Kipling on Benghazi

The fifteenth in my ongoing series examining the poetry of Rudyard Kipling. The other posts in the series may be read here, here , here , herehere , here, here, here, here , here, here, here , here and here.

At National Review Online they had the superb idea of taking Kipling’s poem Mesopotamia and applying it to the Benghazi debacle.  The Mesopotamian, modern day Iraq, Campaign had been a disaster for the British in 1916 with a British army surrendering to the Turks at Kut.  British public opinion was outraged at the incompetence that led to the defeat.  When a report by the government on Kut was published in 1917, Kipling responded with his devastating poem.  (Ironically the British in 1917, under the able General Frederick Maude, had succeeded in capturing Baghdad by the time the poem appeared.)  The lines of the Kipling poem do seem to apply word for word to the Benghazi shame:


They shall not return to us, the resolute, the young,

The eager and whole-hearted whom we gave:

But the men who left them thriftily to die in their own dung,

Shall they come with years and honour to the grave?

  They shall not return to us; the strong men coldly slain

In sight of help denied from day to day:

But the men who edged their agonies and chid them in their pain,

Are they too strong and wise to put away?

  Our dead shall not return to us while Day and Night divide–

Never while the bars of sunset hold.

But the idle-minded overlings who quibbled while they died,

Shall they thrust for high employments as of old?

  Shall we only threaten and be angry for an hour:

When the storm is ended shall we find

How softly but how swiftly they have sidled back to power

By the favour and contrivance of their kind?

  Even while they soothe us, while they promise large amends,

Even while they make a show of fear,

Do they call upon their debtors, and take counsel with their friends,

To conform and re-establish each career?

  Their lives cannot repay us–their death could not undo–

The shame that they have laid upon our race.

But the slothfulness that wasted and the arrogance that slew,

Shall we leave it unabated in its place?

Published in: on November 4, 2012 at 5:30 am  Comments (8)  
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  1. Unfortunately, the answer to all Kipling’s questions is “yes”. One year later, Italy’s General Badoglio was largely responsible for the catastrophe at Caporetto, yet managed to be promoted, and after more disasters he ended up in 1943 as successor to Mussolini, where his cowardice and irresolution was responsible for the even worse catastrophe of September 8, 1943. Defeat is never more than a minor check to a well-planned career. There is a book called Imperatores Victi, where the same point is made with respect to ancient Rome.

    • I will have to read Imperatores Victi Fabio. I reluctantly have to agree with the point that you make. It certainly happened with the people that Kipling targeted in his poem.
      “The answer to Kipling’s rhetorical question was predictable. Nixon had been exonerated, Hardinge had been promoted, Secretary of State for India. Chamberlain resigned but was back in power within six months, Duff had been allowed to vanish into the impenetrable fens of the Civil Service, and the whitewash that so appalled Kipling was complete.”

  2. Don,

    I can recite reams of Kipling (not to mention Robert W. Service – we should have a contest!) and have always been astounded by his applicability to virtually any current event.

    On September 12, 2001, I sent “Outlaws” to everyone I knew.

    Through learned and laborious years
    They set themselves to find
    Fresh terrors and undreamed-of fears
    To heap upon mankind.

    ALl that they drew from Heaven above
    Or digged from earth beneath,
    They laid into their treasure-trove
    And arsenals of death:

    While, for well-weighed advantage sake,
    Ruler and ruled alike
    Built up the faith they meant to break
    When the fit hour should strike.

    They traded with the careless earth,
    And good return it gave:
    They plotted by their neighbour’s hearth
    The means to make him slave.

    When all was ready to their hand
    They loosed their hidden sword,
    And utterly laid waste a land
    Their oath was pledged to guard.

    Coldly they went about to raise
    To life and make more dread
    Abominations of old days,
    That men believed were dead.

    They paid the price to reach their goal
    Across a world in flame;
    But their own hate slew their own soul
    Before that victory came.

    • They paid the price to reach their goal
      Across a world in flame;
      But their own hate slew their own soul
      Before that victory came.

      How true.

  3. No justice this side of heaven, unfortunately.

    • Sometimes there is, and I hope this is one of those cases.

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