DRI-247 for week of 10-12-14: Rhyming History in the Middle East

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

Rhyming History in the Middle East

The historian George Santayana is best known for the comment that “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Another commentator amended Santayana by noting that, while history does not repeat itself literally, “it does rhyme.” Anybody literate in world history can cock an ear to the sound of developments in the Middle East today and recognize the rhymes.

Pedagogy is the art of focused oversimplification. Movies are a painless way of teaching history because they focus our attention through dramatic depiction on a visual canvas. Two famous movies provide a narrative paradigm for our Middle East historical rhyme.

Khartoum: The Death of “Chinese” Gordon and the Fall of the Sudan to Islamic Fanaticism

The 1966 film Khartoumdepicts one of Great Britain’s most famous military debacles: the capture of the Sudan from Egypt by forces led by Muhammad Ahmad, the Islamic religious fanatic known as “the Mahdi” (the “chosen one”). At first blush, no association with Great Britain is visible here, since Sudan was a protectorate of Egypt and part of the Turkish Ottoman empire – Sudan, Egypt and Turkey were not a part of the British Commonwealth. But Great Britain had long exercised influence in the Middle East for various reasons, and that influence extended to the use of military force in the region. One of the most famous of all British soldiers, General Charles G. Gordon, was Governor General of the Sudan and led the defense of its capital of Khartoum at the time of the invasion. Gordon’s death may have been the worst public-relations disaster ever suffered by British arms.

(1)Gordon was a professional soldier-for-hire, having served the Empire of China in putting down the Taiping Rebellion during one of the famous Opium Wars in the early 1860s. His talents included not only skill as a military commander but also formidable engineering skills. He also served with distinction in India and the Congo. Prior to the Islamic revolt, Gordon had served a previous stint as Governor General in the Sudan, during which he had played a key role in suppressing the slave trade. This was the culmination in Great Britain’s century-long crusade against slavery. It was fitting that Gordon, world-renowned as an evangelical Christian (albeit non-denominational in his belief), should have delivered this coup de grace to the institution of slavery. It was Christianity, alone among the world’s great religions, which had spearheaded the fight against slavery across the globe.

According to the movie, Gordon returned to the Sudan in early 1884 at the request of British Prime Minister William Gladstone. Gladstone was responding to public pressure created when another British professional soldier, Col. William Hicks, led an ill-fated expeditionary force of 10,000 Egyptian soldiers against the forces of the Mahdi. The Islamic leader had organized an army in revolt against Egyptian and Turkish rule in the Sudan, urging his followers to kill Turks. The movie’s narrator blames Hicks for failing to grasp the “one essential feature of the [Sudanese] desert: its immensity. The Mahdi led him on and on.” At the opportune moment, the Mahdists attacked and annihilated Hicks and his forces. In fact, the incompetence and indifference of the Egyptian military was also a factor in its defeat.

Can we hear the rhyme? For over 60 years, the United States has intervened militarily in countries that it did not own or officially protect. These included Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, Grenada, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In none of these cases was war declared, yet U.S. military forces were deployed and saw action. In each large-scale conflict, local forces were under the command of U.S. officers. The ability and spirit of the natives were questioned and success hinged at least partially on their efforts. In essence, then, the United States today is playing a role directly analogous to that played by Great Britain in the 19th century.

(2)An outcry to “avenge Hicks” prompted Gladstone to review his options. Gladstone was a liberal in the 19th-century sense of the word. He believed in free international trade as a medium to encourage peace among nations. He knew full well that British investors had a financial stake in the region and that the Suez Canal was considered a vital strategic interest of Great Britain. But Gladstone was viscerally reluctant to use the military power of the British government to bail out private investors. In the movie’s most chillingly prescient moment, he utters the line: “Britain will not assume the obligation to police the world.”

Can we hear the rhyme? That line of movie dialogue reverberates in our ears today. Every policy discussion of every undeclared war involving us has raised the specter of the U.S. as “world policeman.” In 1884, there was no concept of international law and no international agency with the mission of enforcing it, let alone a mandate to deter or punish international aggression. After World War II, though, the World Court and the United Nations existed. Yet the U.S. still found itself intervening in conflict after conflict and maintaining a military presence in most of the countries of the world. To be sure, this is a function of the ineffectual, corrupt status of the U.N. and the dubious legitimacy of “international law” in the realm of national aggression. Even so, no thoughtful American can watch Khartoumwithout shuddering at this point.

(3)The movie Gladstone escapes his dilemma, at least temporarily. The British public is clamoring for Gordon to be sent back to the Sudan, the scene of one of his greatest triumphs. Queen Victoria herself supports this plan. (The Egyptians welcome the return of Gordon, whom they regard reverentially as a potential savior.) Gladstone’s advisor, Foreign Secretary Granville, suggests that Gordon be sent to the Sudan but put on a tight leash, with orders only to evacuate British and European military and civilian personnel. Gladstone objects that Gordon, notorious for keeping his own counsel, will exceed his orders and do his best to “embroil the government” in war. Another advisor, army officer J.D.H. Stewart, interjects that if Gordon were sent to the Sudan without powers or army, he could not hope to stand up to the Mahdi. “He would simply fail.” At which point, Granville ripostes, “What a pity.” Gladstone understands that Granville is implying that Gordon be set up to fail as a scapegoat for an administration that is unwilling to take responsibility for employing the necessary military force.

