January 26, 2014 marked the 129th anniversary of the fall of the Sudanese city of Khartoum to the dervish hordes of a fanatical Muslim leader.
Mohammed Achmed had proclaimed himself “The Madhi”–the “Expected One.” He had raised an army and sworn to sweep the Islamic world clean of “unbelievers.”
Standing in his path: The 30,000 citizens of Khartoum, led by the famous British general, Charles George Gordon.
In 1966, this clash of historical personalities was vividly depicted in the movie, “Khartoum,” starring Charlton Heston as Gordon and Laurence Oliver as The Madhi.
It’s a film still loaded with drama and meaning–and lessons for the possible intervention of the United States in the lethal mess that is Syria.
What began as a popular revolt against a brutal and ossified dictatorship, Syria has now degenerated into a bloody civil war.
On the one side, is the Shiite Ba’ath regime, headed by “President” Bashar al Assad and supported by Russia, Iran, Hizbullah, and elements in the Iraqi government.
Opposing them Syrians–including defectors from the armed forces and others who have formed private militias–and thousands of foreign Sunni fighters (including elements of al Qaeda).
The neocons of the George W. Bush administration plunged the United States into an unprovoked war against Iraq in 2003. After Baghdad quickly fell, Americans cheered, thinking the war was over and the troops would soon return home.
They didn’t count on Iraq’s descending into massive inter-religious strife, with Shia Muslims (who comprise 65% of the population) squaring off against Sunni ones (who make up 35%).
Suddenly, American soldiers found themselves fighting a two-front war in the same country: Fighting an Iraqi insurgency to throw them out, while trying to suppress growing sectarian warfare between Sunnis and Shia.
Today, American politicians such as U.S. Senator John McCain are urging President Obama to militarily intervene in the Syrian civil war.
Once again, Americans are being urged to plunge headfirst into a conflict they know nothing about–and in which they have absolutely no stake.
Which brings us back to the lessons to be found in “Khartoum.”
In 1884, the British Government sends Gordon, a real-life hero of the Victorian era, to evacuate the Sudanese city of Khartoum. Mohammed Achmed, a previously anonymous Sudanese, has proclaimed himself “The Madhi” (The Expected One) and raised the cry of jihad.
The Madhi (played by Laurence Oliver) intends to drive all foreigners (of which the English are the largest group) out of Sudan, and exterminate all those Muslims who did not practice his “pure” version os Islam.
Movie poster for “Khartoum”
Gordon arrives in Khartoum to find he’s not fighting a rag-tag army of peasants. Instead, the Madhi is a highly intelligent military strategist.
And Gordon, an evangelical Christian, also underestimates the Madhi’s religious fanaticism: “I seem to have suffered from the delusion that I had a monopoly on God.”
A surprised Gordon finds himself and 30,000 Sudanese trapped in Khartoum when the Madhi’s forces suddenly appear. He sends off messengers and telegrams to the British Government, begging for a military relief force.
But the British Government wants nothing to do with the Sudan. It had sent Gordon there as a sop to British public opion that “something” had to be done to quell the Madhist uprising.
The siege continues and tightens.
In Britain, the public hails Gordon as a Christian hero and demands that the Government send a relilef expedition to save him. Prime Minister William Gladstone finally sends a token force–which arrives in Khartoum two days after the city has fallen to the Madhi’s forces.
Gordon, standing at the top of a staircase and coolly facing down his dervish enemies, is speared to death.
When the news reaches England, Britons mourn–and then demand vengeance for the death of their hero.
The Government, which had sought to wash its hands of the poor, militarily unimportant Sudan, suddenly has to send an army to avenge Gordon.
As the narrator of “Khartoum” intones at the close of the film: “For 15 years, the British paid the price with shame and war.”
Americans have been fighting in the Middle East since 2001–first in Afghanistan to destroy Al Qaeda, and then in Iraq, to pursue George W. Bush’s vendetta against Saddam Hussein.
The United States faces a crumbling infastructure, record high unemployment and trillions of dollars in debt. It’s time for Americans to clean up their own house before worrying about the messes in other nations–especially those wholly alien to American values.