The Magazine

Fighting Fanaticism

The young Churchill's war in the Sudan.

Oct 29, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 07 • By STEVEN F. HAYWARD
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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.