Can we hear the rhyme? Once again, the reverberations from this exchange are painful to our modern ears. In Korea, the U.N. – but acting as a token front for a venture under U.S. leadership and predominantly staffed by U.S. forces – began by prosecuting a so-called “police action” rather than a full-fledged war. What was the result of this moderate, carefully calibrated, half-hearted military action? The U.N. forces came within an eyelash of being pushed off the Korean peninsula by North Korean forces (aided by Chinese and Russian advisors and materiel). Only when the U.S. dropped all pretense of fighting a police action and began to fight a war of annihilation against North Korea did our forces turn the tide of battle, first against North Korea and later against the combined North Korean and Chinese forces.

Later in Vietnam, this scenario repeated itself. The U.S. began by sending military advisors under the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. This half-measure proved inadequate against a North Vietnam aided by China and the Soviet Union, so the Johnson administration began a policy of gradual escalation of hostilities. Bombing of Viet Cong sanctuaries and, later, North Vietnam itself were a key part of this strategy. But only when U.S. forces annihilated the Viet Cong in South Vietnam during the Tet Offensive did we emerge militarily victorious. We were victorious in the sense that the Viet Cong were eliminated and North Korean forces were evicted from the South. But just as Gordon’s first victory in the Sudan did not prove decisive, so did our military victory in Vietnam not prove lasting. Our support was withdrawn from South Vietnam while Communist support was maintained in the North, and South Vietnam could not stand on its own against the subsequent North Vietnamese invasion.

In Kuwait, our military victory was swift and decisive, since the volunteer U.S. army was far superior to any other military force in the world. But rather than eliminate the enemy, we stopped short of proceeding to Baghdad and deposing Saddam Hussein.

In the Iraq invasion of 2003, the initial military effort was once again irresistibly successful. But subsequent terrorist activities, based in surrounding nations, were treated using police tactics rather than full-fledged, rapid military force. Only when a change in leadership produced a “surge” in military force did the U.S. succeed in retaking its lost ground, much as it had in Korea and Vietnam earlier. Then the U.S. withdrew its forces – and within a short time, the opposition had reformed and reasserted itself.

Now the U.S. has returned to the Middle East again – to fight Islamic fanaticism, again. We are proposing a moderate strategy of limited involvement, using bombing as a gradual step with the possibility of using ground troops later. Again.

We should note that the movie’s conference between Gladstone and his advisors was a dramatic invention by Khartoum‘s screenwriter Robert Ardrey. (Ardrey was highly respected in Hollywood and received an Oscar nomination for this screenplay. He eventually left Hollywood to write best-selling books on anthropology [!].) Among the numerous complications left out of the movie is the army actually sent to Egypt prior to Gordon’s arrival. But the movie’s implication of vacillation and inconsistency in the Gladstone administration’s military actions is fully justified.

(4)Six months after the fall of Khartoum, the Mahdi himself died of typhus. He has provided a line of succession, however, and his successors continued to stir up trouble in the Sudan for years after his demise. This, coupled with the political furor caused by Gordon’s death and the abortive and futile military actions by the Gladstone administration, eventually motivated Great Britain to send another army to the Sudan. This one was commanded by an expert in desert warfare, General Kitchener, who had been a major serving in the Sudan during Gordon’s tenure. Kitchener’s forces destroyed the Mahdist army at the famous battle of Omdurman in 1898. Eventually, the Sudan attained independence from Egypt and freedom from the orbit of Great Britain.

Can we hear the rhyme? In Korea, moderation in the pursuit of war led to a stalemate that has lasted for a half-century. In Vietnam, it led to a Communist victory after American military victory. In Iraq, it left Saddam Hussein free to create havoc and necessitate our eventual return to Iraq – an outcome analogous to the British return to the Sudan. And now the U.S. has returned to the Middle East again to fight the same old aggressor – Islamic fanaticism – with a new name.

Douglas MacArthur said “In war, there is no substitute for victory.” Victory consists of complete subjugation of the enemy by the destruction of its means to fight and the surrender of its political authority. The attainment of these objectives requires a declaration of war and prosecution of war with a single-minded and wholehearted devotion to those ends. The U.S. has abandoned both of these principles, much as did Great Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries.  


(5)When Gordon arrived in the Middle East, his first move was to fortify his position by enlisting allies among local governments. The movie shows him visiting a neighboring sultan and former slaver named “Zobeir Pasha.” Gordon asks for aid against the Mahdi, whom Gordon depicts as a common enemy. This request is hindered by the fact that Gordon had ordered the execution of Zobeir Pasha’s son during his war against the slave trade. Sure enough, Gordon meets with a stony refusal. This movie interlude is a stand-in for various real-life efforts by Gordon to build a coalition against the Mahdi – efforts that enjoyed little success.

