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May 04 2007

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Mercenaries?

 Dear Mr. Spencer:

I am tardy in responding to your interesting comments about the historical role of Gurkha units in the British Indian Army.

In referring to the Gurkha as “mercenaries”, I most assuredly did not intend to impugn their honor or integrity in the slightest — or, in particular, the steadfast loyalty that they consistently displayed toward their British comrades-in-arms.  I cannot recall that there has ever been a similar relationship historically that earned and deserved more lasting credit — for both parties concerned.  I used the term”mercenaries”, perhaps carelessly, only in its broadest sense:  soldiers fighting under a foreign flag as paid professionals.  Nothing inherently dishonorable about that.

Analogies are always far from perfect.  The American use of Kurdish units in Iraq is an instance of pure expediency, and I can easily understand how anyone with sentimental memories of the British-Gurkha tradition might bridle at a comparison between the two quite different situations.  It is in the perceptions of the Iraqi Arabs that I see a valid similarity. The intervention of Gurkhas was at times crucially important to separating rioting mobs of Muslims and Hindhu or Sikhs in August 1947 in India. Similarly, both Sunni and Shi’a Iraqi Arabs have in some cases welcomed the presence of relatively efficient and impartial Kurdish forces under American command when avenging militias were harassing them.  However, just as the actions of Gurkhas in India were, in the final analysis, irrelevant to the outcome of partition, so also should we carefully avoid interpreting the successful employment of Kurds in Iraq as a measure of “progress” in bringing permanent stability and peace between Iraq’s warring factions.

You might be interested to know that my wife, daughter of American Presbyterian missionaries in India, was a teenage passenger on the last mail train that got through from Rawalpindi to Delhi after the riots broke out in August 1947.   She and her parents had been camping at Sonamerg, in Kashmir.  They passed unscathed through burning Lahore, but were eventually stranded for forty-eight hours and confined to their train compartment at the small railroad colony of Bhatinda, in what had just become India, while indescribably bloody battles raged around them on all sides.  The “siege” of Bhatinda was finally raised by the arrival of a contingent of the 9th Gurkhas, who quelled the mobs in jig time.  So I believe you can appreciate why, sixty years later, the word Gurkha still means “hero” in my home.

Cordially yours,

Ray Close

Permanent link to this article: http://levantium.com/2007/05/04/750/

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