’s why Baradar’s release by Pakistan last October — and his participation in the most recent talks in Doha last month, by far the most productive to date — was such a big deal. For the first time in years, the Taliban now has a negotiator at the table with the power to deliver on agreements, and the fact that Pakistan released Baradar to participate suggests that Islamabad, too, is serious about finding a path to peace in Afghanistan.
This brings us back to our original question: what’s different now? In essence, three new factors are driving the latest set of developments.
The first is Donald Trump.
I mentioned that two key assumptions have underpinned the enduring international presence, namely the fear of a Taliban takeover if we withdraw, leaving a weak Afghan government behind, and the expectation that such a takeover would result in terrorist attacks from Afghanistan. Trump doesn’t seem to care much about the first issue, and his answer to the second is that if an attack took place, he would order massive retaliation.
Given his generally mercurial approach to foreign policy and the fact that he has indeed ordered strikes in Syria and raids in Yemen and Africa, this threat is probably credible enough to give the Taliban pause — and, more importantly, reassure some in Kabul. The US President — who campaigned on getting out of Afghanistan as part of a broader policy of extricating America from its Middle Eastern wars of occupation — has been remarkably consistent in fulfilling his campaign promises. In his recent State of the Union address he repeatedly emphasized the need for a political solution in Afghanistan.
But while he seems entirely serious about settling (as he calls it) with the Taliban, his attitude is sharply at odds with that of the US foreign policy establishment, the Defense Department (where secretary James Mattis resigned in protest over the Afghan and Syrian withdrawals), the Democratic opposition, and even his own Republican Party in congress, which passed a bipartisan resolution calling on him to maintain forces in Afghanistan and Syria.
So, with a US presidential election next year and its guerrillas gaining ground, Taliban negotiators know that this is the best offer they are likely to get, while by January 2021 there could be a very different occupant in the White House and Washington’s Afghanistan “forever war” project could be back on.
A second factor is also preying on Taliban minds — the rise of Islamic State-Khorasan, the Afghan branch of Abubakar al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State terrorist group. Having lost 98 per cent of its territory in Iraq and Syria, the group is looking for greener pastures in Africa, The Philippines, and particularly Afghanistan. IS-K has been very active since its first appearance in September 2015, launching a series of horrendously violent bombings and massacres, and the Taliban is an arch-enemy of the group.
Still, the group’s reach and influence are growing, leaving the Taliban with the choice to make peace this year under relatively favourable circumstances or face a war on two fronts with an emboldened IS-K in the future. Again, this puts pressure on Taliban negotiators to find a solution.
The final new factor is that Pakistan seems to have finally decided its interests are best served by peace in Afghanistan — hence the release of Baradar and the willingness to support talks.
The reason for this change might partly be the new, tougher line on Pakistan adopted by the Trump administration, or a policy shift by the civilian administration in Islamabad. But for my money, the most plausible explanation has to do with Pakistan’s major ally, China.
Chinese business and political influence in Afghanistan have been growing significantly in recent years through investments in mining and infrastructure, aid money, diplomatic activity and a limited military presence (with troops often disguised as security contractors working for Chinese companies in country).
Afghanistan is also an increasingly important market for Chinese goods. This matters to Pakistan because, if the key factor driving Islamabad’s behaviour has been fear of encirclement by India, then one solution is for a major Pakistani ally, China, to play an important role in Afghanistan and thereby counterbalance Indian influence.
This would reduce the requirement for Pakistan to tolerate the Taliban, since there would no longer be a strategic rationale to destabilise Afghanistan. While many in Washington see Chinese influence in Afghanistan as a threat, in fact a greater Chinese role in the region is probably inevitable in the long term and is likely to be quite constructive.
All this means that — after 18 years in which everybody wanted to end the war, but everybody also wanted some other objective even more and was willing to continue the war rather than risk that other goal — things might finally be changing for Afghanistan. While I am not as cynical about this as my hypothetical observer, I am very sceptical about the prospects for peace anytime soon. This is not the first time that talks have been mooted, it’s not the first time the stars have seemed to align for peace, and it’s clear that the Taliban is both far from defeated and incapable of winning outright.
There is also the not-so-minor matter of the sovereign independent government of Afghanistan, which strongly resents being cut out of negotiations, has defense and interior ministries led by highly competent hard-line adversaries of the Taliban, and is highly unlikely to acquiesce in its own abandonment.
So, time will tell, but at this point, colour me sceptical but not entirely cynical about prospects for peace in Afghanistan.
The horse has been man’s most important companion – forget cats and dogs – and the most durable of historical alliances – against which every other covenant has been fragile and ephemeral – not even our relationship with our gods has shown a comparable degree of stability. Our story resonates with an equine leitmotif – in our dreams, our fantasies, our histories, our literature, and our movies; in our aesthetics and our notions of speed, strength, power, courage, fortitude, loyalty and beauty.
Hey and away we go Through the grass, across the snow, Big brown beastie, big brown face, I’d rather be with you than flying through space.
Mike Oldfield, On Horseback
Oh the world is sweet The world is wide And she’s there where The light and the darkness divide And the steam’s coming off her She’s huge and she’s shy And she steps on the moon When she paws at the sky
Leonard Cohen, The Ballad of the Absent Mare
What is there not to love about a horse?
Its big, brown, doe eyes; its earthy, sweaty aroma from a land somewhere between babies and barnyards; the warmth of its neck on your palm; the rough feel of its mane in your fingers; the smell and the squeak of saddle leather; the jingle-bells of the bridle. The strength you sense through your thighs; an exhilaration that is close to fear as you kick his flanks into a trot, a canter, a gallop, and whoa! and you’re never one hundred percent sure she will obey you. And then, when it’s over, the radiated heat, the damp hide, the glow of sweat, almost a mist of equine energy as you dismount after the ride. You feel wired, alive, and at one with the horse, with the land, with nature.
I first rode a horse in the late seventies, on my first visit to Australia with my first wife. Her old man was a doctor on locum in Coolah, ‘beyond of the Black Stump’, which is to say, the back of beyond (and there really WAS a black stump on the outskirts of town, for the infrequent tourist to be photographed by in pre-selfie days). A local farmer had invited us out to ride his large property, and so we rode, in the heat haze of high summer, through wide, dry, open, paddocks, mobs of roos scattering as we approached, flocks of cockatoos roosting riotously in the branches of dead trees, and flies. Yes, I learned about the “Aussie salute” that summer. I fell in love with the Australian bush then and there, the “wide brown land” of Dorothea Mackelllar’s “sunburnt country“. A few years later, as a newly arrived immigrant, I would go riding again, this time with country friends in the Dungog cattle country north of Sydney.
I was not a good rider, but I loved the craic. Not a natural like Adele. When we first met, she kept four horses and looked after a whole riding school of them, bringing them in bareback riding, stock-whip cracking, a proper jillaroo. ‘Western pleasure’, it was called. No jackets and jodhpurs – it was cowboy hats, boots and blue jeans – before helmets and Occupational Health and Safety. I rode her gorgeous chestnut quarter horse called Twopence, and she, a handsome palomino named Trigger (of course). A riding accident put me in hospital – and I never rode a horse again.
Twopence & Trigger
That was a decades ago, but living in the bush, I still feel pleasure when I see horses in their paddocks. The sight, sound, and smell strike a melodious, atavistic chord that many would recognize as distinctively Australian. How many Aussies of a certain age would not thrill at the Banjo’s ballad of the bushman that is almost our national poem:
He hails from Snowy River, up by Kosciusko’s side, Where the hills are twice as steep and twice as rough, Where a horse’s hoofs strike firelight from the flint stones every stride, The man that holds his own is good enough’.
In this centennial year of the Palestine Campaign of WWI and the gallop of the Australian Light Horse towards the strategic Beersheba wells – praised, inaccurately, as history’s last great cavalry charge, the Light Horseman and his hardy “Waler” (from New South Wales) have achieved iconic status in a media supercharged on “Anzackery”. Calmer voices have argued that on the scale of the carnage on the western front, where Diggers died in their thousands, and indeed the Gaza battle itself, where the Anzacs were a very small part of a very large army, it was really no big thing, But never let the facts get between a politician and a photo-opportunity. During the closing scenes of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the journalist says: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”.
And it was always thus. As German academic and cultural scientist Ulrich Raulff’s tells us in his captivating “micro-history” Farewell to the Horse: The Final Century of Our Relationship:
“Like love and the stock exchange, our historical memory is a motherland of wishful thinking, sacrificed to our faith and blind to known facts…This is why historical myths are so tenacious. It’s as though the truth even when it’s there for everyone to see, is powerless – it can’t lay a finger on the all powerful myth”.
Farewell to the horse
It is an easy segue from my Australian pastorale to Raulff’s illuminating canter through the story of the “Centaurian Pact” between humans and horses. it is at once a ride, a revelation, and a reminiscence of my short-lived ‘cowboy’ days.
“The horse” Raulff begins, “has been man’s most important companion – forget cats and dogs – and the most durable of historical alliances – against which every other covenant into which we have entered has been fragile and ephemeral – not even our relationship with our gods has shown a comparable degree of stability”.
He then recounts how over the span of a few decades, a relationship that endured for six millennia went “to the dogs” – excuse my awful pet-food pun. And it happened almost unremarked, unnoticed, and unsung. “For a century, the oat-powered engine was the universal and irreplaceable power unit of the forced mechanization of the world”. And then it was gone, replaced by the internal combustion engine. And yet, the term “horsepower” is to this day a measure of the performance of vehicle engines (although now mostly replaced by kilowatts) – a horse was the equivalent of seven men.
“The twilight of the equine gods”, as Raulff describes it, was a long goodbye indeed, and in the realm of myth, memory and metaphor, horses are with us still; or as he so lyrically expresses it: “ghosts of modernity” (echoes of Dylan, in my mind, at least) that “haunt the minds of a humanity that has turned away from them”.
Like its subject, Farewell to the Horse is a handsome, wide-ranging, beast. More elegy than epitaph, eclectic and imaginative in scope, viewing the horse as muse, as mount, and as metaphor, Raulff sings the song of the horse – and if ever there was a ‘horse opera’, this is it.
Eloquently and at times poetically translated, and generously illustrated with pictures from galleries, libraries, and photo archives, Raulff takes the reader through the many worlds of the relationship. On his academic home-turf of sociology and psychology, his references are primarily German, but straying from his academic stable, he ambles into a lush and diverse pastureland of history and mythology, politics and philosophy. economics and geography, industry and commerce, physics and biology, science and medicine, sport and recreation. And art and literature: how artists and writers brought their perspectives, personas and passions onto canvas, Kodak and the printed page. In many ways, its infinite variety reminded me of English historian Simon Schama’s fascinating Landscape and Memory.
Raulff has divided his book into four broad thematic sections, each with an evocative title – The Centauran Pact, A Phantom in the Library. The Living Metaphor, and The Forgotten Player – each exploring a particular aspect of the horse’s story. But he allows himself much extempore stream of consciousness as he periodically wanders off-script with childhood reminiscences and collected anecdotes, and dips into favourite paintings, books and films. And time-travels through six thousand years, and traverses the globe too in his long ride – from the Steppes of Eurasia to the Great Plains of America, from the cities of MittelEuropa to those of the Midwest, with side trips to the Middle East and Andalusia.
It was contagious. I too got to thinking beyond the page, recalling and contemplating a miscellany of ideas and images that came to mind whilst reading, and indeed, whilst writing this review, wandering down forgotten bridle-ways (literally, a horse riding path, or trail originally created for use by horses, but often now serving a range of travelers). And is this not what a good book should do?
The Song of the Horse
The horse, the intelligent mammal, the great vegetarian, a prey animal whose strength is in flight, who has no desire or need for confrontation or quarrel. It’s speed, its main asset, enabling it to flee its predators, is also what attracted it to the attention of man, with whom it entered into a long-lived, unequal devil’s bargain. “They were able to turn the inconspicuous potential energy of tough prairie grasses, inedible to almost all other animals into the spectacular energy of a fast endurance runner. Thanks to its natural properties as a converter of energy, the horse could bear kings, Knights, female lovers and rural doctors, draw carriages and cannons, transport hordes of workers and employees, and mobilize entire nations”. And indeed, Raulff takes us on a jaunt through these tableaux.
He quotes historian Ann Hyland: “it was a small step, albeit a brave one, for man to mount a horse”, and writes: “The comparison with the moon landing is certainly not exaggerated. The moment when man began, by domestication and breeding, to connect his fate to the horse – not with a nutritional intention, but with a vectorial aim – may have been, before the invention of writing, the narrow gate through which man entered the realm of history”.
And lo, our story resonates with an equine leitmotif.
The horse is in our dreams and our fantasies, in our literature, and our movies, in our aesthetics, and our notions of speed, strength, power, courage, fortitude, loyalty and beauty. From the diverse mounts that conveyed Chaucer’s pilgrims to Canterbury to that paragon of American folk culture, the cowboy. From the rambunctious centaurs of Disney’s’ Beethoven Fantasia to the gaunt quartet bearing the seer of Patmos’ horsemen of the Apocalypse. From the teenage innocence of National Velvet and Black Beauty to Thomas Hardy and Carey Mulligan’s sensual and photogenic jaunt in the recent remake of Far From the Madding Crowd. From the patriotic jingoism of Alfred J Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade and Rudyard Kipling’s East is East and West is West to Banjo Patterson’s blokey bush ballad The Man From Snowy River, which I have quoted above (and will reprise below). The horse has even entered into the invented worlds of science fiction, with Joss Whedon’s rollicking space-pirate adventure, Firefly, and more recently, Westworldwith its Wild West theme park populated by lifelike android cowboys and Indians on their robot horses.
