A Churchillian Perspective on September 11

Steven Hayward

December 1, 2001

"An expression of inexorable sternness, offering only the arbitration of the sword…"

In the days since September 11 there have been a lot of comparisons with Pearl Harbor, repeated evocations of our Finest Hour, and numerous reminiscences of Winston Churchill’s wartime leadership and speeches. It all became too much for the Washington Post by late October, which ran an article observing, "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to the words of Winston Churchill."

The Post noted that conservatives and Republicans are more fond of quoting Churchill than liberals and Democrats, which is the first hint that the interest in Churchill derives from something deeper than an appreciation of the poetic nature of his wartime rhetoric. Recalling Churchill’s words at this difficult hour is no mere exercise in nostalgia; rather, it is a symptom that we are beginning to recover an older moral clarity about the nature of the world.

Moments such as the present help remind us of some of the permanent features of political life and statesmanship, which otherwise tend to be obscured by all the sophisticated intellectualisms of our time. All great statesmen have a central idea or insight. Churchill’s central idea or insight was that the distinction between liberty and tyranny, between civilization and barbarism, is real and substantial. This may seem simple or even simple-minded, yet it is worth recalling that when Churchill referred to Hitler in the 1930s as "that bad man, " sophisticated people in Britain criticized him for making what we today would call a "value judgment." Churchill’s view of the distinction between civilization and barbarism, and between liberty and tyranny, is rejected explicitly by the doctrine of so-called "multiculturalism." The reaction against Churchill’s moral clarity about Hitler in the 1930s tracks closely with what self-loathing Americans on the Left are saying today about September 11—that it is somehow our fault, that we just need to "understand." the anger of Islamic fanatics, and, one supposes, resolve them through a 12-step program or some other therapeutic process of "conflict resolution."

There is a long pedigree for this kind of nonsense. Thomas Hobbes wrote that tyranny is merely kingship misliked. The modern value-free social science approach to politics liked to speak of "regimes," and of Soviet "leaders" rather than the more accurate "Soviet dictators." The value-free understanding of politics effaces the meaningful distinctions among regimes.

While the parallels between World War II and today are the obvious, in fact the most fitting Churchillian episode to recall for our present time may not be 1940, but rather his earlier experience in the British reconquest of the Sudan in 1898, which he wrote about in his classic, The River War. It is possible to see in this very early masterpiece of Churchill the sources of the insight and clarity of thought that came to distinguish him as Prime Minister four decades later.

I believe it was Mark Twain who said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. It requires only a little imagination to see some parallels between the present moment and the circumstances surrounding the British re-conquest of the Sudan a little over 100 years ago.

The story, in brief outline, goes as follows: Amidst the squalor and misery of the native peoples of the Sudan, which was then a part of British-administered Egypt, there arose a great leader, Mohammad Ahmed, who proclaimed himself to be the second great prophet of Islam—the Mahdi—and who would lead a crusade to conquer Egypt and drive out the European infidels. The Mahdi attracted a wide and fanatical following, whose warriors became known as the Dervishes (from which we got the image of the "whirling Dervish," the warrior swooping his sword over his head), and began to make good on his boasts. The Mahdi could be considered the Osama bin Laden of his day.

A series of minor British military expeditions to resist the rising tide of the Mahdi were ineffectual or disastrous, chiefly because political opinion on the matter in Britain was uncertain and feckless. Two small expeditions were annihilated completely. Then the Liberal government of William Gladstone decided to retreat entirely, and ordered the evacuation of the British-Egyptian garrison in Khartoum. The government sent General Charles Gordon to Khartoum to effect the retreat. Gordon and his forces were surrounded and eventually wiped out by the Mahdi’s forces in 1885, just two days before yet another small relief expedition, after much plodding and sloth, reached Khartoum too late. And although the Mahdi and his armies should not be regarded as the exact equivalent of today’s terrorists, they were nonetheless barbaric in the extreme. They mutilated Gordon’s body, and cut off his head to be paraded around the Mahdi’s villages.

For the Mahdi, the sacking of Khartoum was not the end, but the beginning of the Jihad, the holy war to purge all Egypt of the European infidels, whom the Mahdi called, in a term revealing of the parochialism of his cause, the "Turks." Although the Mahdi died just a few months after the sacking of Khartoum, the spirit if Madhism remained vibrant under the leadership of his successor, the Khalifa Abdullahi.

Meanwhile, the British did nothing to avenge the death of Gordon or retrieve their position in the Sudan for several years. But throughout the early years of the 1890s, public opinion in favor of a war against the Madhdist forces in the Sudan steadily grew, until, following the replacement of a Liberal Party government with a Conservative Party government in 1895 (again—does this sound vaguely familiar?), it was decided to embark upon the reconquest of the Sudan.

There was no single reason why this decision was made. As Churchill explained it: "The diplomatist said: ’It is to please the Triple Alliance.’ The politician said: ’It is to triumph over the radicals.’ The polite person said: ’It is to restore the Khedive’s rule [the Khedive was the native ruler of Egypt] in the Sudan.’ But the man in the street—and there are many men in many streets— said: ’It is to avenge General Gordon.’" (Emphasis added.) Much the same can be said about the aroused state of public opinion in America since September 11: by all means a deliberate and patient military and diplomatic campaign must be made by President Bush, but at the end of the day there is one requirement by the man on the street in America: The World Trade Center must be avenged.

The rest of The River War is a magnificent account of the long campaign that ensued, culminating in the decisive Battle of Omdurman in September 1898, when Churchill participated in what is thought to have been the last cavalry charge of his regiment, the 21st Lancers. It is remarkable, when contemplating the whole of Churchill’s career, to consider that at the beginning of his adult career he participated in one of the last cavalry charges the British army ever made in battle, and ended his adult career 57 years later pondering what to do about nuclear weapons.

