Thursday, February 03, 2005

Long Ago

It was either my poor luck or good fortune to have read AEW Mason's The Four Feathers before coming across Winston Churchill's The River War,  an account Britain's 19th century campaign against an Islamic army. The British force was advancing against the Khalifa's forces at Omdurman on September 2, 1898, bent on settling accounts with the theocratic heir of the Mahdi, an Islamic preacher who some years before had led a campaign to purify Egypt and the Sudan from the Ottoman rulers in Cairo. Because of the British preoccupation with maintaining the security of the Suez Canal, which was its link to India, the Madhi's jihad eventually brought him into conflict Britain. Yet Kitchener would not have been marching on Omdurman were it not for the obduracy of another religious warrior, Charles George Gordon, whose private obsession with ending slavery in the Sudan had first 'raised the Arab street' and then led him to exceed London's instructions to evacuate the Ottoman garrisons surrounded by the Mahdi.

Soon after he arrived he started to end the slave trade, which at that point was majority of the economy. Before his arrival some 7 out of 8 negros in the Sudan were enslaved by the tiny minority of Arabs, well over 80% of the overall population. Gordon's policies were effective, but the effects on the economy were disastrous, and soon the population saw this not a liberation from slavery, but a modern-day European Christian crusade. It was this anger that fed the Ansar's ranks.

... His policies were soon abandoned by the new governors ... and given their lack of interest in the area the British decided to abandon it in December 1883, ordering Gordon to return to Khartoum and organize a withdrawal. ... He found that the routes northward were too dangerous to extricate the garrisons, and so pressed for reinforcements to be sent from Cairo to help with the withdrawal. He also suggested that his old enemy Zubayr, a fine military commander, be given tacit control of the Sudan in order to provide a counter to the Ansar. London rejected both proposals, and so Gordon prepared for a fight.

And fight Gordon did, with a zeal that rivaled that of his foes. Public opinion eventually shamed the British government into dispatching a relief to Khartoum, only to arrive two days late. Gordon's head was exhibited on a pike; the Madhi died not long afterward of typhus but not before choosing his successor, the Khalifa. Britain's interest in Egypt grew and began them on the long road to Omdurman.

Mason's The Four Feathers contains nothing of military historical value, being fiction; but the tale, set against the backdrop of the doomed Sudanese reliefs of the mid-1880s, has preserved a portrait of British society at the last moment when its tribal values were intact; when concepts like honor, faith and patriotism were everyday things implicitly understood. The plotline is simple. A scion of an old military family learns in advance of his regiment's deployment to the Sudan and understands the savagery of the foe makes it unlikely he will survive. He therefore uses his engagement to an aristocratic lady as an excuse to resign his commission. He is accused of cowardice by his three best friends -- brother officers -- in the form of three white feathers. Then a fourth is added by his betrothed who learns he had used their engagement as a pretext for his desertion. The inner tensions of the Four Feathers arise from the characters attempts to reconcile their desires for survival and love with the requirements of duty, friendship and the commandments of their God.

The young Churchill of The River War was alternately fascinated and repelled by the fanatical enemy he prepared to meet. Yet his empathy never tempted him to the other side. Nationality meant more than a passport in those days. For the picture of operations against the Khalifa we must turn to The River War; but for a portrait of the Britons who fought him, we must turn to the Four Feathers. From that vantage, Churchill naturally saw Islam in the context of a clash of civilizations. Describing the situation in the Sudan, Churchill wrote:

During the second century of the Mohammedan era, when the inhabitants of Arabia went forth to conquer the world, one adventurous army struck south. ... But all, without exception, were hunters of men. To the great slave-market at Jedda a continual stream of negro captives has flowed for hundreds of years. ... Thus the situation in the Soudan for several centuries may be summed up as follows: The dominant race of Arab invaders was unceasingly spreading its blood, religion, customs, and language among the black aboriginal population, and at the same time it harried and enslaved them.

Yet that cool appraisal would not blind him to the accomplishment and courage of his foes: he would summarize the Madhi's impact on the Sudan as follows:

But I know not how a genuine may be distinguished from a spurious Prophet, except by the measure of his success. The triumphs of the Mahdi were in his lifetime far greater than those of the founder of the Mohammedan faith; and the chief difference between orthodox Mohammedanism and Mahdism was that the original impulse was opposed only by decaying systems of government and society and the recent movement came in contact with civilisation and the machinery of science. Recognising this, I do not share the popular opinion, and I believe that if in future years prosperity should come to the peoples of the Upper Nile, and learning and happiness follow in its train, then the first Arab historian who shall investigate the early annals of that new nation will not forget, foremost among the heroes of his race, to write the name of Mohammed Ahmed.

That duality of view permeated the young Churchill's entire account. He was a man it is true; but a Briton foremost. As the British expedition closed on Omdurman, the 24 year old junior officer of Lancers saw the foe march gamely out and dreaded the slaughter he knew would follow.

The emblems of the more famous Emirs were easily distinguishable. ... All the pride and might of the Dervish Empire were massed on this last great day of its existence. Riflemen who had helped to destroy Hicks, spearmen who had charged at Abu  Klea, Emirs who saw the sack of Gondar, Baggara fresh from raiding the Shillooks, warriors who had besieged Khartoum--all marched, inspired by the memories of former triumphs and embittered by the knowledge of late defeats, to chastise the impudent and accursed invaders. ...

The 'White Flags' were nearly over the crest. In another minute they would become visible to the batteries. Did they realise what would come to meet them? They were in a dense mass ... The ranges were known. It was a matter of machinery. ... In a few seconds swift destruction would rush on these brave men. They topped the crest and drew out into full view of the whole army.

