In Re: The Matter of Bin Laden’s Remains

Scott along with many observers (me included) have raised their eyebrows about Bin Laden’s burial at sea with full Islamic observances. If it had been left to me. . . well, let’s just say I probably incline to what I imagine are Scott’s inclinations.
However, the matter did send me back, as it has many times since 9/11, to Churchill’s account of the British campaign to retake the Sudan in 1898 and avenge the death of General Charles Gordon at the hands of Islamic fanatics more than a decade before, thrillingly told in The River War. (A new, annotated edition of the original two-volume version of The River War is forthcoming soon, produced by University of Alaska professor James Muller. Jim was kind enough to send me galleys a while ago.)
A little bit of the “backstory” is required to appreciate some of the rough parallels between 1898 and 2001. The British had dispatched General Gordon to Khartoum in 1885 to evacuate the British garrison that was growing increasingly isolated and menaced by the rising tide of jihad led by Mohammad Ahmed, who declared himself to be the second great prophet of Islam–the Mahdi. Gordon’s forces were too little and too late; he was surrounded and wiped out by the Mahdi’s forces. Although the Mahdi and his armies should not be regarded as the exact equivalent of today’s terrorists, they were nonetheless barbaric in the extreme. They mutilated Gordon’s body, and cut off his head to be paraded around the Mahdi’s villages.
The British did nothing to avenge the death of Gordon or retrieve their position in the Sudan for several years. But throughout the early years of the 1890s, public opinion in favor of a war against the Madhdist forces in the Sudan steadily grew, until, following the replacement of a Liberal Party government with a Conservative Party government in 1895, it was decided to embark upon the reconquest of the Sudan. I wrote about the parallels between then and today in The Weekly Standard a few weeks after 9/11:

There was no single reason why this decision was made. As Churchill explained it: “The diplomatist said: ‘It is to please the Triple Alliance.’ The politician said: ‘It is to triumph over the radicals.’ The polite person said: ‘It is to restore the Khedive’s rule [the Khedive was the native ruler of Egypt] in the Sudan.’ But the man in the street–and there are many men in many streets–said: ‘It is to avenge General Gordon.’” (Emphasis added.) Much the same can be said about the aroused state of public opinion in America since September 11: by all means a deliberate and patient military and diplomatic campaign must be made by President Bush, but at the end of the day there is one requirement by the man on the street in America: The World Trade Center must be avenged.

Our moment of vengeance has at length arrived. But there is still another parallel from The River War to be drawn: what to do about the remains of the Mahdi, who had died and been enshrined in a large tomb in Khartoum. General Kitchener ordered the tomb destroyed and the Mahdi’s remains disinterred. Similar to the Obama administration, Kitchener wanted the Mahdi’s tomb destroyed and his remains scattered so that it wouldn’t become a rallying point of jihadists. But Kitchener also wanted to give the Mahdi’s skull to the Queen to use as an inkwell–a plan that Lord Cromer, the British administrator in Cairo, countermanded when he found out about it.
Although the Mahdi’s similarities to Bin Laden are far from exact, from Churchill’s evaluation of the matter it would seem that he would have lined up on the side of the Obama administration in giving Bin Laden a proper burial:

By Sir H. Kitchener’s orders the Tomb has been profaned and razed to the ground. The corpse of the Mahdi was dug up. The head was separated from the body, and, to quote the official explanation, ‘preserved for future disposal’– a phrase which must in this case be understood to mean, that it was passed from hand to hand till it reached Cairo. Here it remained, an interesting trophy, until the affair came to the ears of Lord Cromer, who ordered it to be immediately reinterred at Wady Halfa. The limbs and trunk were flung into the Nile. Such was the chivalry of the conquerors! . . .
It may be worth while to examine the arguments of those who seek to justify the demolition of the Tomb. Their very enumeration betrays a confusion of thought which suggests insincerity. Some say that the people of the Soudan no longer believed in the Mahdi and cared nothing for the destruction of a fallen idol, and that therefore the matter was of little consequence. Others contend on the same side of the argument that so great was the Mahdi’s influence, and so powerful was his memory, that though his successor had been overthrown his tomb would have become a place of pilgrimage, and that the conquering Power did not dare allow such an element of fanaticism to disturb their rule. The contradiction is apparent. But either argument is absurd without the contradiction. If the people of the Soudan cared no more for the Mahdi, then it was an act of Vandalism and folly to destroy the only fine building which might attract the traveller and interest the historian. It is a gloomy augury for the future of the Soudan that the first action of its civilised conquerors and present ruler should have been to level the one pinnacle which rose above the mud houses. If, on the other hand, the people of the Soudan still venerated the memory of the Mahdi–and more than 50,000 had fought hard only a week before to assert their respect and belief–then I shall not hesitate to declare that to destroy what was sacred and holy to them was a wicked act, of which the true Christian, no less than the philosopher, must express his abhorrence.
No man who holds by the splendid traditions of the old Liberal party, no man who is in sympathy with the aspirations of Progressive Toryism, can consistently consent to such behaviour. It will also be condemned by quite a different school of thought, by the wise public servants who administer the Indian Empire. It is an actual offence against the Indian Penal Code to insult the religion of any person; nor is it a valid plea that the culprit thought the said religion ‘false.’ When Sir Bindon Blood had forced the Tanga Pass and invaded Buner, one of his first acts was to permit his Mohammedan soldiers to visit the Tomb of the Akhund of Swat, who had stirred the tribes into revolt and caused the Umbeyla campaign of 1863. It is because respect is always shown to all shades of religious feeling in India by the dominant race, that our rule is accepted by the mass of the people. If the Soudan is to be administered on principles the reverse of those which have been successful in India, and if such conduct is to be characteristic of its Government, then it would be better if Gordon had never given his life nor Kitchener won his victories.

Different observers will come to varying conclusions about how firm are the parallels and differences in the character of Islamic jihad between what the British faced in 1898 and what the United States faces today. I offer this passage as food for thought.
Nota bene: This passage is one of the many Churchill suppressed–because he came to realize his many criticisms of Kitchener were politically imprudent–from all the subsequent editions of The River War that most people have seen. You’ll have to get Muller’s splendid new edition (not yet listed on Amazon, alas) to see this and many other hugely interesting passages from what I regard as one of Churchill’s two or three greatest books.

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