January 26, 2015, marks the 130th anniversary of the fall of Khartoum, the Sudanese city that sits on the banks of the White Nile and the Blue Nile.
The siege and fall of Khartoum is one of the truly epic stories of military history.
Khartoum in the 1800s
From March 18, 1884 to January 26, 1885, the charisma and military genius of one man–British General Charles George Gordon–held at bay an army of thousands of fanatical Islamists intent on slaughtering everyone in the city.
At stake were the lives of Khartoum’s 30,000 residents.
By comparison:The defenders of the Alamo–a far better-known battle, in 1836–numbered no more than 250. And the siege of the San Antonio mission lasted only 13 days against an army of about 2,000 Mexicans.
Gordon’s story may seen antiquated. But it bears close inspection as Republicans press the Obama Administration to commit ground forces to “freeing” Syria of its longtime dicator, “President” Bashar al Assad.
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.
Suddenly, American soldiers found themselves waging 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 Muslims.
And now, with Syria, Americans are being urged to plunge headfirst into a conflict they know nothing about–and in which they have absolutely no stake.
Consider the combatants:
On the one side, is the Ba’ath regime of Bashir al-Assad, supported by Russia, Iran, Hizbullah, and elements in the Iraqi government. Hizbollah is comprised of Shiite Muslims, who form a minority of Islamics.
A sworn enemy of Israel, it has kidnapped scores of Americans suicidal enough to visit Lebanon and truck-bombed the Marine Barracks in Beirut in 1983, killing 299 Americans.
Flag of Hizbollah
Al-Qaeda, on the other hand, is made up of Sunni Muslims, who form the majority of that religion.
It is intolerent of non-Sunni Muslims and has instigated violence against them. It denounces them as “takfirs”–heretics–and thus worthy of extermination.
Flag of Al-Qaeda
In short, it’s a Muslim-vs.-Muslim “holy war.”
It’s all very reminiscent of events in the 1966 epic film, “Khartoum,” starring Charlton Heston as British General Charles George Gordon.
Charlton Heston (left); Charles George Gordon (right)
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.
Laurence Oliver (left); Mohammed Achmed (“The Madhi”)
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 of 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.
George W. Joy’s famous–and romanticized–painting of “The Death of Gordon”
(Actually, the best historical evidence indicates that Gordon fought to the last with pistol and sword before being overwhelmed by his dervish enemies.)
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.”
There is a blunt lesson for Americans to learn from this episode–and from the 1966 movie, “Khartoum” itself.
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.