LOS ANGELES, Sept. 26 -- No great adventure movie, not even "Lawrence of Arabia," offers more insights into the possibility of an upcoming war in Afghanistan than John Huston's 1975 film "The Man Who Would Be King."
Starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine, the film is based on an 1888 short story by Rudyard Kipling that is set in Afghanistan.
In the last two weeks, a couple of contradictory assertions about Afghanistan have become commonplace in the press.
The first is that outsiders inevitably face horrifying defeat in Afghanistan. The second is that the U.S. must not only kill Osama bin Laden and batter the Taliban regime, but should then take up the Imperial Burden in Afghanistan.
The U.S., they say, should conquer and pacify the entire Texas-sized country, build a unified nation out of its warring ethnic groups, reconstruct its economy, liberate its women, calm its furious holy men, and make it a middle class democracy.
"The Man Who Would Be King" reminds us that neither despair nor utopianism is a realistic attitude for anyone contemplating a military incursion into that harsh land.
It may seem strange to look to a Victorian costume drama for perspectives on a 21st Century war, but few movies have benefited more from the energetic inspiration of a young genius and the skeptical wisdom of an old artist who'd been everywhere and done everything.
Rudyard Kipling, the youngest man to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (at age 41 in 1907), was only 22 when he wrote "The Man Who Would Be King." Yet, and he'd already been shot at by a Pathan tribesman in the famous Khyber Pass.
Although out of fashion for decades, the Bombay-born Kipling is now the literary immortal of the hour as America contemplates the same question that so long plagued the British Empire: What to do about Afghanistan?
Kipling was long despised for his imperialism. Yet, at a time when many, including more than a few anti-Taliban Afghans, want the U.S. to take responsibility for Afghanistan, Kipling's sharp eye for the rewards and dangers of imperialism is suddenly relevant once again.
In the words of critic John Derbyshire, Kipling "was an imperialist utterly without illusions about what being an imperialist actually means. Which, in some ways, means that he was not really an imperialist at all."
Yet, it took 69-year-old John Huston to richly flesh out Kipling's tall tale, adding an astute post-Vietnam moral.
While Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" (the inspiration for "Apocalypse Now") is the allegory of a good man corrupted by absolute power over natives, Huston's movie is about a rascal ennobled -- yet ultimately doomed -- by his growing sense of kingly responsibility for the welfare of the natives that he had come to plunder.
To film Kipling's story was the obsession of the erratic second half of Huston's long Hollywood career. Having previously written and directed such Humphrey Bogart classics as "The Maltese Falcon," "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," and "The African Queen," Huston cast Bogey and Clark Gable as Kipling's anti-heroes, Peachey Carnehan and Daniel Dravot.
These charismatic rogues -- former British Army sergeants turned gunrunners and conmen -- intend to make themselves "Kings of Kafiristan." They plan to become the first Europeans since Alexander the Great to penetrate this isolated region in Northeastern Afghanistan that was the last refuge of Afghanistan's primordial pagan culture. Then, they'll "loot it six ways from Sunday."
But Bogart died in 1957 and Gable in 1960. Over the years, Huston had three screenwriters pen adaptations. Finally, Huston and his long-time secretary Gladys Hill collaborated on a brilliant fourth version. In Huston's proud but accurate words, "We did a lot of invention, and it turned out to be good invention, supportive of the tone, feeling and spirit underlying the original short story I like this script as well as any I ever wrote."
In the early 1970s, Paul Newman and Robert Redford were on board. Then, Newman, always one of Hollywood's least selfish stars, told Huston his script deserved British actors. He exclaimed, "John, get Connery and Caine!"
Sean Connery and Michael Caine went on to make what might be a more delightful buddy movie than even Newman and Redford's "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." Connery's performance as the Scotsman Daniel is widely considered the greatest of his majestic career. And Caine's turn as the clever Cockney Peachey might be better.
Early in the movie, Connery's Daniel tells an incredulous Rudyard Kipling (played by Christopher Plummer), "We have been all over India and we have decided that India isn't big enough for such as us."
Caine's Peachey adds, "We are not little men, and there is nothing that we are afraid of except Drink, and we have signed a Contrack on that. Therefore, we are going away to be Kings."
The two reasons they expected success in their audacious project are directly relevant to the question of whether the U.S. can win in Afghanistan.
It is widely remarked these days that no external power has ever permanently dominated Afghanistan. True, but what's forgotten is that no internal power has either, suggesting that the life expectancy of the five-year-old Taliban regime might be limited.
The severity of the Afghan terrain works against both conquest and unified resistance. As Kipling warns the buccaneers, "It's one mass of mountains and peaks and glaciers."
Connery's Daniel responds, "The more tribes, the more they'll fight, and the better for us." The more broken the ground, the more broken the society, and thus the harder it is to form a cohesive army to resist an invader.
Kafiristan, located in the Hindu Kush mountains northeast of Afghanistan's capital of Kabul, remains even today a scale model of Afghanistan's overall fractiousness. In this region that only covers 2 percent of the entire country, there are currently fifteen ethnic groups speaking five different languages.
Following his 1896 jihad, Amir Abdur Rahman, Khan of Kabul, changed the name Kafiristan ("land of infidels") to Nuristan ("land of light"). He offered the conquered Kafir pagans the choice of being put to the sword or to the knife. Most of the men chose the latter and were circumcised into Islam, although in that era before anesthetics and antibiotics, the pain couldn't have been all that much less.
Author Jonny Bealby spent four weeks retracing the fictional footprints of Daniel and Peachey in 1997, walking 250 miles across Kafiristan-Nuristan.
Bealby concluded, "If$(Daniel and Peachey$)were to tumble from the skies once again, more than a hundred years later, the task confronting them would be exactly the same. Kafiristan is now Nuristan; the infidels have been enlightened. But beyond religion, little of their ways seem to have changed."
Today, Afghanistan as a whole remains subdivided into hostile ethnic groups. The Taliban rulers, who control most but not all of the country, are drawn overwhelmingly from the Pashtun (know as the "Pathan" in Kipling's day), but they only make up three-eighth of the population and are concentrated south of the Hindu Kush. They may be the most war-like of the Afghans.
A 22-year-old Winston Churchill fought them in an 1897 "butcher and bolt" punitive expedition (depicted in the 1972 film "Young Winston"). Churchill observed, "The Pathan tribes are always engaged in private or public war. The life of the Pathan is thus full of interest."
A second insight into the difficulties faced by the Taliban at waging modern war -- beyond their small and rusty arsenal -- is implicit in Daniel's explanation to Kipling of their strategy for becoming Kings of Kafiristan.
"In any place where they fight, a man who knows how to drill men can always be a King," Connery's character expounds. "We shall go to those parts and say to any King we find -- 'D'you want to vanquish your foes?' and we will show him how to drill men; for that we know better than anything else. Then we will subvert that King and seize his Throne and establish a Dynasty."
Daniel's confidence in the might of properly drilled men goes to the heart of the difference between irregular and regular armies. For tens of thousands of years, men have been waging irregular war -- shoot-from-behind-a-rock style raiding. It's the natural fighting method of clans intent on self-preservation, but nation-states long ago developed a more formidable style.
The ancient Greeks discovered that trained, disciplined armies could maneuver to win decisive battles. Alexander the Great used this Greek breakthrough to conquer Afghanistan, among much else. (Kipling asserted that Alexander then married a Kafir princess named Roxanne and had a son.)
The famed military historian John Keegan wrote in "A History of Warfare," "It is a general rule that primitives lose to regulars over the long run; harassment is an effective means of waging a defensive war, but wars are ultimately won by offensives"
Indeed, when Daniel and Peachey arrive at Er-Heb, their first Kafir village, headman Ootah, familiar only with irregular war, offers them two goats for each of his Bashkai neighbors that they will kill for him. Peachey, the embodiment of regular soldiering, replies suavely, "A handsome offer, but rather than knocking them over one at a time, we'll do the whole thing in one fell swoop: storm Bashkai and give you a proper victory."
