War-torn lands and war-torn lives

June 24, 2012, Sunday/ 12:56:00

Some places seem destined just by their very geography to be the scene of conflict: high ground that commands the view of fertile valleys and plains below, necks of water that govern the entrance to major seas and oceans, corridors of land that are key transit routes.

 Successive military commanders from the Assyrians, Greeks and Romans right up to the present day have understood the key importance of holding and controlling such strategic locations.

We can all understand the importance of Gallipoli not only in controlling the seaward approach to the mighty city of İstanbul, but also providing Russia’s Black Sea ports with their only outlet to the ocean. In centuries past when navies needed a safe port from the winter storms and the opportunity to restock both supplies and men, islands in the Mediterranean such as Cyprus were key prizes to be won.

He who controls the trade route is able not only to ensure the safety of the movement of their own goods and services, securing a supply line for their own cities, but also to charge taxes and levies on others passing through their borders and staging posts.

In the history of the last century the world has seen wars or near-wars over control of the strategic canals that created shortcuts for international maritime trade, or islands that can be used to site missiles to threaten their neighbor.

Currently, it is not just the visible geography that makes certain tracts of land desirable, but the hidden geology as oil has become an invaluable commodity. Many centuries ago, salt was a similarly highly prized natural resource, with ownership of salt lakes governing the Roman army’s decisions of where to conquer. Gold from South Africa and diamonds from India made these countries prizes that their imperial masters would fight not to lose, and rival empires would aspire to gain.

Some families seem destined just by their very make-up to be the scene of conflict. An older brother who has the father’s love and all manner of privileges heaped upon him because he is the oldest son and heir. The very best of education, and a career mapped out for him accompany the certainty that one day all that his father has will be his. For now, he bears his father’s surname as a surety of this future inheritance.

A younger brother who is officially only a stepson, bearing the surname his mother had before she and the father were both widowed and were free to marry. But in truth he is not a stepson but a bastard son, born out of an illicit relationship when both his mother and the father were married to others. As such, the world can never know that he is more than stepson, and really is true flesh and blood. As such, he can never experience the current privileges and future expectations of his older brother.

In “Red Runs the Helmand,” Patrick Mercer creates a world where these two scenes of conflict collide in the Victorian Age. Afghanistan is of strategic interest both to Russia and Britain for the same reason: It is the gateway to India, the jewel in the crown of the British Empire. Britain must hold Afghanistan in order to repel a Russian assault on northern India (this is of course some 100 years before partition when Pakistan, Bangladesh and India became separate countries). Russia must win Afghanistan if it is to secure its supply lines for a campaign to take away the title of empress of India from Queen Victoria; to achieve this it is involved in all sorts of military mischief, including inciting local warlords to rebellion.

The key to success is not just relative military might, but the loyalty and cooperation of the Afghan tribal leaders. The battle for the hearts and minds of the locals is sometimes fought skillfully, sometimes disastrously.

With their father Brig. Gen. Anthony Morgan in overall command of their army, the two rival siblings compete for military glory and their father’s heart. Older brother Ensign Billy Morgan is a Sandhurst-educated officer in the 66th Foot Regiment. Younger brother Lt. Sam Keenan is an officer in the less prestigious Indian cavalry regiment, the 3rd Scinde Horse.

Success seems assured for Billy, as all the cards are stacked in his favor. But the battle for the heart and mind of their father is a fierce one that spills over into bitter rivalry among their battalions and could even turn the course of the war.

This is a soldier’s tale full of realism and humor. The characters are well drawn and believable as they interact with one another in a hostile environment, facing a local uprising in the 1880s. Mercer has first-hand knowledge of how soldiers think and act, he understands the fear and the heroism and the coping mechanisms of humor and denial, as he was a soldier himself before becoming a journalist and then a UK politician.

His other two professions come out strongly in the novel, too. This was the age when journalists were beginning to report on war and the actions of British troops. Generals no longer had the luxury of their actions and mistakes being ignored -- they were discussed in the finest detail in the press. The commanding officers in “Red Runs the Helmand” have to deal not just with the politicians who made decisions to send them into battle but also the press who reported on their every move, often with little understanding of the real battle.

The first chapter is sadly incredibly slow. The scene is set through conversations between different ranks of officers that seem to go on longer than necessary. But persevere, for it is worth it. The action starts at the very end of the chapter as a patrol is attacked by a child with a knife, one of their number being seriously wounded. In self-defense they kill him, but this nearly causes a riot by the locals who see soldiers murdering a local child. The brigadier general has extra complications in dealing with the enquiry as one of the officers in charge is his older son.

Does this sound familiar to the current situation in Afghanistan? Many times Mercer the politician is making comment on the 2012 effort through his novelization of the 1880 Battle of Maiwand. At times the parallels seem a little too stressed, but generally they are effortless and thought-provoking. A soldier in 1880 musing “from the very start of this punch-up I’d had my doubts about being in Afghanistan” could easily have been writing in his diary today. A commander frustrated that “the windbag politicians had failed to open their history books and sent all the wrong signals to the Afghans” is a thinly veiled reflection of Morgan’s own view, expressed explicitly in the afterward, that “in 2006 I wondered long and hard about the wisdom of sending a tiny force to the Helmand valley, suspecting that the British government of the day had not opened its history books, still less heard of the battle of Maiwand.”

Portraits of the locals are sympathetic and etched with a deep understanding of culture. The wali of Kandahar, Sher Ali, is utterly and disarmingly charming. I could not resist a smile at the clash of culture in the point of view of Sam Keenan’s friend Singh who, not understanding that privileged Billy is part of a more respected regiment from the British point of view, assumes Billy had displeased his father in some way that he was part of a foot regiment while Sam could ride into battle.

This novel is a strong and powerful description of the chaotic nature of battle. It tackles issues such as what killing others can do to a man, the overconfidence of imperialists and the lack of trust of native British Empire regiments following the Indian Mutiny.

Gripping and gritty, we come to see that, although peace in Afghanistan may be harder to achieve, two warring brothers can find that there are circumstances that can unite them and bring peace to a family torn apart by its own grubby history.

“Red Runs the Helmand,” by Patrick Mercer, Published by Harper Collins, 7.99 GBP in paperback, ISBN: 978-000730277-2

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