Churchill’s ‘The River War’ and the War against the Islamic State
Manhattanite Dan Friedman sent an email to his list today with a famous quote on Islamic fanaticism from Sir Winston Churchill’s engrossing chronicle, The River War: an account of the Reconquest of the Sudan. It prompted me to do something I had wanted to do after reading the book this summer, given the shambles of the U.S. war strategy against the Islamic State. A strategy now upended by the Islamic State massacre in Paris on November 13, 2015 that took the lives of 129 innocent civilians, injuring more than 352, 99 critically.
Today’s battle between French riot police and military against Islamic State holdouts in the predominately Muslim suburb of St. Denis, with 2 killed, 8 detained, four police wounded and the destruction of an apartment building followed a virtual declaration of War by French President Hollande. What followed was swift retaliation in Russian and French air raids against targets in Raqqa, Syria, the alleged capital of the self-declared Caliphate, the Islamic State.
I sent out to my email list a comment on the relevance of Churchill’s chronicle of the long battle to reclaim the Sudan from the Mahdi, and his followers, the Islamic State of fin de siècle 19th Century. Brig. Gen. (ret.) Ernie Audino, former U.S. Army Combat Adviser to the Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq said it was, “well put”. American Israeli, Dan Diker wrote from Jerusalem, “this is so relevant”. Diker is Fellow and Project Director, Political Warfare, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and Research Fellow, International Institute for Counter Terrorism. Then there was this from former Canadian Forces member, who spent time in the Middle East and Latin America, counterterrorism expert, Royce de Melo:
We just need the same resolve like they had in the 19th century to do the job we need to do today. We in the West have been neutered in every aspect of our society, politics, foreign policy, work, behavior, attitudes, empathies, sentiments, way of thinking, etc. has resulted in the situation we have today.
There’s something I wrote to some friends today and my closing line has now become a favorite quote for some of these friends, “…appeasement, denial and complacency are the allies of evil.”
“We can keep ignoring the warnings of great people, but at some point it doesn’t matter because history won’t bend to the will of the fools who deny it.” – Dan Friedman
“How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy. The effects are apparent in many countries, improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce, and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live. A degraded sensualism deprives this life of its grace and refinement, the next of its dignity and sanctity. The fact that in Mohammedan law every woman must belong to some man as his absolute property, either as a child, a wife, or a concubine, must delay the final extinction of slavery until the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men. Individual Muslims may show splendid qualities, but the influence of the religion paralyses the social development of those who follow it. No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step; and were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science, the science against which it had vainly struggled, the civilization of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilization of ancient Rome.” – Sir Winston Churchill; (Source: The River War, first edition, Vol II, pages 248-250 London).
Dan: Have you read Churchill’s The River War: An Account of The Re-conquest of the Sudan? You should. It illustrates what the British with assistance of the Egyptian Khedive did to eliminate the Mahdi (Ahmed Mohammed) and his 19th century version of ISIS in the Sudan. It is a fascinating tribute to the herculean tasks overcoming logistical hurdles that included shipping for Britain armored river steamers, railway engines, rails and ties and railway engineering troops down the lower to build a railroad skirting the Upper Nile to supply British, Egyptian and Sudanese units with arms, food, water to crush the Mahdi’s forces at the keystone battle of Omdurman on September 2, 1898. Churchill, as a journalist participated in that critical battle armed with his trusty German Luger pistol. The River War victory against the Mahdi fanatics also settled the spheres of influence between the French, Belgians and British in equatorial Africa. However, it took the British almost 13 years following the collapse of the year long siege at Khartoum on January 26, 1885 and the unfortunate death and beheading of my last name sharer, Maj. Gen. Sir Charles Gordon aka “Chinese” Gordon, the Governor General of Sudan appointed by the Khedive. Gordon had earlier achieved fame when he and British officers put down the Taipeng Rebellion in Imperial China in 1862 with nothing more than his fabled walking stick and a host of Chinese warriors. The wildly popular Gordon among the British polity was sent to put down a rebellion and free Sudanese slaves, only to be virtually abandoned by British Prime Minister William Gladstone. Think of Obama as the equivalent of Gladstone.
Go watch the 1966 epic film, Khartoum, on-line starring the late Charleton Heston as Gordon and Sir Laurence Olivier as the Mahdi, Ahmed Mohammed. Or better yet, pick up Churchill’s River War for his view of the long tough slog to victory and the vanquishing of the 19th Century version of the Islamic State. Proves that with resolve, discipline and splendid field generalship of Field Marshal H.Herbert Kitchener, abetted by modern technology, in that case ,Maxim machine guns, Sunni Salafists were defeated. It is a different time now, with different war making technology. However, the lesson from re-reading of Churchill’s River War, is if you don’t resolve to lead a war against jihadists, whether the Mahdi at Khartoum or ISIS at Raqqa,, you will fail as a world power.
EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared in the New English Review.