First shells, then Maxims and finally a torrent of bolt-action rifle fire disintegrated the Khalifa's army. As the broken Dervish remnants retreated towards their capital, the 21st Lancers, with the future Prime Minister of Britain attached, came sweeping for stragglers. A small cluster of Dervishes turned and engaged the Lancers with rifle fire. It was a trap.

The pace was fast and the distance short. Yet, before it was half covered, the whole aspect of the affair changed. A deep crease in the ground--a dry watercourse, a khor--appeared where all had seemed smooth, level plain; and from it there sprang, with the suddenness of a pantomime effect and a high-pitched yell, a dense white mass of men nearly as long as our front and about twelve deep. ... The Lancers acknowledged the apparition only by an increase of pace. ... 

The Dervish line was broken by the impetus of the charge but Winston himself survived at long odds. "Riderless horses galloped across the plain. Men, clinging to their saddles, lurched helplessly about, covered with blood from perhaps a dozen wounds. Horses, streaming from tremendous gashes, limped and staggered with their riders. In 120 seconds five officers, 65 men, and 119 horses out of fewer than 400 had been killed or wounded." Later he would revisit the battlefield; and the young man, already a master of the English language would write:

I have tried to gild war, and to solace myself for the loss of dear and gallant friends, with the thought that a soldier’s death for a cause that he believes in will count for much, whatever may be beyond this world. When the soldier of a civilised Power is killed in action, his limbs are composed and his body is borne by friendly arms reverently to the grave. The wail of the fifes, the roll of the drums, the triumphant words of the Funeral Service, all divest the act of its squalor; and the spectator sympathises with, perhaps almost envies, the comrade who has found this honourable exit.

But there was nothing dulce et decorum about the Dervish dead; nothing of the dignity of unconquerable manhood; all was filthy corruption. Yet these were as brave men as ever walked the earth. The conviction was borne in on me that their claim beyond the grave in respect of a valiant death was not less good than that which any of our countrymen could make. The thought may not be original; it may happily be untrue; it seemed certainly most unwelcome.

Although 3,000 years separated him from the age of Achilles, Winston might almost have been writing at Troy. But we are separated from the world of the Four Feathers by a vaster abyss. Osama Bin Laden might see himself, with minor alterations of dress and armament, as the Madhi, but it is doubtful whether Ward Churchill could ever see himself as Winston. The gap was driven home to me by the difference in tone between the Internet script of the latest remake of Mason's novel and the original. It is widest at the narrative's most crucial moment, when the protagonist confides his determination to seek redemption by following his regiment into the Sudan. In the Schiffer-Amini script redemption is a matter of regaining self-respect. In Mason's original, it is altogether something else; something few Hollywood scriptwriters can easily say today.

The Four Feathers 2002 The Four Feathers 1902
Col Sutch: [the protagonist's father's best friend] (In disbelief): "...You're a civilian. Even if you find them, there's nothing you can do."

Harry Feversham: "I'm well aware of my chances.

Col Sutch: Then what's the point!? (Staring at him in dismay) You think Ethne will take you back? Is that what you think?!

Harry Feversham: I don't have any choice... (With a terrible honesty) I'm not sure how much longer I can live with myself, here, like this... I'm leaving for Egypt tomorrow.

Col Sutch: Do you want me to tell your father?

Harry Feversham: Only if something should happen to me. I'll write and let you know how I am, as often as I can.

Col Sutch: What about Ethne?

Harry Feversham: I'd rather you didn't tell her anything. After all I've put her through the least I can do is let her forget me in peace.

“There are endless difficulties,” he said. “Just to cite one: I am a civilian, these three are soldiers, surrounded by soldiers; so much the less opportunity therefore for a civilian.”

“But it is not necessary that the three men should be themselves in peril,” objected Sutch, “for you to convince them that the fault is retrieved.”

“Oh, no. There may be other ways,” agreed Feversham. “The plan came suddenly into my mind, indeed at the moment when Ethne bade me take up the feathers, and added the fourth. I was on the point of tearing them across when this way out of it sprang clearly up in my mind. But I have thought it over since during these last weeks while I sat listening to the bugles in the barrack-yard. And I am sure there is no other way. But it is well worth trying. You see, if the three take back their feathers,” -- he drew a deep breath, and in a very low voice, with his eyes upon the table so that his face was hidden from Sutch, he added -- “why, then she perhaps might take hers back too.”

“Will she wait, do you think?” asked Sutch, and Harry raised his head quickly.

“Oh, no,” he exclaimed, “I had no thought of that. She has not even a suspicion of what I intend to do. Nor do I wish her to have one until the intention is fulfilled. My thought was different”-- and he began to speak with hesitation for the first time in the course of that evening. “I find it difficult to tell you -- Ethne said something to me the day before the feathers came -- something rather sacred. I think that I will tell you, because what she said is just what sends me out upon this errand. But for her words, I would very likely never have thought of it. I find in them my motive and a great hope. They may seem strange to you, Mr. Sutch, but I ask you to believe that they are very real to me. She said --it was when she knew no more than that my regiment was ordered to Egypt --she was blaming herself because I had resigned my commission, for which there was no need, because -- and these were her words -- because had I fallen, although she would have felt lonely all her life, she would none the less have surely known that she and I would see much of one another --afterwards.”

Feversham had spoken his words with difficulty, not looking at his companion, and he continued with his eyes still averted:

“Do you understand? I have a hope that if -- this fault can be repaired,” -- and he pointed to the feathers -- “we might still, perhaps, see something of one another -- afterwards.”

And it was for the chance of 'afterwards' that he followed them into the Sudan.