Last week in the office somebody was saying, "If only we could get all these terrorists in one place and just drop a daisy cutter on them." I've heard that a million times -- the Great White Wet Dream.
Well, it's not going to happen -- the stupid terrorists are already dead, and the rest aren't going to step out from the alleys and put up their dukes to face the A-10s.
The only people who are "strong enough in their faith" to run into automatic fire with spears these days are way down in Uganda with the Lord's Resistance Army, and -- funny enough -- there aren't nearly as many of them as there used to be. Believing that God or Allah's made you bulletproof just isn't a winning strategy.
But there was one time when us whitey Westies got our way and had all the Islamists in one kill zone. That's the happy tale I'm telling today: the battle of Omdurman near Khartoum, Sudan in 1885, when it was Faith vs. Maxim Guns, spears vs. long-range artillery. Box score: 20,000 Jihadis dead or captured as against 48 British KIA. The Brits were lucky enough that day to be dealing with the followers of a nutcase named Mohammad Ahmad, aka the Mahdi. This Mahdi came out of Darfur, believe it or not -- "Darfur, Cradle of Wacky Slaughters" is their tourist motto -- swearing to push the pesky redcoats out of Sudan.
The "Mahdi" fantasy is strictly a Shia obsession these days, which is why Fatso Sadr's thugs in Iraq are called the "Mahdi Army." But back in Queen Victoria's day, Sudanese Sunni Muslims were desperate enough to resort to it. Whenever Muslims, whatever variety, get really scared, they suck their thumbs with this fairytale about a "Mahdi," who's supposedly the 12th and last Imam, popping out of some cave where he's been sleeping for 1200 years, to stomp the wrongdoers, like Batman showing up when the local Imam beams a big green "Allahu Akbar! Help!" calligraphy on a cloud.
And with the Victorian Brits pushing down from their puppet regime in Egypt, the 1880s Sudanese had good reason to be scared. The Eurofags are so feeble now that you have to remind yourself how scary they were before they committed mass suicide in 1914-1918. Hard to believe today, but by 1910 whites were 40% of the global population and had a much higher birth/survival rate than the wog remnants. Trendy books were coming out of London, Paris and Berlin about how sad it was that "the dying races" were winking out. And the Sudanese were facing the Brits, by far the smartest, slyest and most ruthless European powers. The Brits were the best for all kinds of reasons, but most of all because of the way they handled the propaganda side of colonizing the world. When they had to, they wiped out troublesome tribes all over the map, but instead of rolling home with bloody scalps and gory stories like some dumb Nazi boaster, they soft-pedaled the killing and only talked about their own casualties, even if there were only a handful. They used the press to turn their losses into martyrs on a scale no clumsy Shia amateur could ever manage.
So the Brits handled their campaign to squash the Sudanese Islamists by turning their most famous casualty of the campaign, Charles Gordon, into a huge martyr, a combination of George Armstrong Custer and Bono.
Truth is, Gordon's story is actually the most interesting part of the whole Sudan war. The battle of Omdurman itself was pretty simple stuff, like slaughtering infected cattle. But the lead-up, and the climax with Gordon's death in Khartoum, is such a classic they even made a movie of it with Chartlon Heston. I haven't seen it and I'm sure it sucks, but this story deserves a movie or two. In fact, and this is the key here, Gordon actually ran his last campaign like a movie he had planned -- and he always had the ending in mind, where he died nobly, holding off the Arab hordes. He knew that propaganda was the key to asymmetrical warfare like this.
That's because Gordon was a genius, and also a complete nutcase. He never slept, died a virgin, an obvious closet-case -- all in all, he was one of those 19th c. Brits you have to admire but can't help laughing at. Like most closet cases, he had a bad case of religion. When he wasn't slaughtering wogs he was going over the topography of Jerusalem trying to relocate Christ's tomb.
