The Magazine

Fighting Fanaticism

The young Churchill's war in the Sudan.

Oct 29, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 07 • By STEVEN F. HAYWARD
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The River War An Account of the Reconquest of the Sudan by Winston Churchill Carroll & Graff, 380 pp., $14 INNUMERABLE COMPARISONS HAVE BEEN MADE, in the days since September 11, to World War II and especially to Winston Churchill's wartime leadership. In some ways, of course, the comparison is inappropriate. But in one particular way, it is fitting: All great statesmen have a central idea or insight. Churchill's was that the distinction between liberty and tyranny, between civilization and barbarism, is real and substantial. This may seem simple or even simple-minded, and it is worth recalling that when Churchill referred to Hitler in the 1930s as "that bad man," sophisticated people in Britain criticized him as a reactionary throwback. Even some of Churchill's admirers make the same mistake. William Manchester's biography of Churchill, "The Last Lion," is a masterpiece. Yet the very title of the book attributes Churchill's greatness precisely to the extent that Churchill was an anachronism: a Victorian whose virtues were indispensable in 1940, but whose like we are never to see again. Churchill was, in fact, the most modern of men in many ways. His anticipation of how science would change modern life, warfare, and politics was profound. So, too, many of our current reflections on the character of terrorism, Islamic fanaticism, and the clash between the Islamic world and the West are anticipated in Churchill's great book, "The River War," first published in 1900. You can see in this early work much of the insight and clarity that distinguished Churchill as prime minister four decades later. "The River War" tells the story of the British reconquest of the Sudan in the 1890s.