[If I have one small quibble about Farewell to the Horse, it is in its Eurocentricity. The Land Down Under doesn’t rate a mention even though the horse has played an important role in the evolution of Australia’s perceived national identity – “perceived” because here too, we are captive to that “powerful myth” that Raulff believes subverts fact]
Whilst drawing cleverly on the arts – and the book is well-furnished with illustrations that are well spoken to in the text – Raulff does not venture into poetry, where there are to be found many wonderful images. Take but a few examples drawn from just one poem, and marvel at the metaphors in Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Boys Own’ tale of a young British officer tracking down a daring Pathan bandit:
The Colonel’s son has taken horse, and a raw rough dun was he, With the mouth of a bell and the heart of Hell and the head of a gallows-tree”.
“It’s up and over the Tongue of Jagai, as blown dust-devils go, The dun he fled like a stag of ten, but the mare like a barren doe. The dun he leaned against the bit and slugged his head above, But the red mare played with the snaffle-bars, as a maiden plays with a glove”.
“They have ridden the low moon out of the sky, their hoofs drum up the dawn, The dun he went like a wounded bull, but the mare like a new-roused fawn”.
And, of course, there are the songs. There’s the doomed Texan troubadour Townes van Zandt’s enigmatic anti-hero:
Pancho was a bandit, boys His horse was fast as polished steel, Wore his gun outside his pants For all the honest world to feel
Pancho and Lefty
And whilst Raulff includes a poignant picture of a lone, pedestrian cowboy carrying his saddle through the scrub like a mariner lost on the land, he doesn’t mention Leonard Cohen’s bereft and distraught cowpoke :
Say a prayer for the cowboy His mare’s run away And he’ll walk til he finds her His darling, his stray
The Ballad of the Absent Mare
But more from St. Leonard of Montreal later…
Frederic Remington’s Bronco
A Phantom Limb
The horse’s glory days may be over, but the echoes of a long and fruitful relationship linger in our lines and in our language – in our idioms and our figures of speech: like, “getting back in the saddle”, “pulling the reins” and “taking the reins”, “champing at the bit”, “gaining the whip hand”, and the timeless put-down, “get off your high horse!” Phrases such as these are used everyday by people who have never been physically close to a horse let alone ridden one, and whose visual encounters are limited to country outings, circuses, televised equestrian events and westerns (in Australia, as in the US, we can still enjoy country fairs and carnivals that feature rodeos and endurance rides).
And note that these usages are somehow connected to power, control, and aggression – and often, casual, almost matter-of-fact violence (the idea of being “horse-whipped”) – violence inflicted not only on humans but on the animals too.
Raulff asks: Why is it that the most powerful visual images of horses are in their warrior role? Does it not say more about ourselves than what was genetically a passive, docile, tame-able (we call it “breaking”) grazer?
Salah ud Din al Ayubi, Damascus
The horse has a complex and varied curriculum vitae. For six millennia, it has been our dependable beast of burden, the bearer of people, packages and progress, shrinking distance and opening up new lands. But it has also been the agent of power, politics and pogroms. A bearer of great ideas, and also of great tyrants.
The horse has long been a living metaphor of power – the absolute political metaphor, indeed.
“The combination of horse and rider is a powerful symbol of domination, and one of the oldest in the book”. The caudillo, the martial “man on horseback” so beloved of painters and sculptors – and of putative dictators (although Stalin and Hitler, Raulff reminds us, despised horses). There’s Alexander the Great on Bucephalus, defeating Darius; David’s conquering Napoleon crossing the Alps; bodacious Boudicca reining in her chariot steeds on The Embankment. To be physically and violently unhorsed is to be taken down literally and figuratively. Hence Richard III’s anguished “my kingdom for a horse”, and George Armstrong Custer and the men of the Seventh Cavalry demountd and doomed on Last Stand Hill.
The rise of the horse changes the position of the people and along with it, their view of the world around them – what Raulff calls the ‘cavalier perspective’. It is rooted in an age-old fantasy of the fusion of man and beast, from centaur to chevalier. The unfortunate Aztecs believed the mounted conquistadors to be half man half beast. That dismissive rebuke “get off your high horse” echoes a primal fear of the mounted marauder, be he the Scythian archer, the Mongol warrior, the rogue knight or the Red Indian (“savage” he was called back in the day) of the Great Plains. Recall the Cossacks lining up on the snow-covered square, about to charge the defenseless marchers in David Lean’s Dr Zhivago. Recall the Dothraki, screaming their war cries, thundering down on the doomed Lannister infantry. “We still see traces of horses’ archaic role as inspirers of terror when required to intimidate picketing workers or to drive rallies of protesters out of shopping precincts”.
Something wicked this way comes – Clive Owen’s Slav King Arthur
During his travels, Raulff visited Israel, where he chanced to observe ultra-orthodox Jews protesting against their youth being conscripted into the Israeli Defense Force. Jerusalem authorities mobilized mounted police officers against the recalcitrant religious. He indulges in pogrom projection, imagining the Haredim being intimated by a Cossack Shtetl flashback. Fanciful, perhaps, but as a young man during the Vietnam demonstrations in London’s Grosvenor Square, I learned that there’s no greater killer of revolutionary passion than the sight of than a wall of fat horse’s arses backing towards you with those nervous hooves a’twitching.
And yet, the use of the horse in this manner forces it to go against its nature, trained to stand its ground in dangerous circumstances when all its instincts are to flee danger. Ostensible police brutality in Grosvenor Square was juxtaposed by the reality that police horses were stabbed by banners and tripped and stoned with glass marbles. Several were so injured that they had to be euthanized.
Horse meets Haredim in Jerusalem
…and meanwhile, in the other side of town
The Wide Open Spaces
The power bestowed upon men by horses is much more than such authoritarian, martial muscle. The horse enabled landsmen to conquer what Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey called “the tyranny of distance”. For Rudyard Kipling’s “fluttered folk and wild”, it ushered in a tyranny of a malevolent kind.
The horse-led conquests of European and Asian empires during the second millennium BCE by the chariots and later, cavalry of the horse-people disgorging from the steppes like some equestrian blitzkrieg, transformed world history. They brought their political structures, their warfare, their masculine, spiritual character – their “asabiyyeh” or, literally “muscle” as famed Arab historian Ibn Khaldun put it. The Eurasian nomadic warrior, “that ‘natural born’ combatant, who, as tough and austere as his resilient horse, emerged as the terror of the sedentary populations of Europe and the orient”. The same could be said of the warriors of Islam as they erupted out of their Arabian heartland and reached the walls of Constantinople and the frontiers of the Franks.
One powerful factor in these invasions was the horsemen’s speed. “In every contemporary account of the Mongols, great stress is laid on their speed: suddenly they were there, only to vanish and appear somewhere else even more suddenly”. The alliance between man, horse, and the arrow was likewise significant, providing the ability to kill from a distance, whilst moving, on horseback.
“Thanks to the horse, distant territories could be conquered and vast dominions could be established. The horse and its rider made the land they traversed tangible, recognizable, and able to be taken”. The horse became indispensable in terms of control of the land, subduing its inhabitants, and enabling Its exploration. In America, it brought the conquistadors, and in time, ensured that The West was won with catastrophic consequences for the native Americans with the loss their land and hunting grounds .
A Day at the Races
Our pact with the horse was much more up more than the power and the glory, the conquest and the trail-blazing. Horses’ fleetness, stamina and beauty satisfied other, more hedonistic yearnings, and today, their days on the field of battle long over, they serve to give us pleasure – and profit.
And they have always done thus – particularly in the antecedents and descendants of the Ancient Greek hippodrome (named thus for horses and the racing thereof). In the downtime between warring and raiding, hunting and horse and chariot racing attracted many a warrior’s energy and enthusiasm, and provided less martial spectators with, vicarious thrills. We have been racing horses for as long as they have been our companions, and wagering on their speed and stamina. This passion fostered complementary endeavours in breeding, training, thieving, and gambling.
The racing carnival still exerts an atavistic, ofttimes addictive spell over riders, owners and punters alike. “The spectacle of race day echoes times and indeed conflicts past, the jockeys’ bright colours, representing a return of heraldry, a way of distinguishing otherwise indiscernible participants”.
It’s there you’ll see the jockeys and they’re mounted out so stately, The pink, the blue, the orange and green, the emblem of our nation, When the bell was rung for starting, all the horses seemed impatient, I thought they never stood on ground their speed was so amazing
Galway Races (Ireland, traditional)
In horse racing, nothing and no one is hunted, only the shadows of time”, Raulff notes prosaicly.
American author EC Morgan is similarly lyrical: “Time is a horse you never have to whip”,
In That Howling Infinite recently published a review of Morgan’s masterwork The Sport of Kings, a long and deep story about an old Kentucky horse-breeding family. She displays an unerring instinct for metaphor and music. A horse’s neck shudders under its rider’s hands “like a dreaming dog”. Of the racehorses, she writes: “they exploded out of the gate like doves from a cote”; and, “now the school of horses swung round the turn as if caught in a sweep net”.
Raulff explains why horse racing was indeed ‘the sport of kings: Britain emerged as the world power of thoroughbred racing under the racIng-mad Stuart Kings who transformed the sleepy village of Newmarket into the Mecca of the turf, supplanting hunting with punting as the favourite pastime of the idle rich and the indolent upper classes. When Scots King James wasn’t corralling and coaxing the best minds in the land into producing his beautiful Bible, he was both patron and participant with a keen eye for quality horse-flesh.
Did I mention that horses can be dangerous? They are large, high, broad, heavy, and for all their tameness in the hands of a seasoned rider, they can also be excitable, unpredictable, and wild. When you take up the reins, you literally put your life in your hands. In My Early Life , his biography of his cavalry days, Winston Churchill wrote: “No hour of life is lost that is spent in the saddle. Young men have often been ruined by owning horses, or through backing horses, but never through riding them, unless, of course, they break their necks, which, taken at a gallop, is a very good way to die”.
But danger can come in other guises.
There was probably no way a cultural scientist trained in sociology and psychology could or would avoid how in its variegated pedigree, the horse has also figured as a sexual metaphor, conjuring up thoughts erotic with images of fair maids carried away by amorous riders. Raulff’s copious images include those famous abduction scenes beloved of renaissance painters, but there are many encounters in literature, art, cinema and song that are much less violent. It is as if the rider’s skill with his mount presages his prowess in the sack. There is titillation, there is temptation, and perhaps, surrender. Picture Ross Poldark cantering broodily across the Cornish clifftop, and lifting his Demelza up onto Seamus’ back (that is indeed his name).
True you ride the finest horse I’ve ever seen, Standing sixteen one or two with eyes wild and green, And you ride the horse so well, hands light to the touch. I could never go with you no matter how I wanted to.
Jimmy McCarthy, Ride On (listen to the song at the end end of this post)
Ross Poldark and Seamus
Ulrich gets into his stride, so to speak, when he commits to print his daydreams of the object of many a teenage baby boomers’ longing, the androgynous, pony-tailed cow-girl. He ponders also the puzzle of pubescent girls and horses – that tom-boy world, temporary “islands in the flowing river of time”: “Somewhere between a doll and a real-life partner, the horse is the ultimate sex toy. It’s the largest, most beautiful and final plaything before the transition from home and family to a new relationship with a sexual partner”.
Having raised the subject of women on horseback, there no ignoring the Amazons. Legend says that they were adept horse-women. As are the heroines of the literary canon who express their subversive sexuality in equestrian interludes – Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, and Thomas Hardy’s Bathsheba Everdene. Each are subjected to the author’s affectionate attention. When JRR Tolkien wanted to present a strong and wilful heroine in his ostensibly homoerotic epic, he placed Éowyn on a horse, albeit incognito. But she was the exception to JRR’s macho rule. He would never have sent elf princess Arwen Evenstar out like that. But director Peter Jackson, sensing how well it would translate to film, substituted the luminous Liv Tyler for elf lord Glorfindel to confound the Nazgul riders at the ford of Bruinen. Here is a Carey Mulligan in glamorous array as Bathsheba:
The horse, the healer
So what is this spell that horses weave? We’ve talked about power. We’ve talked about prowess. We’ve talked about passion. Raulff doesn’t venture into the imaginative, the mystical, the magical, and, going further, ameliorative power of horses – that inexplicable feeling you sense when you’re in close proximity to a horse. presence, an aura of sentient calmness. Let’s go back to our opening paragraph.
“What is there not to love about a horse? Its big, brown, doe eyes; its earthy, sweaty aroma from a land somewhere between babies and barnyards; the warmth of its neck on your palm; the rough feel of its mane in your fingers; the smell and the squeak of saddle leather; the jingle-bells of the bridle. The strength you sense through your thighs; an exhilaration that is close to fear as you kick his flanks into a trot, a canter, a gallop, and whoa! and you’re never one hundred percent sure she will obey you. And then, when it’s over, the radiated heat, the damp hide, the glow of sweat, almost a mist of equine energy as you dismount after the ride. You feel wired, alive, and at one with the horse, with the land, with nature”.
It is said that there there is much more to a horse than its rider and that undeniably physical allure – that if you put your hands on or even near a horse’s body and close your eyes, you can feel a golden thread of energy travelling from your hands to its body, and from that body to your hands. There is a quiet strength to a horse that communicates a state of calm, relation, and peace. and a Therapists who work with grief and trauma are discovering that an emotional connection can exist between a horse and a human, that being in nature, in the presence of horses, seems to help children, teenagers and adults expand their emotional awareness and enhance their mental health, beginning the work of reconnecting them to the self, and to their environment, and even healing something inside that has been broken, often for years.
