Category Archives: Story of the Malakand Field Force, The

The Story of the Malakand Field Force: Read from August 23 to September 20, 2014

“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.

90% done with The Story of the Malakand Field Force

“Courage is not only common, but cosmopolitan.”

He explains the courage of the young British soldier to be 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.

80% done with The Story of the Malakand Field Force

He’s got politics on the mind but his ideas are naive and too narrowly focused, though his heart and honor are in the right place.

He speaks with a soldier who had an arm amputated and he wonders what that man’s future will be like, how he’ll get a measly pension, drink the money away, die a pauper. He is angry that the ‘richest nation on earth’ can’t or won’t take care of its soldiers.

History repeating.

49% done with The Story of the Malakand Field Force

Great moment of insanity where at the top of the hill he and the men pretend to order cold drinks from a clean, European waiter and then listen to a peasant name the villages below which they realize the man is just making up the names but it didn’t matter because the made up names are now the official ones. He ponders how often this had been the case all through history.

43% done with The Story of the Malakand Field Force

I like he follows up these thoughts of time and empire with the image of the swift river and the camels being drowned and swept down in it.

Great image of the telegraph wire terminating at the shack and him remembering bring at the other end in London in the club with the noise and traffic and cigarette smoke as news just an hour away from this “primitive” land came in.

41% done with The Story of the Malakand Field Force

He wonders if the British will go the way of the Buddhists with no trace of them in time but then hopes it will be at least remembered that they brought in more crops, the death rate was lower, and civilisation had come to the Frontier for a time. But if the Muslims were to vanish they might hope they people would remember they they brought a morality to the Frontier.

38% done with The Story of the Malakand Field Force

“These ignorant tribesmen had no conception of the sensitivities of modern civilisation, which thrills and quivers in every part of its vast and complex system at the slightest touch. ” Nor did they probably care; modernity is what they’re fighting.

I like him questioning the bravery of one soldier because of the stupidity of another. should they be rewarded?

32% done with The Story of the Malakand Field Force

“There is something strangely terrible in the spectacle of men, who fight – not for political or patriotic reasons, not for the sake of duty or glory – but for dear life itself; not because they want to, but because they have to.”

Wonderful account of the cavalry riding to defend Chakdara which beats back wave after wave of fighters. Yet he doesn’t question why the ‘enemy’ is so determined to die in huge numbers.

27% done with The Story of the Malakand Field Force

So Colonel Goldney is King Leonidas? He fights at the key point with 300 men in a desperate fight to relieve Chakdara.

He makes them out to be savages yet paints Sir Bindon Blood as a heroic savior for winning the fight against these ‘ants’. We then get a description of how the British showed no quarter to the remainder and left their dead and bloodied bodies on the green rice crop.

23% done with The Story of the Malakand Field Force

It’s impossible not to fall in love with Churchill’s writing. He manages to turn this defense of Malakand into a romantic tale of heroism and glorious battle. It’s enough to make you want to put on your pith helmet and go fight for the crown!

And this serves a purpose of patriotism and to recruit the next young men to go fight, but is it really any different than the religious glories promised by the Mullah’s?

15% done with The Story of the Malakand Field Force

To read between the lines here: of course everything that the tribes did was mysterious, the English did nothing to try to understand these people. Well, actually, they did “understand” them in that the tribes did not (and still don’t) want western progress. Their faith to them is perfect but to us is backward. Neither side will see the other side and so everyone will always be mistrusted. Them us, too.

11% done with The Story of the Malakand Field Force

Here he describes the road to Chitral, all the passes and impressive bridges and fortifications. He explains the local politics consisting of sons killing their brothers for control and then losing that control to another brother. He describes the Indian government saying they have no interest in occupation but it’s obvious to the tribes what’s really going on. They’re not dumb; they know everyone wants them out.

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Churchill’s knowledge of the Afghans is, sadly, very similar to contemporary views on Afghan society. He sees them as savages with the (then modern) weapons of the 19th century. He sees them as less than civilized and their culture outside the realm of logic.

Of course he’s only introducing the broad landscape here, so perhaps we’ll get more nuance, however, I doubt we’ll get a more human examination of the people