13 February 2009

Michael Palin talks about Afghanistan

Last night I had a pleasant evening watching four of the hour-long segments of Michael Palin's documentary Himalaya (BBC, 2004). He begins the journey and the narrative quite logically at the Khyber Pass, noting that many of the worlds greatest armies have followed this route, since it is the only passage through the mountain chain. He mentions Alexander the Great, Darius the Persian, and Tamerlane the Great. Then this...
"And in 1842 the lone survivor of the British Army's attempt to pacify Afghanistan came staggering up this road to announce the annihilation of 17,000 of his comrades..."
That got my attention, since it referred to an event not covered in any of my (few) history courses. Searched the web today, and found the First Anglo-Afghan War, and then the catastrophe under the heading Massacre of Elphinstone's Army. Details at the link, but these excerpts give the flavor:
The remnants dragged on and made a last stand near the village of Gandamack on 13 January. The force was down to fewer than forty men and almost out of food and ammunition. They were surrounded on a hillock and when a surrender was offered by the Afghans, one British sergeant gave the famous answer "Not bloody likely!" All but two were slain.

Only one soldier managed to reach Jalalabad. On January 13 William Brydon, an assistant surgeon, rode through the gate on his exhausted horse. Part of his skull was sheared off by a sword. An Afghan shepherd had granted him refuge and, when the shooting was over, put him on his horse. It is said that he was asked upon arrival what happened to the army, and answered "I am the army."
The winter massacre is eerily reminiscent of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. Blogged today because I continue to wonder about the strategic relevance of Afghanistan for the United States, especially in view of Obama's insistence that he will accelerate the war there. I can't believe the claims that our presence there is for the purpose of hunting bin Laden. It has to be oil-related or for access to Iran and Pakistan. It's hard to believe that it will end soon (or well).

More on that some other time. Just the history lesson for today.

The paintings above: Remnants of an Army and Last Stand


  1. Afghanistan has no oil itself, though there have been talks of building a pipeline through there from the Caspian Sea. Of course, a pipeline would be a waste in an unstable country, as there would always be rebels blowing a pipeline up. Is it possible to stabilize Afghanistan? History says not. Not even the Taliban succeeded. More westerners should read the history of the Middle and Far East.

  2. Being English, I did know the history.
    I grew up an avid reader, I had elderly relatives whose forbears fought in India, and Afghanistan, I read the books and poems of Rudyard Kipling, so yes, I was stunned at the stupidity of the U.S, and of our own British government who seemed to think invading Afghanistan was a good idea.
    Of course, nobody in Washington seemed to remember Viet-nam, nor did they remember how u.s and british special forces had been so successful in training mujahiddin to fight the Russians. How the Afghanis had prevailed against armour, jets, and helicopter gunships.
    Here's Rudyard Kipling's advice to a young british soldier. Especially the final verse.


    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!

    Now all you recruities what's drafted to-day,
    You shut up your rag-box an' 'ark to my lay,
    An' I'll sing you a soldier as far as I may:
    A soldier what's fit for a soldier.
    Fit, fit, fit for a soldier . . .

    First mind you steer clear o' the grog-sellers' huts,
    For they sell you Fixed Bay'nets that rots out your guts --
    Ay, drink that 'ud eat the live steel from your butts --
    An' it's bad for the young British soldier.
    Bad, bad, bad for the soldier . . .

    When the cholera comes -- as it will past a doubt --
    Keep out of the wet and don't go on the shout,
    For the sickness gets in as the liquor dies out,
    An' it crumples the young British soldier.
    Crum-, crum-, crumples the soldier . . .

    But the worst o' your foes is the sun over'ead:
    You ~must~ wear your 'elmet for all that is said:
    If 'e finds you uncovered 'e'll knock you down dead,
    An' you'll die like a fool of a soldier.
    Fool, fool, fool of a soldier . . .

    If you're cast for fatigue by a sergeant unkind,
    Don't grouse like a woman nor crack on nor blind;
    Be handy and civil, and then you will find
    That it's beer for the young British soldier.
    Beer, beer, beer for the soldier . . .

    Now, if you must marry, take care she is old --
    A troop-sergeant's widow's the nicest I'm told,
    For beauty won't help if your rations is cold,
    Nor love ain't enough for a soldier.
    'Nough, 'nough, 'nough for a soldier . . .

    If the wife should go wrong with a comrade, be loath
    To shoot when you catch 'em -- you'll swing, on my oath! --
    Make 'im take 'er and keep 'er: that's Hell for them both,
    An' you're shut o' the curse of a soldier.
    Curse, curse, curse of a soldier . . .

    When first under fire an' you're wishful to duck,
    Don't look nor take 'eed at the man that is struck,
    Be thankful you're livin', and trust to your luck
    And march to your front like a soldier.
    Front, front, front like a soldier . . .

    When 'arf of your bullets fly wide in the ditch,
    Don't call your Martini a cross-eyed old bitch;
    She's human as you are -- you treat her as sich,
    An' she'll fight for the young British soldier.
    Fight, fight, fight for the soldier . . .

    When shakin' their bustles like ladies so fine,
    The guns o' the enemy wheel into line,
    Shoot low at the limbers an' don't mind the shine,
    For noise never startles the soldier.
    Start-, start-, startles the soldier . . .

    If your officer's dead and the sergeants look white,
    Remember it's ruin to run from a fight:
    So take open order, lie down, and sit tight,
    And wait for supports like a soldier.
    Wait, wait, wait like a soldier . . .

    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!

    This was, I think, published in Kipling's "Barrack Room Ballads" in about 1892.

  3. Soubriquet, I had seen the final verse out of context before. Thanx for posting the fulltext.


  4. If I had the money, I would, personally, send a copy of "The man who would be king" (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0073341/), to any politician, regardless of creed or nationality who still fancies invading/pacifying Afghanistan.

    I also think that it should be "required seeing" for all recruits presently attending any military college or boot camp.

    One can always dream of peace and self determination...



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