Poets might describe it as an opening up the heart. Therapists call it limbic resonance, the capacity for sharing deep emotional states arising from the limbic system of the brain, which can include heightened feelings of empathic harmony. Horses, they believe, are highly sensitive creatures and possess an uncanny ability to read and mirror us because it is a skill that keeps them alive. They are instinctively prey animals, and in order to survive, they had to become excellent interpreters of energy, emotion and intention. Their sensitivity has been bred into their DNA for millions of years. But It is still all about the heart and the emotional states of calm and even joy when we feel positive emotions.
for further reading on the horse as therapist, read this piece on horse heart math and an article by Candida Baker, an equine facilitated learning practitioner who helps people suffering from trauma in the Sydney Morning Herald.
The Unequal Bargain
There are wealth of emotions associated with horses, such as pride and admiration, a desire for power, fear and joy, compassion, and companionship, and a lust for freedom. The pony is the cowboys’ closest pal. Western star and crooner Roy Rogers described it best:
Who carries your burden, who carries your load On tumbleweed land or a long dusty road Who asks you no questions, who tells you no lies That four legged friend with the two honest eyes A four legged friend, a four legged friend He’ll never let you down He’s honest and faithful right up to the end That wonderful four legged friend
Roy Rogers, A Four Legged Friend (listen to the song at the end end of this post)
Over two millennia we have lavished depthless emotion, boundless affection and unlimited treasure upon horses. But we have also been capable of great cruelty both casual and calculated, – from willful neglect and senseless whipping to silent sacrifice as expendable extras on battlefields and motion picture sets. Raulff documents in prose and picture the violence inflicted upon our “four legged friend”, and also how pathos and sympathy for the horses’ plight evolved into a worldwide movement for the prevention of cruelty to all creatures great and small.
That very same Banjo Paterson who gave us the Snowy Mountain man’s famous ride also glorifying the race track – and yet the annual Melbourne Cup, Australia’s ‘race that stops a nation’, sees horses killed every year. we as a nation continue to praise and perpetuate what many see as animal cruelty. In Paterson’s day, horses were valuable and relied upon for transport and pleasure – theft was common – yet they were treated appallingly. Read The Man From Snowy Riverand reflect on the agony the hero inflicts upon his mount, which could barely move by the end of the ride and ‘was blood from hip to shoulder from the spur’. Yet Banjo, like apologists for the deaths on the track today – suggests that the horse was reveling in the chase.
But horses’ iconic place in our hearts and souls are sealed by their status as mobile metaphors of speed, of grace, of the wind in one’s hair, of wild, exhilarating, uninhibited freedom: “Run wild, run free”, like the troubled teen and the wild blue-eyed white colt in the 1969 British film of that name.
As Victorian bush poet James Cayce write in his poem A Magnificent Contradiction, a reminder of a debt that cannot be repaid:
The swirl of your mane alive in the wind, the glow on your flanks in the sun The spirit of freedom you stir in my soul, the rhythm and grace when you run. A whirlwind of power to wield or withhold; each movement made with conviction, A titan at work, a child at play; a magnificent contradiction
And it is with this in mind that Raulff concludes his epic ride, for it is one of the most poignant paradoxes that the idea of freedom and movement associated with horses and being on horseback, the image of the wild mustangs in The Misfits and Banjo Paterson’s Colt from Old Regret, is juxtaposed with the reality that this “creature of the wind”, as the Arabs described him, has surrendered her freedom and free will in the service of man.
Quoting the poet Albrecht Schaefer, Raulff tells of how “the horse knows that it would like to be free … but the burden is never ending, and it is rarely allowed to run and has to stand there even when it is frightened and when it is seized by the urge to return to its nature, to flee … It is trapped in eternal captivity, always overshadowed by an inescapable will to which it resigns itself without ever realizing”.
This magnificent animal, Raulff writes, “held in perpetual captivity, is seen by us as the epitome of all in nature that embodies nobility and magnanimity, stature, pride, and courage”.
Now the clasp of this union Who fastens it tight? Who snaps it asunder The very next night Some say the rider Some say the mare Or that love’s like the smoke Beyond all repair
Leonard Cohen, The Ballad of the Absent Mare
When the white man came into the new world, he brought his horses. He conquered the land and broke it – its ecology, its pre-Colombian history, and its people.
In the early years, the horses of the conquistadors humbled and harried the Native Americans. In time, many horses scattered and ran wild, and on the open prairie grasslands, they prospered and multiplied. The free people of the plains captured and tamed those feral mustangs, and so mounted, were better able to travel over great distances to fresh pastures and to the wide grazing grounds of the vast herds of buffalo, a rich source of food and fashion.
The horse gave the Native Americans mobility and speed, and an economic asset of value. They began trading horses with their neighbours, and also horse stealing, whilst their mounts gave them the edge in their territorial vendettas with neighbouring tribes. They bought steel axes and knives From the white traders who ventured into their lands from the east, and also, firearms which augmented their already effective mounted archery. This gave them a tactical edge when they first came up against the mounted soldiers of the US Army.
They were a formidable foe, their speed and maneuverability and their skill with bow and rifle, were more than a match for the clumsy, old-school heavy cavalry, and these, indeed, were compelled to adjust their own style and tactics to match their guerrilla adversaries, taking up light weapons – carbines and revolvers – and fighting on foot as circumstances dictated.
The irony of the Battle of Little Big Horn is that George Armstrong Custer and his men rode on to a battlefield in which they were out-horsed, outgunned, and outmaneuvered by their numerically stronger foe. But the US Army exacted a terrible revenge for Little Big Horn. The days of the Plains Indian were numbered as the army and the hunters destroyed the buffalo herds that fed and clothed the tribes, and killed their horses, ending forever their wandering ways. As Neil Young was later to sing in Pocahontas:
They killed us in our tepee And they cut our women down They might have left some babies Cryin’ on the ground But the firesticks and the wagons come And the night falls on the setting sun
Say a prayer for the cowboy
His mare’s run away
And he’ll walk til he finds her
His darling, his stray
But the river’s in flood
And the roads are awash
And the bridges break up
In the panic of loss.
And there’s nothing to follow
There’s nowhere to go
She’s gone like the summer
Gone like the snow
And the crickets are breaking
His heart with their song
As the day caves in
And the night is all wrong
Did he dream, was it she
Who went galloping past
And bent down the fern
Broke open the grass
And printed the mud with
The iron and the gold
That he nailed to her feet
When he was the lord
And although she goes grazing
A minute away
He tracks her all night
He tracks her all day
Oh blind to her presence
Except to compare
His injury here
With her punishment there
Then at home on a branch
In the highest tree
A songbird sings out
Ah the sun is warm
And the soft winds ride
On the willow trees
By the river side
Oh the world is sweet
The world is wide
And she’s there where
The light and the darkness divide
And the steam’s coming off her
She’s huge and she’s shy
And she steps on the moon
When she paws at the sky
And she comes to his hand
But she’s not really tame
She longs to be lost
He longs for the same
And she’ll bolt and she’ll plunge
Through the first open pass
To roll and to feed
In the sweet mountain grass
Or she’ll make a break
For the high plateau
Where there’s nothing above
And there’s nothing below
And it’s time for the burden
It’s time for the whip
Will she walk through the flame
Can he shoot from the hip
So he binds himself
To the galloping mare
And she binds herself
To the rider there
And there is no space
But there’s left and right
And there is no time
But there’s day and night
And he leans on her neck
And he whispers low
“Whither thou goest
I will go”
And they turn as one
And they head for the plain
No need for the whip
Ah, no need for the rein
Now the clasp of this union
Who fastens it tight?
Who snaps it asunder
The very next night
Some say the rider
Some say the mare
Or that love’s like the smoke
Beyond all repair
But my darling says
“Leonard, just let it go by
That old silhouette
On the great western sky”
So I pick out a tune
And they move right along
And they’re gone like the smoke
And they’re gone like this song
Reviewing 2017, I am reminded of Game of Thrones‘ Mance Rayder’s valedictory: “I wish you good fortune in the wars to come”.
On the international and the domestic front, it appeared as if we were condemned to an infernal and exasperating ‘Groundhog Day’.
Last November, we welcomed Donald Trump to the White House with bated breath and gritted teeth, and his first year as POTUS did not disappoint. From race-relations to healthcare to tax reform to The Middle East, South Asia and North Korea, we view his bizarro administration with a mix of amusement and trepidation. Rhetorical questions just keep coming. Will the Donald be impeached? Are we heading for World War 3? How will declining America make itself “great again” in a multipolar world set to be dominated by Russia Redux and resurgent China. Against the advice of his security gurus, and every apparently sane and sensible government on the globe (including China and Russia, but not King Bibi of Iz), his Trumpfulness recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Jerusalem. Sure, we all know that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel – but we are not supposed to shout it out loud in case it unleashed all manner of mayhem on the easily irritated Muslim street. Hopefully, as with many of Trump’s isolationist initiatives, like climate change, trade, and Iran, less immoderate nations will take no notice and carry on regardless. The year closes in, and so does the Mueller Commission’s investigation into Russia’s meddling in the last presidential election and the Trumpistas’ connivance and complicity – yes, “complicit”, online Dictionary.com’s Word of the Year, introduced to us in her husky breathlessness by the gorgeous Scarlett Johansson in a spoof perfume ad that parodies Ivanka Trump’s merchandizing.
Britain continues to lumber towards the Brexit cliff, its unfortunate and ill-starred prime minister marked down as “dead girl walking”. Negotiations for the divorce settlement stutter on, gridlocked by the humongous cost, the fate of Europeans in Britain and Brits abroad, and the matter of the Irish border, which portends a return to “the troubles” – that quintessentially Irish term for the communal bloodletting that dominated the latter half of the last century. The May Government’s hamfistedness is such that at Year End, many pundits are saying that the public have forgotten the incompetence of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, and predict that against all odds, his missus could soon be measuring up for curtains in Number Ten.
Beset by devilish twins of Trump and Brexit, a European Union written-off as a dysfunctional, divided bureaucratic juggernaut, appears to have found hidden reserves of unity and purpose, playing hardball with Britain, dismissing the claims of Catalonia and Kurdistan, rebuking an isolationist America, and seeing-off resurgent extreme right-wing parties that threaten to fracture it with their nationalist and anti-immigration agendas. Yet, whilst Marine Le Pen and Gert Wilders came up short in the French and Dutch elections, and centrists Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel hold the moderate middle, atavistic, autocratic and proto-fascist parties have risen to prominence and influence in formerly unfree Eastern Europe, driven by fear of a non-existent flood of refugees from the Middle East and Africa (these are headed for the more pleasant economic climes of Germany, Britain and Scandinavia), and perhaps, their historically authoritarian DNA. Already confronted with the Russian ascendency in the east, and the prospects of the Ukrainian – Donetsk conflict firing up in the near future, the EU’s next big challenge is likely to be reacquainting itself with its original raisin d’etre – the European Project that sought to put an end to a century of European wars – and addressing the potential expulsion of parvenu, opportunistic member states who fail to uphold the union’s democratic values. As a hillbilly villain in that great series Justifed declaimed, “he who is not with is not with us”.
The frail, overcrowded boats still bob dangerously on Mediterranean and Aegean waters, and the hopeful of Africa and Asia die hopelessly and helplessly. Young people, from east and west Africa flee poverty, unemployment, and civil war, to wind up in Calais or in pop-up slave markets in free but failed Libya. In the Middle East the carnage continues. Da’ish might be finished on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, with the number of civilian casualties far exceeding that of dead jihadis. But its reach has extended to the streets of Western Europe – dominating headlines and filling social media with colourful profile pictures and “I am (insert latest outrage)” slogans. Meanwhile, tens, scores, hundreds die as bombs explode in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Afghanistan and Pakistan, with no such outpourings of empathy – as if it’s all too much, too many, too far away.
Bad as 2017 and years prior were for this sad segment of our planet, next year will probably not be much better. The autocrats are firmly back in the saddle from anarchic Libya and repressed Egypt to Gulf monarchs and Iranian theocrats. There will be the wars of the ISIS succession as regional rivals compete with each other for dominance. Although it’s ship of state is taking in water, Saudi Arabia will continue its quixotic and perverse adventures in the Gulf and the Levant. At play in the fields of his Lord, VP Pence declared to US troops in December that victory was nigh, the Taliban and IS continue to make advances in poor, benighted Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Africa will continue to bleed, with ongoing wars across the Sahel, from West and Central Africa through to South Sudan, ethnic tensions in the fragile nations of the Rift Valley, and further unrest in newly ‘liberated’ Zimbabwe as its people realize that the military coup is yet another case what The Who called “meet the old boss, same as the new boss”.
This Syrian mother and her child were rescued by the Greek Coast Guard.
In our Land Down Under, we endured the longest, most boring election campaign in living memory, and got more of the same: a lacklustre Tory government, and a depressingly dysfunctional and adversarial political system. Politicians of all parties, blinkered by short-termism, and devoid of vision, insist on fiddling whilst the antipodean Rome burns. All this only accentuates Australians’ disenchantment with their representatives, warps their perception of the value and values of “democracy”, and drives the frustrated, disgruntled, fearful and alienated towards the political extremes – and particularly the Right where ambitious but frustrated once, present and future Tory politicians aspire to greatness as big fishes in little ponds of omniphobia.
Conservative Christian politicians imposed upon us an expensive, unnecessary and bitterly divisive plebiscite on same-sex marriage which took forever. And yet, the non-compulsory vote produced a turnout much greater than the U.K. and US elections and the Brexit referendum, and in the end, over sixty percent of registered voters said Yes. Whilst constituencies with a high proportion of Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Chinese cleaved to the concept that marriage was only for man and women, the country, urban and rural, cities and states voted otherwise. The conservatives’ much-touted “silent majority” was not their “moral majority” after all. Our parliamentarians then insisted on dragging the whole sorry business out for a fortnight whilst they passed the legislation through both Houses of Parliament in an agonizingly ponderous pantomime of emotion, self-righteousness and grandstanding. The people might have spoken, but the pollies just had to have the last word. Thanks be to God they are all now off on their summer hols! And same-sex couples can marry in the eyes of God and the state from January 9th 2018.
Meanwhile, in our own rustic backyard, we are still “going up against chaos”, to quote Canadian songster Bruce Cockburn. For much of the year, as the last, we have been engaged in combat with the Forestry Corporation of New South Wales as it continues to lay waste to the state forest that surrounds us. As the year draws to a close, our adversary has withdrawn for the long, hot summer, but will return in 2018, and the struggle will continue – as it will throughout the state and indeed the nation as timber, coal and gas corporations, empowered by legislation, trash the common treasury with the assent of our many governments.
And finally, on a light note, a brief summary of what we were watching during the year. There were the latest seasons of Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. The former was brilliant, and the latter left us wondering why we are still watching this tedious and messy “Lost in Zombieland”. Westworld was a delight with its fabulous locations and cinematography, a script that kept us backtracking to listen again to what was said and to keep up with its many ethical arcs and literary revenues. and a cavalcade of well cast, well-written and original characters. Westworld scored a post of its own on this blog – see below. The Hand Maid’s Tale wove a dystopian tale all the more rendered all the more harrowing by the dual reality that there are a lot of men in the world who would like to see women in servitude, and that our society has the technology to do it. To celebrate a triumphant return, our festive present to ourselves were tee-shirts proclaiming: “‘ave a merry f@#kin’ Christmas by order of the Peaky Blinders”. And on Boxing Day, Peter Capaldi bade farewell as the twelfth and second-best Doctor Who (David Tennant bears the crown), and we said hello to the first female Doctor, with a brief but chirpy Yorkshire “Aw, brilliant!” sign-on from Jodie Whittaker.
Whilst in Sydney, we made two visits to the cinema (tow more than average) to enjoy the big-screen experience of the prequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien and the long-awaited sequel to our all-time favourite film Blade Runner. Sadly, the former, Alien: Covenant, was a disappointment, incoherent and poorly written. The latter, whilst not as original, eye-catching and exhilarating as its parent, was nevertheless a cinematic masterpiece. It bombed at the box office, just like the original, but Blade Runner 2049 will doubtless become like it a cult classic.
This then was the backdrop to In That Howling Infinite’s 2017 – an electic collection covering politics, history, music, poetry, books, and dispatches from the Shire.
On politics generally, we couldn’t get through the year without featuring Donald Trump. In The Ricochet of Trump’s Counterrevolution, Australian commentator Paul Kelly argues that to a certain degree, Donald Trump’s rise and rise was attributable to what he and other commentators and academics describe as a backlash in the wider electorate against identity and grievance politics. Then there is the reblog of New York author Joseph Suglia’s original comparison between Donald Trump’s White House and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. But our particular favourite isDeep in the Heart of Texas, a review of an article in The New Yorker by Lawrence Wright. His piece is a cracker – a must-read for political junkies and all who are fascinated and frightened by the absurdities of recent US politics.
Our continuing forest fight saw us return to Tolkien’s Tarkeeth, focusing this time around on fires that recalled Robert Plant’s lyrics in Ramble On: In the darkest depths of Mordor. The trial in Coffs Harbour ofthe Tarkeeth Three and the acquittal of two of our activists were chronicled on a series of interviews recorded by Bellingen’s Radio 2bbb, whilst other interviews were presented in The Tarkeeth Tapes. On a lighter note, we revisited our tribute to the wildlife on our rural retreat in the bucolic The Country Life.
The great and the good, the wise and the weary, have all offered a definition of ‘history’. To Napoleon, it was “a myth that men agree to believe”. Historian Marc Bloch observed that it was “an endeavour towards better understanding”. His Nazi killers disagreed – their’s was a less nuanced, more zero-sum approach. Abba Eban, long time Israeli foreign minister, wrote that it “teaches us that men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives”. Aldous Huxley wrote “that men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.” And channeling Mark Twain and Karl Marx, Buffy Summers remarked, “You know what they say. Those of us who fail history are, doomed to repeat it in summer school”. But best is John Banville’s admission in The Sea that “the past beats inside me like a second heart”. Simply put, we like to see some pattern, some sense of order to it all. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. commented: “The passion for tidiness is the historian’s occupational disease”. Niccolo Machiavelli wrote: “Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who have ever been, and shall ever be, animated by the same passions. And thus they necessarily have the same results”. And yet, whilst seeking patterns, we cannot really use them to predict outcomes. And it is impossible to know what really happened. The past is another country and all that. All we can say for sure is that in the end, history will remember where we end up much more than how we got there. And, history takes time. All the time in the world.
As Mark Twain remarked sardonically, “history doesn’t repeat itself. A best, it sometimes rhymes”. A recent rhyme was evident when an opulent exhibition on the life and legacy of Alexander The Great of Macedon was brought from ‘old world’ St.Petersburg, the twice renamed city of Peter The Great of Russia, to ‘ new world’ Sydney, Australia. For all his ‘greatness’, young Alexander was, like Lord Byron “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”, but with murderous psycho mixed in. In his ‘Inferno’, Dante had him standing in the river of boiling blood, along with war-mongers and murderers. Why don’t these people just stay at home! Well, what would you think? You are minding your own business down beside the rivers of Babylon, and then suddenly, there’s an army of 50,000 Greeks on the other bank intent on doing damage. Or there you are, beside the sacred Indus, just about to tuck into your chicken vindaloo, when a rampaging horde of homesick Greeks come charging over the horizon. And you ask to no one in particular, because they have all been massacred or enslaved by now, “Why don’t they do the things they do back in their own bloody country?” And there you are on the banks of the Tigris, minding your own business, and keeping out of the way of the Mukhabarat, when over the horizon in a cloud of dust and disco sweeps a column of armoured vehicles and hordes of ka-firi-n with rifles and ray-bans. And you ask to no one in particular, because they have all been bombed or strafed by now, “Why don’t they do the things they do back in their own bloody country?” Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose. Nothing much has changed, really.
Which brings us back perhaps, to what Basil Fawlty called ‘the bleeding obvious”. Beyond the scholars’ passion for patterns, and the dry dialectics of cause and effect, there is the personal dimension. Who were the actual inhabitants of ‘history’? What did they think and feel? The thinking of another time can be hard to understand. Ideas and ideologies once compelling may become unfathomable. And the tone and sensibility that made those ideas possible is even more mysterious. We read, we ponder, and we endeavour to empathize, to superimpose the template of our value system, our socialization, our sensibilities upon the long-dead. And thence, we try to intuit, read between the lines, draw out understanding from poems, plays, novels, memoirs, pictures, photographs, and films of the past. We feel we are experiencing another facet of the potential range of human experience. But in reality, we are but skimming the surface, drawing aside a heavy curtain for a momentary glimpse through an opaque window into the past. Simply put, people who lived ‘then’ are not at all the same as we who live ’now’.
Over two and a half thousand years ago, the controversial Greek poetess Sappho wrote:”I tell you, someone will remember us; even in another time”. And so we do, for one thing is for certain: we all love a good story. As they say, in Arabic, as indeed in all tongues, times and places, “ka-n ya ma ka-n bil ‘adim izzama-n wa sa-lifi al aSri wa la-wa-n”‘ or, “once upon an time”.
So, let us walk down what Welsh poet RS Thomas called ‘the long road of history”, beginning with, yes, the usual suspects: power and pride, greed, and aggrandizement, and as accessories after the fact, dolour, devastation, and death.
Time: Year Zero of the Christian era. Place: The Mediterranean littoral
Often, with overwhelming political and military power and economic wealth come arrogance, decadence, and complacency. And with lean and hungry barbarians on the borderland, the geographical interface between the desert and the sown, and soon hanging around the gates, so the seeds of decline and destruction are scattered and germinate. The Pharaohs conquered and ruled over much of North Africa and the Middle East for centuries. Indeed, the first historical record of a ‘formal’ set piece battle between two armies took place in 1468 BCE at Meggido, just south east of Haifa in present day Israel – some five thousand Egyptians took on and bested two thousand Canaanite soldiers of local city states. But Egypt was to fall to the ascendant and ambitious Greeks and Persians, and later, the Romans. And down went these mighty successors. Thebes, Athens, Sparta, Persepolis, Ctesiphon, Rome, Carthage, Byzantium, Constantinople. Grand names, but now bones, bones, dry bones. The Bard of Avon declaimed “The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great globe itself, Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve”. As Percy B Shelley intoned: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away”.
It was the English historian Toynbee who suggested that “civilizations die from suicide, not murder”. They lose their “mojo”. The 14th Century Arab philosopher of history, Ibn Khaldun, called it “assabiyah” – in short, they lose their élan, their sense of direction and their minds. His point was that the moribund Byzantine and Sassanian empires were broke and militarily overstretched, corrupt, venal and soft, and hence no match for the desert hardened, combat keen, tribally cohesive, spiritually zealous warriors of the one true faith.
At the dawn of the Christian era, the known world was divided up between the those Romans and Persians, who themselves had subjugated and subsumed the Greeks and Phoenician Carthaginians, and Hittites and Assyrians respectively (in the east, the Chinese and Indians boasted powerful, prosperous civilizations as old as The Pharaohs, but this is not their story). Anyhow, the Romans, who morphed into the Byzantines with the loss of the western empire (to nomadic rovers from out of the east) in the third and fourth centuries, and the Persians, were over extended and overspent, slave societies living off the land and labour of conquered peoples. Until they were challenged and defeated by another ascendant power. Those Arabs of Arabia and of the imperial marches.
For generations this lot had served as mercenaries and satraps of both empires, and fired up by the energy and unity of a new but hybrid faith, and muscled up with a martial spirit built upon generations of mercenary employment and privateering, stormed the sclerotic empires from within and without, and in the space of fifty years after the prophet’s death, built a domain that extended from Spain to Afghanistan. Modern genetic analysis has shown that the bloodline of these desert conquerors is as much a mosaic as most other overlords. Assyrian, Babylonian, Hittite, Persian, Egyptian, Nubian, Greek, Phoenician, Roman, Arabian, Hebrew. And whoever else may have been passing through. Many races came and settled, and many too were invaded and scattered. The ruins and artefacts endure still to remind us of their passage.
And this genetic calabash was stirred some more with the Arab conquests. As they surged eastwards and westwards, slaves were sent homewards as plunder and labour. This was the modus operandi of carnivorous empires throughout history. The Babylonians did it; the Romans too. They conquered and controlled though mass death and deportation, dragging their broken subjects in tens and hundreds of thousands across the known world. So too with the Arabs, therefore, as hundreds of thousands of souls from afar afield as the Pyrenees and the Hindu Kush ended their days in Cairo, Damascus, Jerusalem, and Baghdad. Blue eyed blondes and redheads, sallow skinned Turkic and Chinese. You see their heirs today in Homs and Aleppo, Gaza and Hebron. In a fascinating post-classical irony, the European empires were likewise catalysts for ethic trans-migration. The suburbs of Paris and Marseilles, Birmingham and Bradford reflect the colours, cuisines, and conflicts of once-upon-a-homeland.
It is the view of some revisionist historians that whilst Mohammad and his revelations provided the impetus for the Arab “surge”, the religion that we know as Islam was actually retrofitted to the Arab adventurers’ ethos, a kind of ex post facto justification for what was in reality an old fashioned smash and grab. They suggest, therefore, that Islam and the role of Mohammad within it as the messenger and final word were cleverly constructed one to two hundred years after his death by Arab dynasties seeking legitimacy and heavenly sanction for their own aggrandizement. But then, wasn’t it always thus? As Jarred Dimond and others have written, this pandering to invisible friends and post-mortem insurance is part of our genetic baggage. It goes back to way back, to Neanderthals, and before them, to chimpanzees, our closest relatives).
Notwithstanding this, these parvenus ushered in the flowering of Arab culture in the arts, architecture, literature, and science as caliphs encouraged intellectual inquiry, and invited polymaths from across the known world to abide in their domains. Indeed, much of the work of the Greek and Roman philosophers, mathematicians, astronomers, doctors and scientists was translated into Arabic and preserved for posterity when the Roman Empire was overrun by waves of barbarians, the beginning of what are called The Dark Ages.
One other ‘safe house’ for these tracts during these dire days was Ireland, in the monasteries of the far west, where monks would meticulously copy rare texts, often embellishing them with their own, ‘Celtic’ art work. The Book of Kells owes a stylistic debt to the monasteries of the Byzantine Levant. And whilst we digress on the subject of books, it is believed by some scholars that The Quran was not actually written in Mecca or Medina, but most likely in Baghdad, which did not exist whilst Mohammad breathed. Learned iconoclasts also purport that it was originally written in Aramaic, the language of the Levant at the time of Jesus, and that Arabic has not yet evolved as a written language. The Torah, the basis of Jewish law and custom, and of The Bible, was written in Babylon and not Jerusalem. And The New Testament? Well. that was assembled all over the shop: in cosmopolitan Athens, Rome, the desert solitudes of Syria and the Sinai. The Quran itself drew on both of these. Such is the power of foundation myths. There are always issues surrounding the literal ‘Word of God’.
