Mister War

When I was in the Cape last year, I quoted a couplet from Rudyard Kipling to illustrate my love for the more far-flung corners of the world. It’s from my favorite poem.

Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst
And there ain’t no ten commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst

Technically, the Cape is well west of Suez, but the principle applies. Like me, both The India Road and Atmos Fear wander across the oceans and lands of this great world.

I was accused (only an English person would make such a comment) of being public school-educated, because I knew a couplet. The English have a perverse way of twisting words, and ‘public’ really means ‘private.’ All three people I was with attended state schools. It seemed a matter of honor to know no poetry—I wondered if they knew the words to ‘Happy Birthday,’ since after all that’s a quatrain, and therefore twice as sophisticated as a couplet, but I kept stumm.

Eton, stomping ground of both Cameron and Clegg, and alma mater of nineteen British prime ministers, charges over thirty thousand pounds a year, so if you want little Johnny (oh no, not little Jeannie) to go into politics, start saving.

In truth, I never learnt any poetry at school, and my only contact with Kipling’s verses was through my father, who once gave me a Portuguese translation of ‘If’. My interest in espionage and memory games led me to Kipling, through ‘Kim’s Game’, and the wild tales of the Indian northwest frontier.

And years after I read the ‘The Road to Mandalay’ I heard Sinatra, that emblematic example of New Jersey public school education, belt it out.

With elections approaching in Afghanistan, all those stories return to me. Con Coughlin just published an excellent book called Churchill’s First War—most people who have a war are content (or dead) with just the one, but not young Winston.

The book isn’t really about Churchill, but about Afghanistan then and now. The British imperial presence over a century and a half ago in today’s Afghanistan is a litany of disasters. When you walk into Bath Abbey, the walls are thick with obituary plaques bearing messages like ‘In memory of Capt. and Mrs. Jenkins, and their five children, killed in the Khyber Pass, 1842.’

I’ve only seen this in Bath, but I suspect every English cathedral holds these grim and dismal memories.

Of the sixteen thousand people that left Kabul, one returned to India. The Afghan leader who ordered and personally participated in the massacre was Muhammad Akbar Khan—he instructed one man be left alive to tell the story.

Dr. William Brydon, sole survivor of the British retreat from Afghanistan in 1842.

Dr. William Brydon, sole survivor of the British retreat from Afghanistan in 1842.

Coughlin, who attended Brasenose College in Oxford, the same one as David Cameron, is apparently partial to a spot of Kipling. I don’t want to turn this into some kind of intellectual soirée, so I’ll just quote the first and last verses of a poem called ‘The young British Soldier.’

When the ‘arf-made recruity goes out to the East
‘E acts like a babe an’ ‘e drinks like a beast,
An’ ‘e wonders because ‘e is frequent deceased
Ere ‘e’s fit for to serve as a soldier.
Serve, serve, serve as a soldier,
Serve, serve, serve as a soldier,
Serve, serve, serve as a soldier,
So-oldier OF the Queen!

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.
Go, go, go like a soldier,
Go, go, go like a soldier,
Go, go, go like a soldier,
So-oldier of the Queen!

The British retaliated with a revenge expedition that destroyed a major landmark in Kabul. The Afghan memory for insults is prodigious, and during the recent invasion of Afghanistan, a local official brought up the matter before a perplexed British officer: “You blew up our market!”

It took the Brit a moment before he realized they were going back one hundred-fifty years.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: