As has become an annual rite, we mark the birthdate of Rudyard Kipling, born December 30th, 1865. He was born in Bombay, which Hindu nationalists renamed Mumbai. We continue to call it Bombay. Because that is what my ancestors called it - Bom Baia, Good Bay - when they handled it over to the British, as dowry for Catherine of Braganza. It is the name the world knows it as, and as Kipling knew it. A century ago Rudyard Kipling was the most famous writer in the world. His poetry mattered, at that last moment in English speaking history when poetry itself still matter, before it lost rhyme and meter and became the purview of obscure minded academics.
Kipling wrote of merchants, mystics, engineers, statesmen and common foot soldiers. His identity was Anglo-Indian, as his parents and their generation of British derived residents described themselves. A century before Kipling's birth the adventurer Robert Clive, a youthful Shropshire hoodlum, achieved the conquest of much of the northeast of the continent. A large foothold that over the next half century was consolidated until either the British Crown, or the East India Company, controlled virtually the whole of the subcontinent.
Clive was the sort of fellow that could easily have fallen out of the pages of a Kipling story. By sheer will and guile he conquered a high civilization much older than his own. India a far larger place than Britain. Perhaps a hundred thousand 'Anglo-Indians' ruled over some three hundred million Indians in Kipling's time. The world they created was a bizarre, and fascinating, synthesis of the European and native cultures. The languages mixed and created a network of slang. An architecture both grand and obscene. Kipling was a foreigner, an Englishman, thoroughly immersed in this alien and brilliant culture. His most famous novel, Kim, the story of an Irish soldier's orphan wandering through India with his Lama mentor, had as its backdrop the Great Game.
The soldiers, statesmen and merchants that Kipling wrote about could look at a map of the neat and elongated triangle that is the Indian subcontinent. To its east and north lay the impenetrable Himalayas. To the North West lay the plains that stretch from modern Pakistan, up into the Hindu Kush, and finally reached Afghanistan. This strategically placed bit of nowhere lay to the south of the rapidly expanding Russian Empire. British colonial officials, with that bit of paranoid imagining which was their special gift, could see the Russian Bear storming down into the subcontinent, with only a few thousand redcoats and sepoys to stop them. They must be kept out. Afghanistan was the logical place. Three attempts were made to subdue the Afghan tribes to British rule. Two abysmal failures and one qualified success. The jostling of Russian and British agents for influence in Afghanistan acquired a moniker, the Great Game. It was the stuff of both Victorian Ian Fleming and Edwardian John le Carre. Its madness and seeming futility affected even Kipling, that keen though intelligent advocate of Empire.
In 1894 Her Majesty's Servants was published by Harper's Weekly. A short story it tells of Indian Army pack animals discussing the nature of war and life. It was a piece of Kiplingesque whimsy with a deeper point. The story revolves around a military review, marked for visit of an Afghan emir with the Viceroy of India. Though the Viceroy is never named, it is probably Lord Dufferin, who had earlier served as Governor-General in Canada. After the review is finished, one of the Amir's men questions an Indian Army officer:
Then I heard an old grizzled, long-haired Central Asian chief, who had come down with the Amir, asking questions of a native officer.
‘Now,’ said he, ‘in what manner was this wonderful thing done?’
And the officer answered, ‘There was an order, and they obeyed.’
‘But are the beasts as wise as the men?’ said the chief.
‘They obey, as the men do. Mule, horse, elephant, or bullock, he obeys his driver, and the driver his sergeant, and the sergeant his lieutenant, and the lieutenant his captain, and the captain his major, and the major his colonel, and the colonel his brigadier commanding three regiments, and the brigadier his general, who obeys the Viceroy, who is the servant of the Empress. Thus it is done.’
‘Would it were so in Afghanistan!’ said the chief; ‘for there we obey only our own wills.’
‘And for that reason,’ said the native officer, twirling his moustache, ‘your Amir whom you do not obey must come here and take orders from our Viceroy.’
So now do modern Viceroys, and modern Amirs, try to rule Afghanistan. The problem is still the same: "we obey only our own wills." This would seem to be an individualist cry. So it is, albeit very primitive. An individualist who is unwilling to submit, or can grasp, the principle of contract, either social or personal. An "individualist" who functions at short-range, by whim and will. The British colonial army of Kipling's day was all volunteer. Men who had willing bound themselves to its harsh discipline.
The war Canadians are fighting in Helmand is not against the primitive religious fanatics who once ruled there, and would rule again should the NATO forces fail in their task. They are fighting a mindset within the Afghan people, who have not yet been able to grasp the concept of "nation." A nation, in part, is a society of obedience without force. Whatever government may rule over a nation, that group of people wish to live together. One of the decisive advantages the Europeans had when they past the Cape of Good Hope was nationalism. Their ships were of better design, but not so much better. The Indians and Chinese had used gunpowder in war long before the Europeans. As Albuquerque and Clive made their made through the Byzantine world of Indian power politics, they could count on the loyalty and unity of the few men they had. It's a loyalty that Hamid Karzai has been unable to buy with all the wealth funnelled to him. It's a loyalty he sorely needs for today's Great Game.