I’m a writer, and when I’m writing fiction I read nonfiction, because if I read fiction, I’m constantly comparing and contrasting my work with what I’m reading.
Right now I’m writing fiction, so I’m reading a biography, The Man Who Would Be King: The First American in Afghanistan by Ben McIntyre. It’s the story of a Pennsylvania Quaker named Josiah Harlan who left America after being jilted by his true love. Harlan traveled to India and functioned as a soldier, spy, surgeon, naturalist and writer.
He journeyed into Afghanistan as an agent provocateur for the exiled Afghan king. He spoke Persian and several other local languages and became commander-in-chief of the Afghan armies.
In 1838, he traced the footsteps of Alexander the Great across the Hindu Kush and—get this—conquered and created his own kingdom. But before Harlan could rule in any significant way, he was ousted by the invading British. This bold and fascinating American became the basis for Rudyard Kipling’s short story (and subsequent John Huston movie) “The Man Who Would Be King.”
Fascinating book, McIntyre’s, but the epilogue contains a paragraph that made me shiver:
Harlan had been right: the Afghans fought tirelessly among themselves, but when a foreign invader threatened, they united to drive him out. Even Alexander’s hold had been fleeting. Macedonian, Mogul, Persian, Russian, British and Soviet armies had all tried and failed to control the Afghan tribes. Harlan’s words echoed down the centuries: “To subdue and crush the masses of a nation by military force, when all are unanimous in the determination to be free, is to attempt the imprisonment of a whole people: all such projects must be temporary and transient, and terminate in a catastrophe.
And now, apparently, it’s America’s turn to learn this lesson.
It’s true that no other army in history has had such a technological edge over its enemy. We possess the bombs and the planes and the electronics and the drones and the gadgets. Should be easy as playing a video game.
And we smug little Americans also assume we have a moral edge: to stamp out terrorism and bring democracy to a benighted world. But if you read some British history, in the 18th century we Americans were the dirty little terrorists rebelling against civilization and propriety, king and empire.
History, go figure.
I’m all for making the world safe, if not for democracy, at least for air travel. The Twin Towers horror was a blatant chickenshit attack on defenseless civilians, but we have to look, at least for a moment, at the history of invading Afghanistan.
One example will suffice. In 1841, Kabul was ready to explode. Broken British promises to various tribes had the entire city seething. The son of the exiled Afghan king was in full revolt against the British-installed puppet ruler. More diplomacy (lies) ensued, but the Afghans couldn’t be calmed.
The situation escalated when the British envoy William Macnaghten decided to halve payments to the Ghilazi tribe. Macnaghten was murdered, dismembered and his body parts dragged gleefully through the streets of Kabul.
It was time for the British to flee the country, through the Khyber Pass, to the safety of the British fort at Jalalabad, 80 miles due east. On Jan. 6, 1842, some 15,000 soldiers (along with wives and children) headed up through the Khyber Pass. On Jan. 9, 1842, the snows and the Afghans descended. The deadly accurate Afghan snipers fired their jezails—long barreled muskets—killing and wounding their country’s invaders. At night Afghan women would walk among the Brits, robbing the dead and slitting the throats of the wounded. As Rudyard Kipling wrote, “When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains / And the women come out to cut up what remains / Just roll to your rifle and blow out your brains / And go to your God like a soldier.”
On Jan. 13, 1842, Dr. William Brydon, the only survivor of the 15,000 who had set out the week before, arrived at Jalalabad. The only survivor of 15,000.
Do we really know what we’re getting into with this “surge” in Afghanistan?
It is said that those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. But William Faulkner said, even more aptly, “The past is never dead. It is not even past.”
Rob Loughran’s latest book, ‘What Happens When the World Doesn’t End?,’ is available at www.unlimitedpublishing.com/loughran. Rob works at The Farmhouse Inn in Forestville.
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