Contrary to popular assumptions, these centuries were not that dark at all. The Islam tide was turned at Tours by the Frankish forces of Charles ‘the Hammer’’ Martel, named nostalgically for the Israelite rebel who defied and defeated the Seleucid Greeks in the Maccabee Revolt in the second century BCE. Charlemagne founded the French monarchy which endured until the unfortunate Louis the Last lost his head to the French revolutionaries in 1793. The Western Christian church established many fundamentals of law, politics and theology that endure to this day. There was, nevertheless, a lot of fighting, most of it between squabbling European potentates, and a major doctrinal rift in the Christian Church that saw it bifurcate, often with accompanying bloodshed, into the Catholic Church of Rome, and the Eastern Church of Constantinople. Between the Christian ‘West’ and the Muslim ‘East” however, there endured an armed peace interspersed with occasional warfare until the eleventh century. The Byzantine heirs of Constantine were reasonably content to maintain a kind of Cold War with the many fractious emirs who ruled the lands to their east, and to sustain their power and influence through canny diplomacy, alliances, mercenaries, and proxies (It is testament to the ‘byzantine’ skills of these emperors and their servants that the empire endured for a thousand years as a powerful political, economic, and military force until Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Mehmed the Conqueror in 1453).
Things changed utterly for east-west relations towards the end of the eleventh century. The heirs to the Roman Empire in the west, the Franks and the Normans, descendants of those nomadic marauders who broke the power of Rome, fired up with religious zeal and the prospects of material gain, embarked upon a series of Crusades to free the Holy Land, the paths that Jesus trode, from the heathen Mohammedan. But do not for a moment dismiss the power of religious fervour in those far-off days. The promise of a full remission of all sins and a place in paradise was a powerful motivator. Nevertheless, God and gilt, backed by martial grunt, conveniently colluded with another new power, out of the east. The Mongols had spilled out of the steppes of central Asia, having conquered the ancient Chinese empire, and once again, the nomads were on the move as the sons and heirs of Genghis Khan sought khanates and kingdoms of their own in the west. And when they advanced into the Levant, they came up against, and collaborated with the Franks against the Saracens. History is never black and white – the crusaders also did deals with Muslim warlords if it suited their common interests. In their politics as well as their lifestyles, many ‘went native’.
It was always thus. The barbarians, usually horsemen originating from central Asia, surge in from the wild lands, devastate the settled lands, and take the cities. In Eastern as well as Western Europe, and the Middle East, they came, they saw, they conquered, and they moved in. Settled down, intermingled, and developing a taste for the good life, and gave up their roving, rampaging ways. We are their heirs and successors, us descendants of Celts and Saxons, Goths and Vikings, Vandals and Huns, as are French people, Italians, Spaniards, Turks, and Arabs.
Vaslily Grossman encapsulated all this poignantly and succinctly in An Armenian Sketchbook: “The longer a nation’s history, the more wars, invasions, wanderings, and periods of captivity it has seen – the greater the diversity of its faces .Throughout the centuries and millennia, victors have spent the night in the homes of those whom they have defeated. This diversity is the story of the crazed hearts of women who passed away long ago, of the wild passion of soldiers intoxicated by victory, of the miraculous tenderness of some foreign Romeo towards some Armenian Juliet”.
The story of the Vandals is an epic in itself. From out of what we now call Sweden they came, ethnic kin to the Norsemen and Vikings. Scouring through the Baltic lands, and present day Poland, Germany, and France, they settled in Spain. Andalusia is Arabic for ‘Land of the Vandals’. And eventually they established a kingdom in Libya, challenging and then paying tribute to the ascendant Roman Empire.
But the Norsemen were not quite finished with the east. On a rail of the gallery of the beautiful Aya Sofya basilica in Istanbul, there is some graffiti carved by Halvden, a 9th Century soldier of the Emperor’s Varangarian Guard, an elite force of Viking mercenaries. One commander of this guard was Harald Hardrada, who, as King of Norway, died in Yorkshire at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, the first of two kings to die during the English summer of 1066. Whilst specifically the imperial bodyguard, the Varangarians fought on the empire’s frontiers against Arab pirates and raiders, marauding nomads from the steppes, Saracens, Normans and Bulgarians. How Harald came to Mickelgard, or Great City, as the Norsemen called Contantinople, is a story in itself, but the sagas say that he even travelled to Jerusalem, protecting caravans of Christian pilgrims. Just picture it. A brigade of Norseman slashing and bashing their way through the wadis and wastelands of Syria, fifty years before the first crusaders put Jerusalem to the sword. One further Scandinavian digression: in 1110, Sigurd, the teenage King of Norway, having fought his way around the Mediterranean with a sixty ship fleet massacring infidels as he went, landed at Acre in Palestine and wintered in what the Norsemen called Jorsalaberg (See Harald Went a ‘Viking).
“If I forget thee, Oh Jerusalem!” The Arabs call the city ‘Al Quds’, “The Holy’. It was deemed sacred from pre-history. Those aforementioned iconoclast scholars suggest that Jerusalem was actually the holiest place in Islam, and that like Islam itself and the Prophet, Mecca and Medina were retrofitted to suit the conqueror’s narrative. A city of the mind as much as of this earth, it haunts the prayers and dreams of three faiths, and to this day, it is coveted and contested. “The air above Jerusalem”, wrote Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, “is filled with prayers and dreams, like the air above cities with heavy industry. Hard to breath”. Arthur Koestler wrote: “The angry face of Yahweh is brooding over the hot rocks which have seen more holy murder, rape and plunder than any other place on earth”. Perhaps it is because Jerusalem is mankind’s number one hot spot. “There’s this thing that happens here, over the Hell Mouth”, says Buffy, “where the way a thing feels – it kind of starts being that way for real. I’ve seen all these things before – just not all at once”. More Jews have probably died violently in Jerusalem than in the Holocaust. And countless folk of other faiths have likewise perished.
Razed down to the bedrock like Jerusalem of old
The crusader kingdoms of Palestine lasted a hundred years, leaving their castles and churches to remind us of their passing, and have haunted the Arab historical memory to this day. The Arabic word for foreigner, ‘faranjiye’ is derived from Frank (or maybe not – it is also said that Varangarian derived from the Greek Varangos, for the Scandinavian Varing or Vara, either a placename or a family name, which became the Arabic Varank). They fell to the Kurdish warlord from Tikrit (hometown of Saddam Hussein, small world that it is), Salah ad Din Ibn Ayyubi, and were restored to the House of Islam. But even this renowned soldier and schemer could not escape the assassin’s poison forever (it may have been just typhoid, but why spoil a good yarn?). He was supplanted by other despots, not the least, the famed one-time slave, the blonde, blue-eyed Mameluk Barbars who ruled Egypt, conquered Syria, and died when he inadvertently ate the poison he intended for his dinner guest. And then, out of the east, came the aforementioned Mongols, and these brought the house down. They conquered, settled, assimilated, and then weakened and fell as they, in their turn, were supplanted by, yes, another nomad band, this time the Turkic Ottomans (and again, out of central Asia). That’s how assabiyeh works. Once you have it, you have to work on it. Lose it and you are done.
The Ottoman Empire inherited the Arab, Islamic patrimony and assumed the caliphate as the official ‘Deputy of God’. The Ottoman Caliphate, successor to the famed Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates of Damascus and Baghdad, endured until its abolition in 1924 by Kemal Ataturk, the creator of modern Turkey. It was restored in 2014 as ad Dawlet al Islamiye fi Iraq w ash Sham or Da’esh. We will get to that later, but meantime, the wars and plagues and famines that beset the Middle East brought an end to the golden age of Arab civilization, with all its ecumenical, martial, intellectual, artistic, and scientific adventurousness (the same wars, plagues, and famines scoured the western world too, but these had less far to fall). And so, time stood still for Islam and the Arab world, as the outlying, often neglected provinces of the ascendant Ottoman Empire. It is said of old, that before the advent of the Mongol lord, Hulagu, a cockerel could graze from Baghdad to Basra without alighting to earth, such was the fertility and prosperity of the Land of the Two Rivers. In the wake of the Mongol, with his mass slaughter and the destruction of the long-lasting irrigation systems, came the Arab proverb: “When God made Hell he did not think it bad enough so he created Mesopotamia.” The place never recovered, although the Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq endured through all of this until the present, when their way of life was finally destroyed by Saddam.
Meanwhile, the focus of our story shifts westwards with the crusader armies returning home, bringing with them a taste for the luxuries of the east, and scientific and philosophical ideas and inventions lost to the west during the Dark Ages (what they didn’t take home, however, was a tolerance for folk of different colours and creeds). The Islamic world settled into the backward looking atrophy that we see today. And in time, came the rise of the great European powers. To Western Europe came the social and economic upheavals of war and plague, and the social and intellectual unravelling that was to lead to the age of discovery. Came the power of the papacy, the questioning of that power, the end of the feudal system and the rise of absolute monarchy, and the invention of the printing press and with it, the dissemination of knowledge. All this set the stage for the next act.
Enter the Spanish and Portuguese, resource poor and priest-ridden, astutely patronizing the adventurers, and hence, made wealthy and powerful on the riches that then flowed in from the New World. Enter the inquisition and the straighteners of religious conformity, the bedrock of imperial power. And enter also, the mercantile nations who challenged their claim to the Americas (sanctioned and sanctified as it was by Alexander, the Borgia Pope) and papal supremacy: England, France, and Holland. The era of world empires thus began against a backdrop of trade and religious wars that would set the stage for the very gradual evolution of what would become democratic institutions. But that was way, way down the bloody track.
The wars of religion, between Catholicism and Protestantism morphed into great powers’ wars by proxy (for there is nothing new under the sun). These endured some two hundred years, giving us the renaissance and the reformation, and many, many people perished. And amidst the scramble for colonies and resources, and the ever-widening scope of scientific and intellectual inquiry, there ensued interminable blood-letting. Folk got much too close to the fire, literally and figuratively. Many were dragged there, and many were eager pyromaniacs. The Thirty Years War wasn’t called that for nothing, and unlike The Hundred Years War between France and England before that, which enjoyed a few time-outs between bouts, this was an interminable danse macabre that was at once mediaeval and mid-20th Century in its savagery. ‘Full on’ is the term we use today. It is said that it staggered to an end in 1648 because the combatants just collapsed with exhaustion.
And in its shattered wake, came the decline of the Spanish and the Portuguese, and the ascendency of the English, the French, and the Dutch. Germany and Italy were still a profusion of principalities and oppressed satellites, Russia had yet to emerge out of an anarchic fog, and the USA had not even been thought of. Meanwhile, in the most populous parts of the planet, the Chinese and Indian empires carried on ever, in splendid isolation, narcissistic and ethnocentric, though not above trading profitably with the occident. The potentates that is – the lower orders were, and in many in many ways remain, in a state of repression and submission.
So came an era of religious and intellectual ferment and the mass movement of peoples across the known world and beyond it, to the Americas. Innovation in transport, communications, industry and warfare, and the trans-global transit of armies and of international commerce in goods and in humanity literally changed the face of the planet. Eleven million slaves crossed the Atlantic in four centuries. Over forty million migrants “went west” in less than one. The inscription on Our Lady Of The Harbour, a gift from the Old World to the New, still says: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore, send these, the homeless, tempest tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door”. And so indeed did folk travel, fleeing poverty and pogroms, powerlessness and persecution, seeking “a new home in the sun”. From the glens of the Gael, from the shtetl and the steppe, from Old Europe and Old Asia. The Great American Dreaming. Today, some 1,300 airplanes a day cross ‘the pond” (475,000 transits a year).
And the printing press and the bible in the vernacular changed the way men thought. Merchants and missionaries and military men, seekers and makers of fortunes, slavers and saviours, prophets and potentates, philosophers and pamphleteers, poets and painters. Enlightenment, revolution, and war. And in America, the creation of democratic institutions.
Royal France was a midwife to this American Revolution, and endured the ironic blowback when French armies returned home harbouring the virus of republicanism and the concepts of liberty and equality. Be careful what you wish for, for liberty wields a two-edged sword as the revolution devours its children. Mounting the scaffold, the doomed Girondin Manon Roland exclaimed “Oh Liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name!” The redoubtable journalist Robert Fisk noted that freedom and liberty often had to crawl over broken glass.
And thence, the Nineteenth Century and the Age of Revolutions – political, industrial, and ideological, bountiful and bloody. And the rise of new empires – Russia, Germany, and the USA, competing with the old, and all extending their power and influence throughout the world, conquering and colonizing the oldest – India, China, and the Ottomans – and spanning the globe. The Americas, Africa, Asia, Australasia, no place was beyond the reach of the empire’s military and mercantile power, and no indigene was safe from the depredations of these latter-day Medes and Assyrians. Diamond again: it was all down to “guns, germs, and steel”. The ‘discovered’ world was ripe for plunder. For land, for minerals, for food. And if the natives got fractious, we had machine guns and gun boats to back us up. For this was the era of militant and muscular Christianity and gunboat diplomacy, synergized in a divine plan to render the world a holier and happier place. Rudyard Kipling said it best: “Take up the White Man’s burden, send forth the best ye breed. Go bind your sons to exile to serve your captives’ need”. A new age of Empire had arrived wherein competing white countries seeking economic and political aggrandizement, sent their boys to die far away from home. The West, it seemed, had got its mojo back!