The next morning drill instructor Daniel starts teaching the men of Er-Heb to march in ordered ranks like British soldiers. "When we're done with you," he roars at the recruits, "You'll be able to stand up and slaughter your enemies like civilized men!"
Daniel explains to his uncomprehending boot privates, "Good soldiers don't think. They just obey. Do you think that if a man thought twice, he'd give his life for Queen and country? Not bloody likely!" Noticing an Er-Heb man with an extremely small head, Daniel remarks, "Him there with the five and a half hat size has the makings of a bloody hero."
Indeed, their drilled army, stiffened by 20 smuggled rifles, quickly goes from victory to victory. And their pinheaded rifleman distinguishes himself for loyalty.
Yet, what's a regular army to do in a place like Afghanistan that's eminently not worth conquering? In 1842, the British lost all but one of 16,000 trying to retreat from the Afghan capital of Kabul. This showed once again that irregulars could destroy a regular army in severe enough terrain.
In his conquest of Kabul and Kandahar, Sir Frederick Roberts solved the problem of how to beat Afghans in their own mountains "General Bobs" used mountain men as his shock troops. Passes were taken by Scottish Highlanders (in which Daniel and Peachey fictitiously served) and Nepalese Gurkhas (like Daniel and Peachey's loyal translator Billy Fish, who is played by the tremendous Indian actor Saeed Jaffrey).
Today, the U.S. has about 30,000 elite Special Forces troops trained in both regular and irregular fighting. America's British allies have superb SAS commandos, as well as 3,400 Gurkhas.
Yet, was General Bobs' campaign simply another long-term failure? It depends on whether you consider 40 years of success a failure.
The British eventually placed Abdur Rahman on the throne in Kabul. Within Afghanistan's now carefully defined borders, they let him have his way -- such as waging jihad against the poor Kafirs -- so long as he delegated the conduct of Afghanistan's external relations to London. In the "Great Game" (the subject of Kipling's masterpiece "Kim"), Britain's spies and diplomats used bribes and threats to keep the Amir from being bought off by the Russians.
This policy worked well enough for four decades. Finally, exhausted by WWI, Britain lost control in 1919, a date now treated by Afghanistan as the year of its independence. Afghanistan began to slowly tip toward the Soviet Union, which ultimately lead to the Soviet invasion of 1979, a full century after General Bobs' invasion.
Yet, if a war in Afghanistan does prove winnable, which it should, ought the U.S. to then undertake a long-term benevolent occupation to attempt to turn that desolate land into a peaceful "normal country?" Huston's movie offers a skeptical perspective.
Initially, the two pirates' plan succeeds wildly. The pagans believe Daniel is a god, the son of Alexander. The high priests crown him King of Kafiristan and offer him a treasure room full of rubies and gold. All Daniel and Peachey need to do to become the two richest men on Earth is to fill their packs, wait four months for the snows in the Hindu Kush to melt, and then walk out.
While awaiting Spring, Daniel amuses himself by playing at being king. To the applause of his new subjects, he enforces peace, dispenses justice at traditional durbars, sets up granaries to ensure against famine, and builds bridges to tie the country together.
When the passes finally open, Peachey learns to his horror that Daniel now feels too responsible for his people to grab the loot and run. "A nation I shall make of it, with an anthem and a flag," King Daniel thunders.
Worse, Daniel has decided to take a Queen. He has picked out a local beauty called Roxanne -- the same name as Alexander's wife. The priests demur. Billy Fish tries to explain to the king why his marriage would be an affront to Kafir beliefs. Daniel, blinded by his victories -- "Have I not put the shadow of my hand over this country?" -- fails to grasp that what seems a quibble to him is of dread import to the Kafirs.
Science fiction novelist Orson Scott Card ("Ender's Game") summed up "The Man Who Would Be King": This is the classic tragedy that Aristotle spoke of -- so powerful that some of us can only stand to see the ending once."
Those who advocate that we stay in Afghanistan long after Osama bin Laden and the Taliban are dealt with should ponder Kipling and Huston's parable.