In 1893, a young 23 year old man joined a British military expedition against the Pathan tribes in the south of Afghanistan near the border of Pakistan. He was, to all appearances a born failure, and joining this dangerous venture was his attempt to atone for his sins.
Born into an aristocratic family living in vast mansion, he was the son of a well known and brilliant member of parliament, a Cambridge graduate who was famous for his eloquent speeches and sharp wit. His son was a born troublemaker who showed no promise what so ever and was certainly not smart enough to attend university. In those times, the hopeless sons of the aristocracy were sent to the colonies and shunted into either the army or the bureacracy.
This young man was admitted to Sandhurst military training centre – on his second attempt – and after completing his course pulled strings to get himself on the Afghanistan expedition. He had what was for the times a very unusual idea; he would join a highly dangerous military venture and write articles for newspapers back in England. The invention of the telegraph made such a venture a possibility.
He pioneered the whole idea of the war journalist, something we take for granted today.
Was he really so dull? Or rather a late developer?
His articles in any case captured the imagination of the British public.
The man could write.
His name, soon to become well-known for newspaper readers such that he would become the highest paid journalist in England, was Winston Churchill.
Here are some excerpts from those first newspaper articles (later compiled into a book):
“The Himalayas are not a line but a great country of mountains…range after range are seen as long surges of an Atlantic swell, in the distance some glittering snow peak suggests a white crested roller bigger than the rest….’
“The inhabitants of these wild but wealthy valleys are of many tribes, but of similar character and condition. The abundant crops which a warm sun and copious rains raise from a fertile soil, support a numerous population in a state of warlike leisure. Except at the times of sowing and of harvest, a continual state of feud and strife prevails throughout the land. Tribe wars with tribe. The people of one valley fight with those of the next. To the quarrels of communities are added the combats of individuals. Khan assails khan, each supported by his retainers. Every tribesman has a blood feud with his neighbor. Every man’s hand is against the other, and all against the stranger…”
“Every influence, every motive, that provokes the spirit of murder among men, impels these mountaineers to deeds of treachery and violence. The strong propensity to kill, inherit in all human beings, has in these valleys been preserved in unexampled strength and vigour. ….A code of honour not less punctilious than that of old Spain, is supported by vendettas as implacable as those of Corsica.”
“In such a state of society, all property is held directly by force. Every man is a soldier. Either he is the retainer of some khan—the man-at-arms of some feudal baron as it were—or he is a unit in the armed force of his village—the burgher of mediaeval history. Many, perhaps all, states have been founded in a similar way, and it is by such steps that civilisation painfully stumbles through her earlier stages. But in these valleys the warlike nature of the people and their hatred of control, arrest the further progress of development. This state of continual tumult has produced a habit of mind which recks little of injuries, holds life cheap and embarks on war with careless levity…’
‘When they fight among themselves, they bear little malice, and the combatants not infrequently make friends over the corpses of their comrades or suspend operations for a festival or a horse race. At the end of the contest cordial relations are at once re-established. And yet so full of contradictions is their character, that all this is without prejudice to what has been written of their family vendettas and private blood feuds. Their system of ethics, which regards treachery and violence as virtues rather than vices, has produced a code of honour so strange and inconsistent, that it is incomprehensible to a logical mind.”
“…passing from the military to the social aspect of their lives, the picture assumes an even darker shade….Those simple family virtues, which idealists usually ascribe to primitive peoples, are conspicuously absent. Their wives and their womenkind generally, have no position but that of animals; they are freely bought and sold, and are not infrequently bartered for rifles.”
“Their superstition exposes them to the rapacity and tyranny of a numerous priesthood—”Mullahs,” “Sahibzadas,” “Akhundzadas,” “Fakirs,”—and a host of wandering Talib-ul-ilms, who correspond with the theological students in Turkey, and live free at the expense of the people. More than this, they enjoy a sort of “droit du seigneur,” and no man’s wife or daughter is safe from them. Of some of their manners and morals it is impossible to write.”
“Yet the life even of these barbarous people is not without moments when the lover of the picturesque might sympathise with their hopes and fears. In the cool of the evening, when the sun has sunk behind the mountains of Afghanistan, and the valleys are filled with a delicious twilight, the elders of the village lead the way to the chenar trees by the water’s side, and there, while the men are cleaning their rifles, or smoking their hookas, and the women are making rude ornaments from beads, and cloves, and nuts, the Mullah drones the evening prayer…..
Then the Mullah will raise his voice and remind them of other days when the sons of the prophet drove the infidel from the plains of India, and ruled at Delhi, as wide an Empire as the Kafir holds to-day: when the true religion strode proudly through the earth and scorned to lie hidden and neglected among the hills: when mighty princes ruled in Bagdad, and all men knew that there was one God, and Mahomet was His prophet. And the young men hearing these things will grip their Martini rifles and pray to Allah, that one day He will bring some Sahib—best prize of all—across their line of sight at seven hundred yards so that, at least, they may strike a blow for insulted and threatened Islam.’
How prescient the words of this young soldier were!
His aim was to bring the reality of the enemy confronted across the border in Afghanistan to the readers back in Britain.
Who could have imagined it?
That 120 years later his words would still be as poignant as then. That Afghanistan had not changed and was still the brutal, feudal society he had so eloquently depicted; a society based on violence between clans and were women had the status of ‘animals’. It was this warlike clan based society, predominant in the rural areas, which ultimately defeated the American led attempt to bring Afghanistan into modern times. They succeeded in bringing progress to the cities (along with the advance of women and girls) – but it was out in the mountainous hinterland where they failed.
And so the triumph of the Taliban. Today the words of that famous war journalist echo through the valleys of oppression.
During the last years of the failed attempt to bring Afghanistan into modern times, a high ranking British officer spent his off-duty hours immersing himself in Churchill’s book about the border war against the Pathans in 1893.
No doubt he was mesmerised by more than just the prose. There was also the feeling of Deja Vu; of history repeating itself.
The past and the present colluding and imminent disaster on the horizon.