The siege and fall of the Sudanese city of Khartoum is one of the truly epic stories of military history.
And in it lies an invaluable lesson for American policy-makers today.
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.
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.
It’s a conflict Americans know nothing about–and where they have absolutely nothing to gain.
It’s not only a Syrian civil war but an inner-religious war between Shiite (minority) Muslims and Sunni (majority) Muslims.
The Assad regime is backed by the Iranian-supported terrorist group, Hezbollah (Party of God). Its enemies include another terrorist group–Al Qaeda.
Hezbollah 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 Hezbollah
Al-Qaeda, on the other hand, is made up of Sunni Muslims, who form the majority of that religion. It considers Shiite Muslims to be “takfirs”–heretics–and thus worthy of extermination.
Al Qaeda has attacked the mosques and gatherings of liberal Muslims, Shias, Sufis and other non-Sunnis. Examples of these sectarian attacks include the Sadr City bombings, the 2004 Ashoura massacre and the April, 2007 Baghdad bombings.
Flag of Al-Qaeda
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.
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.
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.”
Laurence Oliver (left); Mohammed Achmed (“The Madhi”)
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, divided government and trillions of dollars in debt.
While Islamic nations like Syria and Egypt wage war within their own borders, they will lack the resources to launch attacks against the United States.
When Adolf Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, then-Senator Harry Truman said: “I hope the Russians kill lots of Nazis and vice versa.”
That should be America’s view whenever its sworn enemies start killing themselves off. Americans should welcome such self-slaughters, not become entrapped in them.