The Ballad of Bushie and Flashy
George Bush may have lost his swagger, but Harry Flashman hasn’t.
Maybe the president presiding over a quicksand empire got a vicarious thrill out of the fictional Victorian brigadier general who roamed from Chillianwalla to Isandlwana to Abyssinia at the height of the British Empire, always making conquests in love and war despite his cowardly, caddish behavior.
In our continuing odyssey of discovery through the president’s reading list, we learned that he perused two of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman books, “Flashman at the Charge” and “Flash for Freedom.”
There are those who are skeptical of the president’s souped-up reading list, a result of a book-reading contest with Karl Rove.
“I don’t think he understands the world,” Jay Rockefeller, the new chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told The Times’s Mark Mazzetti. “I don’t think he’s particularly curious about the world. I don’t think he reads like he says he does. Every time he’s read something he tells you about it.”
I just wish W. had read more about the perils of empire before he naïvely dived into one. Mr. Fraser agrees that W. should have read the original “Flashman” before invading Afghanistan. It could have given him invaluable, if politically incorrect, insights that might have helped in the effort to catch Osama at Tora Bora and in the new push to stop the Taliban slouching toward Kandahar.
On a recent visit to Afghanistan, Robert Gates told nervous military commanders that he was open to sending more troops to thwart the Taliban from regrouping. Congressman John McHugh, who just returned from a trip to Afghanistan with Hillary Clinton and Evan Bayh, said that everyone they talked to had warned “that when the snows melt in the mountains, it will bring a new onslaught from Al Qaeda and the Taliban ... one that directly threatens not just the Karzai presidency, but threatens Afghanistan itself, and logically, it follows, threatens our investment in blood and treasure.”
“Flashman” is based on a devastating British defeat during one of their wars in Afghanistan. After invading Kabul in 1839 and setting up an unpopular puppet shah, the British trekked through the snowy mountains to Jalalabad. Of more than 16,000 troops and camp followers, only one doctor survived; the rest were picked off in ambushes by Afghan warriors.
The lesson is that Afghanistan is a no man’s land that can’t be tamed by gringos. The British Empire, on which the sun never set, never succeeded in occupying Afghanistan even as it engaged in the Great Game with the Russians for influence there. It was terra incognita and terra fuggedaboutit.
“You could never forget that in Afghanistan you are walking a knife-edge the whole time,” Harry Flashman notes, adding that, like himself, the Afghans could be “cruel and bloodthirsty,” turning on you with no warning.
Mr. Fraser echoed those sentiments when I tracked him down at his home on the Isle of Man. “No one has ever succeeded in invading Afghanistan,” the octogenarian who fought in Burma in World War II boomed with a trace of Scottish accent.
“The Afghans are extraordinary fighters, tough and resourceful and cruel, and they know their business inside out,” he said. “On their own territory, they’re unbeatable. They love fighting and dealing with invaders. It’s almost a game to them. The country is Death Valley 10 times over. You see them on television in their robes with their weapons and that’s all. The American and British troops are loaded with rubbishy equipment.
“Eventually, I suppose, we’ll get out of Iraq and pretend it’s been a success when it’s just a mess. ... “Afghanistan is slightly different. You cannot ever win. When you consider the Russians put in more than 100,000 troops and couldn’t do it. There’s only one way to deal with the Afghans, and that’s to buy them.”
Mr. Fraser recites the end of Kipling’s “The Ballad of the King’s Mercy”:
Abdhur Rahman, the Durani Chief, of him is the story told,
He has opened his mouth to the North and the South,
They have stuffed his mouth
with gold ...
and sweet his favours are ...
from Balkh to Kandahar.
“It wouldn’t do Bush any harm to read Kipling,” he concluded before signing off.