Maureen Dowd brought it up, but we are happy she did: it’s an excellent time to remember Kipling, and in particular to remember his most celebrated line from “Arithmetic on the Frontier:” Ten thousand pounds of education falls to a ten-rupee jizail. These lines captured the essential aspect of the Great Game, and we can argue that they hold true for our presence in Afghanistan now. Kipling’s gift is not in articulating hopelessness, but rather in making beautiful an illustration of history. Kipling knew the Great Game (a phrase he made famous) well enough to know that it was changing. He wrote in order to illuminate aspects of the change; today, we see poets, novelists and filmmakers at work attempting the same thing: showing us that precedence for today’s fight exists, and that the precedence is daunting.
Here is the full stanza from Kipling’s poem:
A scrimmage in a Border Station-
A canter down some dark defile
Two thousand pounds of education
Drops to a ten-rupee jezail.
The Crammer's boast, the Squadron's pride,
Shot like a rabbit in a ride!
“Taliban Leader in Peace Talks Was An Imposter,” as yesterday’s New York Times put it, is a title and a time that historians will parse closely when looking back at today. We want to know how to retrieve hope in the wake of stories like these. We want to know how to retrieve meaning. But will we look to newspapers? Will we look to friends or friends of friends who are serving abroad? Will we look back to Kipling?
Dowd thinks of Kipling (by way of imagining farce) in the wake of the news of the “imposter,” and while she never writes the words “tipping point,” her analysis—and those of her peers—is less argument against war than statement on the futility of being in one particular place with that particular history. The finest minds are focused on the problem of how and how long to stay, but Kipling captured the existential crux: finest minds fail when confronted with irrational will.
The Times quoted former Taliban Sayed Amir Muhammad Agha on the question of the diplomatic imposter:
“Someone like me could come forward and say, ‘I am a Talib and a powerful person,’ ” he said. “But I can tell you, nothing is going on. Whenever I talk to the Taliban, they never accept peace and they want to keep on fighting. They are not tired.”
They are not tired. Google “jezail;” you will note its unique simplicity.