Before Gordon met the Mahdi, he made a name for himself in one of the biggest wars nobody ever heard of, the Taiping Rebellion in China. By the 19th century England was hip-deep in China on a civilizing mission, trying to turn the whole population into junkies hooked on the opium the Brits grew in huge plantations in India. British troops and fleets fought two "Opium Wars" to force the Manchu to allow them to deal dope all through China, and in the process weakened the Manchu's grip on the country to the point where all kinds of weird local warlords took power, the biggest being a Chinese nutcase, sort of a Christian-Asian Mahdi, who declared himself "Jesus's Chinese son," and ended up controlling a huge chunk of China -- until Gordon came along. The Brits wanted China wide open to dope-dealing, but when the Chinese Jesus's troops got close to the coastal cities, they decided enough was enough and sent Gordon to take him out. With nothing but a mixed Chinese/European mercenary force, a few jerry-rigged gunboats operating on the Chinese canal/river system and his own military genius, Gordon crushed the gigantic hordes this Chinese Jesus had ordered toward the coast. Gordon's genius was to use the canal system to concentrate firepower against the Taiping rebels' hugely superior numbers. He played a long, slow game of Pac-Man along the canal system, catching and wiping out the rebels' dispersed forces, until he'd cleaned up the board. It was such a feat of sheer genius that it stood out at a time when under-funded, outgunned British commanders routinely won against gigantic wog armies.
And it made Gordon a big media star with the London tabloids, known forever after as "Chinese" Gordon. He seemed like the perfect choice to handle the Sudanese situation, which was getting out of hand by the 1870s. And Gordon went on doing miracle after miracle, as expected. He dealt with a rebellion in Darfur by riding into the enemy camp, having a chat and riding home with everybody friends. Gordon was not only a genius and totally fearlessyou get the impression he also had a huge death wish, and rode home from these successful facedowns with tribal thugs muttering to himself in disappointment: "Damned Bedu wankers, all talk! Could've killed me a dozen times! What do I have to do, stick me 'ead in the Suez canal?"
The Sudanese Mahdi's Jihad didn't really get off the ground till the early 1880s. Gordon went south to deal with it in 1884. As usual, he was vastly outnumbered, with just a small force of mostly Egyptian troops. His official mission was to study the situation. But that would have been too easy. Idle hands! Those Victorians feared those idle wankin' hands way more than death.
So Gordon decided God wanted him to organize the defense of Khartoum against the Islamist scourge from the desert. This drove his bosses in London crazy, because they'd never authorized any such mission. Worse yet, they started to realize, as the tabloids published Gordon's dispatches from besieged Khartoum, that this uppity bastard was actually stage-managing his own martyrdom in the London press, all the way from the end of the world.
Gordon could send his stories because the British gunboats controlled the Nile. The Mahdi had no navy -- it takes a lot more organization and know-how to set up a navy than to get a bunch of goat herders together into something you can call an army. So even after the Mahdi'
s forces besieged Khartoum in the spring of 1884, Gordon's carefully worded stories of his heroic last stand were hitting the pavement in England, setting the mob howling for a relief expedition and causing fine beads of sweat to break out on the Foreign Office boys' fussy little moustaches.
Gordon -- and this is just my take on the situation -- loved every minute of his slo-mo last stand. He could have left Khartoum any time and headed downriver to Egypt in total safety, but to a guy like him, the choice between going home alive or running a do-it-yourself opera was easy.
London took its revenge bureaucracy-style, by making real sure there was plenty of red tape before a relief expedition set off south to Khartoum. There was no hurry, because every player in the game wanted Gordon to die a martyr, not get saved: the suits in London; the Mahdi's men, who wanted (and got) his head on a spike; and last but not least, Gordon himself.
Nobody actually knows exactly how or when Gordon died, but that didn't stop a Brit painter from doing a famous picture of Gordon standing at the top of the stairs looking down at a black Mahdi spearman like a grumpy Best Western motel guest waking up to find some black dude's ride parked across his spot and pumping out the hip hop: "ExCUSE me, sir, but you seem to have parked your pimpmobile in spot number 26, which is clearly designated for my Volvo!"
The painting was supposed to show the wog hordes awed by Gordon's steely look, but well, I guess they got over it because the Mahdi had Gordon's head put on a spike after his forces took Khartoum at the end of January, 1885. For the Brit public Gordon's long slow death was like Custer's last stand and 9/11 rolled into one. The papers were howling for a revenge expedition but as usual, the brass were in no hurry. It wasn't until 1898 that the Brits were ready to show Allah's boys what an Anglican can do when he's had a little time to rehearse.
Brit colonial military expeditions usually consisted of a core force of reliable white troops, and a bigger force of native auxiliaries. That was the way they did it in 1898, sending 8,000 regulars and 18,000 Egyptian/Sudanese down the Nile. The force would be outnumbered; the Mahdists could field at least 60,000 men. But the real core of the British plan was what was heading down the railway: some serious iron. They sent 44 field guns, 36 long-range guns, and the deadliest of all, 24 Maxim guns.