So far away from home
A little known facet of that century’s history is that contemporaneous to the western expansion of ‘These United States” and the spread of British red across the globe, Imperial Russia was moving eastwards. One outstanding volume of George McDonald Fraser’s rollicking, picaresque and quite political incorrect Flashman series sees the eponymous anti-hero fleeing eastwards out of The Crimea having precipitated the disastrous Charge Of the Light Brigade (Captain Nolan was fitted up), and making his way through the vast Asian hinterland, one step ahead of the invading Czarist armies, and of sundry Muslim warlords. In the Flashman books, the unreconstructed villain of Thomas Hughes’ Victorian yarn “Tom Brown’s Schooldays” is roving and rogering his way through the late nineteenth century, somehow managing to escape by the skin of his teeth from one military disaster after another, including Custer’s famous “Last Stand” at Little Big Horn, and the last stand of the 44th Foot at Gandamak during the disastrous First Afghan War of 1842.
Amidst the humour and ribaldry is a poignant reminder of those ‘lost worlds’ that succumbed to the relentless blade of progress, a theme revisited in Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man and Theodore Olsen’s Soldier Blue, set in the American West, and Vincent Cronin’s The Last Migration and James A Michener’s Caravans, set in Iran and Afghanistan respectively. Ibn Khaldun’s ‘asabiyyah’ is no match for modern weaponry.,
With trade and economic wealth creation came the rise of the middle class. The urban, mercantile elite who seek political power commensurate with their economic clout thus demand a say in how they are governed. In an age of mass production and the beginnings of mass communication, we see the emergence of the masses as a political concept, and of mass society in which rulers are responsive and reactive to the needs fears, and rages of the masses and their representatives. The times of Machiavelli give way to those of Marx. And the focus of history is as much on the ruled as on the rulers.
So passed the Nineteenth Century. The Old World ruled. The New had its own preoccupations, with civil war and western expansion. The east and the south were conquered and colonized. God (European and most probably, English-speaking) was in His heaven and all was good and right in the world. The old scourges continued as they has since time immemorial: plague and famine, drought and flood, economic boom and bust, migration and invasion, war and peace, and comme d’habitude, death and destruction on a large scale. Good times and bad times as ever, with little to impede the onward march of progress. A reporter once asked Gandhi: “What do you think of Western civilization?” The Mahatma replied: “I think it would be a very good idea”.
In came the Twentieth Century. Same old, same old, but with markets and machines much more efficient, and likewise our capacity to create and destroy. A time of totalitarian regimes and total war, social change and technological wizardry. In 1905, the Imperial Russian Navy sailed eighteen thousand miles to the Korea Strait only to be broken by the Imperial Japanese Navy. There was a new boy on the block, and once the guns of Tsushima Bay had fallen silent, signalling that the white man could indeed be beaten, and thence, the decline of the colonial empires of old as the “our new-caught, sullen peoples” threw off their chains. In the political, economic, military and demographic spheres, balances of power changed, and changed again. In the wake of two World Wars, from Old Europe to the USA and the Soviet Union, and then, in these present times, to a totally new configuration that reflects the transitory rise and fall of nations. As I write, we see a hesitant America and a struggling Europe competing with a resurgent and belligerent Russia, and the rise and rise of its fellow BRICs, Brazil, India and China – an ascendency that is not however assured in this unstable and unpredictable world of ours. And in the post-Cold War, global financial crisis world of wide-open borders and the mass movement across them of people, goods, and capital, everything has a price and can be bought and sold. Immoral mathematics: “in these shifting tides, bombs and babies, girls and guns, dollars, drugs, and more besides, wash like waves on strangers’ shores – damnation takes no sides” (from E Lucevan le Stelle).
And passing strange it is that whilst we can place men on the moon and machines on Mars, we still live in a world riven by superstition. We have come through the age of enlightenment, the age of revolutions, the age of machines, the age of mass society, mass war, and of mass communications, And yet, we are so, so ignorant. We thought that the rising tide of progress and knowledge would raise all the boats. But how wrong we were. The Muslims in their glory days would refer to what went before as al Jahiliyya, the age of ignorance. But in so many ways, we have returned there. Helped in no small part by their more atavistic descendants who see some wisdom and benefit to all in reverting to a mediaeval ethos and lifestyle.
One thing is pretty certain. We are almost closing a circle. The history of the West, for the past two millennia has been dominated by the emergence and triumph of Christianity and of Islam. As the early Muslims saw it, al Dar al Harb and al Dar al Islam, the houses of war and peace respectively. A pretty good description if the terms are used interchangeably. Much of what has passed has been refracted through the prisms of these theologies. Call it crusade or call it jihad; or call it blow back on a grand scale. The legacy of two millennia of empire is coming back up the pipes. “Take up the White Man’s burden (or any conqueror’s burden, in fact) and reap his old reward: the blame of those ye better, the hate of those ye guard”.
For surely, “by all ye cry or whisper, by all ye leave or do, the silent, sullen peoples shall weigh your gods and you”. Weigh them all and find them wanting. In compassion and loving kindness, in reason and rationality, in patience and peacefulness. And the greatest, saddest irony of all for all who have a passion for history and for charting the unbroken story of humankind, and for those with this passion who treasure the depths of their cultural lineage through all the fugues, follies, and fault lines of our heritage, is the dawning realization and regret, that after two millennia, the religion that kicked off so much controversy and conflict, schism and schadenfreude, brilliance and bigotry, bounty and bloodshed, that was the heir to ancient faiths and the progenitor of many more, is probably now doomed in the lands wherein it was born.
It’s as if over a millennium of painful, staggering, stuttering, blood soaked, inventive, and pioneering progress has meant naught, and that we might as well have remained in the dark, literally and figuratively. “It is written in the Book of Days where the names of God a wrought, where all our dead a buried and all our wars a fought”. We range through “the battlefields and graveyards and the fields our fathers knew”. The cartography of carnage: Bali, Beslan, Gaza, Grozny, Kabul, Kigali, Sabra, Srebrenica, to mention but a few of those “far-away places with strange sounding names”. ”Many have perished, and more most surely will”. This latter quotation is adapted from Auden’s often overlooked masterpiece The Age of Anxiety, a meditation on a world between the wreckage of The Second World War and the foreboding for the impending armed peace. “The bane of bad geography, the burden of topography. The lines where they’re not meant to be are letters carved in stone”. And all this against a back-drop of the revolution despoiled, hijacked and betrayed. “The revolution’s father, the hero psychopath” shows us how hopes and dreams can be “fooled by the riddle of the revolution”. “Words carried far in time and space will topple tyrants, but there’s no salvation”. (see In That Howling Infinite – Poems of Paul Hemphill)
When Miranda exclaimed “what brave new world, with such people in’t!’, when the dismal Dane moaned ‘what a piece of work is man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving, how express and admirable’, was the Bard being singularly ironic? He was writing at the dawn of the Sixteenth Century when the wars of religion were well under way, and yet, the reign of Elizabeth had brought a degree of civil calm, and King James was determined to heal the schisms, using his translation of The Bible as his balm. Reasons to be cheerful, perhaps. The Thirty Years War had yet to devastate continental Europe, and the English Civil war had still to come. Sweden had not yet ravaged Eastern Europe (yes, the Swedes had indeed attempted world dominion before ABBA). The Pilgrim Fathers were not to set sail for a decade, the Inca and Aztec were already no more, and as the Plains Indians rode the range mounted on the descendants of the conquistadors’ horses, the American West had not yet been discovered let alone ‘won’.
Some digression, that! So, back to where are we now, in the first decade of the 21st century. A world of wonders, no doubt, of technological advances in medicine, machines, and mass communications. But the new millennium began with the destruction of the Twin Towers, and war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The wars in these sad states continue. Conflagrations now engulf Syria, Libya, and Yemen, and turmoil threatens Egypt and Turkey. These are all the battlegrounds of old. Alexander marched this way and back (he burned Persepolis and died in Babylon, and his body, embalmed in gold, lies waiting to be discovered). In 1853 Czar Nicholas I of Russia demanded the right to protect Christian shrines in Ottoman Jerusalem, setting in train the chain of events that led to the Crimean War, and thence to the dissolution of the once grand Ottoman Empire. Indeed, the long decline and eventual demise of what the ascendant Europeans called ‘the sick man of Europe”, accompanied by Europe’s cultural and political – and in the case of France, territorial – conquest of the Muslim Middle East and South Asia bred a bitterness that endures and manifests today. In June 1914, in Sarajevo, a former outpost of that empire, a wrong turn put Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the imminently moribund Habsburg Empire in pistol range of Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip. The sixth attempt on his life that morning sounded the first shot of “the war to end all wars”, which led, incidentally to the destruction of the long-declining Ottoman Empire, to the Balfour Declaration, and to the Sykes Picot Agreement that created the tortured Middle East that today is the sum of all our fears.
So, we are still paying the price as all these ghosts watch over a brave new world of asymmetrical, ideological warfare weaponized by the Lords of War who know no frontiers or ethics, and waged by rag-tag armies who likewise know neither. The sundered and sullied tribes of man are caught up in the dreams and fears of their fathers and grandfathers, all the old hatreds and habits, schemes and shibboleths, the ethnic, sectarian and partisan traps of their elders. “There rides the mercenary, here roams the robber band. In flies the emissary with claims upon our land. The lesser breed with savage speed is slaughtered where he stands, his elemental fantasy felled by a foreign hand” (from ‘Freedom Comes’).
Over to the good and the noble players of the new Great Game who wage those ‘savage wars of peace’ that are “the white man’s burden”. As the seventeenth century philosopher Thomas Hobbes expounded gloomily, “I show in the first place that the state of men without civil society (which state may be called the state of nature) is none other than a war of all against all; and that in that war, all has a right to all things”. He had the English civil war on his mind, but, if he had slept for over four hundred and fifty years, and awoke today, he would cry “See! What did I tell you?” In the war of all against all, Homer’s blinded Cyclops is staggering around, endeavouring to catch the one who robbed him of his sight.
And he wages his savage wars of peace with weapons that would make the inquisition jealous. In his tombstone of a book about Lebanon’s civil war, and Israel’s intervention therein, the redoubtable journalist Robert Fisk writes of a Lebanese doctor, Amal Shamaa: “I had to take the babies and put them in buckets of water to put out the flames. When I took them out half an hour after, they were still burning. Even in the mortuary, they smouldered for hours”. “Next morning”, Fisk continues, “Amal Shamaa took the tiny corpses out of the mortuary for burial. To her horror, they again burst into flames”. Such is the effect of phosphorous shells on mortals. Made in America, used on Arabs, by Jews. But it happens anywhere and everywhere, inflicted by anyone on everyone.
And meanwhile, back in the lands of the rich folks, economic recession and high unemployment, and political and social instability, financial graft and funny money dressed up in manufactured metaphors like derivatives, sub-prime mortgages, and collateralised debt obligations. And in the lands of the poorer folks, those “faraway places with strange sounding names”, as The Springfields once sang, and of those who are climbing out of the mud, a sliding scale of prosperity and poverty, venality and violence. And threatening all of us, environmental degradation and climate change, with ice caps melting, low lands flooding, pasturelands turning to dust, and oceans becoming deserts. Fires and floods, and twisters and earthquakes, famines and plagues. As Joni Mitchell sang, paraphrasing Yeats, “Surely some revelation is at hand, surely it’s the second coming and the wrath has finally taken form” (the word ‘apocalypse’ is derived from the Greek for ‘revelation’).
We are not on the ‘Morningtown Ride’ to Honalee, but are we on the road to Pichipoi? This not the last stand of the 44th Foot at Gandamak but are we Israelites looking out over Canaan Land? We are not climbing Jacob’s ladder to Paradise, but are we sliding down the road to Ragnarok? In Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, the poet begins his descent into Hell saying:”I came to myself in a dark wood where the straight way was lost”. Journeying down and then back up through the seven levels of Hell, he finally returns to the surface saying: “And thence we emerged to see the stars again”. We yearn, to quote Nigella Lawson, “that blissful moment when the bagpipes stop”. But in all truth, the crystal ball is shattered. All bets are off. Everyone has a game, and all is now in play. And remember what Bob said: “Come writers and critics who prophesize with your pen, and keep your eyes wide, the chance won’t come again. And don’t speak too soon for the wheel’s still in spin, and there’s no tellin’ who that it’s namin’, for the loser now will be later to win, for the times they are a-changin”’.
Yarmouk Camp, Damascus 2014
Since I wrote this history, the final paragraph has effectively been mugged by reality. The heady days of February 2011, with the green of the Arab Spring fresh sprung from the soil of the economic and political bankruptcy of the Arab Middle East, had not yet transformed into a long, hard and bloody winter. Five years on, the wars of the Arab Dissolution have dragged the world into its vortex. Great Power politics and proxy wars are taxing intellectual and actual imaginations.
The fall of longtime dictators Zine el Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, was precipitated by the yearning of their oppressed and impoverished people, and particularly the young, for freedom, justice, dignity and employment, and an end to endemic corruption, nepotism and brutality. It was followed rapidly by the outbreak of insurrections in Syria, Libya, and Yemen that have led, five years later, to the virtual destruction and disintegration of these countries, the ongoing dismantling of Iraq, and an expanding arc of violence, bloodshed and repression from Morocco to Pakistan, that has extended southwards across Africa into Mali, Nigeria, Somalia and the Sudans, and their unfortunate neighbours.