Can we hear the rhyme? In every major military conflict of the last 60 years, the U.S. has faced the task of recruiting local support. In most (but not all) cases, this has entailed appealing to local tribes and factions. In Vietnam, for example, the U.S. was able to recruit the Montagnards, mountain tribesmen who were bitter enemies of the Viet Cong dating back to the time when they were called the Viet Minh. Unfortunately, winning over the “hearts and minds” of the remaining South Vietnamese population was a tougher job that took most of the war to accomplish. Distinguishing between friendly or neutral South Vietnamese and hostile Viet Cong was one of the biggest day-to-day headaches plaguing U.S. troops. In Iraq, most of the publicity surrounding the Bush administration’s agonizing struggle against terrorist counterattacks has focused on tribal and ethnic feuds between Sunni, Shiites, Kurds and other sects and factions.

(6)The biggest set-piece scene in Khartoumand the movie’s dramatic highlight is the climactic battle scene, in which Mahdist forces invade the city and butcher the inhabitants. The death of Gordon himself is a memorable scene based on a famous painting by George Joy, entitled “Death of Gordon.” Gordon is shown descending the staircase from his office residence in the midst of the battle for the city. Such was the awe commanded by his presence among friend and foe alike that the battle stops dead for a few eerie seconds as the Mahdists pay the infidel devil his due by allowing him to descend a few steps unmolested. Then a soldier launches a spear into Gordon’s chest and the great soldier falls off the steps in perfect imitation of the painting. Acting in violation of the Mahdi’s personal injunction, his men behead Gordon and carry the head in triumph on a spear across the city. On Gordon’s lips, it was said, was an ironic smile.

Although the locale of Gordon’s death was apparently correct, the battle itself was another dramatic invention by Ardrey. A local official betrayed Gordon and the Egyptians by allowing the Mahdists nocturnal access to the city, vitiating the necessity of launching an assault. Estimates of the ensuing slaughter vary from a conservative 10,000 to a more expansive 30,000. Interestingly, the movie shifts the locus of local corruption to economics; the local official hoards grain and sells it on the outside. When his corruption is discovered, Gordon orders his execution.

Can we hear the rhyme? A recurring theme in U.S. military conflicts has been that the people on whose behalf we are ostensibly fighting reject our help or even line up against us. In Korea, the early-arriving troops on the Korean peninsula noted that North Korean troops could blend in with the local population so well that pursuit was especially frustrating. In Vietnam, numerous stories of GIs betrayed and booby-trapped by locals made American troops wary and trigger-happy in their interactions with the South Vietnamese. In Iraq, the kickoff of American intervention with the subjugation of the country created a climate of mistrust that lasted for the remainder of the U.S. occupation. This creates the anomalous picture of an American military purportedly serving a noble, altruistic cause but in practice having to convince the beneficiary or even browbeat him to fight off opposition. What accounts for this picture, let alone its repetition?

The common factor is rebellion or revolt against the established order. Great Britain in the 19th century and the U.S. in the 20th century found themselves defending the established order against change. In a rebellion, it is often difficult to tell friend from foe and one never knows when one may become the other. In the movie, there is a key scene when Gordon boldly infiltrates the Mahdi’s camp, accompanied only by his friend and servant, Khaleel. While there, he learns that the Mahdi’s intention is to attack Khartoum and massacre all opponents – indeed, to conquer the entire Ottoman Empire, massacre all Turkish opposition and create an Islamic empire on the world stage. This meeting never took place – it was inserted to bolster the movie’s position that Gladstone should have decisively intervened militarily in support of Gordon and against the Mahdi. In other words, the Mahdi was portrayed as more than just a local rebel. He was an international aggressor. Gordon knew this and was a hero for single-handedly resisting him and warning the world. Gladstone displayed political cowardice in ignoring this warning – or so the movie contends.

This same theme resounded throughout U.S. military interventions. In Korea and Vietnam, Communism was the international aggressor. There were certainly good grounds for adopting this stance, since modern Communist doctrine vacillated between the export of international revolution a la Lenin and the more cautious doctrine of “socialism in one country.” But even after the collapse of Communism at the close of the 20th century, the doctrine of international aggression was preserved as justification for military action.

The Practical Value of the Middle East Rhyme

To be useful, historical rhyme must not only present a discernible pattern. It must also point the way to a desirable plan of action. It is one thing to suggest that the U.S. has fallen victim to the same political temptations as did Great Britain before her, for largely the same reasons. Of what practical value is this knowledge?

Our analysis suggests that both Great Britain and the U.S. were trying to do what Las Vegas gamblers would call “making their point the hard way.” It is one thing to say “I find this state of affairs deplorable and I want to see it changed.” That does not make the statement “I will change it using the means I propose” necessarily correct. The next EconBrief will explore the reasons why both these great powers found it so excruciatingly difficult to effect change using military force. Not surprisingly, those reasons are economic. It is even less surprising that the better plan would be to deploy economic logic rather than boots on the ground. A recent op-ed by the noted Latin American economist and political advisor Hernando De Soto points the way.