Thursday, February 20, 2014

Kipling Reminds Us of Politics and War

They shall not return to us, the resolute, the young,
   The eager and wholehearted whom we gave:
But the men who left them thriftily to die in their own dung,
   Shall they come with years and honour to the grave?

They shall not return to us, the strong men coldly slain
   In sight of help denied from day to day:
But the men who edged their agonies and chid them in their pain,
   Are they too strong and wise to put away?

Our dead shall not return to us while Day and Night divide –
   Never while the bars of sunset hold.
But the idle-minded overlings who quibbled while they died,
   Shall they thrust for high employments as of old?

Shall we only threaten and be angry for an hour?
   When the storm is ended shall we find
How softly but how swiftly they have sidled back to power
   By the favour and contrivance of their kind?

Even while they soothe us, while they promise large amends,
   Even while they make a show of fear,
Do they call upon their debtors, and take counsel with their friends,
   To confirm and re-establish each career?

Their lives cannot repay us – their death could not undo –
   The shame that they have laid upon our race.
But the slothfulness that wasted and the arrogance that slew,
   Shall we leave it unabated in its place?

Rudyard Kipling's Mesopotamia (1917) was a blistering comment on the then well-known disaster that befell British and Indian troops in a distant front of World War I against the Ottoman Empire, the earlier incarnation of Turkey which included its dominion over Syria, Lebanon, Palestine (as it was then known), Iraq and Kuwait.  Mesopotamia, a name already ancient by the time of Alexander the Great, describes in general "the land between the rivers" – that being the Tigris and Euphrates – but geographically includes primarily present-day Iraq and Kuwait as well as eastern Syria, portions of southeastern Turkey, and western Iran.

The British began a campaign to seize Baghdad in 1915 but due to a severe under-estimation of the capability of the Turkish forces and leadership, as well as abysmally poor logistics planning, they found themselves under a choking siege at Kut al-Amara where they eventually surrendered on 29 April 1916.  After losing some 23,000 casualties during the campaign and siege, the British and Indian survivors were marched overland some 630 miles to internment in Aleppo, resulting in the further deaths of half of the prisoners of war.  The news of the surrender was devastating to the British public, with one historian calling it "the most abject capitulation in Britain's military history", and the commission of enquiry calling the system of command and support "hopelessly inadequate" through the multi-layered and anfractuous command structure.

Yet the enquiry found the officials themselves strangely absolved of responsibility, and it wasn't long before the civilian administrators began to re-insinuate themselves into British politics, seeking appointments from their high-placed connections in government. They hoped that this would be done quietly but it was discovered and publicised, assisted by the additional reaction among appalled civilians and military alike to evidence of similar gross incompetence in the abortive Gallipoli campaign shortly before.  It is this fury that Kipling exemplifies in his angry words that rail against the ineptitude of the campaign but reach a pitch at the idea that the officials escape unscathed and in position to continue as before.

The parallel to Benghazi is inescapable, but I would add the dénouement of our time in Iraq, with the failure to secure a status of forces agreement and our subsequent dash to the border when we exited, leaving Iraq to cozy up to Iran. Our troops in Afghanistan suffer through deadly restrictive rules of engagement and a collapsed relationship with Karzai, a charlatan who publically despises the Americans who protected him and allowed his accession to power, but who sucks up as much money as we can shovel to him. Toss in the failure of control of whatever the Libyan campaign was supposed to be, resulting in another Somalia on the Mediterranean; and feckless 'red lines' of the Syrian civil war, allowing eventual terrorist control of the Syrian rebels, Assad to retain power toward what looks like an inevitable victory, a de facto abrogation of the agreement to surrender his weapons of mass destruction, a desperate acceptance of a humiliating ploy by Russia's Putin to rescue the worthless American foreign policy effort, and the Syrian death clock ticking past the 140,000 mark.  Look how well we've done with that Iranian nuclear agreement (quite agreeable to the Iranians, certainly).  If that isn't enough to occupy your time, stand by to see how well we'll do with Egypt, Ukraine, Venezuela, North Korea; and as for that, rest assured that the administration is doing not much more than that – sitting back, watching the events unfold on CNN, and otherwise taking advantage of the lull in domestic coverage to draft new decrees for Obama to proclaim.

Lest we miss the point, Kipling shortly after included A Dead Statesman among his list of Epitaphs:

I could not dig; I dared not rob:
Therefore I lied to please the mob.
Now all my lies are proved untrue,
And I must face the men I slew.
What tale shall save me here among
Mine angry and defrauded young?

Mark Twain advised us that, while History does not necessarily repeat itself, it often rhymes.  How apt that Kipling points out a repetition of politicians stepping so lightly over the bodies.

[The term 'Mesopotamia' was recently re-introduced by the New York Times to its readers and the younger victims of American public schools, in transparent opposition to the evidence presented by the Bush administration of what was then known as 'al Qaeda in Iraq'.  Sulzburger & Co. were among the leaders of the Greek chorus that denied any reason to take on Saddam Hussein, and instead insisted on 'al Qaeda in Mesopotamia', a clumsy verbal sleight of hand. They were practically the lone news organization to take this step, which only points out how entrenched is their petty political distinctions.]  [Al Qaeda in Iraq has since grown into the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).]

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