Civil war and economic desperation have propelled millions of refugees across the Mediterranean and the Aegean into Europe, threatening the unity and stability of the European Union. Islamic fundamentalism has filled the vacuum created by crumbling dictatorships and vanishing borders, unleashing atavistic, uncompromising and vicious Jihadis against their own people and coreligionists, and onto the streets of cities as far apart as Paris, Istanbul, Beirut, Djakarta, and Mogadishu. In Syria particularly, but also in Iraq, Libya and Yemen, outsiders have intervened to further complicate the chaos, rendering an early end to these wars a forlorn hope.
In the game of political ifs and buts, the world reaps the whirlwind of bad decisions by our owners and rulers. If “the Coalition of the Willing” hadn’t destroyed Iraq in the Third Gulf War; if the war in Afghanistan hadn’t been subcontracted out to warlords and private security firms; if the west hadn’t propped up tyrants and kleptocrats for decades; if it hadn’t turned a blind eye to its Saudi friends financing and inspiring the Salafi Killers; if the US had destroyed the Da’esh convoys as they crossed the open desert to capture and desecrate Palmyra; if the Russians had attacked IS rather than other Syrian militias; if the coalition had made as many bombing runs as the Russians. If so many events that had come before had not happened – the fall of the Shah and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait (apparently given the nod by the US), and the wars that ensued; the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the civil war that followed it; the rise of al Qa’ida. If, if, if. But, at the end of the day, Muslims pay the price, and yet, it will have to be Muslims who sort it out. Western boots on the ground will not fix it, but, rather, as in days of yore, it will create yet another whirlwind for us all to reap.
We are in midst of what could be described as the final phase of the Wars of the Ottoman Succession. The lines drawn on maps by British and French bureaucrats in the years after The Great War have been dissolved. The polities fabricated by Messrs Sykes and Picot, and manifested in the mandates that evolved into the present states of Syria and Iraq have effectively disintegrated. The future of the other former mandates, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel, is uncertain, as is that of Turkey, the country which rose out of the ashes of defeat and civil war to inherit the Ottoman Anatolian heartland. Indeed, new states could emerge from the maelstrom. A Kurdistan long denied; a partitioned Iraq; Ottoman redux: and the atavistic Islamic Caliphate.
All is, as Kent lamented in King Lear, “cheerless, dark and deadly.
The featured image: Timeless. A Syrian moment, in Foreign Policy 23rd July 2012. Paul Simon once sang “On the side of a hill in a land called somewhere”. Little changes.
The Destruction of the Temple, AD70, Francesco Hayes
So Far From Home, William Barnes Wollen’s The Last Stand of the 44th Foot at Gandamak, 13th January 1842 (1898). The phrase ‘so far from home’ is the title of young Mary Driscoll’s 1847 account of her migration from Ireland to America.
Yarmouk Camp, Damascus February 2014. Al Jazeeraz 26 February 2014
Babes in the Wilderness. Syrian children in the eye of the storm. Al Jazeera, September 2011
In addition to a multitude of Wiki and Google searches, and references to and quotations from many songs and poems, including my own poetry and verse , special note is made of the following books that I have read of late that have inspired this piece:
Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood (Knopf)
Thomas Cahill, How The Irish Saved Civilization (Sceptre)
William Dalrymple, From The Holy Mountain (Harper Perennial)
William Dalrymple, Return Of A King (Knopf)
Robert Fisk, The Great War For Civilisation (HarperCollins)
Robert Fisk, Pity The Nation (Andre Deutsch)
Vaslily Grossman, An Armenian Sketchbook (NYRB Classics)
Tom Holland, In The Shadow Of The Sword (Doubleday)
Robert D Kaplan, The Revenge Of Geography (Random House)
Amin Malouf, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes (Schoken)
Simon Sebag Montefiore, Jerusalem, The Biography (Orion)
Simon Winchester, Atlantic (HarperCollins)
By all ye cry or whisper, By all ye leave or do, The silent sullen peoples Shall weigh your Gods and you.
And where the crazy whiteman And his teargas happiness Lies dead and long since buried By his own fantastic mess
As a young lad in Birmingham, my school chums and I would be enthralled by a world map covered in red – the empire upon which the sun never set. As Britain turns its back on Europe, it would seem that quite a few folk are still enamoured of the defunct Imperium. A 2014 YouGov opinion poll that found 59% British people polled believed the old British Empire was something to be proud of. 34% wished they still had one.
Back in the day, we’d do school projects about cocoa cultivation on the Gold Coast (now Ghana, not our Australian schoolies’ mecca), rubber trees in Malaya and East Africa, and tea plantations in Assam and Ceylon – enhanced by attractive, child-friendly posters and other educational aids provided gratis by the likes of Cadbury, Dunlop and Typhoo. That these household names had factories in our industrial ‘second city’ which encouraged school outings rendered the wonders of empire all the more tangible.
In the Britain of my childhood, the “silent sullen peoples” of Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem were beginning to “colour-up” (pun quite intended) our monochrome, white-bread, demographic cityscape. The bleak and bland streets and suburbs of our English and Irish Birmingham were already rocking with new sounds and flavours, from the ska and reggae beats of Sparkhill to the spicy aromas of Balsall Heath and Alum Rock. There was prejudice, there was discrimination, there was at times violence, but as Britain emerged from the austerity of the war years, as the bombed cities were rebuilt, and a resuscitated economy created a consumer society, labour shortages persuaded politicians to facilitate mass immigration from the empire – and particularly, from the West Indies and the Indian subcontinent
Words like imperialism and colonialism, economics and exploitation, were yet to enter our vocabularies. The colonies and dependencies spread across all continents, and the ‘grown-up’ white ‘commonwealths’ and ‘dominions’ like Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, and Rhodesia, were the friends, partners, and indeed, children of the mother country.
It was, we perceived, in the innocence of youth and the blinkers of our school curricula, a benign and fruitful partnership of mutual benefit to all. “To serve our captives’ need”, we gave them our civilizing, Judeo-Christian, Anglo-Celtic values, our able and empathetic if patronizing and prejudiced administrators, our gallant soldiers, pious pastors, selfless doctors and inspiring teachers. They in return yielded up their natural resources and an abundance of cheap labour, and when the Empire was imperiled, they despatched their young men in their thousands to perish in our wars.
We were not to know that the mournful notes of the Last Post were sounding across a changing post-war world. The Union Jack was was descending on buildings and parade grounds the world over as unfamiliar new flags were raised in their stead. Tired, broke, and damaged Britain was retreating from Empire, as were France and the Netherlands, and a new imperium was rising in the west. Within a decade, India, and Pakistan and Ceylon were joined by Indonesia, and a score of young nations emerged throughout Africa. France fought long and bloody wars in Vietnam and Algeria to cling on to its colonial patrimony, and it too finally let go of its “fluttered folk and wild”.
And we were not to know the reality of Britain’s “mission civilatrice”. From the seventeenth century, the European colonizing powers were enmeshed by trade, greed, and national aggrandizement in what today we would define as “mission creep”. Distant posts morphed over three centuries into vast bureaucracies, mines and plantations that underwrote the North’s industrial and commercial hegemony, and into societies ruled by white, expatriate elites and segregated by class, caste, clan and colour.
How all this played out in The Raj is described in detail by politician and historian Shashi Tharoor in Inglorious Empire: What the British did in India. This is reproduced below, together with a video, whilst the full Kipling poem, a song by Roy Harper, and a review by Australian author Christopher Kremmer follows.
Read also my earlier posts on India and the passing of Empire:
But what about the railways…? The myth of Britain’s gifts to India
Shashi Tharour, The Gusrdian, March 9, 2017
Many modern apologists for British colonial rule in India no longer contest the basic facts of imperial exploitation and plunder, rapacity and loot, which are too deeply documented to be challengeable. Instead they offer a counter-argument: granted, the British took what they could for 200 years, but didn’t they also leave behind a great deal of lasting benefit? In particular, political unity and democracy, the rule of law, railways, English education, even tea and cricket?
Indeed, the British like to point out that the very idea of “India” as one entity (now three, but one during the British Raj), instead of multiple warring principalities and statelets, is the incontestable contribution of British imperial rule.
Unfortunately for this argument, throughout the history of the subcontinent, there has existed an impulsion for unity. The idea of India is as old as the Vedas, the earliest Hindu scriptures, which describe “Bharatvarsha” as the land between the Himalayas and the seas. If this “sacred geography” is essentially a Hindu idea, Maulana Azad has written of how Indian Muslims, whether Pathans from the north-west or Tamils from the south, were all seen by Arabs as “Hindis”, hailing from a recognisable civilisational space. Numerous Indian rulers had sought to unite the territory, with the Mauryas (three centuries before Christ) and the Mughals coming the closest by ruling almost 90% of the subcontinent. Had the British not completed the job, there is little doubt that some Indian ruler, emulating his forerunners, would have done so.
Far from crediting Britain for India’s unity and enduring parliamentary democracy, the facts point clearly to policies that undermined it – the dismantling of existing political institutions, the fomenting of communal division and systematic political discrimination with a view to maintaining British domination.
In the years after 1757, the British astutely fomented cleavages among the Indian princes, and steadily consolidated their dominion through a policy of divide and rule. Later, in 1857, the sight of Hindu and Muslim soldiers rebelling together, willing to pledge joint allegiance to the enfeebled Mughal monarch, alarmed the British, who concluded that pitting the two groups against one another was the most effective way to ensure the unchallenged continuance of empire. As early as 1859, the then British governor of Bombay, Lord Elphinstone, advised London that “Divide et impera was the old Roman maxim, and it should be ours”.
Since the British came from a hierarchical society with an entrenched class system, they instinctively looked for a similar one in India. The effort to understand ethnic, religious, sectarian and caste differences among Britain’s subjects inevitably became an exercise in defining, dividing and perpetuating these differences. Thus colonial administrators regularly wrote reports and conducted censuses that classified Indians in ever-more bewilderingly narrow terms, based on their language, religion, sect, caste, sub-caste, ethnicity and skin colour. Not only were ideas of community reified, but also entire new communities were created by people who had not consciously thought of themselves as particularly different from others around them.
Large-scale conflicts between Hindus and Muslims (religiously defined), only began under colonial rule; many other kinds of social strife were labelled as religious due to the colonists’ orientalist assumption that religion was the fundamental division in Indian society.
It is questionable whether a totalising Hindu or Muslim identity existed in any meaningful sense in India before the 19th century. Yet the creation and perpetuation of Hindu–Muslim antagonism was the most significant accomplishment of British imperial policy: the project of divide et impera would reach its culmination in the collapse of British authority in 1947. Partition left behind a million dead, 13 million displaced, billions of rupees of property destroyed, and the flames of communal hatred blazing hotly across the ravaged land. No greater indictment of the failures of British rule in India can be found than the tragic manner of its ending.
Nor did Britain work to promote democratic institutions under imperial rule, as it liked to pretend. Instead of building self-government from the village level up, the East India Company destroyed what existed. The British ran government, tax collection, and administered what passed for justice. Indians were excluded from all of these functions. When the crown eventually took charge of the country, it devolved smidgens of government authority, from the top, to unelected provincial and central “legislative” councils whose members represented a tiny educated elite, had no accountability to the masses, passed no meaningful legislation, exercised no real power and satisfied themselves they had been consulted by the government even if they took no actual decisions.
As late as 1920, under the Montagu-Chelmsford “reforms”, Indian representatives on the councils – elected by a franchise so restricted and selective that only one in 250 Indians had the right to vote – would exercise control over subjects the British did not care about, like education and health, while real power, including taxation, law and order and the authority to nullify any vote by the Indian legislators, would rest with the British governor of the provinces.
Democracy, in other words, had to be prised from the reluctant grasp of the British by Indian nationalists. It is a bit rich to oppress, torture, imprison, enslave, deport and proscribe a people for 200 years, and then take credit for the fact that they are democratic at the end of it.
A corollary of the argument that Britain gave India political unity and democracy is that it established the rule of law in the country. This was, in many ways, central to the British self-conception of imperial purpose; Kipling, that flatulent voice of Victorian imperialism, would wax eloquent on the noble duty to bring law to those without it. But British law had to be imposed upon an older and more complex civilisation with its own legal culture, and the British used coercion and cruelty to get their way. And in the colonial era, the rule of law was not exactly impartial.
Crimes committed by whites against Indians attracted minimal punishment; an Englishmen who shot dead his Indian servant got six months’ jail time and a modest fine (then about 100 rupees), while an Indian convicted of attempted rape against an Englishwoman was sentenced to 20 years of rigorous imprisonment. In the entire two centuries of British rule, only three cases can be found of Englishmen executed for murdering Indians, while the murders of thousands more at British hands went unpunished.
The death of an Indian at British hands was always an accident, and that of a Briton because of an Indian’s actions always a capital crime. When a British master kicked an Indian servant in the stomach – a not uncommon form of conduct in those days – the Indian’s resultant death from a ruptured spleen would be blamed on his having an enlarged spleen as a result of malaria. Punch wrote an entire ode to The Stout British Boot as the favoured instrument of keeping the natives in order.
Political dissidence was legally repressed through various acts, including a sedition law far more rigorous than its British equivalent. The penal code contained 49 articles on crimes relating to dissent against the state (and only 11 on crimes involving death).
Of course the British did give India the English language, the benefits of which persist to this day. Or did they? The English language was not a deliberate gift to India, but again an instrument of colonialism, imparted to Indians only to facilitate the tasks of the English. In his notorious 1835 Minute on Education, Lord Macaulay articulated the classic reason for teaching English, but only to a small minority of Indians: “We must do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indians in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.”