Space does not allow even the most cursory recounting of the features of the Sudan campaign, but there are a couple of rough parallels between then and now that can be mentioned. As with Afghanistan today, there was great concern that the Sudan was too forbidding and remote for a successful military campaign, and there were many public worries that the British were heading for yet another debacle in the desert. Churchill observed: "It was a strange war, in every way different from other expeditions on which British troops are sent." The answer to these difficulties 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 Churchill’s 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 is could never have blossomed. Yet even the military student, in his zeal to master the fascinating combinations of the actual conflict, often forget the far more intricate complications of supply… Fighting the Dervish was primarily a matter of transport. The Khalifa was conquered on the railway.

This explains Churchill’s pre-eminent interest in logistics in his later career, both in 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.

In addition to his reflections on the nature of the military challenge at hand, he also had a lot to say about the clash of civilizations that played out in this episode, and which is playing out again right now.

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.

Well, now. This is the kind of statement which modern multiculturalists would use against Churchill as proof of Western chauvinism or racism or worse. Though I am not sure very many people would dissent from this as a description of the Taliban, or any other contemporary form of radical Islam.

Yet Churchill is much more even-tempered and balanced than his would-be critics of today. For example, he makes a number of observations about Islamic fanaticism that are easy to misunderstand. For example, Churchill offers a penetrating analysis of "fanaticism" that suggests it has a moral or rational basis:

Few facts are so encouraging to the student of human development as the desire, which most men and all communities manifest at all times, to associate with their actions at least the appearance of moral right. However distorted may be their conceptions of virtue, however feeble their efforts to attain even to their own ideals, it is a pleasing feature and a hopeful augury that they should wish to be justified… It is an involuntary tribute, the humble tribute of imperfect beings, to the eternal temples of Truth and Beauty…

Notice here the implication that the Western understanding of the highness of truth and beauty are universal to all humanity and cultures, and that Western culture is not just one culture among cultures, i.e., the premise of modern day multiculturalism, but is in fact the highest culture. You can also see echoes here of the argument made most cogently by C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man that man’s proclivity to natural law is universal.

In countries where there is education and mental activity or refinement, this high and often ultrahuman 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 therefore 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 momento. Queen Victoria wrote after the battle, "Surely Gordon is avenged."

In another passage astonishing for its prescience about Churchill’s own future, Churchill seems to offer what might be taken as an argument for the moral equivalence between the two sides. Near the end of the battle of Omdurman, about 2,000 lightly armed Dervishes on horseback made a futile last charge into the fortified British lines. They were all wiped out. Churchill observed:

The valour of their deed has been discounted by those who have told their tale. ’Mad fanaticism’ is the depreciating comment of their conquerers. I hold this to be a crue injustice. Nor can he be a very brave man who will not credit them with a nobler motive, and believe that they died to clear their honour from the stain of defeat. Why should we regard as madness in the savage what would be sublime in civilized men?

And then comes the most remarkable and prescient passage of the entire book:

For I hope that if evil days should come upon our own country, and the last army which a collapsing Empire could interpose between London and the invader were dissolving in rout and ruin, that there would be some—even in these modern days—who would not care to accustom themselves to a new order of things and tamely survive the disaster.

Who does this sound like? Here, I think, we see an uncanny premonition of the Churchill of 1940; written, remember, in 1899, when he was only 26 years old. In the late summer of 1940, when a German invasion was expected imminently, Churchill prepared a speech that he ended up not having to give, entitled: "You Can Take One With You." Housewives, he said, could stab a German soldier with a kitchen knife.

How then are we to make the moral distinction between the ferocity of the British and the ferocity of the Dervishes? Churchill offers the key distinction in a passage describing the fury of democracy aroused, in a passage that could easily have fit into President Bush’s magnificent speech to Congress on September 20:

No terms but fight or death were offered. No reparation or apology could be made… The red light of retribution played on the bayonets and the lances, and civilization—elsewhere sympathetic, merciful, tolerant, ready to discuss or to argue, eager to avoid violence, to submit to law, to effect a compromise—here advanced with an expression of inexorable sternness, and rejecting all other courses, offered only the arbitration of the sword. (Emphasis added.)

In other words, Western culture and civilization embody an idea of justice based on reason, and inclined toward moderation. The necessary ferocity of warfare represents a departure from the normal conditions and inclinations of democratic civilization, while it represents the normal condition of barbaric nations and peoples. Barbarism may be regarded, in a nutshell, as lacking in any reasoned principle of justice or progress or moderation.

Which is why the most important question of the moment is not so much the practical difficulties of military action or intelligence gathering techniques, but the question of whether we are clear and confident of why we must now fight with unmitigated ferocity—with what some might even call "fanaticism." And it is just here that the split on the Left in America is most significant. The fever swamps of the multicultural Left, besotted with "post-modern" theory which rejects both the idea of reason and progress, cannot escape the "moral equivalence" between America and its terrorist enemies. Such people, as Churchill once put it in another context, are unable to choose between the fire brigade and the fire.

Older liberals, who still have faith in reason and progress as it came down from the Progressive Era, recognize this for the repugnant nihilism that it is. Time magazine essayist Lance Morrow, not known for ferocious or spirited pronouncements, has it right when he wrote: "Anyone who does not loathe the people who did these things, and the people who cheer them on, is too philosophical for decent company."

The great unintended consequence of September 11 may turn out to be a re-forging of the American consensus that was shattered during the Cold War, and a marginalization of the multicultural Left. As Churchill might put it, it is another chance for the New World to display its newness once again.

Steven Hayward is Senior Fellow at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco, and is an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center. A different version of this article appeared in the October 29, 2001 edition of The Weekly Standard.