With the recent closure of the last U.S. and British bases in Afghanistan's Helmand Province, one is reminded of the now-famous remark General Petraeus made concerning another, contemporaneous war in the Greater Middle East: "Tell me how this ends." Holding that query in mind, one should also be reminded to ask how these things start. In both regards, Churchill's First War: Young Winston at War with the Afghans is a dramatic and valuable aide mémoire.
The peculiar difficulty which attends mountain warfare is that there are no general actions on a great scale, no brilliant successes, no important surrenders, no chance for coups de théâtre. It is just a rough hard job, which must be carried through. The war is one of small incidents. The victory must be looked for in the results ... yet while the army receives the humble submission of the most ferocious savages in Asia, we are assailed by taunts and reproaches from our countrymen at home.
The above quotation is from an article Winston Churchill wrote for the Times of London in May 1898, following a six-week period he had spent in British India, fighting and patrolling on what was then called the North West Frontier. Virtually analogous with today's Pakistan-Afghanistan border, if one crossed to the other side, and replaced the now unacceptable use of "savages" with "Pashtuns," there would be little difference from any number of articles written in the past 13 years. As the author of Churchill's First War, Con Coughlin, says, "The observations he makes on the futility of waging war against the fierce tribesmen of the Afghan border are as valid today as they were during the final years of the nineteenth century."
Con Coughlin is the executive foreign editor of the conservative-leaning Daily Telegraph, for which Churchill wrote most of his dispatches from India. The choice of newspaper was largely foist on the young cavalry officer, a rival for fame and fortune having already won reporting rights from the then more prestigious, and better paid, Times. In the interest of full disclosure, this reviewer was also once engaged as a stringer for the Daily Telegraph — under the editorship of Coughlin's predecessor — based in Saudi Arabia, covering al-Qaeda activity in the kingdom.
Churchill's six weeks on the front line during the Second Anglo-Afghan — but more accurately Anglo-Pashtun — War form the basis of Churchill's First War. And, while some may reckon it somewhat indulgent to devote an entire book to a month and a half in the life of a man who would live into his nineties, such an assumption would be unfair and inaccurate. For one thing, although he had previously come under fire in Cuba, on his twenty-first birthday, it was during his stint on the North West Frontier that Churchill came closest to death in battle, and where he was first confronted with the ugly reality of the brutality and human waste engendered by modern warfare.
Churchill's first serious love, Pamela Plowden, later Lady Lytton, once said, "The first time you meet Winston you see all his faults, and the rest of your life you spend in discovering his virtues." The same thought works against critics who would attack his writing as the ideological outpourings of an imperialist warmonger. Nothing could be further from the truth; he was a product of the largest empire the world has ever known and a member of the privileged upper class at that. Devoted to a particular vision of his nation and its empire he may have been, but there was always more to the man and his work. He was awarded the 1953 Nobel Prize in Literature.
The reality of warfare had a lasting impact on young Winston. Although his newspaper columns were often jingoistic, giving the public what they wanted, Churchill's overall impression from this time was that going to war should always be a last resort: "To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war." This is made clear in various of his writings, whether in the months following these events in The Story of the Malakand Field Force (1898), when he wrote, "Looking at these shapeless forms, coffined in regulation blanket, the price of race, the pomp of empire, the glory of war appeared as the faint insubstantial fabric of a dream ...," or 30 years later in his autobiography, My Early Life: "I saw for the first time the anxieties, stresses and perplexities of war .... It was not apparently all a gay adventure." In a letter to his mother, written just days after another brush with death in India, when a brother officer and several men died, he wrote: "I cried when I met the Royal West Kents on 30th September and saw the men unsteady under fire and tired of the game, and that poor young officer Browne-Clayton, literally cut to pieces on a stretcher."
Any political bias one might expect of an editor from a traditionally establishment newspaper is, thankfully, absent here. It is a thoroughly balanced account of the folly of an earlier war. If author and reader alike find it hard to ignore the numerous uncomfortable parallels with recent events in Afghanistan, this is nothing more than a sad reflection of the fact that so many policy makers ignore, or are wholly ignorant of, important matters of historical record.
Two other titles that deal with Britain's imperial adventures in Afghanistan, and are thus important in understanding recent policy errors, are also worth mentioning. Butcher and Bolt by the BBC's developing-world correspondent David Loyn is an excellent and easy survey of 200 years of British military involvement in that country, while William Dalrymple's Return of a King is a much longer book with a narrower focus, concentrating solely on the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42).
Churchill's First War is a fascinating book with much to recommend it. It rightly holds an obvious appeal to the legion of Churchill's admirers across the English-speaking world and beyond, filling as it does a gap in the level of detail devoted to this early and most formative phase of his life. Additionally, while other writers have made note of Britain's earlier experience in Afghanistan, Coughlin has done a great job of accomplishing the same thing through the eyes of just one person, the larger-than-life character that is Churchill.