The language was taught to a few to serve as intermediaries between the rulers and the ruled. The British had no desire to educate the Indian masses, nor were they willing to budget for such an expense. That Indians seized the English language and turned it into an instrument for our own liberation – using it to express nationalist sentiments against the British – was to their credit, not by British design.
The construction of the Indian Railways is often pointed to by apologists for empire as one of the ways in which British colonialism benefited the subcontinent, ignoring the obvious fact that many countries also built railways without having to go to the trouble and expense of being colonised to do so. But the facts are even more damning.
The railways were first conceived of by the East India Company, like everything else in that firm’s calculations, for its own benefit. Governor General Lord Hardinge argued in 1843 that the railways would be beneficial “to the commerce, government and military control of the country”. In their very conception and construction, the Indian railways were a colonial scam. British shareholders made absurd amounts of money by investing in the railways, where the government guaranteed returns double those of government stocks, paid entirely from Indian, and not British, taxes. It was a splendid racket for Britons, at the expense of the Indian taxpayer.
The railways were intended principally to transport extracted resources – coal, iron ore, cotton and so on – to ports for the British to ship home to use in their factories. The movement of people was incidental, except when it served colonial interests; and the third-class compartments, with their wooden benches and total absence of amenities, into which Indians were herded, attracted horrified comment even at the time.
And, of course, racism reigned; though whites-only compartments were soon done away with on grounds of economic viability, Indians found the available affordable space grossly inadequate for their numbers. (A marvellous post-independence cartoon captured the situation perfectly: it showed an overcrowded train, with people hanging off it, clinging to the windows, squatting perilously on the roof, and spilling out of their third-class compartments, while two Britons in sola topis sit in an empty first-class compartment saying to each other, “My dear chap, there’s nobody on this train!”)
Nor were Indians employed in the railways. The prevailing view was that the railways would have to be staffed almost exclusively by Europeans to “protect investments”. This was especially true of signalmen, and those who operated and repaired the steam trains, but the policy was extended to the absurd level that even in the early 20th century all the key employees, from directors of the Railway Board to ticket-collectors, were white men – whose salaries and benefits were also paid at European, not Indian, levels and largely repatriated back to England.
Racism combined with British economic interests to undermine efficiency. The railway workshops in Jamalpur in Bengal and Ajmer in Rajputana were established in 1862 to maintain the trains, but their Indian mechanics became so adept that in 1878 they started designing and building their own locomotives. Their success increasingly alarmed the British, since the Indian locomotives were just as good, and a great deal cheaper, than the British-made ones. In 1912, therefore, the British passed an act of parliament explicitly making it impossible for Indian workshops to design and manufacture locomotives. Between 1854 and 1947, India imported around 14,400 locomotives from England, and another 3,000 from Canada, the US and Germany, but made none in India after 1912. After independence, 35 years later, the old technical knowledge was so completely lost to India that the Indian Railways had to go cap-in-hand to the British to guide them on setting up a locomotive factory in India again. There was, however, a fitting postscript to this saga. The principal technology consultants for Britain’s railways, the London-based Rendel, today rely extensively on Indian technical expertise, provided to them by Rites, a subsidiary of the Indian Railways.
The process of colonial rule in India meant economic exploitation and ruin to millions, the destruction of thriving industries, the systematic denial of opportunities to compete, the elimination of indigenous institutions of governance, the transformation of lifestyles and patterns of living that had flourished since time immemorial, and the obliteration of the most precious possessions of the colonised, their identities and their self-respect. In 1600, when the East India Company was established, Britain was producing just 1.8% of the world’s GDP, while India was generating some 23% (27% by 1700). By 1940, after nearly two centuries of the Raj, Britain accounted for nearly 10% of world GDP, while India had been reduced to a poor “third-world” country, destitute and starving, a global poster child of poverty and famine. The British left a society with 16% literacy, a life expectancy of 27, practically no domestic industry and over 90% living below what today we would call the poverty line.
The India the British entered was a wealthy, thriving and commercialising society: that was why the East India Company was interested in it in the first place. Far from being backward or underdeveloped, pre-colonial India exported high quality manufactured goods much sought after by Britain’s fashionable society. The British elite wore Indian linen and silks, decorated their homes with Indian chintz and decorative textiles, and craved Indian spices and seasonings. In the 17th and 18th centuries, British shopkeepers tried to pass off shoddy English-made textiles as Indian in order to charge higher prices for them.
The story of India, at different phases of its several-thousand-year-old civilisational history, is replete with great educational institutions, magnificent cities ahead of any conurbations of their time anywhere in the world, pioneering inventions, world-class manufacturing and industry, and abundant prosperity – in short, all the markers of successful modernity today – and there is no earthly reason why this could not again have been the case, if its resources had not been drained away by the British.
If there were positive byproducts for Indians from the institutions the British established and ran in India in their own interests, they were never intended to benefit Indians. Today Indians cannot live without the railways; the Indian authorities have reversed British policies and they are used principally to transport people, with freight bearing ever higher charges in order to subsidise the passengers (exactly the opposite of British practice).
This is why Britain’s historical amnesia about the rapacity of its rule in India is so deplorable. Recent years have seen the rise of what the scholar Paul Gilroy called “postcolonial melancholia”, the yearning for the glories of Empire, with a 2014 YouGov poll finding 59% of respondents thought the British empire was “something to be proud of”, and only 19% were “ashamed” of its misdeeds.
All this is not intended to have any bearing on today’s Indo-British relationship. That is now between two sovereign and equal nations, not between an imperial overlord and oppressed subjects; indeed, British prime minister Theresa May recently visited India to seek investment in her post-Brexit economy. As I’ve often argued, you don’t need to seek revenge upon history. History is its own revenge.
Inglorious Empire by Shashi Tharoor is published by Hurst & Company at £20
Rudyard Kipling published his famous poem to salute the US’ conquest of the Philippines in 1899, although he had originally written it to celebrate Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee.
The White Man’s Burden
Take up the White Man’s burden –
Send forth the best ye breed –
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness
On fluttered folk and wild –
Your new-caught sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.
Take up the White Man’s burden –
In patience to abide
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple,
An hundred times made plain,
To seek another’s profit,
And work another’s gain.
Take up the White Man’s burden –
And reap his old reward,
The blame of those ye better,
The hate of those ye guard –
The cry of hosts ye humour
(Ah slowly !) towards the light:-
“Why brought ye us from bondage,
“Our loved Egyptian night ?”
Take up the White Man’s burden –
Ye dare not stoop to less –
Nor call too loud on Freedom
To cloak your weariness;
By all ye cry or whisper,
By all ye leave or do,
The silent sullen peoples
Shall weigh your Gods and you.
In 1970, Roy Harper, Britain’s high priest of lyrical angst Roy created a counterpoint with this song from Flat, Baroque and Berserk.
Shashi Tharoor’s indictment of the British in India
Christopher Kremmer, Sydney Morning Herald, August 18, 2017
Remember the scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian when a Judean rebel leader fumes as his gormless but practical comrades detail the benefits of oppression under their powerful and technologically advanced Roman oppressors?
“Orright,” concedes the leader, Reg, played by John Cleese. “But apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the freshwater system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”
In Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, Shashi Tharoor, writer, politician and United Nations-based diplomat for 30 years, asks a similar question to the one posed by Cleese’s beleaguered revolutionary.
In doing so, he seeks to remind misty-eyed Raj romantics that colonialism was no joke. As empires go, he says, Britain’s was uncommonly ruthless, devious and rapacious in its quest to enslave a people whose leaders failed to see how free trade, unwisely managed, can undermine a country’s long-term sovereignty and prosperity.
In the process, Tharoor accuses a number of historians, most prominent among them, Niall Ferguson, of being apologists for the racial discrimination, violence, economic sabotage and denial of liberty embodied by centuries of British rule in India.
It all began as a harmless commercial enterprise, Tharoor reminds us. In 1600, the British East India Company was formed under royal charter. Its aim was to compete with colonial rivals such as the French and Dutch for lucrative trade opportunities with India, an industrial and cultural superpower that under its Mughal emperors would account for 27 per cent of the world economy.
Awash with gems, natural resources, shipyards and a sophisticated cultural life, the Mughals were happy to trade. By the end of the century, however, they were tired, divided, and overextended. In 1739, the capital at Delhi was sacked by the Persians.
Meanwhile, in the expanding coastal trading posts, the initial presence of armed guards to protect the company’s staff and premises had evolved into a fully fledged army that by 1757 under Robert “Clive of India” had toppled the independent nawab of India’s richest province, Bengal. By 1800, the company had 260,000 men under arms and a talent for regime change that brought 200 million people under its control.
In 1857, after Hindu and Muslim rebels joined in a bloody revolt, India came under direct rule from London, and the company was eventually dissolved. The new Raj survived two world wars and the Great Depression, extending British rule for another 90 years until Gandhi’s Freedom movement triumphed in 1947, albeit at the terrible cost of Partition.
It is unusual, but not unheard of today to meet Indians who believe their country was better off under the Raj. Muddle-headed history is much more prominent in soon to be Brexited Britain. Tharoor cites a 2014 opinion poll that found 59 per cent of British people polled believed the old empire was something to be proud of. Thirty-four per cent wished they still had one.
Tharoor marshalls a formidable array of research to make the case that such attitudes are anachronistic and poorly informed. All the old chesnuts, for example, that the British modernised India, bequeathed it a tradition of parliamentary democracy and civilised the locals by teaching them the gentlemanly sport of cricket, are lined up and skewered, or at least plausibly challenged.
The company smashed India’s advanced textiles industries, literally by demolishing factories and imposing tariffs of 70-80 per cent on exports to Britain. In doing so, they turned a manufacturing, shipbuilding nation into a source of raw materials with little scope for value adding industries. The railways, he argues, were developed principally to more efficiently ship out those raw materials, and were financed by an elaborate and shonky racket that enriched British investors by inflating the cost of Indian rail track to twice that of Australia and Canada.
Meanwhile, ordinary Indians were taxed 50 per cent of their incomes, far beyond their experience and capacity to pay. Defaulters were tortured and jailed or, in the case of two-thirds of Indians under British rule in the late 18th century, fled their lands.
“The bones of the cotton weavers were bleaching the plains of India,” as one colonial administrator observed. The treasuries of princely states such as Bengal were systematically looted by coercive and corrupt methods, while prices for basic commodities were driven up by the opulent lifestyles of expatriate Britons.
Indian taxes not only paid the salaries of the British army of occupation, but also of the hundreds of thousands of Indian troops who became cannon fodder for British interests on the Western Front, at Gallipoli, and in Mesopotamia.
Behind the entire rip-off, as Ferdinand Mount, has observed, “lay the hard calculus of the City of London”. The Indian currency was manipulated to British advantage, and its trade with Europe was forced to go through London. Specifications were set to ensure that Indian steel could not be exported to Britain. India did not miss the bus of the Industrial Revolution – it was forcibly prevented from boarding it.
Discrimination against Indians in civil service employment was rife. Even the arch-colonial writer Rudyard Kipling observed that the bureaucracy was “neither Indian, nor civil, nor a service”. The “justice” British rule gave India meant it was almost impossible for a white man to be given a serious term in jail for murdering his Indian servant, which happened rather a lot. The racism of the occupiers gave the lie to the fiction of modern, enlightened and benign British rule. As one viceroy put it, “We are all British gentlemen engaged in the magnificent work of governing an inferior race”.
Tharoor acknowledges the sincere efforts of many British expats to ameliorate the harsh realities of colonial rule. But even in the 20th century, when the sun was setting on the Raj, enlightenment attitudes took second place to the desire to crush the Indian independence movement. The same people who condemned the nationalist leader Nehru to 10 years in British Indian jail cells also labelled Gandhi’s non-violent campaign for freedom as terrorism. Newspapers that alerted the public to such injustices, particularly the vernacular press, were often censored or shut down.
For all its claims to superiority, the British Empire was in charge in India during no fewer than 11 famines in which 30 to 35 million people died of starvation, Tharoor notes. Ultimately, he believes, Britain’s desire for wealth trumped all other values and considerations. The rhetoric of uplifting the benighted brown man was always a self-serving, grotesque and conceited pose to justify a regime that bribed and murdered, annexed and stole to enrich a certain class of Briton.
This book burns with the power of intellect married with conviction. It ends with Tharoor commenting that the way the Raj ended was its greatest indictment. The collapse of British rule amid devastating sectarian violence and creation of a Muslim “homeland” in Pakistan can be seen as the logical conclusion of 90 years of divide and rule strategies as London clung desperately to power in the subcontinent.
As they washed their hands and packed their carpet bags, the British departed an India in which 84 per cent of people could not read or write their own name in any language. What an achievement. In 1600, Britain produced 1.8 per cent of the world’s gross domestic product, compared with India’s 23 per cent. By the end of the Raj, Britain’s share had multiplied fivefold, while India had been reduced to penury.
But in 70 short years, India’s proud republic has made enormous strides in literacy, numeracy and poverty reduction, and is now the world’s fastest growing major economy.
Yet there are contradictions in the new India’s rise, some with their roots in the British period, like the ruling Hindu nationalist movement’s proclivity to cast the Indian identity in sectarian terms. At times, Tharoor’s determination to resist such trends leads him to downplay the injustices of earlier empires to more graphically illustrate the failings of the British one.
Yet overall, this is erudite, well-written, thoroughly documented and persuasive history that focuses varied sources into a coherent critique of colonialism in the Indian context. Tear up your copies of Ferguson’s neo-liberal mind rot and get angry like Tharoor.