Those Maxims look pretty lame now, like two of those old high-wheel bicycles welded together with a gun barrel in the middle. But they worked; in fact, against the sort of massed infantry charge they were about to face, they were awesome weapons, firing 500 rounds a minute by using the energy of each blast to expel the cartridge and drop another into place. Leroy Brown was about to learn a lesson about messin' with the troops of a technological societyand one commanded by Horatio Kitcheneryep -- THAT Kitchener of WW I meatgrinder fame. If you know about Kitchener's role in the Great War, you won't be surprised that Kitchener put his trust in iron and money; he was the opposite of Gordon's one-man improv show. He assembled all the guns and set to work blasting Khartoum into bloody mud.
The Mahdists hadn't sat around waiting to see what'd happen; they'd ringed the town with 17 forts, tried to mine the river, generally done the best they could. But they had no idea what Kitchener's new guns could do, leveling the town and its forts from three miles away. All their little plans were made for the sort of force they'd faced against Gordon in 1885, and they finally had to resort to the only strengths they'd always trusted: numbers and good ol' fanaticism. In other words, a massed attack.
So on September 2, 1898, my office-mates' wet dream came true: 60,000 Islamists amassed all in one place, facing automatic weapons and massed artillery. Worst of all, the Mahdists were short of cavalry -- only 3,000 horsemen. Counting their Arab auxiliaries, the Brits actually had more cavalry on the field. Of the remaining 55,000-odd Jihadis on the field, maybe half had firearms, mostly old flintlocks mixed with what they'd looted from Gordon's men. The rest were carrying spears.
You have to imagine those Maxim gunners licking their lips, listening to the wog hordes chanting themselves up to the big charge. Not only did the Brits have art'y up the wazoo, they had a fleet of gunboats on the Nile in support.
That battle was great if you like the one-sided stuff, which I do, sometimes. It was like Gulf War I, in that the Khalifa commanding the Mahdist forces (the Mahdi himself died way back in 1885) did everything just the way the enemy wanted. The Mahdists started by sending their center, a force of 8,000 infantry, directly at the Brit lines. They either didn't understand the range of Kitchener's guns or were too desperate to care. The guns opened up when the Sudanese were still 3 km off, and half the Arabs were blown away before they even got close enough for the Maxim guns to finish them off. None of them even got close to the Redcoats' line.
In fact, the Brits could have come out of the battle with no casualties to speak of, but Kitchener, never known as the type who worried about minimizing his own troops' losses, decided to send a force of lancers on a blocking action to stop the Arabs' retreat. They hit a huge body of infantry concealed behind a hill and ended up earning their unit three Victoria Crosses and 30-odd KIA, a classic "Charge of the Light Brigade" fiasco that's great for patriotic poetry but lousy tactics. (That's still the best way for a small unit to pick up lots of gaudy medals: get sent on a real stupid suicide mission.)
The rest of the battle was slow slaughter. It wasn't that Kitchener was a great commander -- nobody ever said that about him. He made a clumsy advance, leaving his supplies vulnerable to attack, and left a force of Sudanese auxiliaries totally exposed. But the difference in weaponry was so huge that even obvious mistakes were easy to fix. The battle turned into a sort of geometry exercise, with Brit field officers mainly trying to arrange the Maxims' fields of fire the way you'd set up sprinklers to get maximum coverage of a football field. The Mahdists had enough morale to stay on the field even after it was obvious they were going to be slaughtered, which just made the Brits' job that much easier.
At the end of the day, somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 Mahdists were dead vs. a total British KIA of 48. If you want to know why insurgents today use terrorism instead of "fair fight" stuff, that's why. They tried it, and it didn't work out all that well.
See, that's the trouble with a wonderful one-sided slaughter like Omdurman: you really can only do it once, or at most a few times. The enemy eventually gets fed up and starts cheating. From Omdurman to IEDs, it's a pretty simple, inevitable progression.
You could even argue that the Brits ended up losing big-time from this battle too, because it made Kitchener a military hero. He was made Baron Kitchener of Khartoum after the battle, one of those nobility titles that he probably didn't exactly rate at the top of his honors, considering that the only creatures who like living in Khartoum are all eight-legged and exoskeletal. He went on to be maybe the worst commander out of a really lousy graduating class of 1914, and thinking about it that way, by elevating Kitchener to prominence, Omdurman wound up killing more British soldiers than you could bury in all of Nevada. Talk about "blowback."
But while it lasted, it was a wonderful thing, just like we dream about now: the whole lot of jihadist crazies in one easily-zappable bunch, howling "Allahu Akbar" and yodeling for the crosshairs.