Amidst the squalor and misery of the native peoples of the Sudan, which was then a part of British-administered Egypt, a leader named Mohammed Ahmed arose, proclaiming himself the second great prophet of Islam--the Mahdi--who would lead a crusade to conquer Egypt and drive out the European infidels. The Mahdi attracted a wide and fanatical following, whose warriors became known as the Dervishes (from which we got the image of the "whirling Dervish," the warrior swirling his sword over his head), and began to make good on his boasts. A SERIES OF MINOR BRITISH military expeditions to resist the rising tide of the Mahdi were ineffectual or disastrous, chiefly because political opinion on the matter in Britain was uncertain and feckless. After two small expeditions were annihilated, the Liberal government of William Gladstone decided to retreat entirely and ordered the evacuation of the British-Egyptian garrison in Khartoum. The government sent General Charles Gordon to Khartoum to effect the retreat. Gordon and his forces were surrounded and eventually wiped out by the Mahdi's forces in 1885, just two days before yet another small relief expedition, after much plodding and sloth, reached Khartoum. Gordon's body was mutilated and his head paraded around the Mahdi's villages. For the Mahdi, the sacking of Khartoum was only the beginning of the jihad to purge all Egypt of the European infidels (whom the Mahdi called, in a term revealing of the parochialism of his cause, the "Turks"). Although the Mahdi died just a few months after the sacking of Khartoum, the spirit of Mahdism remained under the leadership of his successor, the Khalifa Abdullahi. Meanwhile, the British did nothing to avenge the death of Gordon or retrieve their position in the Sudan for several years. But throughout the early 1890s, public opinion in favor of a war against the Mahdist forces in the Sudan steadily grew, until, following the replacement of the Liberals with a Conservative government in 1895, the reconquest of the Sudan was begun. There was no single reason this was decided upon. As Churchill explains, "The diplomatist said: 'It is to please the Triple Alliance.' The politician said: 'It is to triumph over the radicals.' The polite person said: 'It is to restore the Khedive's rule in the Sudan [the Khedive was the native ruler of Egypt].' But the man in the street--and there are many men in many streets--said: 'It is to avenge General Gordon.'" THE REST OF "THE RIVER WAR" is a magnificent account of the long campaign that ensued, culminating in the decisive Battle of Omdurman in September 1898, when Churchill participated in what is thought to have been the last cavalry charge of the British army. It is remarkable that at the beginning, he engaged in what is probably the last cavalry charge ever made in battle, and he ended fifty-seven years later pondering what to do about nuclear weapons. As with Afghanistan today, there was great concern that the Sudan was too forbidding and remote for a successful military campaign, and there were many public worries that the British were heading for yet another debacle in the desert. The answer was a military campaign of extraordinary forethought and patience, requiring two years to unfold, which Churchill describes masterfully in some of the best war writing ever done. One of his most memorable passages describes how logistics determined the outcome: "In a tale of war the reader's mind is filled with the fighting. The battle--with its vivid scenes, its moving incidents, its plain and tremendous results--excites the imagination and commands attention. . . . The long trailing line of communications is unnoticed. . . . Victory is the beautiful, bright-colored flower. Transport is the stem without which it could never have blossomed. Yet even the military student, in his zeal to master the fascinating combinations of the actual conflict, often forgets the far more intricate complications of supply. . . . Fighting the Dervish was primarily a matter of transport. The Khalifa was conquered on the railway." Perhaps this explains Churchill's interest in logistics during both World War I and World War II. As he put it in his conclusion: "The chances of battle were reduced to a negligible fraction. There is no higher strategy than this. The reconquest of the Sudan differs from most British wars in its later stages, in that it became an act of calculated and deliberate policy, and not a hurried, unavoidable conflict breaking out unexpectedly and against the wishes of the Government." For us now faced with battle in Afghanistan, most telling may be Churchill's reflections on the clash of civilizations that played out in the war: "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 Moslems may show splendid qualities. "Thousands become the brave and loyal soldiers of the Queen: all know how to die. But the influence of the religion paralyzes 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." This is, of course, the kind of statement which modern multiculturalists would use against Churchill as proof of Western chauvinism or racism or worse. Yet Churchill is much more even-tempered and balanced than his critics. He offers, for example, a penetrating analysis of fanaticism: "In countries where there is education and mental activity or refinement, this high and often ultra-human motive is found in the pride of glorious traditions, in a keen sympathy with surrounding misery, or in philosophical recognition of the dignity of the species. Ignorance deprives savage nations of such incentives. Yet in the marvelous economy of nature this very ignorance is a source of greater strength. It affords them the mighty stimulus of fanaticism. . . . The desert tribes proclaimed that they fought for the glory of God. But although the force of fanatical passion is far greater than that exerted by any philosophical belief, its function is just the same. It gives men something which they think is sublime to fight for, and this serves them as an excuse for wars which it is desirable to begin for different reasons. Fanaticism is not a cause of war. It is the means which helps savage peoples to fight." In other words, what we call fanaticism derives from human nature itself, and we should not deprecate its force or depth. After all, the victorious British behaved with, if not fanaticism, then at least with a strain of vengeance and ruthlessness that, committed by the other side, would be counted as fanatic savagery. The British deliberately blew up the Mahdi's tomb in Khartoum, and General Kitchener disinterred the Mahdi's body and intended to keep his skull as a memento. Queen Victoria wrote after the battle, "Surely Gordon is avenged." IN ANOTHER PASSAGE astonishing for its prescience, Churchill describes a moment near the end of the Battle of Omdurman, when two thousand lightly armed Dervishes on horseback made a futile last charge into the British lines. They were all wiped out. Churchill observed: "The valour of their deed has been discounted by those who have told their tale. 'Mad fanaticism' is the depreciating comment of their conquerers. I hold this to be a cruel injustice. Nor can he be a very brave man who will not credit them with a nobler motive. . . . Why should we regard as madness in the savage what would be sublime in civilized men?" What follows is the most remarkable passage of the entire book: "For I hope that if evil days should come upon our own country, and the last army which a collapsing Empire could interpose between London and the invader were dissolving in rout and ruin, that there would be some--even in these modern days--who would not care to accustom themselves to a new order of things and tamely survive the disaster." This was not mere bravado. In the late summer of 1940, when a German invasion was expected imminently, Churchill prepared a speech that he ended up not having to give, entitled "You Can Take One With You." But he also understood why bravery was not enough without all the other virtues. The Dervishes had finally only ferocity to offer the world. Churchill's description of democracy aroused shows his central insight at work: "No terms but fight or death were offered. No reparation or apology could be made. . . . The red light of retribution played on the bayonets and the lances, and civilization--elsewhere sympathetic, merciful, tolerant, ready to discuss or to argue, eager to avoid violence, to submit to law, to effect a compromise--here advanced with an expression of inexorable sternness, and rejecting all other courses, offered only the arbitration of the sword." Churchill understood that Western culture and civilization embody an idea of justice based on reason and inclined toward moderation, while barbarism lacks any reasoned principle of justice or progress or moderation. This is why the most important question of the present moment is not so much the practical difficulties of military action or intelligence gathering techniques, but the question of whether we are clear and confident of why we must fight. The fever swamps of the multicultural left in America today, besotted with a postmodern theory that rejects the ideas of both reason and progress, cannot escape the "moral equivalence" between America and its terrorist enemies. Such people, as Churchill once put it in another context, are unable to choose between the fire brigade and the fire. OLDER LIBERALS, who still have faith in reason and progress as it came down from the progressive era, recognize this for the repugnant nihilist nonsense it is. Time magazine essayist Lance Morrow, not known for ferocious or spirited pronouncements, had it right when he writes: "Anyone who does not loathe the people who did these things, and the people who cheer them on, is too philosophical for decent company." The great unintended consequence of September 11 may turn out to be a reforging of the American consensus that was shattered during the Cold War, and a marginalization of the multicultural left. As Churchill might put it, it is a chance for the New World to display its newness once again. Steven Hayward is senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco, and the author of "The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order, 1964-1980." October 29, 2001 - Volume 7, Number 7