If you follow this link you will see the inimitable Steve Bell’s cartoon quoting Kipling’s The Young British Soldier on President Obama’s Afghanistan “surge”. Like most, I suppose, I had written off Kipling as hopelessly old-fashioned, an imperialist, and a racist. Moreover he used dialect a lot in his writings. I grew up speaking two languages, neither of them English, and I tend to dislike the use of dialect in writing in any language. Using dialect has always seemed to me to be used as a means of condescension on the author’s part. Between the imperialism and the dialects I could never understand my hardline Irish Republican father’s enthusiasm for this poem. I didn’t really start to understand it until I became a cadet.

A few months into my training we went to the U.K. to train against some of our British counterparts (we won). I’d arranged a short leave both to attend some of the events at the book festival in Hay-On-Wye and to both bankrupt myself and rick my back as a result of visiting some of the town’s bookshops. In one of these I came across the foxed and severely battered remains of both books of the Barrack Room Ballads. Ahhhh ……… much was now explained. This was originally a song! And a drinking song at that! How could I have missed it? It’s not as if there weren’t plenty of clues. First there is not only the repetition of the refrain itself but also the pattern of the refrain:

  • Serve, serve, serve as a soldier,
  • Fit, fit, fit for a soldier . . .
  • Bad, bad, bad for the soldier . . .

And so on …

Then there’s the way he treats the first syllable in the third, fourth, and fifth lines of each refrain, and the capitalisation of “OF” to reflect to an extended note, or beat. To say nothing of its somewhat grim humour – of the kind we military types enjoy. Ah so it’s a drinking song.

Men selvfølgelig!!!*

I knew about those! Kipling wrote this as a drinking song for use in the enlisted mens’ mess. Its purpose was the same as the drinking songs that I and my fellow cadets sang. — A sort of informal tutorial, a tool for creating camaraderie amongst those who sang it, a reminder to veterans, a celebration of the bonds inherent to the life, life, life, of being soldiers OF the Queen. What could be more obvious? How on earth had I missed it? No wonder dad likes it so much.

But it’s the last verse that I want to talk about. The last verse addresses the the ferocity of Afghan resistance to foreign rule a ferocity which, as I can testify, is no less today than it was in Kipling’s time. They might, and often do, hate each other, but they hate foreigners coming in slaughtering their civilians and then lying about it even more. They not only hate the foreigners who have come and are trying to violently take over their country, they hate them so much that the last lines constitute good advice:

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.

One of the things I learnt during my tours of duty is that the Pashtun people live, and fight, and die, by their honour code — by Pashtunwali.

Pashtunwali which means “the way of the Pashtuns,” is the sine qua non of Pashtun identity. A Pashtun who adheres to Pashtunwali possesses honour (izzat). A Pashtun who for whatever reason no longer possesses honour is no longer considered to be a Pashtun. A Pashtun who is no longer considered to be a Pashtun has no entitlement whatsoever to:

  • Rights.
  • Protection.
  • Support of the Pashtun community.

Pashtunwali’s honour-based society is governed by several key concepts:

One of the other things I learnt is that most of the people with whom I dealt considered that under the Taliban the circumstances in which it would be possible to live by this honour code are achievable, and that they are not achievable under any foreign-sponsored regime. They are not particularly for example interested that what they see as a miniscule minority of women in Kabul or the other cities may no longer go to university. They are very interested in their daughter getting through adolesence without being raped by some western-supported warlord’s levies.

Now there’s an interesting thing about Pashtunwali, and it’s how the concepts interact and reinforce one another. Let us consider, for example the duty to offer protection to your guests against all comers. Let us imagine that you have a guest. Let us further imagine that this guest has first helped you defeat an invasion by a hated atheist interloper. Let us imagine moreover that this guest has used his own money to benefit your population by building roads. Clearly the man is not only a guest but an honoured guest. Let us stretch our imaginations yet further and say that this guest is accused of a heinous crime, a crime involving the deaths of nearly three thousand people in a foreign land, and that officials from this foreign land (called “America”) arrive demanding that you turn your guest over to them.

What is the honourable course of action for you to take? Under Pashtunwali the accuser must show proof before you can hand your guest over. The Taliban asked for proof. I have never either heard or read anywhere that the State Department furnished proof. I have read and heard that once the Taliban asked for proof that far from providing it the American visitors became both abusive and threatening.

Now there is an interesting thing about Pashtunwali, which is that if someone comes to you saying that your guest is guilty of a crime but refuses to provide evidence to back up their accusation resorting to threats of annihilation instead then you gain honour by refusing to hand him over (even if he is guilty). The more fearsome the threats the greater the amount of honour you incur.

If you suspect that that means that when America threatened the Taliban that their stock soared you’d be right.

I have never, not even once, been able to get any American enlisted man, gunny, officer, to understand that very basic reason why Mullah Omar, refused to give Bin Laden up.

So here we are well into the “honeymoon” phase of the new American administration, and the fiercely pro-American UK Telegraph is reporting a cool response to Gates’ request for more NATO troops to match the 17,000 troops that President Obama has sent keep Afghanistan from Afghanistan: Slipping out of control, what I would find even more alarmingly if I were in the Obama admnistration is that people of the stature of Michael Burleigh are writing things like this in the fiercely pro-American Telegraph:

But the second view is voiced less often – except by generals in private. That is because a depressing uniformity of outlook prevails among politicians in the two major parties, namely that a critical view of what is happening in Afghanistan might undermine the western alliance. Our young soldiers are being killed just to show willing in Washington, doubly so now that a popular Obama has replaced Bush.

History bulks large in what the critics have to say, namely that Afghanistan has always proved to be a graveyard for foreign interlopers. They are in sympathy with Kipling’s "Jest roll out your rifle and blow out your brains / An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier" when you lie wounded on the Afghan plains. Meanwhile, Nato and the US have not succeeded in eliminating al-Qaeda (in north-west Pakistan), only in turning the Taliban into the spearhead of an Afghan nationalist insurgency. Paradoxically, the Taliban have become the solution to the lawless chaos they create, as they were before 9/11.

It is impossible to build a central government in a country where local leaders resent all outsiders, and whence anyone of any ability has fled. With an abundance of opium, rather than oil, there is little prospect of creating an Afghan national army equivalent to that now patrolling Iraq. Hence further confusion. Is it the West’s task to engage in drug eradication – without giving Afghan farmers any alternative – let alone to reverse the religious Reformations the Islamists represent?

The failure to have a wide-ranging debate about Afghanistan and to reach any mutual conclusions has meant the policy drift of the past six years and the strategic confusion today.

Source: Do British troops die in Afghanistan to show willing in Washington? – Telegraph

What is the answer in Afghanistan? Well for a start “know your enemy” has always been good advice otherwise we might as well jest roll to our rifles and blow out our brains — it will be cheaper and less painful in the long run. 


Notes and resources:
* "But of course!!!"

A very slightly different version of this post has been posted to Gorilla’s Guides.



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!

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!