“It was a strange thing, to watch these conspicuous forms toiling up the hillside, dodging this way and that way, as the bullets cut into the earth around them; but with the experience of the previous ten minutes fresh in the memory, pity was not one of the emotions it aroused.”
If I told you I was reading a book about a mountain war in the Swat Valley region of Afghanistan against religious extremists whom no matter how much talent and treasure you throw at them ever seems able to conquer or defeat them and that most of the arms given to any Afghan allies just winds up being used against you at the end of the day, you would be forgiven for thinking I was talking about a contemporary book and not one written over 100 years ago with Winston Churchill as the narrator. And this is what is so striking about the book: that the same war is still going on today.
This book is one of the ultimate examples of there being nothing new under the sun. Literally every single point Winston Churchill makes about his observations about his time in the forward push into the Afghan region at the end of the 19th century can be applied to today’s war in the region. From religious extremism that fuels an endless wave of brave young men to literally throw themselves against the bullets and steel of a vastly more powerful enemy, to the splintered alliances and feuds of the local tribes which everyone takes advantage of to keep them from uniting less they become a truly formidable foe, to the moral dilemmas of burning villages to starve out combatants, or the light years wide gulf between Western values and Eastern Islamic values.
And when I wasn’t shaking my head at the similarity to today’s conflict, I was in awe of the absolute and astounding ignorance and racism that is so idly tossed about by Churchill. Here are an entire population of human beings written off mostly as savages. He makes no bones about this, he sees all these people as less than human. Yes there are exceptions when some of the tribesmen act honorably, but he mentions this not as a matter of course, but almost as if he’s shocked to find an honest man from Afghanistan.
But I’m not going to write this book off as useless because in its ignorance we can learn quit a lot.
This is a work of nationalistic propaganda. Churchill doesn’t even try to hide this fact and he does an excellent job of turning his experiences into the fuel that fires the imaginations and romanticism of young British men to go fight for glory and honor. Everywhere in the book are the brave, stoic, and cheerful British fighting against dangerous odds, but always victorious. Yes some men die, but there is still glory in it all and no young man will be forgotten. And through this propaganda we can begin to understand the propaganda used on the tribesmen themselves. Where Churchill calls men up to the flag out of a sense of duty, the Afghan uses religion as their fire to fight.
Yet he fails to see any real similarity between the two opposing ideologies even when he clearly draws the distinctions. He explains the courage of the young British soldier is rooted in sentiment and even vanity. Yet the tribesmen find courage in religion and their conviction of eternal reward will always be stronger than the abstract constructs of race or military division. The British must invent methods to induce courage; the tribesmen are born with it.
And after all these mountains are their home, they fight and die for their own land whereas the British are, in the grand scheme of things, just trying to maintain a buffer region between British India and Russia. The British couldn’t care less about the Afghans or their history or their struggles. When he muses of the ancient history of the land he remembers Alexander the Great leveling whole great cities that are now completly forgotten. In fact he believes everything in this region, once dead, is forgotten to time. It never occurs to him that the people living her might actually have long memories.
Churchill also fails to understand why the tribesmen are so willing to stand up before all those terrible British guns time after time after time only to be mowed down instantly. He seems to think they are idiots, but what do the tribesmen think? They see a bunch of cowards with guns hiding in trenches and behind stone barriers instead of charging out gloriously onto the field of battle. Where Churchill wonders how the tribesmen could possibly be so ‘savage’ as to mutilate the body of an injured soldier, where he wonders why they only attack when the British retreat, why they only take advantage of weakness, aren’t they wondering just the opposite?
He speaks of the virtue and vitality of military camp life, of no worries for the future, of the memories and friendships formed in the British army, of the good it does the body, and then adds how much everyone wants to go home regardless of these positives. But don’t the tribesmen love the former as much as we the later?
It’s this gulf of understanding that after over 100 years has still not been crossed or even properly surveyed. He believes dealing with the tribes on an individual basis, of utilizing silver over steel (as he puts it), of playing one tribe against the other will pacify them, make them desire comfort and western values. And this has been the policy ever since and it hasn’t had any effect we were hoping for. We fundamentally misunderstand these people because we believe in order and comfort whereas they do not. They live in the most rugged spot on earth, why would they suddenly want comfort and stability? And using them as a buffer against Russia has only exacerbated the issues for us by arming these tribes who then after saying “thank you” use those weapons to fight us. They know they are being taken advantage of and they resent us for it – as they should.
And while we may scoff at the Islamic idea of religious superiority, here in this book, without any political correctness to temper what we still know to be true, is the racist attitude we still hold over these people, what he refers to as “… the prestige of the dominant race “. We may not say so in that language today, but that ancient racism, that terrible misunderstanding and division between cultures is what fuels this fight and will continue to do so for another 100 years.
For as glorious as the battle seems in this book, for all the bravery he writes here and all the moral high-ground he believes he rides his polo ponies on, this is a very sad book. It’s a sad book because it exposes how little we all understand each other, how much hatred and ignorance fuels our imagination just as much as romantic visions of glorious heroism can. There are no winners here.